out of the rafters came the barn owl

"The breezes taste of apple peel. The air is full of smells to feel..." - John Updike

And barn owls, Mr. Updike. Don't forget about the barn owls, who swoop down into October, defining it.

Or steaming cups of coffee, which come into their own on October mornings, as if the rest of the year, those black sips are lent to us from the crisp tribe of days they more naturally inhabit.

While I was in San Fran for a wedding last month, I ended up at Sightglass coffee roastery with good intentions of using their warehouse + token coffee shop as a place to write.

The writing progress was not significant, but this picture of my Americano and Owl's Howl espresso blend spilling out of my bag ended up being the only serious photographic evidence of my trip.

Which made me realize something. Something that I knew, but this was the Exhibit A - Z that sealed it: San Francisco and I - years have not stirred up my fondness for a spark that went cold and grey. No. That place. It's all hills and food and diversions. A veneer of sites I've already taken a million pictures of, only now, along with the endless wind, there's the alarming smell stagnation.

Yet when I got home and had October rising in my backyard, I was so pleased to have this brown paper bag with an owl on its tag, filled with decadent beans to grind and savor. A souvenir of where I'd been, of what season was ahead.

There's something to be said for the pleasure of noticing age; of feeling the sharp drop in temp following day after day when the fluctuations smoothed out over each other like endless pavement. Where coffee matters beyond its single varietal notes and you need its warming; need its native company as you get grounded and watch the leaves flush their sugar; burn for a vibrant flash. Of being able to settle into a turning that asks for more gratitude than enjoyment, where owls brave the night instead of children, and their song marks the ushering in of wisdom.

"everything sings and dies,
but it could be, too,
everything dies and sings."
-Galway Kinnell

make this bread

I'm a week late for Rosh Hashanah, but the faux challah (no eggs - but honey! hence it's appropriateness!) I made in honor of the Jewish New Year is simply too great not to mention. And since October is the Friday (TGIO!) of the holiday baking season, I'm sure you'll have ample reason in the crisp weeks ahead to warm up your kitchen with the fragrance of this honey-sweetened raisin walnut bread baking in your oven.

Now, let's level for a moment. I don't hear much about this, but I'm of the opinion that far too many of the recipes that get talked up on food blogs (and I mean respected, well-executed food blogs) are only marginally above "meh."

For the most part (let's be honest) people read food blogs for the same reason my mom subscribes to Condé Nast Traveller: pure voyeurism. It's an escapist fantasy with more drool. The likelihood of you making that mouthwatering Salted Caramel Brownie with muscovado sugar and pink Himalayan salt is about as high my mom embarking on that four-star caravan through Rajastan. (Statistical Deviation: if I'm plugged into the immediate equation of anyone's life, I think the chance of the salted caramel brownie being made *and* the excursion to Rajastan happening goes up dramatically).

So maybe it's because my food gawking extends to the kitchen, and a good 90% of what I eat, I make from scratch, but I feel like I've been duped one too many times by a blogger's tantalizing photography and their just-right homey anecdote trumpeting some new (or old) nifty thing to do with say, tomatoes or rhubarb, that they insist you try *now, Now, NoW!*

To which I have said, "OKAY!" and put it to the top of my "to make" queue - only to end up with a pan of underwhelming rhubarb cake, which left me seriously calling into question what the hell the blogger was banging on so rapturously about.

Could it be a mere difference in taste? Or does their need (especially as a food blog is a very very hungry animal) to prettily showcase their culinary achievement overshadow its actual merit?

The fact that I'm still regularly seduced by blogger's food stories must mean I at least latently (or partially) believe the former (as in, at some point, surely, we'll see eye to eye). I mean, I have a hard enough time working up the initiative to compose multiple complete sentences about things I feel passionate about, let alone dress up the experience of that so-so orange olive oil cake I made.

So... with that rather long detour of exposition in mind, what I'm intending to convey to you is the extent to which I think this bread is worth talking about. And it's easy. So take notes.

Beth Hensperger is known as a bread maven. Her book The Bread Bible does not invoke the name of Evangelicals' most-revered volume lightly - she's clearly out to win converts. Anybody can see the light! The divine art of breadmaking is not a blessing reserved for a mere chosen few!

She is very encouraging about the ease with which people can learn about flour and yeast and kneading - it is something she spends the beginning of her book trying to demystify. And I dare say, she took great care throughout the rest of the book to include only the best of the best, most tried-and-true bread recipes - likely to prevent potential new followers from defecting prematurely.

Mostly, she argues, like everything, it's really just about practice.

I'm not very practiced, but the evidence of the ease of Beth's Italian Walnut-Raisin Whole-Wheat Bread recipe (don't tell me you read all the enticing words between those hyphens and didn't feel transported to some rustic Tuscan farm) is apparent from how recklessly I managed to (successfully!) throw it together last Wednesday eve.

A short rundown of the night's events:

Yoga starts at 8pm.
I finished reading through the recipe at exactly 7:06pm.
Realizing that the dough would potentially need to rise for 2 1/2 hours, this bread novice (me) went to work.
I proofed the yeast, combined it with flour, kneaded the mixture into a sticky dough, covered it and left it to raise...
And was *still* on a yoga mat a short 55 minutes later.

Seriously, that's how easy it can be.

A few things to keep in mind when you try it:

This dough is *sticky* -- waaay more sticky (or tacky, as you will) than you think it should be. Beth says to turn the dough out for kneading and only add 1 T of flour at a time - I bet I used 1/4 cup of all purpose at a time! But only because it was ridiculously sticky (high elevation? high % of moisture in the air? the fact that I didn't use a mixer? who knows?)

However, (a little like pancake batter) I was very very conscious not to add too much flour and make it too "done" and smooth. Even when I put the dough into the bowl to rise, while it was "springy" to the touch, it was also extremely sticky and could have easily become glued to the counter top. If you're a bread maestro, maybe you know something better than I about how this was a sign that it was very wrong - however - it came out marvelously - so I'll not aim for any less tackiness in the future!

If you haven't kneaded bread before - maybe try and seek out Beth's tutorial. But basically, push the dough away from you with your full body (stretching it out in the process), then fold the two sides in together like you're wrapping a child in a blanket or making a filled pastry, then push it out again. Repeat.

Also, the recipe says 4 cups of raisins and walnuts combined! 4 cups!! I don't know about you, but even with the amount of dough (two baguette loaves) that seemed excessive. Not to mention, when I went to press all that fruit and nut into the dough, I have no idea where it would have fit given the oval's surface area. Use your discretion and taste (obviously), but I used 1 1/2 cups of plumped raisins and maybe 3/4 cups of chopped walnuts. It still sliced up looking like a luxurious loaf.

Mmmm... think I'm the only die-hard health nut out there who considers bread the most excellent excuse to consume butter (my equally health-conscious sister just shuddered)...Enjoy!

Italian Walnut-Raisin Whole-Wheat Bread from Beth Hensperger's The Bread Bible

[my notes are in brackets]

2 ½ cups warm water
2 tablespoons (2 envelopes) active dry yeast
pinch light brown sugar or 1 teaspoon honey [I used honey!]
½ cup olive oil
¼ cup honey
1 tablespoon salt
4 cups fine-grind whole-wheat flour, preferably stone ground
1 ½ -1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
2 cups (10 ounces) dark raisins, plumped in hot water 1 hour and drained on paper towels [there wasn't room in my dough for all of these... I made 2 cups, but bet I only ended up studding the dough with 1 1/2 cups]
Scant 2 cups chopped walnuts [are you kidding? that's a LOT of nuts! bet I used 3/4 cup and did not feel cheated one smidge.]
2 tablespoons whole-wheat flour, for sprinkling
2 tablespoons, wheat bran, for sprinkling [I didn't have this]

In a small bowl, pour in ½ cup of the warm water. Sprinkle yeast and sugar over the surface of the water. Stir to dissolve and let stand at room temperature until foamy, until 10 minutes.

In a large mixing bowl (or in the work bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine remaining 2 cups warm water, olive oil, honey, salt and 2 cups of whole-wheat flour. Add yeast mixture. Beat vigorously until smooth, about 1 minute. Add remaining whole-wheat flour, 1/2 cup at a time. Add unbleached flour, 1/4 cup at a time, until a soft dough that just clears the sides of the bowl is formed. Switch to a wooden spoon when necessary if making by hand. [I never (well, rarely) use machine mixers for anything - so I did this all by hand - in my experience, the dough may have gotten drier quicker (e.g. needed less flour) if I'd used a mixer]

Turn dough out onto a very lightly floured work surface and knead about six minutes, until soft and springy yet resilient to the touch, dusting with flour only 1 tablespoon at a time as needed to prevent sticking [See notes above, I used significantly more - like 1/4 cup at a time]. Dough should retain a smooth, soft quality, with some tackiness under the surface, yet still hold its shape. Do not add too much flour, or loaf will be too dry and hard to work.

Place dough in a greased deep bowl or container. Turn once to coat the top and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise at room temperature until doubled in bulk, 2- 2 1/2 hours.

Grease or parchment-line a baking sheet. Sprinkle whole-wheat flour and wheat bran on the baking sheet.

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured work surface without punching it down. Pat it into a large oval and sprinkle even with half the drained raisins and half the walnuts. Press nuts and fruit into the dough and roll dough up. Pat dough into an oval again and sprinkle it evenly with remaining raisins and walnuts. Press in and fold dough in half, sealing ends.

With a dough cutter, divide dough into 2 or 3 equal portions. Shape into 2 tight right round loaves or 2 baguettes about 14 inches long. Gently pull surface taut from the bottom.

Place loaves on prepared pans. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature until doubled in bulk, 45 minutes-1 hour.

Twenty minutes before baking, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Using a serrated knife, slash the loaves quickly with 2 parallel lines and one intersecting line no more than ¼ inch deep.

Place baking sheet in oven and bake until loaves are brown, crusty and sound hollow when tapped with your finger, 35-40 minutes for round loaves, 25-30 minutes for baguettes. [I think my cooking time for the 2 baguettes was slightly shorter - say 20 minutes (and I actually ended up covering them with foil to prevent burning at about minute 17), but I think my oven also runs a touch hot.]

Transfer to a cooling rack and cool completely before slicing.