Baking Bread

As of today, I am two-thirds of the way through my HBO treatments: 20 dives down, 10 to go. Last week’s mishegas about another potential infection was doused effectively with medical grade bleach soaks for the recalcitrant graft and a visit to Dr. S, who reassured me that the finger looked fine. Thank goodness!

Meanwhile, I continue to make more progress. Each day, the edges of the grafts pull a little farther away from surrounding skin, which is what they are supposed to do as new skin forms beneath. My fingers feel more able, despite missing tips and odd shapes.

I didn’t cook Thanksgiving dinner (Al’s department—and very good it was, too), but I did make the stuffing that we baked separately in the oven (main course was pecan-crusted salmon). This is one of the first times in about six months that I could tolerate stirring contents of a hot pan. Previously, the rising heat and steam were very painful to my exposed, over-sensitive wounds. Not to mention, I couldn’t hold the spoon.

My biggest accomplishment in the kitchen, however, was finally being able to bake bread again. It has been my practice for years to bake fresh challah for our Friday night Shabbat meal. I have a great recipe from a cookbook that my sister gave me nearly 30 years ago, and I’ve been making it since Mindi was a toddler who relished punching down the risen dough each week.

It’s the highlight of our Shabbat dinner, as well as a source of pleasure and pride for me to provide my family and friends with delicious homemade bread. But my hand debacle has made this favorite, meditative task an impossibility since summer. Al took over baking after my surgery and has become quite adept. Still, I missed doing it myself.

So this post-Thanksgiving Friday, as I was hanging out in the kitchen with my two visiting daughters, I decided to see if I could once again slip my fingers into a pair of de rigueudisposable rubber gloves, essential for any handling of raw ingredients—and, voila, to my amazement, they fit over my bandages without any discomfort! I proceeded to proof the yeast, pour flour, sugar, salt, oil and eggs, plus the yeast and warm water, into our old Cuisinart, mix the dough and pull it out onto the floured bread board.

And, as my daughters gave approval and encouragement, I kneaded the dough by hand. This is my favorite part of baking bread. There is something so magical and satisfying about feeling the dough transform from a sticky mass to a smooth, soft, elastic whole. My hands had not lost too much strength or touch. Into the oiled bowl the dough went, covered with a clean towel, to rise.

I punched it down for the first rising, but Mindi was getting organized to drive back to Boston by the time the dough had doubled in size a second time. “Do you want to punch it down?” I asked. “It was a little hard for me because my fingers don’t bend quite right.” She smiled, then proceeded to expertly punch all the air out of the dough. Still a special moment to share.

Later, when the challah came out of the oven, I sent her a text with a photo.

“Ta-da!” I wrote.

“Very nice!” she responded.

Yes, very nice, indeed.

P.S. This post is my 300th entry in this blog, When I began writing in January 2012, I had no idea where what has become an online journal of my life with scleroderma—and just life, which is really the point—would take me. More than 200,000 words later, I’m still discovering. Thank you, Dear Reader, for sharing the journey, and for your encouraging and thoughtful comments along the way, which keep me going.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

While the Soup Simmers

I’m writing on Sunday night, as the Egyptian potato soup simmers on the stove and our community radio station plays a Middle Eastern mix. I’ve been cooking all day for our Monday night Passover seder, and I’m feeling good. A lot better than I anticipated this morning, when I woke with pain in my ulcers, an aching foot and one thought: How am I going to get through the cooking marathon today?

I groused at Al. I rubbed my temples. I studied the long list of fruits and vegetables that I needed to buy before lunch and realized I’d forgotten to ask Al to pick up one key ingredient from the kosher market in Brookline (an hour’s drive from home) several weeks ago.

He suggested checking the Passover aisle at our local supermarket, just in case they had those kosher-for-Passover hearts of palm. I agreed, then thought of an alternative in case they didn’t. I knew Al stood ready to serve as sous-chef, as need, for all the chopping and peeling ahead. Time to dive in.

To my astonishment, when I got to the store, the Passover aisle was still well-stocked, including hearts of palm—three cans, even. I moved on to the second supermarket and filled my cart with fresh strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, bananas, a mango, avocados, cauliflowers, leeks, romaine lettuce, potatoes, beets, onions, garlic, celery, parsley, asparagus, baby spinach, eggplants. At the check-out, the cashier admired my choices and told me how much he loves vegetables (except eggplants). I told him how to enjoy beets in a salad (add gorgonzola and toasted walnuts).

By the time I got back home, Al had switched over our kitchen to all of our Passover dishes—the culmination of several days of cleaning and preparation. We went out for a quick lunch, and then I began cooking in earnest. The night before, I’d already started the pickled salmon, which marinates for a couple of days. Next up was curried eggplant. I was able to do all the peeling and chopping myself while Al worked on the yard.

Then came the Egyptian haroset, a mixture of dates, golden raisins, ground almonds and sugar syrup. Only one problem: when I placed the mixture in my little Passover food processor, it wouldn’t turn on. I tried another electrical outlet. No go. I asked Al to try it. Maybe I hadn’t aligned it properly. Zip. Four o’clock in the afternoon, and it was time for another run to Target.

I opted for an immersion blender and picked up a few other cooking items to make life easier for the rest of the week. Before we left for dinner, the haroset was well blended, cooked to perfection and chilling in the refrigerator.

By 7:30, I was back in the kitchen, separating nine eggs for the apricot sponge cake and cursing at the little pieces of eggshell that had dropped into the whites. But I persisted. Al helped me fold the meringue into the batter, the one part of the recipe I can no longer do.

Now the sponge cake rests upside down in its tube pan, cooling overnight. The asparagus are happily plumped with water, standing tall in their pan until it’s time to steam them tomorrow afternoon. The potatoes and leeks and celery and garlic and turmeric, salt, pepper, bay leaf and water have finished simmering in the time it took me to write, and the lovely mix is now cooling in the 70-year-old white enamelware that was once my mother-in-law’s Passover soup pot. Just need to add the fresh lemon juice before serving.

All that’s left for tomorrow are the spinach-cheese patties, the avocado-tomato-hearts-of-palm-pesto salad, the roasted cauliflower, the boiled eggs and the seder plate. That’s the easy stuff.

The prospect of cooking for Passover, with my once-a-year set of dishes, the crazy schedule, and the inevitable stuff that goes wrong, always overwhelms—especially because the holiday falls in the spring, when my ulcers are at their worst. But somehow, it always works out. And tastes great. And provides a beautiful setting for our seder. This year, more than ever, I am grateful that I can still make a splendid feast for family and friends, and focus on what really matters: what it means to be free.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Skirmishes

Dear people, do you know of the battle of the vegetables?
All is put before you.
The tomato rises up from the center:
“My food is famous, better than the eggplant!”

The eggplant responds:
“Be quiet, tomato.
You are not worth a penny.
Two days in the basket,
you are ready for the garbage!” . . . 

from Si Savesh La Buena Djente (Dear People, Do You Know of the Battle of the Vegetables?)

A lot of vegetables will be clamoring for attention at our seder this Tuesday night. We host the second night of Passover, and there will be both tomatoes and eggplants featured—but not in the same dish, so no fighting at the table.

On Sunday afternoon, I set out to buy the freshest vegetables (and fruit, too) that I could find before the holiday. The weather was warming, the air pleasant. I backed out of the garage. Ca-chunk!  Not sure what that was about, I tested my brakes. All seemed fine, and on I drove.

That is, until the tire pressure gauge lit up about a mile down the road. I pulled over. Sure enough, I had a very flat tire. I drove carefully into a nearby parking lot, called AAA, then called home.

There was a time, long ago, when I might have tried to change it myself. In grad school, I once spent a very cold afternoon in a garage with one of my classmates, who taught me how to tune up my old Chevelle. It was fun. My hands froze, but this was long before I knew I had any medical issues.

Much as I wished I could have saved time, there was no way I would now attempt to change the tire with my hands so damaged by scleroderma. Instead, Al came to the rescue, traded cars with me and waited for AAA to arrive, while I headed off to the market.

Already behind schedule, I got there about 1:30. Never go shopping for vegetables at a Wegman’s on a Sunday afternoon, especially before a holiday week. The produce section was mobbed. Mesmerized shoppers wandered amidst rainbow mounds of fresh vegetables and fruits, sniffing and squeezing, checking for ripeness and price, with many near misses between shopping carts. “Pick me, pick me!” cried the delectable produce from their artful displays—all except the organic strawberries, on special, which had been snatched up long before I arrived.

Fortunately, the eggplants were piled at one end of the produce section and the tomatoes, at the other. I assume the produce staff are well aware of their rivalry and keep them separate.

I resolutely stuck to my list—except for picking up a bag of lovely, multicolored fingerling potatoes. One more easy side dish of roasted veggies certainly won’t be a hassle, right?

On my way to check-out, a seductive display of fresh plum tomatoes nearly broke my resolve. But I reminded myself that it would be so much more hand work to peel and seed them for the Prassa Yahnisi (Turkish Braised Leeks and Tomatoes), rather than use the Kosher for Passover canned variety that Al had already bought for me. Plus, I didn’t trust them to be sweet enough this time of year, no matter where their place of origin.

Yes, yes, I know. Sorry tomatoes, I’m afraid the fresh eggplants won this round. Maybe next year.

But . . . did you have anything to do with that flat tire?

Note: You can read the entire translated Ladino poem, Si Savesh La Buena Djente—and find wonderful vegetarian recipes for Passover and year-round—in Olive Trees and Honey: A Treasury of Vegetarian Recipes from Jewish Communities Around the World, by Gil Marks (Wiley Publishing: 2005).

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com

Feast of Freedom

My hands are in pretty good shape today. A blessing, because I spent all of last Thursday and Friday cooking our annual Passover seder—a five course extravaganza that I manage to pull off each year.

I’ve evolved the menu over decades, based on what works, what doesn’t and what everyone asks for and complains about if I don’t make it. For the past few seders, I’ve switched from a meat-centric meal to fish and vegetarian entrées, creating a new challenge to find great recipes for guests who still wish I’d make that brisket.

And I’ve tried to modify my approach to accommodate my hands, which I’ve managed to wreck a number of times in the past when I went overboard with elaborate menu planning. I pace myself through two days of cooking, choose recipes that are fairly simple but taste terrific, and always wear disposable vinyl gloves to protect my ulcers as I cook.

Al serves as sous chef and kitchen first mate, helping with all of the chopping, slicing, jar-opening, package-ripping, utensil-retrieving and the many, many, many rounds of dish-washing and drying as I power through preparation of each dish. I could not do this meal without his help. Not to mention the fact that he takes care of the huge task of switching over our kosher kitchen to our Passover dishes.

But for all my planning and experience, on Thursday I was struggling. My hands were killing me because much of our Passover cookware is old and cheap (no point spending money on stuff you use only eight days of the year), and harder to handle than our regular kitchen utensils. By the end of the evening, after I’d worn out my right hand from folding all the meringue into the spongecake batter, I sat down, exhausted, and wondered why I was doing this to myself once again.

I could simplify the menu—this year’s included Egyptian haroset, a paste made of dates, raisins and filberts; pickled salmon; Persian cucumber and yogurt soup; a Moroccan salad of fresh oranges and greens with a cinnamon dressing; a main course of Turkish leek patties, Moroccan eggplant and tomato casserole, and steamed asparagus; and apricot sponge cake, strawberries, grapes, figs and chocolate for dessert.

It’s a lot of work. But the truth is, much as it takes a physical toll, I don’t want to give it up. The meal was wonderful. Everyone loved it. There were barely enough left-overs for our Sunday night supper.

My bottom line is this: I just don’t want to give in to my scleroderma. I am incredibly stubborn, a perfectionist and, yes, a card-carrying control freak when it comes to anything I’m creating.

In Gabriel Axel’s 1987 film Babette’s Feast (based on a story by Isak Dinesen), the heroine, a French refugee who becomes the cook and housekeeper for a pair of Danish spinster sisters, creates an exquisite meal for them and members of their small, austere church community, to thank them for sheltering her over the years. I won’t spill the delicious secret twist that’s revealed at the film’s end, except for Babette’s concluding line: When the sisters realize she has spent all of her money to create her amazing gift of a meal, she answers, “An artist is never poor.”

Creating a wonderful meal for people you love is an art form. It’s nourishment wrapped in beautiful presentation and delicious flavor. It’s a gift that makes everyone feel good, that enhances sharing, conversation and connection. For the Passover seder, it’s also a reminder of all that we have to be grateful for, living in a free country. I don’t entertain often because of my hands. But when I do, I go all out. And I’ll keep doing so as long as I’m able.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.