Thursday, February 27, 2014

Cat Pyramid

Allie dozing on her cat pyramid

A gigantic scratching post, originally designed for my first two kittens, Sparky (below right) and Wolfie (left), stands proudly at the far end of our present kitchen. We call it the cat pyramid, for obvious reasons.

Wolfie and Sparky, having outgrown their pyramid, relax together on a danish-modern chair

Eric Steinhauer, who designed the pyramid, reminisced about his inspiration and construction of the post. He made it for my first two kitties, black and white littermates, who were energetically tearing up our house on College Avenue. It consists of four plywood sides, a square top and larger square bottom.

After cutting out the six plywood pieces with a power saw, he stapled carpet scraps onto all the outer surfaces, and screwed them together to form a tall pyramid. The kittens loved it. They raced up and down the vertical sides, chased each other to the top and scratched and jumped with abandon during their young, rambunctious years. But then they outgrew it and went back to napping and artistically scratching the furniture, as is so humorously described in the book Why Cats Paint. Since it was no longer being used, Eric took it apart and stored it in the basement and forgot about it until I found Allie— a darling calico kitten—at the Pinole shelter, five years ago. By this time, I had moved several times and was now living in an in-law addition in the Berkeley hills. From the moment Allie entered "her" home, she was a terror. While most cats would be drugged and drowsy right after being spayed, Allie tore around on every surface in the long, narrow apartment, squealing with glee at having been freed from her cage at the shelter. After several weeks of kitten pandemonium, I thought of the long lost pyramid.

Pyramid sits in back, right corner. Green Bin stays on kitchen counter

    Fortunately, the object was still stored in the basement of the College Avenue house and still in great shape. I moved the heavy pieces to our Shasta Road dwelling, Dean reassembled it, placed it in a comfortable kitchen corner, and introduced it to Allie. It was love at first sight! She scratched it ferociously, she bounded up, jumped down, leapt across and, best of all, held court on top. Now she naps blissfully on her perch while I prepare dinner. She can look out at the kitchen or through the small windows into the office (at right) or out the bayview window. She often lies on the floor at the base.
                                                                  She plays on top
A young Allie plays atop her carpeted roost (2009)
                                                             She stretches out at the bottom

                                                        She is queen of all she surveys
Full grown Allie looks out at the kitchen from her pyramid
                                                         A perfect place for a cuddle
Dean calls it "pyramid love"

All sorts of cat furniture is available in pet stores and online, and all too often these expensive objects are rejected by house cats who are particular about their perches. Below are two stylish examples from the website Hauspanther.

Frankly,  I think Allie looks much more comfortable on her very own designer cat pyramid. She refuses to outgrow it.

For a hilarious account of cats demolishing household upholstery in the guise of artistic endeavor, check out Why Cats Paint by Heather Busch and Burton Silver, Ten Speed Press, 1994.

                                      After all, not every cat is lucky enough to have a pyramid!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

In Defense of Bread

Bread, traditionally known as the staff of life, is now public enemy # 1. It's under attack from all sides. Many Americans, some of whom are having trouble digesting wheat, are now espousing a gluten-free regimen (which forbids wheat), and the Paleo Diet, which eliminates bread altogether. But let it be known that I'm holding my ground amidst the growing number of nay-sayers. I'm a carb lover—I still eat bread, pasta (made with wheat flour and eggs,) whole grain cereal, muffins, cookies, and more, and I feel fine!

  My friend Anna, artist and soup-maker,  sent me an interview with Michael Pollan which originally appeared as a podcast on "Inquiring Minds." In the interview Mr Pollan—best selling author and agricultural activist—debunks the Paleo Diet and offers five concrete suggestions for eating healthfully. Below, I've printed suggestion #2, which speaks about the healthful aspects of my topic, bread.

2." Humans can live on bread alone. Paleo obsessives might shun bread, but bread, as it has been traditionally made, is a healthy way to access a wide array of nutrients from grains.
In Cooked, Pollan describes how bread might have been first created: Thousands of years ago, someone probably in ancient Egypt discovered a bubbling mash of grains and water, the microbes busily fermenting what would become dough. And unbeknownst to those ancient Egyptians, the fluffy, delicious new substance had been transformed by those microbes. Suddenly the grains provided even more bang for the bite.
As UC-Davis food chemist Bruce German told Pollan in an interview, “You could not survive on wheat flour. But you can survive on bread.” Microbes start to digest the grains, breaking them down in ways that free up more of the healthful parts. If bread is compared to another method of cooking flour — basically making it into porridge — “bread is dramatically more nutritious,” says Pollan.
Still, common bread made from white flour and commercial yeast doesn’t have the same nutritional content as the slowly fermented and healthier sourdough bread you might find at a local baker. Overall, though, bread can certainly be part of a nutritious diet. (At least, for those who don’t suffer from celiac disease.) "    

      I was introduced to good bread by my mother, who started baking her own loaves in the 1950s when she couldn't find delicious, healthy bread in Milwaukee. Wonder Bread was ubiquitous at that time, but somehow she discovered the recipe for Cornell bread, developed by Professor Clive McKay at  Cornell University's Dept. of nutrition, and she started baking bread regularly. Her loaves, with healthful additions of soy flour, wheat germ and dry milk, emerged from the oven yeasty and fragrant. But truth be told, my sister and I preferred packaged white "cardboard" bread for our sandwiches. What did we know?

Even when I moved to Berkeley, except for the famous crusty San Francisco sourdough loaves from commercial bakeries like Toscana and Colombo, it was difficult to find good bread; so I followed in my mother's footsteps and started baking my own.

The Complete Book of Breads by Bernard Clayton, 1973

Luckily, Bernard Clayton, a writer and editor in the Business School at Indiana University, had just published his Complete book of Breads. Baking my way through his well-organized roster of recipes kept me busy and well-fed for a decade. At that juncture, bakeries were springing up that satisfied my particular standards. In 1976 Joe and Kass Schwin started grinding whole wheat flour and producing healthy, 100% whole-wheat loaves at their mill in Berkeley; they named their company Vital Vittles. They later sold the bakery to faithful employees, and the bread is as good as ever. I especially like the three-seed and the flax-seed oat breads.  

During the '80s I read rave reviews about the bread made in Paris by Lionel Poilane. On a trip there, I made a special effort to visit the boulangerie at 8 Rue du Cherche-Midi to sample the "Miche," their signature loaf,  and the beguiling apple tarts hot from the oven. I was very impressed and have remained a life-long devotee. The Poilane ovens and boulangerie are in the fashionable sixth arrondisement. When I visit Paris I always stay near the bakery, at Hotel de Sevres, a quaint little hotel I found while wandering around the quartier that first magical time. I still like to pick up breakfast goodies from Poilane every morning— just add cafe au lait and I have the perfect petit-dejeuner

Poilane at 8 Rue du Cherche-Midi, Paris
The signature Miche Poilane

 Times have changed here in the Bay Area and throughout the US as a swell of artisan bakers are busy producing fabulous breads that equal those of Poilane in Paris. Husband and wife team Chad Roberts and Elisabeth Prueitt traveled to France after graduating from culinary school and studied with French bakers to master breadmaking in the Poilane tradition. When they returned home they chose Point Reyes Station, CA to build a wood-fired oven and bake bread. They first sold Chad's bread and Elisabeth's pastries at the Berkeley Farmers' Market where I was lucky enough to encounter them. Immediately, I was smitten. The chewy, sour, tangy loaves with a spectacular crackly crust were unsurpassed. In 2002 the couple opened Tartine Bakery in San Francisco's Mission District and the combined bread bakery, pastry shop and cafe was an instant success. They have now added a sandwich shop and written three books. There are always long lines for their superb products at Tartine.

  I could rhapsodize at length about the quality and depth of flavor and texture of Bay Area breads but I think I will just list my personal favorites. One bite into a warm, crusty slice is worth a thousand words!

Tartine Bakery's country loaf in all its glory

Phoenix Pastaficio's olive loaves gleaming in the sun at The Berkeley Farmers' Market
Another personal favorite  is the olive bread from Phoenix Pastificio in Berkeley. They sell their  pastas, pastries and olive bread at farmers' markets in the area.

I can't get enough of the delicious olive bread from Phoenix Patificio

Epi baguettes from Acme Bakery owned by Chez Panisse baker Steve Sullivan

Seeded sourdough baguettes at the Cheese Board in Berkeley

My sympathy goes out to friends like Hali, Lee and Lynn who can't tolerate wheat and many other substances without extreme discomfort. But I have noticed that the gluten-free contingent is growing by leaps and bounds and is now well represented both on the web and in the marketplace. Thus, I feel compelled to weigh in on the side of wheat and share my love affair with bread.