Wednesday, 25 May 2016

No Knead Bread

For weeks, I kept stumbling over posts about a no knead bread that turned out fabulous artisanal looking loaves of bread, so I finally clicked on one and had a look. Honestly, it seemed too good to be true. I've been making my own bread on and off for years, and the only no knead recipe I had that I really liked was a massive wholegrain brick of my mothers, and even that was mostly best as toast. 

Eventually, I had to give it a go though...and, it is GOOD!!!!! Look what I got...
It slices well, and makes great toast too...

So, the recipe. It was first published in the New York Times cooking supplement, and I used their recipe - it's since been reproduced in countless blogs elsewhere, so I'm adding to that lineup now!
You will need:
3 cups bread flour, plus extra for dusting
1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
1 1/4 teaspoon salt
1 5/8 cup water
1. In a large bowl, combine dry ingredients. Add water and mix until you get a sticky dough. Cover with plastic wrap and leave to prove for 12-18 hours.
2. The dough is ready when the surface is bubbly. Lightly dust a work surface with flour and scrape the dough out of the bowl. With floured hands, fold the dough over on itself, and then leave covered for fifteen minutes.
3. Using just enough flour to prevent the dough from sticking to you, gently form into a ball. Dust a cotton or linen tea towel with flour and place the dough on it, seam side down. Dust the top of the ball, and cover with a second tea towel. Leave to prove for two hours. It should double in size. If it's a cool day, it may take a little longer.
4. Half an hour before the dough has finished proving, turn oven on to 230C. Put a large covered pot - cast iron, pyrex, ceramic - in the oven to heat. When dough is ready, remove the pot and its lid, uncover the dough, slide your hand under the bottom tea towel and gently flip the dough into the pot with the seam side uppermost. Replace lid and bake for 30 minutes. Then remove the lid and bake a further 15 mins until golden.
Remove and cool on rack.
And, it really is that simple. What you get is a bread with a fine, moist crumb, chewy texture and thick crust. It has a slight tang due to the long, slow prove, like a very mild sourdough. I made another loaf the day before yesterday and it will probably last me about a week, unless Dragon Dad has another toast craving hit him! The batch before, I experimented with the flour and did a half/half mix of white flour and a wholemeal spelt. It took longer to prove, and I got a smaller, dryer loaf. Made wonderful toast, but I didn't enjoy it untoasted as much. Might try again with a bit less of the spelt and see if that's more to my taste. I also want to try adding some whole grain to it - my basic bread recipe, when I'm baking it regularly, is a fairly grainy, bran-y mix. 
If you've not made bread before, do give this a try. The only thing you really need to consider is the timing. I usually mix my dough somewhere between 5-7pm. That means I'm doing the shaping around the middle of the day the next day, and I have a finished loaf by mid to late afternoon. So, you do need to factor in 24 hours - but very little of that time is hands on, you just have to be around to do those bits. 
As a no gadget type (no, I do NOT have a thermomix, nor do I want one!), this is a great bread for when you want homemade bread but you just don't want to make any effort, or you're too tired - or in my case, too sore - to face the kneading involved with a regular bread dough. 
And then, when it gets to the toasting stage, it's time for my favourite breakfast/light lunch/no fuss dinner (!) - and yes, I'm a pig for butter...

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Brain fog: Sorry, what were we talking about?

This post originally appeared on Creaky Joints in late 2015.

A little while ago, my cousin and I had a mini road trip up to the central coast north of Sydney to watch my eldest son swim his first 1500m ocean race. He’s preparing for the Noosa Triathlon – a full Olympic length race. It’s his first full length triathlon and at the beginning of the year he couldn’t swim, so it’s an awesome achievement. That ocean race was to get the monkey off his back about the 1500m swim. He swam really well, and discovered that not only will he not drown, he’ll also potentially be able to make it through well enough to be not too far behind when he picks up the 40km bike lap, and then the 10km run.

The hours in the car gave my cousin and I a lovely time for some serious catch up conversations. We talked about anything and everything, as you do, and at one point, I said to her, “There’s a blog post for Creaky Joints!” Then, I went to write it, and couldn’t for the life of me remember what the hell the topic was that we’d been talking about… So I emailed her, and got this message back: ‘Yes I do and it’s funny you ask – it was about you being forgetful lol!’

I used to pride myself on my memory, and in some ways, it’s still capable of amazing things… My earliest memory is from when I was about nine or ten months old – which is quite rare. My mother verified it after I described the scene I remembered – it was in the dining room of the place we lived when I was born, and we moved from there before I turned one.

I can remember all sorts of weird, random things from my childhood, from things I read, conversations, places I’ve been, and so on. I trained myself to memorise words (usually in a language other than English) and music for my time in an opera chorus – because we couldn’t head out onto the stage bewigged and costumed carrying the score!

It always has played some odd tricks on me though. I’m useless in exam situations – unless it’s essays. Anything else, and everything I’ve studied til I know it inside out vanishes like my head has been erased. It’s the same when I try and make a list of things – like names for invitations. Suddenly, it’s as if I have no friends, and I have to reach for my address book and work through that to make my list. Mind you, if I make a shopping list and then land at the shops without it, I can remember everything on it…but heaven help me if I didn’t make it in the first place.

Then, enter RA, and RA drugs…
Brain fog. The first time I saw that on the list of potential side effects of a drug, I laughed. It looked so bizarre in the middle of a list that was, otherwise, made up of legitimately medical sounding things. Then I started that drug. And stopped laughing. I have no memory from July 2013. None. The drug knocked me out – literally…it wasn’t sleep, it was something much more solid than sleep – for the rest of the day that I took it. After that, the rest of the week was a blur. I might have a day or so with a clearer head, but then dose day came up and it all started again. As I say, I can’t remember very much of that month. Hearing Dragon Dad describe it to other people – including my doctor – is horrifying. I couldn’t drive. I wasn’t functioning. My doctor stopped that drug, and says I can’t ever take it again.

What I’m left with though, is three other drugs that also list brain fog amongst the various potential side effects, and then there’s the effect of chronic pain, which can also impair normal cognitive function. So, basically, I’m screwed!

I find myself, all too frequently these days, mid sentence with no idea of what I was going to say next. Half way through conversations, I can completely lose track of what I have been talking about. I have conversations with people, then turn around and ask them a question, only to be looked at oddly, to have them tell me we just talked about that…

If I don’t write appointments down, I forget them. Actually, if I don’t put them in my phone calendar with a reminder set for a couple of hours ahead of the appointment time, it would be entirely possible that I’d not make it. I have forgotten appointments. I’ve turned up on the wrong days, THINKING I had an appointment, when I didn’t. I love those of my doctors and other para medical people who send reminder texts…because then I can double check that I have my reminders set up on my phone.

I do my regular blood tests on the Monday before I start a new box of my biologic drug – and I’ve had days when it’s been lunchtime on that Monday before I remember I have to go do it. I’ve even started occasionally to forget to do my biologic shot, which is set for first thing in the morning on a Tuesday.

Standing in a café trying to order a coffee and food can get really embarrassing when I can’t put the words together to do the order. My close friends and family have slowly grown accustomed to my memory failings, and are less likely, now, to be irritated. Strangers are something else again.

Forgetting things to this degree, on a regular basis, is not normal for me. It is something I’ve acquired due to both the RA and the drugs I use to treat it. It’s possibly one of the least understood effects of chronic illness, and it’s really difficult to explain to people who lack the necessary background medical knowledge. It is irritating to be on the receiving end of me having a memory moment – I get that. But it’s not something I can control. I can put checks and measures in place to try and minimise the impact on my daily life, but that I have to do that rankles.

My old memory – pre RA and these drugs – was an odd and patchy thing. But I miss it. I miss that with most things, it was very reliable, even if I made a mess of exams. I struggle with the fact that I can still remember our phone number from the house I lived in from three and a half to nine and a half, but I can’t always finish a conversation without having to be reminded of what the topic was. I hate the fact that I find myself making jokes against myself to ease a memory glitch in a conversation with someone who has no idea that there’s an actual issue. Most of all, I hate the fact that the drugs I need to treat my RA and keep it at bay are doing this, so I have no choice but to keep taking them, and dealing with this particular side effect.

May 2016
The brain fog persists. I managed to completely forget a rheumatologist appointment at the beginning of the year. Much grovelling ensued with the receptionist, to avoid having to pay…thankfully, they were understanding. If he's having a good day, Dragon Dad is understanding of my fuzzy brain. But on a not so good day, things can get tense. I can't help it. He knows that. But I know it frustrates him.

And an update this morning about my son – he ran the Sydney Half Marathon this morning, coming 128th overall, from a field of 12,000 runners, and 58th in his age division. Whether he’ll do another triathlon is questionable. For now it appears that his running and cycling are the main priorities – perhaps a race that just has those two in combination!

Sunday, 8 May 2016

'Yes Optus' ... Uh...actually, NO Optus...

I swear I must be turning into a grumpy old woman... Then again, try as I might, there DO seem to be irritations piling up - things that really shouldn't cause such irritations. And it's really NOT a good look to be seen stomping through a public space muttering under my breath...but I was SO cranky...

This morning, I went to my local Westfield in order to drop into the Optus shop to pay my mobile phone bill. I had a couple of reasons for going to the actual shop and doing this face to face: 1. My preference, today, was to make a payment that was part cash and part EFTPOS - something I can't do online or over the phone, and 2. I was running precariously close to incurring a late fee for the payment, and paying at the store would be the quickest way to have the payment register in their system, thereby avoiding said extra fee.

So, I toddle on in there, having pushed myself to get to the centre early, as its carpark can be a feral nightmare, and walked into the shop only to be told that as of 1 May, payment of bills is no longer a service offered at Optus shops. I could, the girl told me brightly, pay online, over the phone, or at the post office (oh, and BTW, this centre closed its post office about a year ago - a MAJOR shopping hub with NO post office...but that's another rant for another time...). 

I didn't WANT to use any of those options, I told her. I wanted to pay in the store in person, because that's what suited me, the customer... A customer of a telco, which provides a service for which I pay, ie., a SERVICE company... When I asked her why this had come about, she informed me, equally brightly, that the decision had been made to improve digital efficiency, and therefore, customer service. I was trying VERY hard not to unleash my temper on her, as she's just the poor bunny in the front line having to communicate company policy created by those much further up the food chain than her, but it was a big ask. I could see by the look on her face that she was becoming very quickly aware of just how cranky I was getting. As I pointed out to her, this decision was NOT creating a better customer experience for me, and if I were to use the post office option, it meant getting back into my car, driving to a different suburb, and then trying to park, because the area is notorious for poor parking availability. Her smile was getting a bit brittle at that point, as she attempted to sympathise, and again trotted out the current payment options. 

They maybe need to rethink their current logo...because I didn't get a 'yes' this morning. Nor did I get an answer to my queries that I regard in any way as satisfactory.
I gave it up, stalked off to my regular cafe in the centre (muttering as I went...) and while there, paid online by bank transfer - and I just hope that I don't get charged the late fee - heads will roll if I do! 

When I got home, I looked up the post office option, out of curiousity. The reason they're not offering in store payments, remember, is to increase digital efficiency - and supposedly, reduce the carbon footprint. Payment in store was easy - I did it last month. Give the employee your phone number, they pull up the bill in their system, customer pays - takes five minutes, if that. The post office requires a printed bill - so that bill I now have emailed, to reduce paper usage, and postage costs, now needs to be printed. And then, once at the post office, there is a charge of $1.75 for the privilege of paying in person - well, in person one organisation removed. I'd REALLY like someone at Optus to attempt to explain to me how much more efficient that process is, on any number of levels. 

I also, when I got home, had a look at their customer service page on the website.
The subtext of this statement, as I read it, is summed up in the last sentence, 'However, because of the range of products and services we offer, you will also need to be comfortable with "systems"'. And herein lies the problem. For what its worth, this is not just limited to Optus. Optus, like many of the things we pay for in this modern day and age, is a service company. They provide customers with a platform for communication. For us, the customer, to continue utilising their service over that of a competitor, they need to be able to provide us with a service that offers over and above their competitors. However, in their customer service policy, the emphasis is more on the organisation servicing itself. At the entry level, where employees have contact with actual customers, all those employees can do is pass on the results of decisions which they played no part in creating. They're just the people who have to pass them on, which can't always be much fun - to whit, the girl who got me this morning... Those in customer service personnel that exist higher up are 'predominantly about leading teams, rather than dealing directly with customers' - therefore, are removed from customers, customer needs, and customer feedback. HOW is that providing the best possible service?

Someone famously once said about a new hospital, in the stage of it having been staffed with the administration staff but yet to open for business and admit patients, that the hospital worked so efficiently WITHOUT patients. It's an oxymoron of a concept, of course, but so many organisations appear to ascribe to this way of thinking. The 'service' they offer is getting to be much less about the customers, and much more about the organisation itself. We, the customers, just get in the way of their efficiency.

Talking with friends who, like me, run the gamut of the medical system on a regular basis, I hear similar stories. People who go to their doctors to update prescriptions, only to have the doctors refuse them, because they need tests to verify, or that the doctor doesn't think that it's appropriate... IF the patients in question were newly diagnosed or had a new complaint, that would be a completely valid position to take. If, as is more often the case, they are patients with long standing chronic conditions, for which they've evolved a standard of treatment, and all they need is a simple prescription to continue that, then that is the service the doctor is required to perform for said patient... Apart from anything else, the patient is still charge for the visit, whether or not they receive the treatment they need. Or the doctor who never calls back when contacted - whether that's the doctor themself not getting back to the patient, or the reception staff not relaying the message to the doctor... Either way, again, there is a service to be performed, for which we, the patients, pay and if it's not performed, why the hell are we paying?

On the weekend, Dragon Dad and I pottered around the city before and after a lavish lunch, window shopping. Again, a job in a retail store is a service position. A retail sales assistance is hired to sell the products in the store - ergo, as a customer I expect to be greeted, asked if I want any assistance, and then served when I do. The number of stores we wandered in and out of where that was completely absent boggled my brain - particularly given that a number of them were at the prestigious end of the spectrum, where you'd really expect to be taken good care of, because SHOULD the customer be planning to spend money, it will be a LOT of money.

Service appears to be a dying art. I can't see that as a good thing.

I sent a message to Optus via their Facebook page when I got home. Their page says that they 'typically' reply within a day. I'll be interested to hear whether that actually happens...not that I'm expecting them to come back with anything particularly constructive.

Edited to add:

Optus replied... Most frustrations. On the one hand, they tell me that they want to offer me the most convenient option to pay my bill. In the same breath, they just reiterate the now existing options - which don't suit as well... Not really surprised though - because ultimately, it's NOT about me, the customer, is it?