Sunday, September 25, 2011

Continuing Survival in the Face of Giant Zucchinis


That graphic is meant to represent my gasping mouth rising (if ever so briefly) above water. I guess it has been one of those weeks... or two... Which is not to say that things are going badly--it's just been really, really busy. And I got food poisoning. And Ryan had a bad cold. And... yeah, I guess it's just been one of those weeks.

School has started, and with it an entirely novel (to me, at least) way of structuring classes and coursework. I'm taking Spanish Diction, Opera Repertoire, 20th c. Repertoire, French Diction, Acting, Concert Repertoire, and of course lessons and coachings. Add to that master classes and my job, coincidentally as the master class assistant. Regular courses meet for two hours, but only once a week, and most classes actually span both semesters. In fact, I believe that only my French diction class will last for one semester (to be followed by Italian and German in the spring). Instead of the lecture/student participation format to which I am accustomed, almost all of the classes are structured around performance. You might say, "what a novel concept for a music school!", but it really does seem different from the traditional class, including those I've observed at other programs. In general, three or four students prepare materials to present in class, discussing salient features of the piece and composer before singing. Then it proceeds in a largely master class-type format: critique (based on the subject of the class), discussion, and eventually someone new to repeat the format. Consequently there is more self-directed research that forms the basis of study and what is discussed in class pertains more to the execution of the music practically than theoretically.

Ultimately it should all culminate with our regular master class series--a sort of heightened rendering of our regular classes. There are six regular masterclasses for the ADV students (and I think an equal number for the undergraduates), plus three "special" classes with Susan Graham, Ian Bostridge, and Sir Roger Norrington. (For the complete list of masterclasses offered at school this year, please follow this link.)

Otherwise, things are chugging along. Ryan was out of town part of this week to go work with Andrew McPherson in Philadelphia and Princeton (he's performing and subsequently recording a composition of McPherson's for piano with electromagnetic resonators). I've started figuring out the best places to shop for various items, from Economy Fruit to No Frills to Strictly Bulk, and hopefully that will become increasingly streamlined. While Ryan was gone I even visited Gasparros Meat Market--the butchers recommended to me by the Communists--and had a wonderful time chatting with them in Italian! Our room is finally coming together, too. We purchased a wardrobe, so I'm no longer living out of a suitcase, and even moved the big brown couch out of here, giving us a little more space. It was an adventure requiring the removal of two doors and a bannister, carrying the couch up a flight of stairs into the kitchen, out of the house and down some more stairs (around the corner) back to the basement, and then maneuvering it into the craft room, but we were successful! A woman from Comrade MM's church kindly gave us a bed frame...

...which naturally segues to another topic: the communists upstairs! I have decided to refer to them henceforth as Comrade MM and J, respectively the mother and father of the house, in honor of their craigslist advertisement and to protect their privacy, and their daughter as Mlle P. Comrades MM and J use this name in their own online musings, so it seemed fitting to continue it here. They're really not communists, you know. Though they did play the Internationale at the dinner party we had last night... (Reproduced here in the original French!)

Given the amount that has happened recently, this post should probably be even longer. Unfortunately there are errands to run and laundry to wash and practicing to do, so I think I'd better go do something productive. More later, I hope! And with less of a delay.

Actually, a brief update from the kitchen:

Photo credit: Comrade J

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Food: Mr. Hitz's recipe for bread and psychological battery

To begin, a butterfly from the Toronto Islands (visited today and perhaps the source of a later post):

And now to the subject of the post:
I do love to cook/bake/make things in the kitchen, so perhaps one facet of this blog will be the odd--as in infrequent, though perhaps also strange--recipe. Those of you who have witnessed me in action (or know my dad's cooking) understand that recipes do not form the core of the Fitz Gibbon repertoire. My specialty, random things in a pot, generally turns out pretty well and doesn't require trips to the grocery store for extra ingredients.

Side note on random things in a pot: Dinner two nights ago. Ryan requested peanut sauce and noodles for dinner, I countered with peanut sauce and noodles on whatever cheap vegetables I could find. Enter: "Economy Fruit" and the $0.49/lb eggplant, plus the "No Frills" $1/head cauliflower. Exit: Stir fried eggplant with cauliflower, ginger, cilantro, garlic, onions, and peanut sauce/peanuts.

Anyway, there are some items for which recipes are useful, like saag paneer and cookies and bread. My mom gave me this neat bread cookbook a while ago and I made bread for myself last year. I don't eat much of it, so the whole wheat recipe I followed was perfect because it made three easily-freezable loaves and one batch lasted me each semester. Ryan, on the other hand, likes it a lot. That's good because I still like to make bread and making it more often means more experimentation. I was slightly dissatisfied with the results last year, mostly because the bread was always a bit bitter--and I don't even particularly like sweet things!--but I was rather pleased with this iteration and thought I might post it for those interested.

The recipe is adapted from Baking Artisan Bread by Ciril Hitz. The nice and also frightening thing about the book is that Mr. Hitz includes advanced techniques and explains everything very well, but he also INSISTS THAT EVERYTHING YOU DO WILL FAIL BECAUSE YOU DON'T HAVE THE RIGHT INGREDIENTS AND YOU DON'T WEIGH THEM AND YOU DON'T HAVE A SPECIAL STEAMING RACK but if you want you can do these other less-good things and maybe your bread will be okay. BUT NOT AS GOOD AS IF YOU DID IT THE RIGHT WAY! But then you make the bread, fearing the entire time that your efforts will be in vain, and in the end it's pretty tasty despite the dire warnings. Anyway, hence the psychological battery.

Once I conquer the most debilitating of my breadmaking fears, I do the following:
the night before, mix together the following ingredients in a big bowl to make the biga:
1 1/3 c. + 1 tbsp white flour
1/2 c 70ºF water
1.5*+ tsp instant dry yeast

*I say 1.5+ because Mr. Hitz wants you to use some special yeast that I don't have, and he says it will fail if you don't use it... but it won't. The only problem is the conversion isn't exact (it should be 1.56 tsp) so I fudge a little. And it still works out.

Anyway, mix it in a dough stand or get a strong spoon and combine all the ingredients. They will be sad and not want to mix together. You may need to add a little extra hot water if the flour or air is very dry. Put it in a bowl, or keep it in the bowl, coated with a little olive oil or something so that it can expand without drying out or sticking to the sides. Cover it with a dishtowel and let it sit out for 1 or 2 hours before going to bed. Press down on it to degas the dough before putting it in the fridge, loosely covered with some plastic, and wait until morning. Or tomorrow night, or whenever you have time to bake the bread itself.




Now that it is some other time after you have made the biga, you can make the rest of the bread, which goes like this:

Take your biga
and the following ingredients, which can be altered to suit your fancy provided that the general proportion of flour to other ingredients stays the same, but which at this moment reflects the bread I made on 9/6/2011:
3.5 c whole wheat flour (at the moment I'm using white wheat, a sweeter wheat)
1 c buckwheat flour
2/3 c spelt
1/3 c flax
1/4 c honey
1 tsp instant dry yeast
3 tsp salt
2 c+ 95ºF water (I often have to add a little more than 2 c)

Mix these ingredients for a while. Mr. Hitz says to use your bread stand and mix on low speed for four minutes and medium for two minutes. I generally mix until it is combined, which will probably take a little while longer if you're doing it by hand.

At this point, add the following nuts and seeds and things (unless you don't like them, in which case you can skip this step)
1/3 c sesame seeds
1/3 c chopped walnuts
1/3 c rolled oats
and mix some more until everything is combined.

Now, make sure that your bowl has a little olive oil or something coating it and roll your ball of dough around a bit to make sure it's sufficiently moist and happy. Cover it with maybe a slightly moistened towel or something and let it sit. Mr. Hitz wants you to check that the temperature is between 75º and 78ºF using your digital thermometer. I have no digital thermometer. It will be fine. Anyway, let it sit for 45 minutes.


Come back! Check on your bread, which by now should have risen some. Stretch it out a bit, fold it up a bit, and let it rest again for another 45 minutes. Mr. Hitz suggests preheating your oven to 450ºF at this point. That's probably not necessary.

Now that another 45 minutes have passed, you are ready to divide your dough into two or into sizes that are sufficient for filling the bread pans that you have. Make sure they're coated with some olive oil or something, or the bread will stick. Shape the pieces of dough into loaves. Generally I tug them out until they're flatish and then roll them up a bit. Don't handle them too much, of course. If you want, you can coat them with more rolled oats. Or you can just put them in the pans. Cover those loaves again with your slightly moistened dishtowel or plastic wrap or whatever you're using and let them proof for 1-1.5 hours. (When they're ready, apparently they should recover almost--but not entirely--from being pressed gently with your fingers. This never makes any sense to me, but if you wait an hour or so, I think it will be ready.)

While the loaves are proofing, you can start figuring out the oven stuff. Mr. Hitz suggests injecting your oven with steam, which can be achieved by putting a funky cookie sheet or something in there while you're preheating the oven and placing a wet dishtowel on it when you put the loaves in the oven. This will release a lot of steam and so you should definitely be careful that you don't hurt yourself, or fall in the oven because you can't see when your glasses are fogged up. Mr. Hitz thinks you will boil your arms off. I haven't done that yet, but you never know. I'd hate to create an army of armless breadmakers by suggesting this technique, so do be careful. Truthfully I have no idea if it actually helps, but I haven't tried not including it because I worry that it is the last step saving my bread from DISASTROUS FAILURE (Mr. Hitz really gets to you). In theory, the steam should allow the bread to rise more because the crust will not form as quickly. In reality, this is a dense bread that doesn't rise much to begin with. (Maybe it's because I'm not using the special yeast? I like dense bread, though, so I don't mind.)

Anyway, put your loaves in the oven and either do or don't include the wet towel. Bake for 20 minutes at 450ºF. After 20 minutes, remove the pan with the towel and reduce the temperature to 380ºF. Bake for another 20 or 30 minutes. If they start browning too soon, try covering them with aluminum foil. If, after this last baking time, you remove the loaves from the pans and they seem like they could use an additional firming-up, you can put them back in the oven--pan-less--and bake for another five minutes. Or you can just leave them for done! And let them cool.

This bread, as mentioned, freezes quite well when wrapped in plastic. And I hope you like it! And emerge unscathed from the process.

Here are some pictures of the finished bread from the 9/6/11 batch:

Thursday, September 8, 2011

A few thoughts on Canada

Having only been here for a few days, perhaps it seems premature to make assessments about the Canadian culture and way of life. However, it also might be the best time: things seem most alien, and the idiosyncrasies of loonies and toonies and closed vowels haven't been lost on my ears.

On the most basic level, the greatest discrepancies seem to be that Candians are always exceedingly polite, and that Canada is more expensive than the United States. The former is, of course, one of the stereotypes of this land to the north, but the latter I was not expecting to be quite so evident. Still, books, food, and bike supplies are much more than back home. Particularly annoying: you can't ship a lot of things here! Like the books you want (Nico Castel's Spanish Lyric Diction? Out of print, and only available within the US. Sebald's Austerlitz auf Deutsch? Well, will ship it to you--but it's from a seller in the states and S&H is $7.00) or a slightly better deal on a Kryptonite lock (apparently everyone's bike gets ripped off here unless bolted down, but you literally can't buy a lock at one of the many bike stores for less than $65.00 even though they would retail down south for $40.00). Ryan and I bit the bullet on the locks, but I'm shipping the Castel and Sebald to a composer in Princeton, NJ, that Ryan will go visit in a few weeks. He can bring them back for me, maybe along with some Trader Joe's delicacies? Please? Because of course there aren't any Trader Joe's here either.

Food is somewhat variable. After being rather confused for several days by what seemed to be an utter lack of supermarkets (and a glut of corner delis, groceries, and butchers), I discovered that they do exist, but that the bodegas are also sometimes affordable. A supermarket from a chain of groceries called "No Frills" is just a few blocks away, but perhaps because we're living in a multi-cultural, middle-class neighborhood there are such gems as "Economy Fruit." Yes, that's right, a store... called "Economy Fruit." (Perhaps not quite as good a name as "Canned Foods," but that's long-since been changed to the somewhat more palatable "Grocery Outlet.") Economy Fruit is just down the block from us, on one of the main arteries of Toronto, and is true to its name. I walked out of there with a LOT of food today for $4.75--plus a free bag of string beans someone had left lying around. I did get a better bargain when I found a bag of spinach on the ground the other day, but still pretty good. Alcohol, though, seems to be inescapably, ridiculously expensive. Not that Ryan and I have been boozing it up--quite the contrary--but I did buy the least expensive 6-pack of beer from one of the alcohol stores (I think you have to buy from special stores) for $9.50. Ouch.

I'm sure the reason for the increase in prices has something to do with more government services, perhaps best illustrated by Labour Day. It's the same principle here as in the States, but whereas in America one celebrates by making store workers go in extra early for the big sales, in Canada people march in the streets and then all the folks in the labor demonstration get into the Canadian Exposition (like a big state fair) for free. And EVERYTHING is closed. Even the supermarkets! I did meet a transgender man named Alex that afternoon and buy a bike from him out of his van, so there are an enterprising few... but the rest of them are as good as the Communists upstairs, I suppose.*

But enough of such mundane (and perhaps crass?) matters! In other news, we have had a few orientation-type meetings at the school and received, in no particular order: t shirts! student planners! AND LOCKERS!! I am so excited about having a locker. They're big, beautiful, have coat hooks and a shelf... I'm going to put snacks in my locker. And tea. Oh my gosh. I haven't been this excited for a long time. I could even fit inside my locker...

We're supposed to go to the islands for a barbeque on Saturday and there's an orchestra concert and pub night tomorrow. The staff is so kind and lovely, and they even gave me a work study! I'm going to assist with the Friday masterclasses (there are masterclasses every Friday). So that will make the high priced bike locks in the land of the Communists less painful.

Because this post is so long, I think I shall sign off now and update again later with pictures of home and school and life and such. And perhaps some recipes? And the Communists?

*In reference to their Craigslist advertisement. They're incredibly wonderful people and I hope to write more about them later.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Brief Labour Day Update

Things have been busy recently, but nothing much of interest has occurred. The room looks better but is still disorganized; my shoelaces are in various states of tied-ness; and I'm still in Canada. However, orientation begins tomorrow and I'm sure that I'll do something fascinating soon. For the meantime, a photograph from the fourth floor (in the new wing) looking over the older part of the school and toward the Royal Ontario Museum's new addition (the infamous crystal). It's dark because today was surprisingly cold, windy, and overcast.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Basement _____ ?

Well. After that decidedly unsuccessful attempt at blogging, I write to the empty air about my next phase of life. I should probably change the name of the blog in alliterative honor of the new location, but I can't find a good replacement. Most words referring to women that also start with the letter "B" aren't exactly my style: babe, banshee, bimbo, broad... Regardless, here I am, with Ryan, in Toronto, in a basement. We do have a little window in the bedroom and, from the bed where I now sit, one can see the trunk of a tree and a telephone pole. Yesterday a squirrel was chattering at something, clutched to the side of the tree. We're hardly settled in--lots of furniture and object-storing devices to procure--but it is beginning to get more organized. We spent most of yesterday downtown, actually, practicing at the school and having lunch with some friends. The school is beautiful. Practice rooms with huge windows and lovely views, this wonderful combination of old and new architecture, and even a collection of musical instruments! Including several old harpsichords/a clavichord/an organ... AND serpents! How about that? I wonder if anyone uses the harpsichords.

We still need dressers and wardrobes and bikes and so on, but maybe I'll be able to post some pictures later.

But for now: a bee in Bryce Canyon

Oh and a short anecdote about my first interaction with a Canadian: We had to get our proper visas when we crossed the border, so we parked and jumped out of the car to get it all done as quickly as possible. As we walked from the carport to the immigration building, a guard stopped us to check that we had all the necessary documents. He then added "Oh, and I'm going to have to warn you" (at this point I got a little nervous... do we look bad? are they going to search the car and will we have to unpack the whole thing?) "that your shoes are untied."

O Canada.