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Three tips for baking the perfect loaf of bread

There is nothing like the smell of freshly baking bread. It fills the air with four hours of warmth and coziness that few things in this world can match. But while getting the aroma to waft through the house is easy, making a decent loaf can be a challenge. I’ve created more than my share of hockey pucks and mushroom cloud loaves, so here are my tips for getting the highest-quality results from your flour-filled fun.

Tip #1: Choose the right machine. Baking purists will say you should knead the dough by hand and bake the loaf in your oven. But with today’s technology, you can achieve more consistent results and more precise control using a good bread machine. But not just any old machine will do.

My first bread machine was given to me as a wedding present almost 14 years ago. While it served its purpose, the results were always hit or miss, and I wanted something that I could rely on to produce consistent high-quality bread. So I recently purchased the Zojirushi Home Bakery Supreme 2-Pound-Loaf Breadmaker from Amazon.com. At around $250, you might say that it’s overkill. But trust me, the results speak for themselves.

Zojirushi Home Bakery Supreme 2-Pound-Loaf Breadmaker

The dual-blade Zojirushi Home Bakery Supreme makes rectangular-shaped 2-pound loaves.

Two things make this machine awesome. First, it makes rectangular, horizontal loaves, rather than the vertical rocket ships that most machines produce. This result is even baking and a nicely shaped loaf that more closely resembles what you would buy in the store. Second, it pre-heats all the ingredients to the exact right temperature before beginning the process. This is critical, as you’ll see in the next tip.

Tip #2: Use the right ingredients in the right way. With only four basic ingredients (flour, water, yeast, and salt), you’d think this would be pretty easy to get right, but bread is a surprisingly tricky thing to make.

The key ingredient is yeast, a living organism related to fungi that eats and breathes just like us. It’s this breathing (actually, the process of fermentation) that gives off carbon dioxide gas, which is in turn trapped by the gluten in the flour, causing bread to rise.

But it’s also the most finicky of all ingredients. Heat the yeast too high or too low and it won’t rise. You’ll end up with a dense, heavy dough ball. The ideal temperature is usually between 75-85 degrees F. In addition, you must add the ingredients in the proper order. Since water causes the yeast to activate the fermentation process, if the water and yeast come into contact too soon, you’ll get a bad loaf. Generally, you place the water (and any other wet ingredients) into the pan first. Then you cover the water with the flour, and finally add the yeast on top of the flour, being careful not to get the yeast wet.

The proportions of the ingredients to one another are also extremely important. Be sure to follow the baking directions from your recipe precisely. Even a tablespoon of water or flour can make a huge difference. Beginners can use an off-the-shelf bread mix with nearly flawless results. As you get more experienced, you’ll want to start experimenting with different flours such as wheat or rye, and tasty add-ins, like fruit or nuts. Note that non-white flours will not rise as much as their traditional counterparts, and most sweet add-ins will also weigh down the loaf. Experiment with different ingredients, realizing that your result may not look perfect but might still be delicious.

Tip #3: Let the loaf cool. This last one may seem like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to ruin a good loaf by attacking it too soon. Once the bread machine is done with its thing, gently shake the loaf out of the pan onto a cooling rack. Use a soft plastic spatula to help get sticky sides off the pan. Once the bread has rested for 15-30 minutes, use a long serrated bread knife to cut the loaf into 1/2-inch slices. If you try cutting it when it’s still hot, you’ll crush and disfigure the bread.

Bread making and golf have a lot in common. You can miss the fairway all day, but it only takes one good chip-in to make you keep playing the game. So whatever results you get, be sure to take notes. Just like your golf swing, once you get that perfect loaf, you’ll want to be able to reproduce it every time.

I’m sure there are many other ways to achieve good bread baking results – what are some of your tips? Let me know!

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Posted by on December 13, 2011 in Family, Random, Thoughts, Uncategorized

 

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Not phoning in my resolution this time

A new study is out that confirms a rising trend: This will just take a seven…salmon…(damn you, autocorrect)… This will just take a second —

Texting and driving don’t mix.

Despite widespread awareness of the dangers that distracted driving can cause, and despite horrific viral video campaigns that will make you wish for a real-life “undo” button, drivers continue to text behind the wheel.

The new research, conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, shows that the number of people who thumb messages or email from the driver’s seat has risen 50% over the past year.

So why the disconnect between the absolute sheer danger and the real-life behavior?  You might think, as with most tragic events, people erroneously think it can’t happen to them.  But that’s not quite it.  What’s happening, the researchers believe, is that people just seem to think they’re better drivers than everyone else, and they can handle the additional distraction — but the other guy can’t.

“Everyone thinks he or she is an above average driver — it’s all the nuts out there who need educating,” said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

But I’m willing to bet Mitt Romney $10,000 that there’s also some deeper psychological phenomenon at stake, and I hope that will be the next research study the government undertakes.  My hypothesis is that there is some sort of addictive rush that comes from sending and receiving messages. Something chemical in the brain that creates an urge too great to put off, despite intellectually knowing the dangers.  That could explain why so many people support laws banning texting while driving (now illegal in 35 states), yet so many continue to do it.

Some of the other findings from the government study:

  • 90% said that when they are passengers they feel very unsafe if the driver is texting or emailing.
  • In 2010 there were an estimated 3,092 deaths in crashes affected by a wide range of driver distractions.
  • Big majorities of drivers surveyed support bans on hand-held cellphone use and texting while driving — 71 percent and 94 percent, respectively, yet 20% of all drivers and 50% of drivers 21 to 24 years old regularly text or email while driving.

If these numbers aren’t enough to jolt you into changing your behavior, perhaps the video below will. (Fair warning: it’s very difficult to watch.)

And that’s why one of my 2012 New Year’s resolutions is to put the kibosh on cell phone distractions in my car. That means, no texting, no browsing, no Words with Friends.

It can, and it will, wait.

 
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Posted by on December 11, 2011 in Family, Thoughts, Travel, Work

 

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What spooks you about finances?

(Originally posted on USAA’s Inside the Mission blog)

At some level, we probably all have fears about finances.  As Halloween approaches, I’m wondering what spooks people the most about money. Are you afraid of looking at your bills each month?  Do you dread talking to your spouse about spending?  Are you worried about what the continued sagging economy means to your family? Here are my top 3 concerns about finances.  What are yours?

  1. Will I have enough for retirement?  Although USAA has a great employee 401k plan, it seems that maintaining even a modest lifestyle in retirement will require more than I could ever realistically sock away.
  2. Will my children have enough saved to go to college?  When each of our kids were born, we started 529 savings plansfor them, but the costs of education continue to skyrocket (maybe that’s why they call it “higher education”?).
  3. Will I need to provide for parents or other family members as well as my own family? I’m officially in the “sandwich generation” – so will caring for aging relatives prevent me from reaching my own financial goals?

While financial fears can be quite real, it’s good to know that USAA has tons of money advice, planning tools and other resources, right here on this site. Use the comment space below to post your own top 3 list, as well as what you do to overcome your fears.

 
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Posted by on October 27, 2011 in Family, Thoughts, Work

 

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Retirement beats college savings

(Originally posted on USAA’s Inside the Mission blog)

Never did I realize the double-whammy of parenthood more so than when my wife and I had twin babies. I’m not talking about the middle-of-the-night feedings or the boxes of diapers that we go through at a lightning pace (I knew I should have bought stock in Pampers!). The real question for us is how to make it work financially. Specifically, given a choice between saving for our retirement or college funds for the kids, which one wins?

As a parent, you want to do everything you can for your kids. My parents showed me the importance of making things better for their children than they were for themselves, through their hard work. College costs are skyrocketing, but we certainly don’t want to deprive our kids of getting the best education possible. Yet we know we’ll have to stop working at some point, and will need a significant amount in savings in order to enjoy even a modest retirement. So how do parents these days balance these two seemingly competing interests?

As Scott Halliwell shows in this video, saving for retirement is more important for most people for three big reasons. Check out the video:

 
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Posted by on October 11, 2011 in Family, Work

 

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Reflecting on The 2010 Brody World Tour: Some for work, all for fun

2010 was quite a year!  Reflecting on The 2010 Brody World Tour: Some for work, all for fun.

The numbers:

  • 32,186 miles
  • 14 cities
  • 7 states
  • 9 shows
  • 1 5.7-magnitude earthquake

The places:

  • New York City, NY
  • San Diego, CA (twice)
  • Los Angeles, CA
  • Pasadena, CA
  • Chicago, IL
  • Sarasota, FL
  • Ft. Myers, FL (twice)
  • Orlando, FL
  • Colorado Springs, CO
  • Phoenix, AZ
  • Philadelphia, PA
  • Miami, FL
  • Key Largo, FL
  • College Station, TX

The shows:

  • Jason Mraz (twice)
  • Dave Matthews Band
  • Barenaked Ladies
  • Rush
  • The Hush Sound
  • Jonas Brothers (for the kiddo, of course 🙂
  • Demi Lovato
  • Selena Gomez

…and I’m probably forgetting some…

On tap for 2011 so far:

  • Colorado Springs, CO
  • Tampa, FL
  • Maui, HI
  • Bon Jovi
  • Train
 
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Posted by on December 31, 2010 in Family, Thoughts, Travel

 

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Ode to Chicago

I haven’t quite been able to put my finger on the pulse of this city.  Maybe that’s because it is at the same time so many different things.  Downtown is huge and vibrant, but without the hustle and bustle of NYC or Philly. The vibe is young and active, fiercely proud, with clear bent toward party town. Arts and culture abound, while sports, signature foods, outdoors, architecture, and natural beauty give it character. The lake is enormous. The pubs are ubiquitous. There’s not enough time to experience it all. And something tells me even if I had enough time I still wouldn’t get to know this city completely.

I think Mark Twain had it right: “It is hopeless for the occasional visitor to try to keep up with Chicago – she outgrows his prophecies faster than he can make them. She is always a novelty; for she is never the Chicago you saw when you passed through the last time.”

 
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Posted by on September 19, 2010 in Random, Thoughts, Travel

 

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San Diego and L.A. 2010

Finally back home – what a trip – both exhilarating and exhausting. Can’t believe how much we squeezed in. Some highlights:

  • Two Padres games
  • One 5.7 earthquake
  • La Jolla beach, seals, caves
  • Visiting San Diego relatives Marv, Elaine, Serena
  • Beers at The Tilted Kilt with @johnhancock61
  • Visiting med school friend Dawn
  • Gaslamp dinner at Rockin’ Baja
  • Legoland
  • The Tonight Show with Jay Leno with set tour
  • Dinner at Prosecco in Teluca Lake with relatives Penny, Les, and Briggs
  • Santa Monica pier, beach, dinner
  • Biking from Santa Monica to Venice
  • California science center
  • La Brea tar pits
  • Watching Lakers win and not starting a riot
  • Vintage car show in Pasadena Old Town
  • LA Opening of Toy Story 3 at El Capitan with Fun Zone
  • Hollywood and Highland
  • Hollywood sign
  • Pacific Coast Highway
  • Malibu Paradise Cove beach
  • Pepperdine area/dinner
  • Star party at Griffith Observatory

Oh, and I worked for 3 days, too!

 
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Posted by on June 20, 2010 in Family, Random, Travel

 

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