Mystery House

Making Challah with Jaala

When Knitcircus editor Jaala Spiro was here recently for the magazine’s blog tour, she mentioned that she’d been a professional baker in an earlier phase of her life.  My ears perked up at that, and I simply had to invite her to come back on a Friday, with a recipe.  Being a woman who understands the potent allure of bread, she didn’t hesitate, and suggested that we bake her mom’s recipe for challah.

I’d never made challah.  How could I resist?  Well, I really couldn’t resist when I got my hands on the recipe.  It’s one of those recipes that makes its goodness obvious with just a reading, before you even pick up a whisk.  In a word:  butter.  Lots of it.

Here’s what Jaala had to say about the recipe:

“As a kid, it was a banner day when we’d walk in from school and smell the Challah in the air. She’d slice it and steam would rise from the soft, flaky bread, and my brother and I would wolf down fat slices with strawberry jam.  Not Jewish by birth, but always an amazing baker, she always made this Challah recipe — I’m guessing she received it from a friend, but not quite sure.

Now she — and I — make it for our family, and my mom, the kids and I can eat pretty much an entire loaf when they get home from school. Luckily, the recipe makes three loaves, so there’s still plenty left to share at dinner.”

Wolfing is about the most restrained you can be with this bread.

Jaala sent me the recipe and we both set to work.  Here’s what you need (there’s yeast mixed with warm milk in the big bowl in front) :

After mixing up the dough (which is easily accomplished with a bread whisk), you have to knead it.  It looks like this before you wear out your arms:

And this afterwards:

Jaala says that her mom kneads it for 15 minutes.  That’s a lot longer than it sounds, when you’re kneading.  I did it for 13 and declared that to be enough, since Jaala’s mom couldn’t see me all the way from Wisconsin and raise objections.  I actually like kneading — it’s like working with clay — but, ahem, my kneading muscles could be in better shape.  Should I be making bread more often?  Or would all the inevitable eating of bread be counterproductive?  All that is certain is that I clearly do not make bread as often as Jaala’s mom does. Regardless of my two minute deficiency, I thought that the dough looked very pretty when I got done with it.

After the rising and the punching down (my favorite part!), you shape it.  Again, reminiscent of clay, which is always a good thing.  This recipe makes three big loaves, so you cut the dough into nine pieces.

That’s because you’re going to braid it.  Now, I often wear my hair in a braid.  One long braid, straight down my back.  I have no trouble plaiting my own hair, and I can get it nice and even without looking.  But braiding dough that’s right in front of me?  Uh uh.  I have to be reaching behind my head to do it properly.  I had to think about it, and do each one over after messing it up several times.  There should be some special bread board that fits on your back, so that…oh, never mind.

According to the recipe, you can bake this bread either in pans, or more freeform, on a cookie sheet.  I opted for the cookie sheet version.  Otherwise I would have had to look for my bread pans, and that was too much work.  Jaala did hers in pans.  I am very impressed that she knew where her pans were.  Isn’t her bread pretty?

Mine wasn’t too shabby either, I have to say, despite the rather ridiculous scene with the braiding.

Between the two of us, we covered all the bases.  Jaala used poppy seeds (being out of sesame, she told me, which was the preferred seed at her house).  I used sesame, because I had them on hand, and I left one loaf plain because the M.E. is not a big fan of any sort of seeds.

Need I tell you it was delicious?  We devoured as much as we could reasonably get away with that night, put one loaf in the freezer, and delivered the third to my mom, who behaved just like we did with it.  There’s a nubbin left, and I’m thinking French toast this weekend.

Want to make some, after all these photos that are probably making you drool on your keyboard?  Here’s the recipe, with huge gratitude to Jaala and her mom, for sharing it with me…and with you.


3 pkgs yeast (each package is 2.25 T)
2 C warm milk
4 t salt
1/2 C honey
1 C shortening (I use butter), melted
3 eggs (plus one for the top)
8-9 C all-purpose flour

Melt shortening and allow to cool a bit. Dissolve yeast in milk and allow to rest for 5 minutes.

Add salt, honey, shortening; blend in 3 eggs and 4C flour. Slowly add rest of flour (4-5C) Stir. Knead well (my mom usually does it for 15 minutes).  Place in greased bowl; cover and let rise for 1 hour or until double. Punch down.

Divide dough into thirds, and each third into 3 parts.  Roll into strips; braid (makes three loaves).  Put on greased cookie sheet or in bread pans. Let rise 1/2 hour. Brush tops with beaten egg and top with sesame seeds (Jaala’s note: if your kids won’t eat sesame seeds, leave one plain).
Bake 45 minutes at 325 degrees.

Thank you, Jaala, for visiting again with your wonderful recipe!  I can’t wait for our next adventure.  Oh yes, there will be another one…



A gift from a lovely friend

Dr. Evil is not sure that such big blossoms are a good idea.

But I love them.  Thank you!!!

A Valentine’s Day Visit to the Stash

Valentine’s Day seemed the perfect time to visit my stash, to remind myself how much I love my yarn and to remind my yarn that I love it.

In other words, my some of my bins were so full I could barely close them, and they needed sorting out.  I was beginning to fear that I didn’t have room for any more yarn, and that simply would not do.  So I hauled it all out of the closet.

Skeins were all over the place, yarn enough for sweaters tossed willy-nilly into different bins so that I couldn’t really tell how much I had of what.

There were quite a few of these situations:

I detangled all but one of them.  Must leave some fun for another day!

Now, a supremely organized friend of mine is going to be shocked to learn that not only did I sort out my stash, I actually organized it.  Well, my kind of organizing, anyway.  There are no spreadsheets or numbering systems, no labels on the bins, and I have no idea how many skeins I have.  But look!

Sock yarn, all in one bin:

Lace yarn, all in one bin:

Bulky stuff and onesie-twosie skeins for scarves and design projects:

Sweater yarn:

More sweater yarn:

Plus there are bins for partially used skeins, odd things that don’t fit anywhere else, and a whopping tower of yarn which could technically be termed vintage, since much of it dates back to the early 80’s.

The best part?  The very, very best part?  Even better than finding forgotten treasures?  After rearranging, condensing, making better use of the space and designating one pile of what-was-I-thinking novelty yarn for deaccessioning, I discovered that there is room for more little yarny friends.  (Don’t tell the M.E.)

I gave all my lovely yarn a pat and tucked it safely away in the closet.  The bins closed.  The closet doors closed.  I imagined new projects to be made with the treasures I found.  All is well, and I must say that this was a very good Valentine’s Day.

Bad Photos of New Little Projects

I’m using the method in Knitting Lace Triangles and some Frog Tree fingering to make a shoulder shawl.

The Storm Cloud Shawlette, with Malabrigo sock yarn.  Very soon, an FO!  It’s even a big one!

Saffron Rice with Butternut Squash

No arborio in the house, so I couldn’t make it into risotto.  But these things were involved, and it all turned out quite delicious:  onion cooked in butter and olive oil, rice, chicken broth, saffron, bacon, parmesan cheese and roasted butternut squash.  This deserves to be made again, and soon!

Long, Long Ago…

Things seem to happen slowly sometimes, but then you look up and realize everything’s actually gone very quickly.  Like the way a snake appears to move not at all as it sneaks up on its prey, and then strikes so fast you aren’t sure you truly saw it.  That’s what happened to me.  I didn’t intend to do this.  Never, never intended it.

But here I am with a new master, one whose superior teaching lured me from what I knew, from what I always thought was right.  “Hello,” she said.  “I am Darth Hook.  I think we’ll enjoy getting to know each other.” And I was lost.  I’m on the Dark Side now.

Oh, I haven’t lost my Jedi knitting skills.  I use them every single day, faithfully.  But this — I’m doing this, too.  There was just one at first.  One innocent, small thing.

I did it just to see what it would feel like.  What harm could there be in that?  But then I made another.  You know, to try a different yarn.  And, I admit, to see if I could improve my skills.  Learn the pattern.  Come to terms with using a hook instead of two needles.

Well, it’s mortifying to admit my weakness, but I couldn’t stop.  It was one after the other, deep purple stars clinging to each other.  Curled like dead, drying spiders.

Darth Hook smiled her inscrutable smile when she saw them, and said, “You’re learning well.  And there is much more.  Come with me, and I’ll show you.  There are even books.”

What could I do?  I mean, there are books here, and yarn, and what everyone says is true.

My purple stars go off into infinity now, and I fear for what the future will bring.  You see, the hook is beginning to feel more natural in my hand.  I’ve memorized the pattern.  And I knew, definitively, I had crossed a threshold from which there would be no return when I made the purchase of a book of stitches.  My master says it won’t be long before I learn them.  And then what?

Diary entry of Darth Mysterious, formerly known as Bunnington Skywalker

It’s Up!

The spring Knitcircus is up!  Just click on the tiny magazine (the one that’s flipping its pages to show off for you) to access it.   Once it’s up on your screen, you can download a PDF of the issue by clicking on the button at the very bottom, in the righthand corner.

Of course, I do hope that you’ll check out my contributions:  the interview with Lily Chin, and the Bebop scarf.  Come back here and let me know what you think, and thanks for reading!

Spaghetti Carbonara

Sometimes cooking is the most fun when you have the least to work with.  I love it when my planned trip to the grocery store is a day or two away, supplies are perilously low, and I have to scavenge in the pantry.  It’s a challenge to make something great for dinner, and you know I love a challenge.

So. The fridge was down to some scraps of leftovers, our usual assortment of several thousand different condiments, and, well, maybe a few root vegetables.  But there’s always parmesano reggiano.  Always pasta.  And always, always some form of bacon in the freezer.  Add an egg or two, and even my limited mathematic abilities come up with carbonara.

Lorenza’s Pasta, by Lorenza de Medici, was the book I pulled from the shelf.  I would so love to be named de Medici, wouldn’t you?  I mean, people really would just get the hell out of the way.  And yes, she is related to those Medicis.  Nevertheless, I do not fear her cookbooks.  They’re quite good.  And pretty to boot.

Pasta alla carbonara is a simple dish, and one, like many classics, which is surrounded by a complicated and contradictory mythology.  Who knows where the recipe really came from?  I haven’t got a clue, although given my love of arcana and conspiracy theories, it would be wonderful to think that it was created by a member of the secretive Carbonari.  No, I didn’t make that up.  Click the link.

Better to make it than to overthink it, I say.  Aside from pasta — and a long, thin, squiggly shape like spaghetti probably works best — here’s what you need:

Fry the garlic — peeled, but not cut — in a little olive oil, until it turns golden brown.  Then you toss out the garlic.  I know, I know.  I love garlic.  But really, it’s okay this time.

Then cook the bacon in the same oil.  Ms. de Medici’s recipe calls for pancetta, but I didn’t have any so I substituted slab bacon.  It was fabulous.

Beat the egg in a bowl (one egg for every two people), and throw in some salt and pepper and grated parmesan.  Again, the recipe called for a mix of parmesan and romano, but I only had parmesan.  We were entirely happy without the romano.

This is one of those “make darn sure everything’s ready before you do the final step” recipes.  So while the bacon’s cooking, set the table, open wine, wrangle any errant family members and get anything else you plan on eating set to go, because the last steps move fast and carbonara has to be eaten right away.

Once you’ve gotten the rest of the household off the internet, you can cook the spaghetti.  Reserve a little bit of the cooking water before you strain it:  about 1/4 cup if you’re cooking half a pound (for two people) or 1/2 cup if you’re cooking a pound (for four).  Put the drained pasta, and that little bit of water, in the pan with the bacon and stir it around and cook it just for a minute or two.  It will very nicely deglaze the pan and pick up all the bacony goodness that’s stuck to the bottom.  Makes pan scrubbing easier later on, too.

Now.  This is the fun part.  Take the pan off the heat.  I laid out a towel on my counter and put it there.  Quick like a bunny, stir in the egg and cheese mixture, and keep stirring like crazy until the pasta is completely coated.  The egg shouldn’t scramble, it should just coat the strands of pasta so that they look nicely glazed.

Serve it up (still moving at quick bunny speed), and eat.  This was so good, it made me wish that every night was didn’t-get-to-the-store night!

The Winner Is…


A big thank you to everyone who entered, and to all of you who stopped by to visit.  I wish you could all win, but, well, there was only one book.  And Lisa’s getting it.  I’m sure that she’s nice enough and gracious enough not to be saying nanny nanny boo boo right now, but you’ll have to take a peek at her blog to verify that.

Don’t forget to check out the next stop on the Knitcircus blog tour tomorrow:  Caffeine Girl.  There are lots more interesting and surprising things to come, because it’s Knitcircus.  Interesting and surprising is what they do.

Knitcircus Blog Tour: An Interview with Jaala Spiro…and a Giveaway!

Welcome!  In Monday’s stop on the Knitcircus Blog Tour, Editor-in-Chief Jaala Spiro talked about the genesis of the magazine.  If you haven’t read it yet, hop over and take a look before you read on — it’s great stuff.  Knitcircus had a whole different reason for coming to life than any other knitting magazine you’ve ever heard of.  The magazine is going online now, and that opens up many new possibilities.

All images courtesy of Jaala Spiro and Knitcircus

Nosy me, I had to find out even more, so I was delighted that Jaala agreed to make a stop at the Mystery House and have a little chat.  She has all kinds of ideas cooking, and has generously offered up a nice prize to give away, so be sure to read to the end to find out contest details.  The train’s pulling in right now, and I’ve brewed up a pot of good Irish tea and set out a plate of chocolate eclairs…

T: Jaala, you’ve talked about why you started Knitcircus (a very cool reason indeed), but what about the how?  Can you describe the very first issue?

JS: That’s a great question; it’s a shocking surprise there. When my friend and I started the magazine, we actually called it Koi Knitting–kind of a joke, like what is the sound of one koi knitting? The first issue had a gorgeous, but totally non-knitting cover, a painting by my good friend Amy of White Lotus Tea Shop.

It was pretty lighthearted, inspired by the comic-genius knitting zine Slave to the Needles; besides some knitting patterns,we had hand-drawn tutorials for making wristwarmers out of machine-made toe socks, a how-to for pompoms, a yarn-related ghost story for kids, an interview with genius spinner and now podcaster and teacher Jacey Boggs, and I can’t believe this now, but Jared Flood was actually generous enough to let us reprint his famous blog post with the two-color Noro scarf pattern.

It was totally old-school–we went to Kinkos and copied the text parts, then painstakingly printed, cut out and pasted every picture in and hand-bound each issue with yarn. I think we made maybe 60 copies? We didn’t negotiate rights with the designers at that point, so I don’t even know how much we could reprint now.

For the second issue, we got a little more serious; we couldn’t spend all of that time and energy for something that was not at all market-firendly, so we changed the name to Knitcircus and bought a laser printer. For Issue #2, we created it ourselves in color, still laying out and collating all of the sheets by hand on my bed (help us all if a kid or cat jumped onto it).

T: Is there anything you miss about the good old, bad old ‘zine days?

JS: It was a lot of fun to put together something so freeform, not worrying about the business part of it all, just learning the graphic design program, figuring out book binding, putting all the pieces together. We really had some great content in Issue #2, an interview with author Susan B. Anderson and some good knitting patterns; but I wouldn’t recommend knitting them as written, because we didn’t have a tech editor yet!

T: How did you make the jump from copying the magazine yourself at Kinko’s to creating an honest-to-goodness magazine professionally printed on glossy paper?

JS: Well, by the time Issue #2 came out, the friend who had started the zine with me decided to go back to work full-time (she’d been taking some time off to be with her kids, and I was working part-time and being with mine).  It was kind of crushing when she left, so I just pushed through to get that issue out and have the launch party the Knitting Tree kindly hosted for us. I was pretty much ready to throw in the towel. Then Cindy Koepke (writer for Knitcircus) invited me to go see Stephanie Pearl McPhee at Borders. At the last minute, I threw a magazine in my bag to give to her. The Yarn Harlot liked the magazine, and mentioned it on her blog. The interest and sales that generated led me to get back on my feet and ask around on Ravelry for some help with the magazine.  That’s why I’ll always be grateful to that hardworking Canadian author and how we got the talented crew we have now.

T: And what about those talented folks?  Can you please say a little more about how you found them?

JS: The magic of Ravelry! I posted on the Madison group that the magazine was looking for people to help with layout, web design, tech editing, etc, and was lucky enough to net Ms. SABLE, our copy editor ChocolateSheep and Amy, our tech editor who has been working with Meg Swansen and Schoolhouse Press. This year, we added our second tech editor, who is awesome and lives in California. They’ve all been very generous with their time and expertise.

T: There are scads of knitting magazines in the world, and although   there’s definitely overlap, each one seems targeted to a different audience.  How did you find a niche for Knitcircus, and who do you see as your audience?

JS: I see our audience as young women, moms, multicrafters, kind of down-to-earth people, more experienced knitters. Because we primarily sold through LYS’s, our readers tended to be a little older as a group than the typical online audience, people who like and feel comfortable with a “real” magazine. We’ve also been able to showcase some more traditional or challenging designs, like Elizabeth Morrison’s beautifully-executed colorwork sweaters, but we always balance it with more on-trend and quick-to-finish projects like socks, hats, kids’ designs and wristwarmers.

T: Do you envision the audience changing as you establish a foothold online and reach more knitters?

JS: I’m sure the audience will change a lot as we’re able to see more younger and internet-savvy readers getting access to the magazine, and I look forward to integrating their likes and desires more into our patterns, while still staying true to who we are. One reason we chose to offer the whole pattern collection instead of individual patterns for sale is so that we can include patterns more simple or more complex than is the general rule, or with innovative or traditional techniques.

T: Did you ever imagine yourself being the editor of a knitting magazine?  What did you do before knitting and the magazine took over your life?

JS: That’s so funny. I certainly never expected this, though I do have a degree in English Literature, so I’m using my university training at last. After that English degree, I was a professional bread baker, worked at Taliesin, and trained as a CranioSacral and massage therapist. I practiced happily for a decade, but finally the strain of having two small kids at home and working with patients wore me down. Now you know how I fell into the magazine, but now that my kids are in school I’m running it as a real business with copyright, sales tax, spreadsheets, the whole deal.

T: What’s next for Knitcircus, and for you?

JS: We’re working on adding the individual pattern store to the site, that’s the next piece of the puzzle, and are looking at publishing some Knitcircus books, special pattern collections; I can’t stay away from print entirely!  Most of our focus will be in building the magazine’s audience and networking with other small businesses like the terrific Phat Fiber, Oliver and S and our indy yarn suppliers like Sophie’s Toes, Yarn Hollow and Stricken Smitten. We’re really excited about our move online and the chance to interact with a bigger slice of the knitting community.

I am, too!  The print version of Knitcircus has been tremendously popular at my favorite LYS, so my guess is that the larger world of knitters will be thrilled to see it come their way.  Thanks so much for visiting with me, Jaala, and — I know everybody’s been dying to get to this part — for bringing a very cool prize for some reader whose lucky number comes up:

Feminine Knits, by Lene Holme Samsoe.  If you’d like a chance to win the book, leave a comment on this post, or send a message on Ravelry to:  jaaladay.  Here’s the thing, though — this is a lickety-split giveaway.  We’re not waiting around while you dawdle — there’s knitting to do!  You have from this very minute until 9:00 tomorrow morning, Central Time, to enter, and you must be located in either the U.S. or Canada to win.  I’ll draw a number and announce the winner by noon tomorrow.

Okay, some quick reminders before you click away.  The next stop on the Knitcircus Blog Tour will be at Caffeine Girl’s place on Friday, and it’s going to be good!  (The complete list of tour stops is on the Official Knitcircus Blog.)  Of course, I do hope you’ll have a look at the shiny new online issue when it launches on February 1st.  I love Knitcircus, so don’t be too surprised if I remind you!

Also, and very important, Jaala and several other Knitcircus designers have been kind enough to include their patterns in the Help for Haiti fundraising drive on Ravelry.  If there’s a pattern you’ve been wanting to knit, now is the time to buy it.  Haiti needs more help than any of us, sitting comfortably and safely at our computers, can fathom.