Living Your Best Life North of Forty and Fifty Plus

Baking for inspiration with a side of information for aspiring writers

The call of inspiration comes at various times and in many different forms. Artists can find inspiration in nature, while others find it by people watching on the streets or in a park. Some artists are inspired by a muse. Muse is defined in two ways; Looking to Greek and Roman mythology, a muse was one of nine goddesses, who the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, who preside over the arts and sciences: In the modern form, a muse is a person or personified force who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist.

Artists also have to strike while the iron is hot. Some of my best ideas happen once I disengage from writing and move on to something else. These ideas are not limited to my own creative works, they also relate to the authors I represent as a literary agent.

It’s important to be able to think on your feet when you’re in business. Decisions regarding the mechanics or day-to-day operations, are more linear in nature, and therefore, easier to handle, comparatively speaking. However, for me, crafting a pitch that best represents the essence of what my client’s manuscript is about. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, it’s important to have a well-crafted pitch. While the matter of mechanics in terms of grammar and structure counts, the main focus is to draw the reader in.

For me, it begins with a great synopsis. Writing a synopsis can be very daunting for most writers, but it’s necessary. You must be able to communicate what your story is about in a short synopsis, which is like an extended logline. Then there’s the more in depth long synopsis, in which you have show what the book is about, describe the characters, plot, sub-plots, and the ending. A long synopsis is anywhere from three to five pages. I won’t tell you it’s easy, I know it isn’t. You spend months or even years creating a story, only to find out that you need to provide a Cliff’s Notes version. It seems unfair, but that’s the way it’s done. So, keep that in mind while you are writing your great American novel.

  • Think of your story synopsis as an extended logline. A logline is a one-sentence summary or description of a movie. A short synopsis should distill the main elements of your manuscript into a concise paragraph.
  • You can also look at your story like a movie trailer with words instead of moving pictures. I recently read something an article that said everything sounds better when Morgan Freeman narrates. That’s sort of true, so imagine Morgan Freeman is doing the voice over for your book.
  • Relax. Wracking your brain doesn’t help. Do something else creative or go to the gym, or whatever you need to do to get your mind off of the synopsis. . Most of the time, you’ll figure out what to write when you’re not thinking about it so much. 

Believe it or not, but the writer isn’t the one with the short stick. It’s the agent. We have about a paragraph or two at the most, to make out case as to why an editor should read our client’s manuscript. Moreover, our pitch is just one of countless pitches work-logged editors receive a day. So, we have to make it count.

As I wrote this blog post, I was up early working out a novel and a few client pitches. I like to refresh my pitches. Sometimes there are things happening in the world that give me an idea for a different approach, and other times I get an idea while I am stirring, folding, and baking. One of my favorite things to make is blueberry muffins. I have had more creative epiphanies at four a.m. making blueberry muffins than I can count. That will be the bonus here, a great blueberry muffin recipe.

Bakery Style Blueberry Muffins by Bromo Bakery adapted by me

INGREDIENTS

1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted (vegan butter)

1 cup granulated sugar (Swerve sweetener, Splenda granulated, coconut, turbinado, or raw cane sugar pulsed)

2 eggs, room temperature ( ¼  cup Aquafaba, ½ cup silken tofu pureed with ¼ teaspoon baking soda, 2 flaxseed or chia seed eggs, or egg replacer)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

6 Tablespoons plain Greek yogurt (dairy milk: plain whole milk, plain low-fat Greek yogurt, Non-fat doesn’t work) (non-dairy: almond, soy, rice, or coconut milk yogurt **)

6 Tablespoons buttermilk  (dairy:6 tablespoons whole or low-fat milk mixed with 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar or lemon juice. Mix and let stand for five minutes)

1 Tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups + 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour (gluten-free all-purpose flour, 1 to 1 gluten-free baking blend, sorghum, oat, sweet rice or brown rice flour)

2 cups blueberries, fresh or frozen

turbinado sugar, optional

INSTRUCTIONS

Preheat oven to 425°F. Grease 10 standard size muffin tins and line with cupcake liners. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl combine the melted butter and granulated sugar, beating until combined. Add the eggs in one at a time. Add the Greek yogurt, buttermilk, and vanilla extract.

Add 2 cups flour, baking powder, and salt. Mix until it begins to come together (not fully incorporated). Toss the blueberries with the additional two Tablespoons of flour. Fold the blueberries into the batter, mixing only until combined. Batter will be thick.

Scoop batter into prepared muffin tins, filling about 3/4 of the way. You can use a large cookie scoop or a 1/4 cup measure to keep things consistent. Sprinkle tops with Turbinado sugar, if using.* Bake for 5 minutes at 425°F, then turn oven down to 375°F and bake for an additional 15 minutes, until muffins are golden brown and spring back to the touch. Remove from oven and allow to cool for at least 15 minutes before eating!

Notes

** To get the same consistency found in Greek yogurt for both dairy and non-dairy yogurts, line a sieve with cheesecloth or a paper towel. Add the yogurt and refrigerate at least 3 hours or overnight to let the excess water drain before using.

Do not overmix, particularly if you’re using frozen blueberries.

Living Your Best Life North of Forty and Fifty Plus

When Stuck behind a creative gate, this writer loves to laminate

Zen with pastry

For as long as I can remember I loved to write. My paternal grandmother, was an avid and voracious reader. She went through about three books a week. She was a big Sidney Sheldon fan. The cover for the Other Side Of Midnight still sticks out in my mind. Grandma Salley, my maternal grandmother loved to read, but she was also an epic letter writer. She corresponded with friends and family weekly, and never seemed to run out of things to write about.

Thankfully, as a professional writer and author, I have never been at a loss when it comes to things to write about. Writer’s block is real thing and feel paralyzing. Conversely, the overabundance of ideas can easily result in choice overload, making it difficult for writers to narrow the choices and make a decision. I tend to fall into the latter situation, and heading into the kitchen helps me get over the hump.

I make the most of the tactile nature of cooking and baking to take my mind off the choices and focus it on another task. Nine times out of ten, I figure out my next steps through baking. However, when I’m not sure what I should do next, I take out the big guns and delve into more complicated recipes for pastries, like croissants.

Cooking something that is a bit more complex like paella or a Bolognese sauce, can work, but it’s the order found in baking that’s more effective for me. In cooking, as long as you stick to the basics of techniques, you can adjust seasoning, add more or less of an ingredient, or even omit something. That’s not the case in baking, it’s a science. You cannot add more leaveners like baking powder, baking soda, or yeast. Eggs are important for structure. Milk and butter add to tenderness and texture. Even in gluten-free and vegan baking, the substitutions must do the same thing, which is a challenge, but can be accomplished. The order in baking works for my writing process and channels stress.

Laminating dough creates thin layers of dough and butter through the process of rolling and folding. It’s tedious, but something about it works for me. With each turn, my mind clears and I find the clarity needed to decide what’s next in my manuscript, whether it’s adding another character, or fleshing another character further to add dimension for the reader. Is the dialogue snappy or too smart or overly witty for witty’s sake. Naturally, this is my process, and every writer is different. Some go running or take a walk. Others go to their favorite diner or park to watch people. A long drive is a good option too. The fact is anything that brings you peace will inspire and break your writer’s block or illuminate the path to making the right choice to move your story forward. Admittedly, if you work it out in the kitchen, both you and the people around you receive a very tasty benefit. In my case today, they get croissants. There’s nothing wrong with that.

King Arthur Baker’s Croissant recipe adaptation by me

Ingredients

Dough

2 large eggs + enough warm water to make 2 cups (454g) of liquid (6 tablespoons Aquafaba or ½ cup silken tofu pureed with ¼ teaspoon baking soda) **

1/4 cup (50g) sugar, divided

5 1/2 to 6 cups (659g to 723g) (gluten-free all-purpose flour or 1 to 1 gluten-free baking blend flour)**

2 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast (1 packet) 

2 tablespoons (28g) salted butter, melted (vegan butter) **

1/2 cup (56g) Baker’s Special Dry Milk or nonfat dry milk, optional

1 scant tablespoon (16g) table salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional; for sweet pastry)

Butter Layer

30 tablespoons (425g) unsalted butter, cool to the touch (vegan butter)**

3/4 teaspoon table salt or ½ teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 cup (60g) Unbleached All-Purpose Flour (gluten-free all-purpose flour or 1 to 1 gluten-free baking blend flour)**

Instructions

For the dough: Put the eggs and water in a large mixing bowl. Add 1 tablespoon of the sugar, 3 cups (362g) of the flour, and the yeast. Mix until well blended; set aside to let the sponge work.

For the butter: Cut the butter into 1˝ chunks and combine with the salt and flour at low speed in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment just until smooth, with no lumps. Be careful not to beat too much; you don’t want to incorporate any air. My tip, while the stand mixer with the paddle attachment works well, you do run the risk of add air to the butter. I used my pastry cutter and worked the flour and butter into pea-size clumps, then turned it out onto parchment paper, put another sheet of parchment over and rolled the butter until I had the shape I wanted. Then in the fridge it went.

Spread the butter on a piece of plastic wrap and shape into an 8˝ square. Wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Finish the dough: Add the melted butter to the sponge. Whisk together the remaining sugar, 2 1/2 cups (298g) of the flour, the dry milk, and salt and add to the sponge. Mix until the dough forms. Knead for 5 minutes; touch the dough lightly with your finger. If it’s still sticky, add the remaining flour 2 tablespoons at a time until the dough is the desired consistency. Once the dough is smooth and elastic, pat it into a 9˝ square, then wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

To laminate the dough: Remove the chilled dough from the refrigerator and gently roll it to a 12″ square.

  1. Unwrap the butter square and place it in the center of the dough at a 45° angle, so it looks like a diamond in a square. Pull the corners of the dough into the center of the butter diamond. Moisten the edges with a little water and pinch the seams together well to enclose the butter. Dust the top with flour and turn the packet over.
  2. Tap the dough all over with a rolling pin, encouraging it into a rectangular shape. Once it’s pliable, roll it to a 20˝ x 10˝ rectangle, picking it up and dusting lightly with flour as needed.
  3. When you’ve reached the proper size, use a dry brush to sweep off any excess flour and fold the dough in thirds, like a business letter. Take care to keep the edges straight and line them up directly over each other. If the dough slides around, use a little water at the corners to tack them in place. This is your first turn.
  4. Rotate the dough out so it looks like a book about to be opened. Roll the dough out once more to 20˝ x 10˝ and fold it as before. This is the second turn. Wrap the dough and refrigerate it for 30 minutes to allow the gluten in the dough to relax.
  5. Give the dough two more turns after its rest, then wrap the dough well and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or overnight before using. You can also freeze the dough at this point.

To shape the croissants: Cut the packet of dough in half. Wrap and refrigerate or freeze one half.

  1. Roll the other half to a 13˝ x 18˝ rectangle. Trim the edges about 1/4˝ all the way around with a ruler and pizza cutter. This removes the folded edges that would inhibit the dough’s rise.
  2. Cut the dough in thirds lengthwise and in half down the center. This will give you six 4˝ x 9˝ pieces. Cut these pieces in half diagonally and arrange them so the points are facing away from you. Stretch them gently to make them a little longer, then cut a 1˝ notch in the center of the base of each triangle.
  3. Take the two inside corners of the notch and roll them up toward you, building a curved shape as you roll the base of the dough toward the tip. Make sure the tip ends up under the bottom of the croissant. Place the shaped pastry on a parchment-lined baking sheet, curving the ends toward each other. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
  4. Take the croissants out of the refrigerator, and let them warm and rise for 60 to 90 minutes at room temperature. They should expand noticeably, and when you gently press one with your finger, the indentation should remain.
  5. Towards the end of the rise time, preheat the oven to 425°F. Brush each croissant with an egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water. Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the oven’s temperature to 350°F and bake for 10 to 15 minutes more, until deep golden brown and no raw dough is visible where the layers overlap. Remove from the oven and let cool on the pan on a rack for 20 minutes before serving.

Tips from King Arthur Bakers

Bubbles and leaks: It’s not unusual to have air trapped inside your laminated dough. If this happens, simply pop the bubble with a toothpick and press the dough down to lie flat. If there’s a bare spot where butter is coming through, dust the leak with flour, pressing down lightly so it sticks, and continue on with the fold. Refrigerate the dough as soon as the fold is done, to firm it up.

As you work, keep the dough, work surface, and your rolling pin well dusted with flour. Turn over the dough from time to time. As you roll, you tend to expand the top layers more than the bottom. By flipping the dough over, you’ll even that out. Before folding the dough over on itself, use your pastry brush to sweep off excess flour. This will help the dough stick to itself after folding, so the layers don’t slide around.

When rolling the dough, especially for the first time, be sure the dough and butter are at the same consistency; this will make rolling much smoother and the layers will be more even.

Vegan/non-dairy adaptation tips

** For most vegan bakes that have less than three eggs, I usually list flaxseed or chia seed eggs and egg replacer. We tried that in the test kitchen and both substitutions don’t work as well, it’s too dry even with additional liquid added. To keep the recipe as close to the original as possible the Aquafaba and silken tofu eggs worked beautifully.

** I also normally list more gluten-free flour alternatives, but we found that gluten-free all purpose and the baking blend worked exceedingly well

** Vegan butter is the best alternative. Margarine is too oily and you won’t get the same flaking as you get with butter