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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

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Fighting for my right to write in peace

Whether it was life before Covid-19, most of us probably had some issues carving out time for ourselves. Although, I am very sure that men have as much responsibility and pressures as women, when dad sets aside time and he doesn’t want to be bothered, people listen. As a daughter, girlfriend, significant other, and fiancée I tried and still try not to bother the man in my life when he needs to work, write, or watch football, NCAA basketball, or the PGA,

I have found that as a woman I have a harder time setting those boundaries, but I won’t blame all of it on everyone else. I’ve been at my mother’s (whom I refer to as her mothership) and she tends to walk in while I’m writing and start talking or telling me about something that she wants me to do. Instead of telling her to please give me a moment, I am an oldest child. Most firstborns are what I like to call starter children. We are the kids parents get to practice on until they figure out their parenting style. Traditional, bohemian, militant, or a combination thereof. We are the ones who weather the trial period. That is not to say that we don’t have a right to ask for a little time to ourselves as adults, but it can get a little tricky.

All of that aside, writing is a part of my life every day. Even when I don’t have a pen and paper in hand, I’m thinking about different topics, memories, or funny stories I’d like to incorporate in a blog post or as a part of a novel, or the cookbook I’m working on about my grandmothers’ and their cooking.

More than that, writing is more than just thoughts on paper, it’s the way I can redirect nervous energy when I’m worried. It’s also the way I’ve been able to deal with MS for the past twenty-five years. Chronic diseases and conditions like MS can engulf your life. It can dominate every corner if you let it. My dad told me when I was first hit with the diagnosis, that as long as I had MS, it could never have me. I’ve lived by that creed ever since and it has served me well, in addition to saving me from going into a self-pity hole.

That is why I believe that it’s important to fight for your right to write. If you’re a writer, it’s a part of who you are, which is an artist. And artists over many different mediums from paint to clay to, cameras to musical instruments and more need to exercise that right to keep it strong. Whatever moves you to write, scope out the place and set the time aside for yourself.

Part of my right to writer includes being in the kitchen, which includes going into the test kitchen to work on recipes. I love to work on adaptations of recipes to be sure it’s tasty enough to pass muster. To that end, I am posting a recipe for shepherd’s pie with meat and vegan ground meat. This is a recipe I came across in my Google feed, I’ve tweaked it a bit.

Shepherd’s Pie

Meat Filling:

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup chopped yellow onion

1 lb. 90% lean ground beef -or ground lamb

2 teaspoons dried parsley leaves

2 teaspoons dried thyme leaves

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

2 garlic cloves -minced

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour (gluten-free all-purpose or 1 to 1 gluten-free baking blend)

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 cup beef broth

1 cup frozen mixed peas & carrots*

1/2 cup frozen corn kernels

Vegan Meat Filling

1 pound or package of Vegan ground meat Impossible Burger Ground, Farmland Protein Starters, Good and Gather Ground, Gardein The Ultimate Beefless Ground

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup chopped yellow onion

2 teaspoons dried parsley leaves

2 teaspoons dried thyme leaves

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 tablespoon Vegan Worcestershire sauce

2 garlic cloves -minced

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 cup vegetable broth

1 cup frozen mixed peas & carrots*

1/2 cup frozen corn kernels

Potato Topping:

1 1/2 – 2 lb. russet potatoes -about 2 large potatoes peeled and cut into 1 inch cubes

8 tablespoons unsalted butter -1 stick (vegan butter, margarine)

1/3 cup half & half (rice or soy milk)

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/4 cup parmesan cheese (Thrive Vegan Parmesan-Style Cheese Alternative, Follow Your Heart Dairy-Free Shredded Parmesan, Vegan Soy Free Grated Parmesan Style Topping)

Instructions

Make the Meat or Vegan Meat Filling.

Add the oil to a large skillet and place it over medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Add the onions. Cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the ground beef (or ground lamb or vegan ground) to the skillet and break it apart with a wooden spoon. Add the parsley, thyme, salt, and pepper. Stir well. Cook for 6-8 minutes, until the meat is browned, stirring occasionally.

Add the Worcestershire sauce and garlic. Stir to combine. Cook for 1 minute.

Add the flour and tomato paste. Stir until well incorporated and no clumps of tomato paste remain.

Add the broth, frozen peas and carrots, and frozen corn. Bring the liquid to a boil then reduce to simmer. Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Set the meat mixture aside. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Make the potato topping.

Place the potatoes in a large pot. Cover the potatoes with water. Bring the water to a boil. Reduce to a simmer. Cook until potatoes are fork tender, 10-15 minutes.

Drain the potatoes in a colander. Return the potatoes to the hot pot. Let the potatoes rest in the hot pot for 1 minute to evaporate any remaining liquid.

Add butter, half & half, garlic powder, salt, and pepper. Mash the potatoes and stir until all the ingredients are mixed together.

Add the parmesan cheese to the potatoes. Stir until well combined.

Assemble the casserole.

Pour the meat mixture into a 9×9 (or 7×11) inch baking dish. Spread it out into an even layer. Spoon the mashed potatoes on top of the meat. Carefully spread into an even layer.

If the baking dish looks very full, place it on a rimmed baking sheet so that the filling doesn’t bubble over into your oven. Bake uncovered for 25-30 minutes.** Cool for 15 minutes before serving.

Notes

*You could use 1/2 cup frozen peas and 1/2 cup frozen sliced carrots.

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It’s about time. Hurry up and wait. It’s a part of more than just a day in the life of a writer or literary agent

The clock is always ticking

A day in the life of a writer can be filled with many things. We have appointments, errands to run, kids to raise, meals to cook, and dry cleaning to pick up. Mix in a day job, career, or business to run, and we have more than enough to keep us occupied. However, I have discovered that in the midst of it all, I find time to write. Most of the time, it’s a welcome relief and a way to put the worries of the day out of my mind. Then there are times when literary inspiration comes at a bad time, particularly when I need to focus on something else that’s pressing. Nevertheless, I’ve got that figured out for the most part.

The most difficult aspect of writing is when we have to cool our jets waiting for an answer once we have had our work submitted to an agent or a publisher for review. No matter the subject, fiction or nonfiction, writers pour a piece of themselves into every page. In fiction, we know every character intimately, the emotions in every sentence, the setting, and every verb. For nonfiction, we have researched the subjects thoroughly, done our due diligence, used our experience in an authoritative yet approachable manner. The work put into it is all about love. Writers love to write and we accept that all the time we put into our writing, may or may not be rewarded with an offer to publish.

Moreover, even if a writer gets a literary agent who is going to represent them to publishers, there is more time built into that proposition as well. Publishing is notoriously slow when it comes to reviewing manuscripts and that’s not a dig about editors. These days the business of publishing in terms of reading manuscript submissions is something that happens outside of business hours. That is true of literary agents as well and I can speak to that as an agent. I almost never have an opportunity to review a submission during business hours. I read in the evenings before and after dinner. I also spend weekends reading as well. This is an industry filled with hurry up and wait

I understand the frustration from both sides. I try to let writers know that the best thing they can do is to keep on writing. It’s also a good idea to incorporate other creative outlets to help ease anxiety. Cooking, baking, painting, sewing, or drawing, are just a few things that let you focus creativity and nerves in a productive way. I have several personal projects happening at the moment and if I stay too focused on them, I will drive myself crazy. As it is the winter, it’s not like I can go out and take a walk like I do in the warmer months. I use my kitchen as my ashram and experiment with different recipes or work on adapting recipes to make them healthier, gluten- free, or no-sugar. It keeps my mind busy. It wasn’t long before some story issues I couldn’t figure out, became clearer and I picked back up writing again. So, time does have its advantages

Your next big book idea could be a brushstroke or stir away

My advice to writers is always to write. However, when your mind needs a break, use the time to do something else productive. That said, spend time with the people you love, that helps. A little face time with a nephew or a daughter can do wonders. Attend your family’s next Zoom, call a friend, grab a coffee, bundle up and take a walk if it’s a nice, moderate day. Just take a couple of beats. It won’t derail you, but it will help you take your eyes off the clock.

Working on recipes is what I like to do. I also like to share them.

Pasties Pastry Recipe Recipe from New Orleans Kitchen Queens

1 cup all-purpose flour (gluten-free all-purpose flour, 1 to 1 gluten-free baking blend, sorghum, sweet rice, or brown rice flour)

1/4 teaspoon salt

4 ounces (1 sticks) cold unsalted butter (vegan butter)

1/4 cup ice water

In a large bowl combine the flours with the salt. Dice the cold butter into small pieces and add to the flour mixture. With the back of a fork press the butter into the flour until the butter is incorporated (there will still be small pieces of butter in the mixture). Make a well in the center of the dough and pour in the ice water. Gently blend the water into the dough until it forms a solid ball. Wrap the dough ball in plastic and refrigerate for at least on hour before rolling.

Chicken Filled Pasties Recipe adapted from Healthy Nibbles

½ pound chicken breast or tenderloins, cubed

1 large- sweet onion or 2 medium sized onion, diced 

3 garlic cloves, minced

2 large Russet or Yukon potatoes, peeled and diced

2 carrots, peeled and diced

1 medium sweet potato, diced

1 teaspoon ground thyme

½ teaspoon dried rosemary

generous pinch of salt

black pepper

1 large egg, whisked (or 1 tablespoon Aquafaba plus 1 tablespoon water, whisked)

  1. Add diced Russet potatoes and sweet potatoes to a sauce pot. Cover with water, then add a pinch of salt. Cook the potatoes on medium-heat until they are fork tender. Drain and set aside.
  2. In a large skillet, add oil over medium heat. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the carrots and onions. Cook until the onions begin to soften, and the carrots are getting a little tender.
  3. Add the garlic in, and cook for thirty seconds. Stir in the cubed chicken and cook stirring until no longer pink and cooked through.
  4. Add the potatoes. Sprinkle the thyme and rosemary over the chicken mixture. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook through until heated adjusting seasoning as needed
  5. Let the chicken filling cool before filling the pasties.

INSTRUCTIONS

Preheat oven to 400ºF (200ºC). Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

Divide the dough into 4 or six pieces on a well floured surface. Use a floured rolling pin to roll into discs about 8 1/2-inch circles. Turn the dough over frequently to prevent it from sticking to the surface. You can roll all the circles out at once, or do it one at a time, depending on your counter space. If you choose to roll out one at a time, refrigerate the dough in between in circle. Cold is essential for flaky, crumbly, pastry without soggy bottoms.

Take a small handful of filling and place it in the center of the rolled out dough. You want to make sure that there is about an inch of clear space around the edge of the dough. Brush the egg white along this empty space.

Fold the dough over the vegetables to create a semi-circle shape. Do this with confidence! Seal the pastry. You can crimp the edges with a fork or fold it like I did. When I folded the edges of the pasty, I brushed some egg along the edge so that the folds stayed put. Brush some of the egg wash over the entire pasty. Repeat these steps for the rest of the dough.

Place the prepared pasties on the baking sheets and bake for about 30 to 35 minutes, or until the pasties are golden brown.

  • You can make these vegan. Just omit the chicken and replace with more vegetables. Feel free to add traditional swedes (rutabagas) or other vegetables you enjoy.
  • I’ve tried this with shortening and it doesn’t come out the same. It’s a little heavier. Stick with vegan butter, even non-dairy margarine is a good choice.