When I met my sister-in-law Kate (when we were very young and very single, and went on a bizarre wine-country adventure with the lovely Molly and two of the world’s strangest men) – when I met her, I had an instant suspicion that my brother Dan, given half a chance, would fall in love with her. I was immediately smitten with her myself, in that way that happens every so often with people – I knew instantly that we were going to be friends.
And I also thought she might marry my brother.
Of course, at the beginning, it was only me who saw it. Dan and Kate were busy, dating other people, living in other parts of the world. But then, finally, early in December of 2005, I had my chance. Newly single, newly email-friendly with each other, suddenly sharing egg-nog lattes and beer recommendations — it was clear that the moment was right. Kyle and I plotted a dinner at our place, casually suggesting to each of them that they would be welcome to spend the night. We didn’t mention that we had only one air mattress to go around- we figured they could work that part out themselves after a night of good food, good wine, and much merry making.
After dinner, we opened a bottle that Kyle and I had been saving for something special. We poured four glasses, divided into two teams for a board game, and crowded around the big ottoman in our living room. Love was in the air.
But something else was in the air too. Kate wrinkled her nose. “It smells like – it smells like burning brakes.” We all sniffed the air and nodded. It did indeed, exactly. And just as we opened our mouths to agree, we heard the first explosion. What happened next moved from a sort of slow paced confusion to a rapid near-panic. A quick look out the kitchen windows showed that the wall on the far side of our u-shaped, 100-year old apartment building was enveloped in flames; they shot up and over the three-story building, leaping and raging, reaching into the black night sky. My brother and Kyle and Kate ran for our front door, opening it to a whoosh of thick smoky air from the hallway. I picked up the phone, and as we all went rushing out, grabbing our shoes and trying not to fall, I called 911.
While the three of them started down the building’s rickety outside staircase, I paused at the top, staring across at the flames, and said as calmly as I could into the phone, “I think my apartment building is on fire.”
“Are you on Fifth Avenue?” The dispatcher sounded almost bored.
“It’s already been called in.” Click.
“HANNAH! GO! NOW!” My brother’s voice bellowed, and his blue eyes were huge and terrified behind his square-rimmed plastic glasses. Kyle was heading back up to where I still stood, staring at the flames. I think he was planning to pull me down the steps if need be. I clicked the phone off, and joined them in the mad rush to the bottom, as more explosions shook the smoky, flame-fired night air.
This was not going according to plan.
From the street, we could see the flames – four huge engines arrived, and then more and more – fire fighters from our town and the neighboring towns. Suddenly, we remembered Nora. Our top-floor neighbor, she had lived in the building for almost 70 years, in the corner apartment right above where the flames seemed to be coming from. Nearly deaf, but always smiling, she was a beloved fixture in a building whose occupants were otherwise all under thirty years old. There was no elevator in the building, just the grand central staircase that wound its way up and up, through the three floors. It usually took her at least twenty minutes to get up or down those stairs.
We flagged down a policeman. “Has anyone checked on Nora?!” A few minutes later, a burly young firefighter emerged from the building, carrying her slender form in his arms. All the residents standing on the street cheered. She looked stunned, but after a moment she smiled and waved. And then he set her down and she stood uncertainly along with all of us, watching the building as it burned.
It was the first time I had ever seen her without lipstick.
Remembering how we would often see her sitting carefully on the front steps, waiting for the taxis that picked her up most days, Kyle offered her the only available seat that we could see – the passenger seat in Dan’s Honda, which was parked across from the building on the street where we all stood. She agreed, sinking into the seat while keeping her eyes on the smoke and flames.
And then Dan and Kyle, remembering a couple dollars in cash, decided to walk the half mile to the liquor store.
When they returned, they had a screw-top bottle of cheap white wine in a brown paper bag. We passed it discretely between the four of us, and then offered it to Nora. Taking the bag in hand, she tilted her head back, and chugged. “Not bad,” she said a minute later. And she held onto the bottle.
Eventually, the firefighters determined that a building resident’s BMW, parked in one of the ancient under-building car ports, had caught fire, sparking the flames that lit up the night. His brakes, he remembered, had been smoking when he got home that night. But he hadn’t really paid it much mind. Because, really, I mean … really?
We were lucky – we lived on the un-scorched side of the building. Around two in the morning, we were allowed back into our campfire-fresh apartment. Dan slept chivalrously on the couch, and Kate took the air mattress, and my plans disappeared like so much smoke in the night sky.
But when Kyle and I got up in the morning, we found them sitting and chatting companionably in the living room, and Kate was wearing Dan’s old bummy Cal sweatshirt.
And then, when we all stumbled back down the stairs and around the corner to find breakfast, they shared an order of homefries.
At the time, Kate jokingly called that night the Heartbreak Hotel. I now think of it as the Night of Burning Love. Whatever you call it, it was definitely a night when there were a few sparks happening – one year later, Dan and Kate were engaged. December 8th 2007, they tied the knot.
And no, I don’t totally take all the credit. But I do take a wee little bit. I think the fire might deserve some too.
Nora had to move out of her apartment after the fire. I don’t know where she went – but I hope it was somewhere that served wine, where there were other old women who still got dressed up every day, lipstick and all. Eventually, after all the repair work was done, a much younger woman moved in. She seemed nice, but we didn’t really get to know her. After five years in the building, it was time for us to move on.
I do still smile whenever I think of that place. It was our first home together, and it was a good one.
One of the best things about being back in California is seeing our nieces – and Dan and Kate – so much. Since Sonia and Jacob are both out of school on Fridays, we can have playdates with the four cousins – “JayJay” “SoSa” “Malma” and “DooDoo” to use Lucas’s names for everyone (we call him LooDoo, and he can’t say Ls … someday we will have to correct his current adorable insistence that his name is DooDoo). When the girls were over last, I had an end of this whole wheat cranberry bread sitting on the counter. Alma lunged out of Kate’s arms to grab it, and she and Kate shared a piece. It was Kate who convinced me that it was blog-ready – I had been hemming and hawing about the recipe, not sure that I had it just right.
This bread makes a mean leftover turkey sandwich, but it pretty much exists to be toasted. If you have a toasting fork and a fire, go Alice Waters style and serve it with an egg, so that someday you can say “The smoky toast broke between my teeth, and rich yolk oozed onto my tongue. For that fleeting instant, I felt loved.”
Loved. Yes, yes. As a Bruce fan I should have known.
Fire can do that.
Whole Wheat Cranberry Bread
It feels a little silly to mention it, since you can hardly tell they are related, but this bread did evolve from a recipe in Good to the Grain by Kim Boyce, a recipe which I first encountered via Molly. They no longer share much in common taste wise, but they do share their most critical feature: like the oatmeal sandwich bread, this whole wheat cranberry bread is perfect – perfect – for toasting. It is a little bit dense, with a moist crumb and a notice-me chew to the crust. It is wheaty, and not too sweet, which means that in the toaster it becomes that better, deeper kind of sweet that results from caramelization rather than added sugar.
And the cranberries. If you can find them, get dried cranberries that are still whole. With more tart and chewy bite (the center part of each berry stays relatively sugar-free on the whole dried berries versus their broken-up cousins) they add a real presence, rather than just a sugary pop. I don’t always want fruit in my bread – I usually don’t – but here, the cranberries are such a fine counterpoint to the wholesome chew … it doesn’t feel like you might think a cranberry bread would. This isn’t a dainty little tea bread. It is a hearty, healthy, robust sort of bread. Today, it is my favorite sort of bread. Perhaps, soon, it will your favorite sort too?
If you fall in love with it, I will only take a tiny bit of credit.
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
2 ½ cups whole wheat flour
2 cups bread flour, plus additional 1/2 cup as needed
2 tablespoons grapeseed oil or melted butter
1 1/2 cups whole dried cranberries (sweetened or unsweetened, to taste – do try to find the whole ones though)
2 teaspoons salt
You can grease your standard loaf pan or line it with parchment.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine 2 cups warm water with the yeast and the brown sugar. Stir briefly, and then let it rest for a few minutes so the yeast can bloom. Add the flours, and butter or oil, and mix for a minute or two by hand. The dough will look rough and shaggy and be rather damp. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and let it stand for 30 minutes to rest. (Molly says “This rest allows the dry ingredients to absorb the liquids, making for a dough that’s easy to work with and even-crumbed,” and she is right.)
Put the bowl on your mixer with your bread hook. Add the cranberries and the salt, and then mix on medium speed for about 6 minutes, or until the dough joins together around the hook and cleans the bowl without sticking. You want the dough to be damp, but if it is really sticky, add bread flour a tablespoon or two at a time, mixing well between additions (add it at the sides of the bowl – think about it as adding flour like you would to the counter if kneading by hand). The dough should be soft and supple and slightly sticky.
Form the dough into a ball, put it back into its bowl, and cover the bowl again with a kitchen towel. Let it rise 1 hour, or until doubled.
To shape the dough into a loaf, scrape it from the bowl onto a floured work surface. Press it into a square shape, fold the edges under, and pinch to seal. Roll the shaped dough gently back and forth until it is fairly evenly formed and the size of your pan. Place it into the pan, seam side down, pressing it gently into the corners of the pan.
Cover the dough in the loaf pan again with the kitchen towel. Let rise another hour or until it is about half again as big. Preheat the oven to 375 F.
Bake for about 40 – 45 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through. I like to then remove the loaf from the pan, and bake it on a baking sheet for about 5 additional minutes, to brown up the sides a bit. But that’s not necessary: just make sure that when you thump the top of the loaf lightly, it sounds hollow. That means it is ready.
Remove from the pan and cool completely on a wire rack before cutting.
Sandwiches, hunks straight off the edge, all good. Just make sure you eat at least one slice as toast.