Classic French bread boules — A scatter of voices

The Shrieking Horror of 5 AM

To spend another anniversary weekend eating oysters in Apalachicola, Florida, we decided to fly, for far too much money, from Atlanta to Tallahassee (driving would take 7 hours or so, and we’d done that once) where we would rent a car to take us into Apalachicola. I forget what car we rented, but the rental guy told us it was loaded with everything and that if we opted to become adventuresome and flee to Mexico to pick up several bales of giggle powder he had GPS tracking on the car and he would chase us to the ends of the earth, or similar warning maybe not quite in those words. Well, we didn’t want a car that was loaded – we preferred something like a Yugo with crank-down windows – but they didn’t have anything of the sort.

Sign on the Apalachicola River Inn, our favorite hangout in town. Where I left at 5 AM in search of coffee, and then...
Sign on the Apalachicola River Inn, our favorite hangout in town. Where I left at 5 AM in search of coffee, and then…

On its way down across the Florida panhandle toward the Gulf of Mexico, the car with its 747 cockpit behaved itself nicely and didn’t utter a word the whole time. The next morning, however, was different. I got up very early in our hotel room, around my usual 5 AM, muttered my usual “,” and went outside to drive the car to an all-night 7-11 that I knew was about four blocks away. I managed to get about one block when apparently I errantly hit something on the steering wheel and a loud and strident female voice from the guts of the dashboard began her assault: “If you’d like to make a call, please say or press yes.” I said to the car, Oh come on, don’t do this to me.  “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand. Please say or press yes.” A voice like fork tines on a blackboard! I don’t want to make a call, for Chr**sake.  “I”m sorry, I didn’t understand. Please hang up and try again later,” and at that point she started to throw some attitude at me about her obsessive need to help me make a call, and I had no choice but to pull over, turn the car off, get outside of it, and take in deep, relaxing breaths while letting the car sit to clear out its demons. When I finally got back in and started it up again, all was quiet again.

When my wife was sentient a few hours later, I told her that the car had some kind of phone buried within in it and to be very careful about touching any of the array of buttons on the steering wheel. Now, it may well be that it’s common for cars these days to have phone systems buried in them somewhere, but in 2011, when this happened, it was news to me and you might be able to tell I don’t need a car like that.

One of those almost everywhere voices…

Some recorded voices can be very nice, even slightly habit-forming. When we were learning Italian I and II on a whole pile of Pimsleur Language CDs, the English speaking voice was immediately familiar to me. I told my wife, “You know who that is? That’s Jordan Weinstein!” I didn’t know Jordan Weinstein personally, but he was then a news anchor on WBUR (public radio at Boston University), and was soon to become a news anchor at WGBH radio. His Pimsleur voice, sometimes playing off some highly animated and even contentious Italian conversations, was always warm and soothing, like chamomile tea for the ears. Here’s a sample from his website.

But wait, there’s still more! If you ever drive your car into the parking lot at Atlanta-Hartsfield Airport, the way we did on our way to Italy, Jordan will greet you when you press the button: “Printing ticket… please wait,” and then, “Continue into lot.” True, the voice has been digitally processed into near anonymity, but it’s still him – and then, when you’re in the terminal, there he is again warning about packages from strangers, etc. A warm and soothing voice to keep you alert to the dangers of terrorism?? Yes! And it works. And he’s in lots of other airports, too.

Jordan Weinstein (photo courtesy WGBH)
Jordan Weinstein (photo courtesy WGBH)

As a WGBH alumnus, I had several friends in common with Jordan, so I wrote him about his expanding ubiquity in airports and on language lesson CDs, and he wrote back readily admitting his complicity in educating and warning us. So thanks, Jordan, and keep up the fine work.

There are occasionally recorded voices that are ingratiating and friendly, but can’t help but screw up. In this case, it was a Canadian voice, and I heard it on one of their ferries. Toward the end of a crossing from Saint John, New Brunswick to Digby, Nova Scotia a few years back aboard the Princess of Acadia, a recorded message gently encouraged us to put away our trash: “… and please use the trash receptacles for all your personal refuge.” Wow. Maybe they regarded their garbage cans as especially safe and cozy, in the event of pirates or other trouble. (A friend told me he also heard “refuge” – instead of “refuse” – some years later. Maybe it still is…)

Speed chatter

Shelly (on right) with my wife in Taos.
Shelly (on right) with my wife in Taos.

One of my favorite radio voices ever belongs to a dear friend of ours named Shelly, who now lives in Breckenridge, Colorado. Years ago, she ripped off a speed-rapping radio spot for a ski area in New Mexico. Here it is, just for fun: Shelly – Enchanted Forest.



The Anguish of Manglish

Some people have wonderful-sounding voices that are especially adept at mangling the English language and spawning neologisms (“new words”) with the greatest of ease. We enjoyed visiting one of our friends for partly this reason – her ability to spew out entirely new linguistic concoctions as fast as her tongue could wrap around them, like this:

“We had a man come speak to our book group,” she told me, “a very suave, Dubonnet kind of guy and a vociferous reader, who came all the way out here from somewhere in the Northeast Corriodor, but it was very discerning to me because his speech was kind of slopshod and he kept going off on a tandrum, but people in our group still cowtailed to him.”

Well, maybe she didn’t get all those into a single sentence, but they are hers in one context or another because shortly after I met her I started keeping notes, figuring I might use them someday.  Like today.


 Classic French Bread

Classic French bread
Classic French bread

I made this a couple of times and have no regrets whatsoever. It’s an overnight job, but yields two memorable country loaves with crunchy crusts and hole-y goodness inside. I avoid gluten now, so they’re just a pleasant memory. But here you go –

Make the dough and let it rise overnight. It makes two largish baguettes, or boules. You’ll need:

  • 5 1/2 cups flour
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 2 1/4 tsp. yeast
  • 2 cups lukewarm water
  • 2 loaf pans

☞ ice cubes (really!)

Combine all ingredients (except ice) in a bowl and mix till smooth. Let sit for about 5 mins. (Note that you can odd other things here, like herbs, a bit of honey, grated cheese and the like, but then it’s no longer classic French bread) Now knead by hand for about 3 minutes on a floured breadboard, adjusting with more flour or water as needed. Transfer it to a large bowl that’s been lightly oiled. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight (or up to 4 days).

On baking day, remove the dough 2 hours before you plan to bake. Transfer the dough, as gently as possible so it doesn’t lose its gassy parts, (don’t you love seeing the phrase “gassy parts” in a recipe?!) to a floured board and cut in half. Form the two pieces into loaf shapes, dab the tops of each loaf with oil, and cover lightly with plastic wrap to “proof” at room temp for about 1 1/2 hours until the loaves are about 1 1/2 times their original size.

Heat the oven to 550 (!!)

Remove the wrap 15 mins. before baking. Now score each loaf diagonally several times with a serrated knife, about 1/2 inch deep. Place each loaf into oiled or Teflon loaf pans and put in the oven. Throw 6 ice cubes onto the floor of the oven to steam the crust (☞ this is the funnest part of the whole deal!), close the door, and immediately lower the temp to 450, and bake for 15-25 mins. For the crunchiest crust, leave the loaves in the oven for another 5 mins. after turning off the heat.

Remove the bread from the pans and cool on a rack for half an hour before serving. Fabulous!

There you have it! Or, as they say in Italy, Ecce!


Ned White

About Ned White

Ned White is a writer, novelist, crossword puzzle constructor, traveler through 49 states, and at times a danger in the kitchen. He lives with his wife in South Thomaston.