There are two truths I hold to be self-evident, on matters related to fiber:
1. That a hank of yarn can be used, as is.
2. That holding the tail of thread as one begins sewing is a waste of time and energy. An unnecessary fillip endorsed by sewers with a surfeit of both.
Regarding the first: hanks—for you not-knitting types (which as you'll soon see, most definitely includes me)—are long, elegant ovals of yarn, wound round and round, in glorious order. Imagine a spinning wheel. Imagine removing yarn from said wheel. Imagine, then, the yarn doughnut that results. Finally, imagine twisting said doughnut into a perfect red carpet chignon. Voilà! Hank.
Hanks are beautiful. Like the infinity symbol, wrought in worsted weight. Perfect, identical, endless loops, so exact, like a new can of Crisco. (No, geez, I don't use Crisco. Nor do I remember my mom ever doing so. But I remember vividly peeling back the plastic lid; the pop of the dimpled silver safety seal underneath; and then, then!, the open expanse of pure, pristine white, punctuated with that hydrogenated topknot, that single frozen archetypal curl. We all have this memory, right? Some ancestral thing? Like the intense ferrous flavor of railings at the zoo?
Anyhoo. Yarn-heads call these hanks. I call them things that mostly involve the upper half of my number keys. Because see, hanks are tricksters. Lovely, useless, misleading tricksters. Hanks must be rolled into balls, before using. Must. MUST. Even though hanks have two tails, either of which can be pulled, and unwound, all innocent-like, for at least a while. Don't believe it. Don't follow hanks' lead. This is Going Down The Wrong Path. This is a Very Bad Idea. This is a Recipe for Disaster. Without fail. With ample tears.
I've proven this dozens of times.
Not that this has stopped me from trying.
(I am, apparently, hard to impress.)
What happens, when you knit from a hank, is you get off to a rip-roaring start. Truly. It works beautifully, like clockwork. And then, once you're chugging along, and congratulating yourself on your efficiency, and complacency has made itself all nice and cozy and at home, you feel a wee tug, and look down, and somehow, inexplicably, your gorgeous wooly Crisco-esque infinity has become ... unspeakable. Indescribable. An abomination. A fuzzy little shop of knotted horrors. Your perfect now looks like a gallon of milk, dropped from great heights onto the floor. Like my mind, on a Monday morning. Like the mad scribbles of a sixteenth month old, let loose for the first time with a Sharpie. It's cute, from a toddler.
Not from alpaca.
Then, you rally. Resolve to fix what you've broken. And spend the next two hours, carefully, patiently, meticulously untangling the Rodent of Unusual Size's nest. And you fail. And you weep some more. And you understand efficiency, and irony, better than ever before.
Why hanks turn into disaster, and why they cannot be fixed, I can't say. The disaster part, because I've never actually seen it happen. This is what makes it so insidious. You're knitting along, knitting along, direct from your hank, all hunky-dory, and then, *blink*, rat's nest from the nether world. It's like nuclear fusion, or quarks, or how it is that when you flip the switch, the light turns on: one of life's higher mysteries. But happen it does. Every time.
(For you non-knitting types, which you now know includes me, the answer to all this is to knit from a ball, which needs no description, and isn't hard, a matter of making hanks into ball form. It takes about ten minutes per, plus an extra set of hands, plus a ball winder. I have, in other words, everything I need. Except a temperment that learns from experience.)
(For you knitting types, an existential question: Why, oh why, don't more mills pre-wind wool? I know, I know, the hank curb appeal, and the labor, yada yada. But selling hanks seems to me akin to selling pans with gleaming copper walls, and sturdy rivets, and airtight lids, and no bottoms. Or bottoms sold separately. Which you must solder on, before use. Soldering iron not included.)
Gosh. Seems I've some pent up hank angst. Let's cut to the chase on the second truth, then, the one about holding down thread tails when machine sewing? My steadfast hunch it's a huge waste of time? Almost as successful as knitting from a hank. Almost. I skip the step still, of course. Regularly. With lousy results. Because apparently, I've a real knack for convictions that prove consistently, spectacularly wrong.
I like to think this fallibility is limited to fuzzy, fiber-ish things, never my strong suit. But it dawned on me this week that it might extend to other areas, such as assuming we are alone in our year-round love of Irish soda bread.
This Irish soda bread has been a staple on our table for something like forever. I make it every March 17, to accompany the corned beef and soft buttered cabbage. But I make it most other months, also, as a sidekick for soup, or as warm anchor to a cold salad, or as a fast, hearty, hot homemade something, around which we heap sharp cheese and tart apples.
Soda bread is classed a quick bread, a category whose loaves need neither kneading nor rising, leavened as they are by things other than yeast. The making is as hard as cream biscuits, which is to say, child's play. You toss together dry stuff in a bowl, rub in a bit of butter, and stir in some liquid. Dump, plump, flatten, bake. Hot, homemade bread in 40 minutes, give or take.
In my book, that's reason enough to recommend it, though there are a few others. For example, mmmmmmmmmmm. I suspect there are as many soda breads as there are Irish; it's a vast and varied genre. I've made many. I always come back to this. The "always" here entailing some fifteen years. What it lacks in strict authenticity, it more than makes up for in sighs.
This loaf calls for a good toss of rolled oats, in place of part of the flour. They mostly melt into dough, in the baking, but leave their excellent soft sweetness behind, as well as the odd nubbly bit. I love nubbly bits. It's barely sweetened, lending itself equally to fall-apart cheddar, as to butter and jam. And curiously, cleverly, this version calls for whole milk yogurt, which works like the more standard buttermilk, but beautifully exacerbated. Cultured milk's trademark twang and tenderness are all there, but brighter, bigger, deeper, more so. Plus, the thicker yogurt lends the final crumb a pleasing creamy heft.
We believe, I think, bread should not have heft. That bread should be light, or I don't know, delicate? I think we believe wrong. Light can be good. But so can dense, and toothsome, and plump, and melting-crisp here, cream-crumbly there. I am hardly one to call the kettle black, and I won't go so far as to say just how wrong. Let's, then, leave it at this: here is heft done right.
Irish Soda Bread
adapted from Williams Sonoma Collection: Bread, by Beth Hensperger
The original called for a mix of oats and oat bran; I use and love oats alone. Also, I'm a sucker for a flick of oats and extra turbinado sugar across the top, for crunch. Baking this in a cast-iron skillet will lend more crisp to the crust, but just as often I use a plain-jane baking sheet. Both are good.
2 1/4 cups all-purpose, unbleached flour
3/4 cup old-fashioned oats + more for sprinkling
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 Tbs. granulated or tubinado sugar + more to top
1/4 cup salted butter, cold, chipped
1 1/2 cups whole milk yogurt
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Have ready a seasoned cast-iron skillet or parchment-lined baking sheet.
In a large wide bowl, add flour, oats, baking soda, baking powder, salt and sugar. Whisk to combine. Chip (slice into small 1/2" bits) cold butter over all, toss to coat lightly, then rub in with clean hands, using thumbs to smear flour-coated butter against fingers, until butter is in small, floury flakes and pea-sized bits. You want to still see the butter. 30 seconds of smudging; 60 seconds, tops. Add yogurt, and stir, scraping sides, just until dough is shaggy and fairly well-combined.
Tip shaggy heap out onto a clean, floured surface, and gently bring together into a 10" mound, patting and encouraging dough into shape. Press down slightly, until loaf is no more than 3-3.5" high, about the height of your pointer finger. (Any higher, and it will not bake through.) Toss a few oats onto the bottom of the skillet or baking sheet, to prevent sticking, transfer dough to skillet/sheet, and top with a smattering of oats and turbinado sugar (optional).
Place bread in oven, on middle rack. Bake 30-35 minutes, or until cooked through. Insert knife into center; blade should have damp crumbs, but no smudge of batter. Begin checking at 30 minutes. Mine are rarely finished before the 35 minute mark.
Allow to cool 10 minutes, and serve hot, cut into thick wedges, with plenty of butter and marmalade/jam/honey, or unhandsome, excellent shards of crumbly, sharp Irish cheddar.