CATCHING THE WILD YEAST
7 April 2005I received this e-mail yesterday.
"I made my own sourdough -- from scratch -- and boy, is it good!" my friend wrote.
Oh did that bring back memories!! Back to the "earth mother" days when our kids were little, we lived in Oakland, and Char, Pat and I would go roaming through the bulk food stores picking up things like "cracked wheat" and "rye flour" and "steel cut oats" and "potato flour" and "gluten flour" and "wheat germ" and things of that nature. We'd bring home plastic bags full of strange looking grains which we would then transfer to other containers. I can't remember if I froze mine or just kept them in air-tight containers, but I had the makings of any kind of bread you wanted at the drop of a hat.
I bought yeast in bulk since most of the breads I made were yeast breads. Once or twice a week, I would make up a huge batch of bread dough--no bread makers in those days. The bulk of the work was done with muscle.
Someone once told me that the most effective way to work up the gluten in bread, essential for proper rising, was to pick up the dough and slap it down on a breadboard with all your might.
I often wonder what I must have looked like, covered with flour, slinging a hunk of dough over my shoulder and then slapping it down on the breadboard. Jeff the dog, a very timid Sheltie, always jumped a foot, cowered, and slunk off into the next room.
I made great breads in those days. Loaves and twists and coffee can breads. One of the cookbooks that survived the big purge around here is "A World of Bread," its pages worn and stained with signs of years of ingredients spilled in, on, or around it. Some favorites were "Quick Loaf Bread, which could be modified in any number of ways; Sally Lunn, which was almost like eating cake; Parmesan bubble loaf, which was made by forming lots of balls of dough and dipping them in melted butter before putting them in a pan, so they would break apart easily; whole wheat spiced bread, flavored with orange juice and cumin. I tried liking Cornell Bread because it was supposed to be so good for you, but just could never get into the taste of soy flour.
We always had freshly baked bread in the house (which may help explain why I've always had a weight problem!)
I can't remember when I first got sourdough starter. (Char, do you?) I'm sure it was when we were at Tiny Tots nursery school. Many of the parents involved in Tiny Tots were earth mother types and into natural foods and would be likely to have sourdough starter that they could share.
I kept my sourdough going for years. You use part of the starter and then replace it with more flour and water or milk (I think traditionally the liquid is water, but I liked the thickness that came with milk). After replenishing the starter, you'd leave it in a warm place and overnight it would begin to bubble and grow and develop the characteristic sourdough smell.
We made lots of stuff out of that sourdough. Bread, of course, but also other things, including some of the best scones I've ever tasted.
And there were sourdough pancakes. There's nothing quite like sourdough pancakes. When we'd go on camping trips, Char would be assigned to bring the sourdough starter so we could make huckleberry pancakes with the berries we would pick off the trees around Mendocino county.
She was so dedicated, she would take her starter to bed with her, to keep it at the proper temperature for causing the bubbles to reach their maximum and use it in the morning for pancakes.
Some of the very best pancakes I've ever eaten were consumed under the pine trees with starter that Char kept warm in her sleeping bag overnight. They were filled with juicy freshly picked huckleberries, and we ate them along with gin fizzes that Richard made by hooking his blender up to the generator of his car. (We knew how to camp in class, we did. Who cared if we didn't have a bathroom on the place?)
I kept my sourdough starter going for years. Decades, even. I made bread less and less often but I would still, from time to time, remove some of the old starter, refresh what was left over, and set it to bubbling again.
When the starter was left for a long time without being replenished, it formed a kind of brown crust across the surface, with a strong yeast smell.
In the 1980s we began hosting foreign students and a lot of young men and women from around the world paraded through our house.
Marie came from Mexico--she's one of my proudest success stories. She graduated from Davis High and then went on to get her degree at Sacramento State College and how is married and owns three restaurants in Sacramento.
Marie didn't have a lot of money when she arrived and she was keenly aware (moreso than most) that we weren't charging her to stay here. She was alwyas asking "do you need any help?" and trying to do whatever she could to help out around the house.
One day I came home from work and Marie's proud face greeted me. She had cleaned out my refrigerator. "There was something really bad in the back of the refrigerator," she told me, handing me a sparkling clean bowl.
My sourdough starter.
I had managed to keep it going for 20 years and in her desire to be helpful, Marie had tossed it out. It was like a death in the family, but I didn't tell her that.
In the long run, I suppose she did me a favor. Keeping sourdough starter alive takes a real commitment and, quite frankly, I was getting tired of it. But like all the photos that I have collected and don't know what to do with, it had a "history" and I couldn't just throw it away. Marie had nicely taken care of that problem for me.
But when I get e-mail from someone telling me they've made their own sourdough starter, and how good the bread was, I start to get those yeasty yearnings again.
PHOTO OF THE DAY