Well, it's official; I've completely lost my mind.
I was paging through Edible Seattle the other weekend and saw a story about and recipe for sourdough starter. I've never been much of a baker, especially bread, because I figure there are professionals out there who know what they are doing more than I do, and I can buy their beautiful work without having to do much of it myself. Sure, it's a little more expensive, but when grocery shopping for two people, sometimes you can afford the good stuff if it's a priority.
However, I've been feeling more like a homebody these days, I'm more and more interested in learning the older ways of doing things, and this article about sourdough was really interesting. I read some more about sourdough on some websites, like Sourdough Home and Northwest Sourdough, and I quickly got caught up in the romanticism of it. Apparently people used to guard their starters close to their hearts, literally, as starter has to be kept warm and people carried it on their trails out west and on gold rushes, etc. There are starters that supposedly go back generations and centuries.
So what's a starter? It's a soupy mix (or sometimes, in Europe, a very dry mix) of flour and water that's left to ferment until the yeasts inside come to life. You feed it every day. It sits on your counter, or if you are not going to use it for a while, your fridge. You mix it into doughs and it functions as the leavening in the bread (instead of the dry packaged yeast you see in the store). I vaguely remember my mom having been given a starter when we were kids one time, but I don't remember us baking with it or how it all played out.
After reading the article, I started my own little chemistry experiment on my kitchen counter. To the right are pictures of my starter after about a week. I started it on May 16, and for the first few days you can't use it, so you have to throw some away and feed the rest. The top picture shows it from a top view, and you can see the bubbly action.
The first thing I made was a loaf of bread. I used the recipe on Northwest Sourdough, only I made a third of the recipe because I didn't really know what I was doing and I didn't want to end up with a ginormous pile of dough. I read the recipe and thought I had it memorized, which of course I didn't, so I made a bunch of mistakes, not the least of which was drinking a couple of glasses of wine in the evening right before the last punch-down and forgetting to put the dough in some kind of floured or lined container in the fridge for the overnight proofing stage. So of course, the dough was very sticky to the bowl in the morning. Then I turned it out, and I had to be somewhere, so I baked it before it really had lost the chill from the fridge, and it ended up with a sort of chewy center where it wasn't fully baked. But, overall, not too shabby for the first time. It did rise and there were some bubbles in it, so I know the starter is working.
The other recipe I have tried so far is the Sourdough Home pizza crust recipe. Yesterday I made the pizza pictured here. I liked that this recipe suggested par-baking the crust before topping it, because one of the biggest issues I always have with pizza is trying to slide it onto the pizza stone, so only having to slide the raw crust on was great -- it did flop a little and a corner of it got stuck on the peel, but it was just the crust, so we didn't have toppings flying all over the oven per usual. After five minutes you take it out and top it, then slide it back in, and by then it's baked enough to have some structure. This one had sausage, orange and yellow bell peppers, and mozzarella cheese. yummmmy. There were leftovers of all the toppings (we prepped too much to fit onto one pizza) so I made another one for lunch today.
This whole sourdough adventure has me thinking. I've always considered good bread one of the markers of a civilized society, and I can't stand "nutrition" freaks who claim you can only eat whole grains all the time. Granted, one should not eat processed food like Cheetos on a regular basis, but a good loaf of handmade bread is one of life's greatest pleasures.
For Colin and me, the past five years have been so crazy and unsettled. We are coming up on our fifth anniversary next month, and in our time as a married couple, we have had multiple jobs, apartments that felt temporary in multiple cities, periods of unemployment and uncertainty, friendships in fits and starts and many that have fizzled out. There were even times when I, anxious about money or jobs or whatever, had dreams at night that we had to haul all of our stuff and our kitties back to live at my parents' house in Iowa.
But now we have an apartment we love, stable jobs that we like and that can pay the bills, and we are starting to get rooted and grounded in Seattle and in our marriage in a way we haven't before. Life isn't perfect, but it's starting to feel like a life that's held together by more than hope, credit cards and magical thinking. So what better time to start a starter, which hopefully will live on my countertop for years to come? What better time to learn to do something civilized? Maybe baking my own bread is not so crazy after all.