Five days into my little experiment. The instructions told me that seven would yield good results. I popped the lid off the container and damn near threw up. My attempt at making my own sourdough starter in my kitchen, I was certain, had gone horribly awry.
My Oakland-born wife was disappointed. People who live in the Bay Area don't appreciate how difficult it is to find good sourdough. I remember having it as a kid in Kansas, but my dad was a commercial pilot so it's likely he brought dough back with him whenever his itinerary included San Francisco.
My father is quite the character. He spent thirty years in the military, and thirty-five as an airline pilot. He has hundreds of gut-busting stories from his work, all with surprisingly insubordinate themes. Nevertheless, FoxNews was featured on at least three of his televisions when I visited last weekend and he complained about Philadelphia precincts with statistically improbable counts.
Still, he's my father, and aside from his politics he's got knowledge and wisdom that I want. Also some sourdough starter in the fridge that was several decades over the hump that my starter couldn't get past. They gave me a cup of it, and I promised to bring bread over for Thanksgiving. Jane, my dad's craft genius wife, assured me that it would be okay if it didn't turn out well -- hers never do.
My knack for baking things may be where I lost the ability to stereotype. I'm six feet tall, a hundred ninety pounds. At the age of 31, my personal style has not evolved particularly since high school. My laid back Kansas accent brushes up against a Texas twang. I look like someone who's only comfortable cooking when it's meat on an open flame. But unless you like 'em charred on the outside, raw on the inside, best let me stick to baking. At family feasts I usually bring cheesecake-based dishes of my own devising -- the Nutella and peanut butter cheesecake with an Oreo crust being the most remembered.
I arrived back home Sunday night clutching my jar of starter tightly. A sourdough starter is essentially a life support mechanism for live yeast. It contains flour and water, and the yeast eats the flour. At that moment, my yeast needed to be fed. My first loaf wouldn't be ready until Tuesday at the earliest.
Bread makes sense to me. And the way you make sourdough fits so well with this state--I'm not sure why San Francisco does it so much better than us. To make sourdough, you put some of your starter in a bowl, then add flour and water, mix it all together, and wait. Then you put it in the fridge and wait. Then you take it out of the fridge, add more flour and salt and sugar (and water if you need it) and mix it together and wait. Then you turn it into loaves and wait. Then you bake it. It takes about 24 hours.
All I had left in the cabinet was wheat flour, which given my stepmother's warning about density seemed like a recipe for inedible bread. A trip to the grocery store revealed that a five-pound bag of flour made near my family's original homestead in Stafford County, Kansas cost two dollars and fifty cents. A twenty-five pound bag of the same stuff was two dollars and seven cents. Still, we got the five-pound bag this time because of storage concerns.
I quit my job in August. The wife, who was the fiancee then, had been begging me for months to realize that the call center where I worked was killing me. I'd been diagnosed with hypertension and even on meds my blood would be pumping way too hard after a day of talking to people on the phone. I'm not a people person. She's a college student, and we knew we had enough money to get by for some time, especially if we had the wedding in our apartment and didn't spend anything on it. By this point, though, we're starting to get worried.
Monday morning I woke up bright and early, something I'm not known for. My favorite part about the call center was I didn't have to be out the door any earlier than noon (my least favorite part was not being home any earlier than 10:30pm). I put the starter in the bowl, added some flour, and started waiting.
The characteristic bite of sourdough comes from the wild yeast that's used in the process. I'm not sure what the problem is with the mass market sourdough I find in the grocery store that tastes like dry, funky white bread, but I'd be willing to bet it contains baker's yeast. Mine does not.
For my first loaf with the family recipe, I cut a little bit of the time off one of the steps. I worked it out to make sure we'd have some bread before we went to bed. At midnight, it came out of the oven. At 12:30, my wife called her mother with tears in her eyes. "It tastes like home," she said.
After leaving my job, I attempted to make something of my voice acting talent. Problem: I sound like basically every other 30-something from Kansas. I found work difficult to find, so I took my tech support chops to work for myself, discovering that there are a thousand college students in this town doing for beer money what I'd need rent money to do. Frustrated, I went back to job-hunting, to roughly equal success as entrepreneuring.
I made a larger loaf for Thanksgiving. All were in agreement: The strong sour taste, the crunchy, flaky crust, the dense, bubbly texture: This bread was special. Everyone who's tried it has also told me exactly when they were last in San Francisco, as reference to the last time they enjoyed sourdough that much.
So I experimented some more. Glazes with honey butter (wife liked it, me not as much), and vegetable oil (made the crust nicely crunchy, but not as good a color--I'll try it with olive oil instead as soon as finances allow). Cooking it in a pan for sandwiches (a good idea, but my pan was too small for an adequate sandwich). Results of freezing the dough (in the oven now). And a non-sourdough povitica bread (amazing).
The wife says she's never seen me as alive as when I'm putting bread together. I believe it. The difference between what I put in and what I get out is as satisfying as turning a bunch of people talking to each other into a movie, and takes a lot less time. I've also read the story of Diana Hardeman, who turned her ice cream hobby into a business almost by accident. In the church I grew up attending, there are a dozen stories every year told about people who were "called" to ministry. I feel like I've been called to baking.
In closing, some images of my povitica bread: