If You Give A Girl A Starter
Updated: Jul 5, 2020
I didn't come to the sourdough craze by way of the internet. My longing for a sourdough starter began when I read the novel, Sourdough, by Robin Sloan.
Quirky, fun and filled with magical realism, I dove into the novel near the beginning of quarantine, and fell in love.
For many years I worked a trip from Miami to San Francisco with a 24 hour layover. Besides giving me a break from the chaos of raising three kids, these layovers afforded me the ability to expand my culinary horizons.
Finding the Ferry Building at the end of Market Street was a food freak's dream. A cornucopia of restaurants and artisan edibles, I wanted to bring my sleeping bag and move in.
A lunch of crispy Imperial springrolls with a pisco sour at my favorite Vietnamese restaurant, The Slanted Door, became my ritual.
This was followed by stops at Rechutti Chocolate, for a gift boxes of salted caramels, a stop at Miette for cupcakes or sweets for the kids, then a stroll through the farmers market set up outside for fruits and vegetables.
One of my favorite finds at the market was the artisan honey. The honeys could be found at a couple of stores in the building and sometimes from the farmers outside.
Like rays of sun, the hues of honey bespoke a range of flavors and feelings. Light and clear colors, from clover and Acacia spoke of Spring.
Sunny yellows echoed the bright warmth of Summer, while the deep ambers tasted like a gathering Autumn storm. Those were my favorites.
Locked away in my home with no access to the outside world, Sloan's Sourdough brought me back to the Ferry Building. I laughed at the novels multiple mentions of the Ferry Building and artisan honey, then began dreaming of sourdough.
The sourdough starter given to the novel's central character, Lois, not only responds to music, but makes noises of its own. It also bakes up breads with faces.
Lois becomes intrigued with the starter, and embarks on a magical journey to transform her life by baking sourdough.
I wanted to transform my life, too. This is the power of books. They can make us want to step outside of our comfort zone and reach for something new.
Sometimes they ask us to sit back, look inside, and reacquaint ourselves with a long forgotten piece of our hearts.
The best books do both.
There is a reading nook in my bar, not far from the record player I brought downstairs at the beginning of quarantine.
After dusting off my albums and the player, I curled up with a cocktail, Billy Joel, Sourdough and my thoughts.
A very long time ago, I used to bake bread. Beautiful, braided challahs, semi-successful corn rye, for my husband, Marty, and gloriously scented bread from a bread machine.
I would set the timer on the machine the night before, along with the coffee maker that automatically ground the beans before brewing.
The scents of coffee and baking bread would waft up the stairs and nudge the household awake. It was a gorgeous way to begin the day.
Along with homemade breads, I played with yeasted dough until I had mastered Marty's grandma's crispy knishes.
Stuffed with kasha or potatoes, these handheld pockets were warming to both belly and soul, food to feed the present while honoring the memory of a loved one passed.
Somehow, somewhere, I lost my way.
Blame it on the rain.
I locked up the part of myself that permitted me time. Time to knead and proof. Time to let bread rise and bake.
Time to stretch and fold the dough that would envelope the knishes that everyone loved. Yeast was no longer a part of my life.
I still cooked every day for my family, but my repertoire became a medley of quick and easy endeavors.
Sitting in my bar reading Sourdough, Billy's song, Vienna, spinning on the record player, I wanted to go back in time. Once again, I wanted to be the girl who baked bread.
Only this time, it would be sourdough. Not the sweet, fluffy pillows of a twenty-something year old's challah, but a sturdy, dense loaf with a hint of sour and a middle aged crust.
But sourdough scared me. All of the techniques and recipes I found seemed complicated.
I mentioned my desire to a friend, and she told me the internet had exploded with people interested in sourdough, because the quarantine had caused a yeast shortage.
At home with time on their hands, it seemed like the entire world had become obsessed with baking.
My friend suggested trying the sourdough starter recipe from an Israeli chemist utilizing fruit, flour and water.
I tried this method twice, and nothing happened except for a smelly, murky glass full of decaying fruity water.
Scouring the net, I finally came across a method in Parade Magazine that seemed so simple that even I could do it.
It takes seven days to build an active starter with this method, and as fate would have it, mine became active on Easter Sunday.
For the first time since childhood, I woke on Easter Sunday with a sense of wonder and anticipation. Would my starter work? Could I actually make bread rise without yeast?
It was fun and exciting. I truly felt like a kid again.
My starter was bubbly and active. I had flour in the house. All systems were go.
But now I couldn't find a recipe for a sourdough loaf that would be ready in hours instead of days. I was almost three weeks into this project, including the time with the ineffective starter, and I wanted bread today.
Although I couldn't find a recipe for a boule' that would work in my time frame, I found a recipe for a sourdough French loaf from Taste of Home.
The recipe called for sourdough starter, but it also called for an envelope of yeast. Miraculously, I had two envelopes of yeast in the house. Ever the optimist. I had purchased them long ago for reasons I forget.
Though it felt like cheating, since the recipe didn't utilize starter alone, I tried it anyway. That the yeast was expired gave me both comfort and worry. Maybe it wasn't cheating as much since I wasn't sure if the yeast would work. Then again, both the yeast and the starter might not work. This could be a huge waste of time and flour.
Success! Though my loaves looked a little wonky, they tasted pretty good. Sam and Laura's family were thrilled with the effort.
This may have been because we were still unable to obtain much from the grocery store, including French bread. Nevertheless, I was glad for the compliments.
Over the next few weeks I made the bread multiple times, reading more bread recipes and tweaking as I went along.
Eventually I ended up with a recipe that produced 4 small, crispy on the outside French loaves that could be also shaped into rolls or Remy's signature heart.
In between the French loaves, I found an approachable boule' recipe and attempted it.
Sam and Kenton went wild. "This is great," they said. Both of them loved the tangy, chewy texture.
Baking the boule' made me miss challah.
I pulled out my well-worn Silver Palate cookbook and went to my go-to challah recipe.
Because I was making challah, I started thinking about the sweet rolls studded with white chocolate that our entire family had loved when we visited the Club Med in Port St. Lucie.
Similar to a challah roll, the resort offered the rolls with white chocolate, dark chocolate, raisin and plain.
Going to that Club Med was a Rosh Hashona tradition for a few years with our immediate and extended family.
A celebration of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashona has a ritual called Tashlikh, in which you cast breadcrumbs upon the water. It is a physical manifestation of the verse from Micah where we, "cast all our sins into the ocean's depths " with the intent to return to our authentic self.
I didn't think about that part of the memory when I dotted my challah dough with chocolate chips, rolled it into logs and then formed what would become rolls.
I leaned into the ritual of feeling dough on my fingers, surrounded by the earthy scent of yeast. I felt myself settle. This, I knew, is what I wanted my life to look like.
It was time to stop the running around that had defined me since a decade of losing my husband, my mother, my boyfriend and best friend. It was time to just calm down and be.
As quarantine continued, I continued the baking. Sourdough, challah, cookies. Caramel cake, cupcakes and my first attempt at the classic 1, 2, 3, 4 cake.
What bothered me now was the waste in keeping a sourdough starter. To maintain my starter, I needed to feed it. Before I could feed it, I needed to discard half.
At this point in the quarantine there was a flour shortage. The last thing I wanted to do was waste flour.
In searching uses for sourdough discard, I found many that were appealing, but none so much as pizza dough.
I had alreay tried a sourdough crust using active starter. Sam and I enjoyed it, as did Laura's family. Kenton and the girls had a blast for dinner, each one rolling out the dough and making their own pizza.
Still, it wasn't quite "there" for me.
Finally, I found a recipe for sourdough crust in which discard could be used instead of active starter. By now I had an industrial sized bag of rapid yeast in the house, and nothing to stop me.
By the fourt or fifth effort with this recipe, both Laura and Sam used the "F" word when tasting the crust.
"This is by far the best one yet." Laura said. "Even though Kenton hasn't tasted it, I can speak for him, too."
This last batch of dough had sat in the fridge proofing for two days. By the time I pulled it out, it had overflowed from the bowl and pulled the plastic wrap from the top.
Then, there was the ricotta.
Since wasting less had become a priority, I was wondering for days what I would do with milk that was about to expire.
So far I had made classic cheese pizza, barbecue chicken pizza and goat cheese pizza. Garlicky white pizza kept coming to mind.
With dough from scratch and milk about to expire, it wasn't a leap to consider making my own ricotta.
I'd never attempted fresh ricotta before, but boy how I love it.
I first came across fresh ricotta at the phenomenal food market in Grand Central Station in New York.
Bringing the ricotta home, I paired it with fresh berries and some of the artisan honey from San Francisco. Such a simple, elegant dessert with layers of flavor.
Though I later looked for fresh ricotta all over South Florida, it only lived in my memory.
I did consider making it myself a time or two, but dismissed it as too time consuming or labor intensive.
It actually is neither. Although some of the recipes I found yesterday seemed a little complicated, I settled on a cross between recipes by the Food Network's Ina Garten and Ree Drummond.
Though the curds didn't seem quite right initially, I thought that might be because I used coffee filters in place of the cheesecloths called for in all of the recipes.
Later, I realized it was probably because the ricotta is still warm when first finished. Though it's able to be used right away, I had never tasted it warm before.
Turns out it had nothing to do with the chilling. My ricotta had very little curds and was so soft it was almost liquid. Probably what I get for commingling recipes.
No matter. It was magnificent on top of the white pizza I made after Remy and Rory had rolled out their classic cheese ones.
What began as an attempt at a sourdough starter had morphed into a pizza crafted with both homemade crusts and fresh ricotta.
The sense of accomplishment I felt both from the girls happiness at making their own pie, to Sam and Laura's faces when they bit into the white pizzas was incredible.
The kitchen was still hot from the oven, but my warmth came from happiness. Surrounded by family I played in the kitchen not only to feed them, but to feed myself.
Spooning the leftover ricotta onto fresh strawberries, I sat down to eat. Drizzling the the last spoonful of my honey, I took a bite and savored the sweetness.
Who would have thought that something as simple as flour, water and a good book could take me full circle?
Sourdough Pizza Crust
2 tablespoons canola oil
3/4 cup lukewarm water
1 teaspoon quick rising yeast
2 heaping tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 cups sourdough starter discard
3 1/2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
Place oil in a medium round bowl. Set aside.
Put lukewarm water in a large bowl. Add yeast and sugar. When yeast is foamy (five to ten minutes), add sourdough discard, 3 cups of flour and salt.
Mix well with a large spoon until the dough forms a ball, adding in flour one teaspoonful at a time if the dough is too shaggy. Be careful not to add too much flour. The dough will still be a little sticky when the ball is formed.
Let rest for 30 minutes.
On a lightly floured surface, knead dough until a smooth ball is formed. This only takes a few minutes.
Place the dough ball in the oiled bowl. Turn over once and cover.
For best results, refrigerate for 24 to 48 hours. The dough will more than double in size, develop a nice depth of flavor, and give you beautiful air pockets in your crust.
Alternatively, let rise at room temperature until doubled, for about an hour. If dough is not completely doubled, it will still make a tasty crust. Many recipes don't call for the step at all, so no need to dismiss this recipe if you are short on time.
Preheat oven to 425, or whatever temperature works best for pizza with your oven.
Divide dough in half for two large pizzas, or six parts for individual ones.
Roll out the dough to desired thinness on a lightly floured surface. I roll mine directly on a silpad lined cookie sheet. It takes less flour this way and I don't have to transfer the dough to bake.
Add your favorite toppings and bake until the edges begin to brown and the cheeses (if used) are bubbly.
This dough also works well for pizza pockets or calzones.
This recipe was inspired by the sourdough crust recipe here:
1 8 inch pizza crust
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 clove garlic pressed or chopped fine
1/3 cup shredded six cheese Italian blend
5 tablespoons ricotta cheese
1 tablespoons shredded parmesan
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Place crust on a silpad or parchment lined baking sheet, or a pizza stone.
Rub crust with a tablespoon of oil. Crush one clove of garlic onto it. Smear it around gently.
Add Italian cheese blend. Dollop ricotta all around the top of the crust. Top with sprinkles of shredded parmesan.
Bake for about 12-15 minutes or until the edges of the crust are brown and the cheeses have melted.