You can buy sourdough starter, but the best way to get it is from a friend because it will always come with its own story. I wrote here nearly a year ago about my mother’s adventures with sourdough ‘mother,’ a gift from her Ukrainian-Canadian friend. History repeated itself for me, when I got my own pint of sourdough from a friend who cultured it himself from flour, water, and patience. The existence of sourdough is further proof that we share a world with mutually-beneficial species, and with some effort we can be in right relationship with them. In this case, wild yeast.
The newcomer to my household has proven itself a resilient culture indeed, a friendly upstart that has changed how we make, enjoy, and think about bread, in our family. In short, over the past year, I have been baking a loaf or two EVERY WEEK, except for when we were away for six weeks last summer. With some trepidation, I put a cup of recently fed starter (it ‘eats’ just water and flour) into a recycled Talenti gelato jar, screwed on the lid, popped it into the freezer, and crossed my fingers. Fortunately, there wasn’t a power outage kind of hurricane event in 2019. All I had to do on my return was let it thaw, feed it for a few days, and we were back in business.
There are probably hundreds of recipes for sourdough on the Internet, and based on my sample of only those designated ‘easy’ and ‘beginners,’ every one of them is likely to frustrate the hell out of you if you’re a stickler for consistent results. So, count on a lesson — or three — in patience (a first rising can be 4 hours or 12).
We have another newcomer in neighborhood, a single, good-looking young man who replaced the family with the three noisy dogs we were glad to see go. And it turns out, our new neighbor was born in Ukraine. When you have a common wall and adjacent driveways, a certain amount of intimacy is inevitable if not always welcome. I already had a good feeling about him, though, because one day while we were away, he heard our daughter on the patio, audibly grieving her recently deceased father, and came over to make sure she was all right. This was a breach of protocol in our mind-your-business kind of neighborhood for which I am grateful.
My relationship with sourdough starter has taught me that is has no respect for your schedule, so get used to that. If you’re a control freak, you’ll be sorely tested. Things that influence ‘mother’ and therefore how your bread turns out include, of course, the quality of the water and flour you use to feed the culture; whether you let it warm up and expand enough before starting your recipe; the ambient temperature of your kitchen, the humidity, even your mood (i.e. cool or warm hands) and possibly the kind of music you’re playing in the background. Mine seems to like The Eagles and Van Morrison. I’ve had whole wheat loaves turn out so pretty I photograph them. Others that look like, and have the airy consistency of, an oversize English crumpet. But here’s the thing. Regardless of how a loaf looks, no one in my family has turned down a slice. We have almost forgotten what bread from a commercial source tastes like. We’re becoming connoisseurs of the distinctive tang that gives sourdough its name.
So the other night, we took this promising start a little further and invited O. to dinner. He rang the doorbell one minute after 6:30, wow! Dark, well-barbered hair, neat beard, wearing a tight black tee that showed his muscles, and dark jeans. He put his bottle of wine on the dining table, and shook my hand with a slight nod of his head.
Right away, he noticed our keyboard and ukuleles hanging on the wall and asked if we were musicians. I welcome curiosity and interest like this, so I ‘introduced’ him to the rest of our family via the group of photos under the hanging instruments. Our cat seemed to take to the stranger as well, rubbing against his legs and submitting to some strokes. Meanwhile, wine was being uncorked and poured, the Camembert I had remembered to take out hours ahead, was sagging nicely on the cheese platter next to the basket of crackers. I had made a salad earlier and had only the pasta to toss before serving. The evening was launched.
We chatted easily about our backgrounds, like neighbors who are interested in getting off to a good start do. He asked if we socialized with others in the complex and we mentioned the chili cook-off a few weeks back. The truth is, with the exception of dog-walkers and young families, most people are polite enough, but generally keep to themselves.
Turns out O. was born in Ukraine when it was still part of the Soviet Union and came to the United States at age 14 with his mother. His parents had been long divorced. He speaks English without an accent and is fluent in Russian, Ukraine, and the language of computer science in which he has a degree. He had been here 25 years, with a stint at UF Gainesville before getting a degree at Eckerd. He designs websites and codes, and intends to be his own boss eventually.
Given how much his former country had been in the news, I hesitated to talk politics. But – and I’m not sure how this happened – somehow we got there, and it turned out our views were aligned. Two hours passed quickly and pleasantly. The food was evidently enjoyed. He had a late date but insisted on helping clear up the dishes. My mother would have called O. ‘well-brought up.’ Soon, it was time to say good night. He would like to cook for us, he said. When he does, I’ll bring him a loaf of sourdough and a story.