My friend, Henry, brought me a crock of sour dough bread starter, aka ‘mother,’ the other day, along with instructions on its care and feeding. He also brought a recipe for a Rustic Loaf, and directed me to a You Tube video that featured Julia Child, looking remarkably lively, and Nancy Silverton, who has seized the French Chef baton as regards sour dough bread making.
I watched the 11-minute video start to finish, then baulked at the recommended technique for forming of the loaf – all that parchment paper and dough flipping — and the constant spraying the oven necessary to produce the characteristic crisp crust. I’m basically someone who will always choose a simpler method if its available, and not just in the kitchen. We’re talking bread here, not Baked Alaska or the great American novel. Bread, no matter how perfect, is quickly eaten and soon forgotten. Or so I said to myself, as I rummaged for another recipe.
But not so fast. The fact is, the arrival of Henry’s starter in my house has revived fond memories of my mother’s way with sour dough and how it all came about. It seems that my mother, a Burma-born immigrant and self-taught cook, became fast friends with a Ukrainian-Canadian (I suspect they were members of the same curling club). The friend shared a sour dough starter she had nurtured for decades, along with instructions on how to keep it going. If the starter hadn’t actually landed in Canada with the friend, then the family recipe certainly had. In other words, it goes back.
Mom stored hers in glass jars and took such good care of it, it lived there happily for decades, through daily feedings, transfers to clean jars, and used often to bake bread, rolls, biscuits and so on. Knowing her enthusiasm and generosity, it was probably shared widely with other friends.
Whenever my parents visited us from their home in Edmonton, Mom would ‘import’ – smuggle, actually – a small quantity of Ukrainian ‘mother’ in an airtight glass jar wrapped in underwear and tucked into her carryon bag. Never mind that my father looked askance at this unlawful practice. In those pre-TSA days, the chance this affable grandmother would be questioned, let alone searched, at the U.S. Canadian border, was nil.
Once we got home, Mom would transfer the starter to a glass bowl and beat in equal parts of unbleached flour and whole milk to ‘feed’ it and let it recover from its long journey. Then, having recovered from her own travels, she would produce the first batch of biscuits. In the next days, she took over the kitchen, turning our breads for the family and eventually, our neighbors, with a breathtaking command of her materials and technique. “And when did you say your Mom was visiting …” (Bob and Sally next door.)
If you let it, sour dough starter can take over your kitchen, if not your life, very much like an exotic pet, which is what Henry calls his. I haven’t given mine a name, yet. The starter goes to sleep in the refrigerator (and suspended animation in freezer, according to Mom) and is quickly revived with a feeding. You need to smell and taste it to make sure it is thriving before proceeding with a recipe.
Like all fermentation processes, sour dough starter depends on the capture of wild yeast that is all around us – a process common to the making of beer, wine, yogurt, sauerkraut, and cheeses. In the Julia Child video, Nancy Silverton demonstrated this yeast-capture technique using a bunch of grapes placed in a bundle of cheesecloth, lightly mashed with a wooden mallet, then placed into a batter of room temperature flour and water. As this mix starts to ferment, you see tiny bubbles forming in the batter. It seems magical, but it’s basic food chemistry. For a newbie to sour dough, this is a bit like witnessing a birth.
A regular practice of making anything at home these days is a declaration of independence from the dominant culture. Beyond that, I’m pleased to be a miniscule contributor to the growing interest in the microbiome, the vast collection of microorganisms that essentially colonize every body, contributing to health and/or disease. We literally, as Walt Whitman put it, ‘contain multitudes.’
It’s a good thought to hold in your mind while you’re kneading a batch of sour dough bread. I froze a cupful of Henry’s starter, in case I managed to kill off the sample (it happens). So far, I’ve made two traditional loaves (one for the freezer), and last night, I made whole wheat sour dough pita to go with the labneh – a yogurt cheese, dressed with olive oil and Zaatar, a Lebanese spice mix. Here’s the pita recipe in case you want to follow me down this delightful rabbit hole.
As I shaped the springy, risen dough into lemon-sized portions, then pressed and rolled them into pita to be cooked in an iron skillet, I could almost sense my mother at my side, beaming.
 Canada, it turns out, has the world’s third-largest population beside Ukraine itself and Russia.
I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life Ed Yong
The Art of Eating, M.F.K. Fisher (available at your public library)