Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Sour Reconnections

What is this longing to reconnect and acknowledge the past and those who came before? Is it a quest to understand—to remember? We study history. We read books about the past and try to place ourselves in the lives of the characters who lived there. We imagine what it would have been like to be a gold miner on our way to Alaska, a baker living in San Francisco before the Great Earth Quake, or a fur trapper in the wilds of Montana. We might imagine our great, great, great grandmothers on homesteads throughout America and wonder what delicacies were created in their pioneer kitchens. In some instances, we are lucky and those recipes are handed down through the generations. In others, they are forever lost. What fun then, to rediscover recipes long forgotten?

With that in mind, I’ll tell you about my new pet. It lives on my kitchen counter and is very well behaved. Aside from needing to be fed once or twice a day, it requires very little in the way of love and affection. I never have to take it out for a walk or do the pooper scooper thing. In all, not a bad pet. In return for my care, my yeasty beasties give me wonderful baked goods—the most delicious sourdough imaginable.

No one knows who first discovered the process of leavening bread with yeast but historians think it happened in Egypt. Imagine you are an Egyptian chef in the palace of the pharaoh. One bright summer morning, you’ve combined water and flour, maybe a little milk and oil to make the pharaoh’s hard, flat dinner cake, when in rushes a messenger.

“Baker,” he yells at you, “you must come quickly! There has been an accident. You are needed urgently at home.” The pharaoh’s dinner forgotten, you rush home. While you are away, natural yeasts present in the flour and milk, and maybe others floating in the air which land in your bowl, begin to ferment in the warm summer sun. The yeast uses the flour and water as food and produces carbon dioxide as a byproduct of their reproduction. When you finally return, hours later, you barely notice the bubbles now present in your mixing bowl. You go about making your flat cake as usual, mind preoccupied by the crisis at home. When you pull your cake out of the oven, you are horrified. Pharaoh is expecting his dinner and his cake looks nothing like it usually does. It is abnormally thick and deformed. However, you haven’t anything else to replace it, so with trepidation and remorse you set it before the king and hope for the best.


(Fabulous!) He shouts. “Promote this baker to head chef.” You sigh and return to the kitchen thankful to have escaped death and clueless as to what you did to make the cake so delicious. Thus began a series of experiments that gave us yeast and sourdough today, thousands of years later.

Sourdough and bread made with beer barm, (the yeast 'overflow' that rises to the top of fermenting beer or mead and obtained from the dregs when the beer is racked) were staple foods for the next 5000 years. It wasn’t until the mid 19th century that commercial yeast was introduced by Charles Fleischmann at the Centennial Exposition (Philadelphia, 1876). This marked the rise of modern bread making, and some would argue the decline of good flavor in our bread—think ‘Wonder bread’—as the incredibly complex flavors of sourdough and the techniques used by our great grandparents disappeared beneath the increasingly busy schedule of the modern family.

There are hundreds of strains of yeast and all give different flavors to bread. Wouldn’t you like to make a loaf of bread made with the yeast native to Egypt? Bread that would taste very much like the one you served to pharaoh all those many years ago. Since my pet was given to me, I have made innumerable loaves of breads, a batch of cinnamon rolls, and loads of hotcakes. I’m still learning…experimenting with ingredients, rise times, and reconnecting to the breads made by my great grandmothers. I don’t have a recipe for you but here are several links I’ve found helpful in my own explorations. If you don’t want to hassle with making bread yourself, I would at least encourage you to visit an artisan bakery and experience the wonder of great bread made the old fashioned way.

Sourdoughs International : a good place to get starters from around the world starters, instructions, and recipes
The Basics
History of Bread Yeast

1 comment:

  1. I love sourdough! I just usually don't have the patience to mess with the starter :(. I really enjoyed the narrative you included, also :)


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