Sourdough. It’s one of my more recent obsessions. I get these from time to time, but we won’t talk about the others here. We’re here to talk about bread today, bread and life. My sourdough starter came from a friend, a diversion during quarantine.
I think it’s super cool. I don’t like the really sour bread (which happens when you use too much whole wheat flour), so possibly it doesn’t even make sense to do sourdough. But, I love the process, when it works well. Spoiler Alert: it doesn’t always turn out. In fact, I have a loaf of bread in the freezer right now that will probably end up in the trash. Yet, even with a failed project, I still find it fascinating that you can make bread without using regular yeast. A sourdough starter is literally just flour and water that has fermented. Yes, it sounds a little gross, but it’s also really amazing.
Besides, there’s the whole facet of it being a true homemakerish kind of thing to do to bake bread- any bread. Bread can be so readily bought in today’s world (except during Covid, it seems), but buying bread doesn’t give you the same satisfaction as it does to work through the process yourself. Shortcuts are not always best in the long run. Maybe I should join Anne in her dislike of “modern inconveniences” (a Mr. Harrison phrase from Anne’s House of Dreams, by L.M. Montgomery). They make our lives easier in the moment, but are we really becoming better people by having so much done for us automatically? It’s just a thought, and I confess that I really love dishwashers and cars and hot water.
“I should like to have it kept always just as it was in the dear old years. That’s foolish- and sentimental- and impossible. So I shall immediately become wise and practical and possible.” -Anne in Anne’s House of Dreams, by L.M. Montgomery
Maybe though, it’s not altogether foolish to be skeptical of some of the newer, easier ways of life. It may very well be possible (coming from an idealist, of course) to hang on to more primitive ways of life in some areas, such as, in the instance of baking bread once in a while. Try it. It may just end up feeding your soul as it does mine.
The first time I made sourdough bread, I used my great-grandmother’s bread bowl. It may not have been the smartest thing I ever did. There is, after all, a crack in it that could potentially hold bacteria. It didn’t kill me; however, I might be wise to consider getting it resealed if I plan on making it a habit to use an antique. At any rate, using the same bread bowl that my great-grandmother used is a start in closing the generational gap that separates us. I was very young when she died and remember her only a little when she then lived with my grandparents. From what I have heard of her, I don’t think she would have approved of me, or even liked me, but possibly she would feel honored (and horrified!) that a great-granddaughter used her bread bowl.
When you make bread, there’s the mixing. First, with a wooden spoon, and then with your hands once it becomes too difficult to mix with the spoon. Hands in bread dough- really, the practical heartbeat of the homemaker. She is doing her part to provide sustenance for those she loves. It’s a rotten shame it has become a disappearing art among today’s women. It should be a rite of passage to womanhood! Yes, that’s an opinion, not a fact. Still, there is something so metaphorical about women making bread. It’s a tangible picture of her role as a nurturer.
Then there’s the waiting… waiting for bread to rise. With sourdough especially, the wait time is quite lengthy. Waiting for bread to rise, patient or impatient waiting. There are both. Waiting is a very real thing in the life of this woman, and probably in the lives of all others as well. Waiting for Prince Charming (actually, Prince Charming may be a little stuffy and unapproachable; I prefer someone slightly more real), waiting for marriage, for children, for her own little home… But in the waiting, the starter works in the bread, making it rise light. In my life, the yeast needs to work as well, preparing me, bringing me ever nearer to the woman God wants me to be. The process must not be rushed- not in bread, not in life. The bread dough gets punched down following the first rising, and then it rises a second time. These punches in life, those unexpected kicks in the gut- they will bring good, if we let God work in us as He desires to do. We rise, too.
Once the bread has risen the second time, there’s a careful cut made in the top of the loaf. This can be a basic and simple step, just a slit with a sharp knife, or it can take the form of elaborate designs made with a bread lame. This is a part of sourdough bread making I want to explore further. I attempted making a heart on my last loaf. The result looked anything but professional. Granted, I only used a paring knife; maybe I should try my craft knife next time! Just imagine what fun it would be to combine art with breadmaking. Breadmaking is an art in itself, true, but to get to make the bread beautiful- now that’s food for the soul!
Finally, after a process which has taken somewhere around six and seven hours (and that’s assuming your starter was fed and ready to use), you can slide the bread into the oven. Sourdough bread is baked at a relatively high temperature, which results in a crusty outside and a soft middle. Like some people perhaps. On the outside, they can appear to be rather unapproachable and distant, not like myself. I wear my heart on my face too much of the time. But inside, their hearts most times are worth getting to know. It may be difficult cutting through that crusty layer, though.
The bread comes out, and I butter the top to make it shine, then wrap it in a tea towel. I love tea towels. We rarely used them in my home growing up, but I certainly use them now. Once again, they hold a homemakerish charm. Tea towels, crusty bread, sourdough… this is the life.
Thank you for joining me in my somewhat random meditations on breadmaking. Many things in life are allegory, parable, lessons in ordinary places. Seek them out! And make the bread.