Half-Baked Ideas

This I know to be true: In an agricultural lifestyle, the winter is spent planning for the spring. The spring, in turn, is spent planning for the winter. Summer and fall are for preparing for winter and go by in a blur of activity. When you don’t have the previous year of planning to fall back on, you both have a LOT to do during the winter, and also not much at all. I can plan garden beds and order seeds all I want, but my hands are tied until the ground thaws. The result is “Hurry up and wait.”

I needed something that would make me feel like I was making tangible progress while waiting for the sun to return. It’s really easy to fall back into old habits once the initial rush of excitement wears off, and I didn’t want to risk my hands getting bored while my brain worked on spring’s changes.

I don’t know why bread jumped out at me. I’ve never made a loaf that didn’t involve pulling it out of a bag or box and reading the instructions before plopping it in the oven. I’m not a “by scratch” kind of gal. That didn’t stop me from learning how to bake my own bread.

My first loaf was simple. Water, flour, yeast. Mix it. Bake it. Eat it. It was delicious and most importantly, it was fun. I loved getting in there and mixing the ingredients by hand and kneading the dough. Tasty, tasty gluten. The second was the same recipe, though, and I was already bored. I needed to up the challenge.

I remember from my childhood a time when there was a big Ziploc bag sitting on the kitchen counter. “Amish Friendship Bread Starter,” it was labeled and I wondered what Amish friends we had, but mostly wished it would just be bread already and not a bag of sludge on the counter. I can’t remember ever eating the bread, but I have a clear memory of my parents looking for enough people to portion out the start to.

For those uninitiated, Amish Friendship Bread starter gets “fed” flour, milk, and sugar at certain intervals, causing the one cup your (suspiciously not Amish) friend put in the bag to become four cups of starter. After 10 days, you separate out three cups, giving them to three (probably also not Amish) friends so they can put their own bag on the counter and repeat the process, while you bake that one cup and turn it into a delicious sweet bread.

Did you notice I’m a bit hung-up on the Amish Friendship part? It just feels gross to mooch off the Amish to pass around yeasty sugary goodness so when I looked up how to make my own Amish Friendship Bread Starter In A Ziploc Bag On Your Counter, I made the choice to stop calling it that. I picked a name that’s a little more on the nose: sweet bread.

This is not to be confused with sweetbread, the thymus gland of a lamb used in culinary delicacies. I will not be making that. Ever. I never, ever mean lamby body parts.

Also different from my childhood, my sweet bread starter lived in a jar, not a bag. I diligently stirred that bad boy every day and fed it every few to get the yeast good and happy until it was finally time to separate it out and make the bread with my starter.

The bread was heavenly, obviously, and I could definitely believe something that good originated with the Amish. There’s some debate about who left sugar, flour, and milk on the counter too long and then decided to bake it first, but I think we can all agree it’s delicious either way.

Sweet bread was a hit in my family and I have since regularly used the starter to keep the loaves coming. Still, it wasn’t quite the bread baking experience I was looking for. It just wasn’t hands-on enough for me, so I jumped well ahead of my expertise and took it a few levels higher.

I made a sourdough starter from scratch. I mean, I could have just bought one but the experimentation was enticing. So much could go wrong! So much could go right! It was all very exciting.

Sure enough, my first starter was a big hoochy mess. For those who have not been in contact with the terror that is hooch, it is the stinkiest, sickest, infected-belly-button smell in the world that is a byproduct of fermentation. When I ended up with more hooch than salvageable starter, I dumped the whole thing down the drain (Merry Christmas, septic tank!) and started again.

This time, everything was perfect. I still had a wee bit of hooch, but it wasn’t taking over the jar, so I just skimmed it off and fed the starter daily. A week later, it was time to bake!

The first loaves were, erm, wrong. Deliciously glorious but that is definitely not what sourdough bread looks like. The texture was all wrong to I turned to YouTube to find out what went wrong.

Thus was my REAL introduction into the artistry that is sourdough. And it is definitely an art. There are special tools and special techniques and special people who just want to eat some dang bread (me.) I learned words like levain, autolyze, and “don’t cut into the bread before it cools a while or it will get gummy.”

After much more research, I felt ready to give it another go. My second batch was spot on after all the fancy kneading and folding and kneading and caressing. For my third batch, I decided it was time for the ultimate test of my new skills. I taught my daughter how to make sourdough bread.

This was, by far, the best batch, so I passed the test and dubbed myself the world’s best bread baker in the world.

Heh, that’s a joke, kids. I still have so much to learn, but I’m excited to continue baking. Not only do I have the quick and easy bread, sweet bread, and sourdough bread, I have finally figured out how to make loaves of sandwich bread, replacing the need to buy that from the store (spoiler alert: none of my bread has HFCS, so that’s a win.)

Trying my hand at baking bread from scratch was a great place to start this journey, and I feel so much joy from knowing I can now supply our family with various kinds of bread from our own kitchen. We have stopped buying bread (including tortillas!) from the grocery store entirely, so that’s another step towards being more self-sufficient. These are skills I can build on and pass down to my children. That’s what this entire process is about.

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