On Sourdough

On Sourdough

Let’s talk about sourdough doughnuts for a minute. I don’t actually know the first thing about them. Or rather, I didn’t really think about them one way or the other, until yesterday–when a confluence of several delightful things suddenly made me realize that I should be thinking about them, had been remiss in not considering them, and in fact, ought to be doing more research about them post haste.

Delightful thing 1 is that I have been given my very first sourdough starter. It is a thing I have always idly wanted. Sort of the the way one idly longs for a sailboat on a particularly breezy and gorgeous day by the water, in that I’ve never done one single thing to actively try to acquire it, even though the idle longing was in fact accompanied with a little more practical intensity in the case of the sourdough starter, which is pretty obviously a whole lot easier to deal with than a real, actual sailboat.

And then, last Friday, a student in my Feasts and Famines class brought me a square plastic container full of this magic substance and emailed me the feeding directions. In the space of a single semester in this course, we have collectively cooked a meal out of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management in my kitchen and then, a month later, had a whole-class discussion in response to one student’s query, “what do they mean when they say ‘stock a pantry’? What am I supposed to be buying right now?” as students tried to grapple with directions for being responsible during a global pandemic. In the wake of that second conversation, I learned that one of my students had spent considerable time working in a bakery, and somehow our conversation turned to sourdough, and when I got enthusiastic about how I’d always wanted to try my hand at that, she offered me some of hers, which needed dividing and feeding anyway.

Delightful things 2, 3, and 4 all involve twitter, where, in the space of an hour, the following happened. Delightful 2: I replied to a friend’s post, which contained a gorgeous photograph of sourdough rye that she’d just made, with a comment that I was really excited to try my hand at baking sourdough bread now that I had my very first starter, and how funny it was to see her bread just as I was starting to think about mine.

Delightful 3: I replied to the excellent tweet pictured here with “147 please” and was sent a recipe for…wait for it…sourdough doughnuts. Honestly, that felt like some kind of David Blaine level magic trick. How was 147 a recipe for something requiring sourdough?

Of course, because it’s a Shaker cookbook, and it was published in 1959, the recipe makes all kinds of assumptions about how much I know about sourdough, doughnuts, and cooking in general. I find that delightful because it is so much like Mrs. Beeton, who is prone to directions like “cook the rice in the usual way, and then…” or who provides what purports to be a recipe for lemon pie, but is in fact only a list of ingredients and proportions for the lemon filling and the meringue, followed by the line “pour the custard into the crust and bake…” Yes, she assumes that you’ve been making a good pie crust without help for years, and that you know enough to take her proportions and temper the eggs for the lemon custard without being told to do so, what are you some kind of kitchen dolt? Ditto this recipe for “Doughnuts without Saleratus,” which, as you can see, assumes a fair amount. (Yes, that’s the whole recipe.)

Here, then, an additional little thrill of cosmic coincidence. The “ferment” I got on Friday was being called for in a recipe I had randomly chosen out of a hat on the following Tuesday, and in a style that charmingly harkened back to the very class whose cooking projects produced all the conversations that resulted in my being gifted the starter in the first place. (In case you’re wondering, any good Shaker cook in 1959 would have known saleratus was baking soda. I, by the way, did not know that. I guessed it was a kind of fortified wine. But spellcheck knew it was a word, and google kindly defined it for me.)

Delightful 4: as soon as I tweeted my amazement over the perfect storm of sourdough overlap above, another friend saw the thread, and could not resist following up with an email containing even more information and recipes for sourdough doughnuts.

It is obvious, then, that there will be sourdough doughnuts happening at my house tomorrow. Today is packed. Plus, I have learned, because now of course I have to read a lot about them online, that I need to take my starter out of the refrigerator tonight and feed it overnight in preparation for baking the next day. Because sourdough doughnuts are not fast. Which is also excellent, in this time of hunkering down and needing projects to do with my children.

And on a less flip note, I also have to say that this gift feels particularly poignant. It was hand-delivered to my office on a Friday, a day that, on the Monday of that same week might have been identified as “the last day before Spring Break starts,” by Wednesday was “the last day before our extended two-week break starts,” and by the following Monday was “the last day we might see each other in person until next fall.” Last week felt like a month. I suspect the coming month will feel like a year. But here I am, with a sourdough starter that, if I understand correctly how these things work, could theoretically live for actual years. I have continuity. I can make bread from this little cup of flour, sugar, and water until I see my students again, even if that is not until September.

And in the meantime, there will also be doughnuts.

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