Of all the going away gifts I received from my colleagues, the one that came by two-day parcel post from my former Last Chance Foods producer Joy Y. Wang is the one I've coveted the most.
She sent me a jar half-filled with sourdough starter, starter that she got nearly a year ago from She Wolf Bakery's top baker, Austin Hall.
Austin was a guest of ours on Last Chance Foods last April, to talk about growing a "garden" of yeast and bacteria out of flour and water, nothing more. He brought a little jar of starter with him.
Twenty years ago, I used to bake sourdough bread once a week, in a little kitchen in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn that had a countertop of terra cotta tile squares. It was an unfortunate choice of surface for a bread baker. I spent many hours chipping out dried dough from the grout. But I fell out of love with the person I was living with there on Dean Street, and moved out. The sourdough starter soured in the process, too far gone to restore.
Yeah, I know. Metaphors abound.
Then, two years ago, I stopped eating bread, out of deference to a wacky part of my brain that goes into consumption overdrive once I eat it. So, when Austin came bearing a gift of starter, Joy took it. The thought of baking bread, of touching it and smelling it, felt like waterboarding to me.
That was then. I miss baking. And it exists as a missing separate and apart from eating the end results. I don't have to get to eat it to get to miss making it. I miss the meditative, soothing process of weighing and measuring and mixing. I miss baking bread most of all. I miss the miracle of yeast, and the carefree fun of getting your hands sticky dirty in dough.
So, I asked Joy to send me some of the She Wolf starter she got from Austin. It came in a little plastic bottle with a label on it that told me it used to hold pearl couscous. "When you get it, give it 1/2 up of flour and 1/2 cup of bottled water or water that's sat out for 30 minutes," to let any chlorine off-gas, Joy wrote.
I did, and let it sit out overnight. It started to act lively, with bubbles forming on the top. I put some away for the next round of loaves and began making bread. It's been decades -- imagine! -- but my hands remembered what to do, how to knead, how to shape the loaves by tucking the dough under itself in a smoothing, cupping motion to get a taut skin on top.
Now, I don't know how this is going to turn out. Bread baking can be riddled with left turns that can leave you with a big old brick or a hollowed out loaf full of hole. But it feels juicy and creative and fun. If it all falls apart, it will make for a helluva story. If it works, and the loaves rise slowly and splendidly in the oven, some lucky folks will get to enjoy warm, toasted sourdough bread, drizzled with something silky and unctuous, like butter or olive oil.
Yes, I know. Metaphors abound.