Baking Bread at the End of the World

Behold my glorious mess in the making!

When the world is on fire, I bake bread. That’s what I decided this week. The Great Sourdough Experiment has begun!

As I mentioned before, I’ve been wanting to make my own sourdough starter for a bit. Given that the grocery stores here are now completely out of bread (and eggs, and milk, and of course toilet paper), I figured now’s as good a time as any to give it a shot.

Getting a starter going is supposed to take about a week or so. Today was Day 1. I spent approximately five hours double-checking websites and cookbooks and back alleys before finally settling on the idea of just doing the thing. It took about five minutes.

I should note here that I’ve already gone off book. Pretty much all the recipes I saw called for around a cup of whole wheat flour. I ended up using 1/4 cup. Call it personal choice. Really, I just didn’t want to waste a bunch of flour on an experiment that may fail hard. I don’t know when I might be able to find flour on the grocery store shelves again.

So my ultimate recipe was: 40g whole wheat flour (King Arthur stone-ground White Wheat Flour) and 40g water. It dawns on me now as I write this that whole wheat flour and white wheat flour may not be the same thing. Hmm… Isn’t this fun?

I measured and added the contents into a small jar and mixed thoroughly, all while explaining to my son what we were doing. I use “we” quite loosely here, much in the same but inverted way that “we” were watching his iPad the entire time. But I digress.

We got the job done. And now a New Thing sits on our kitchen counter. The next few days should be entertaining as we feed and care for our new pet and watch it grow. And it dawns on me now that I should probably start figuring out the next steps of how to actually bake bread, and what kind of things I can bake with this thing.

Schools are cancelled for at least the next couple weeks here, so this is how I’m going to be teaching my son. I don’t know new math. I don’t know any of the classroom songs. And I don’t know how to make my own bread. This week, I’m going to remedy one of those things.

What a Month This Week Has Been

I’ve only ever seen limit signs on empty shelves.

So yeah, things are weird out there. I feel like this entire week has been spent bouncing between grocery store treasure hunts (because really, we can’t call it shopping these days), scanning the news for pandemic-related updates, scanning the news for anything other than pandemic-related updates, and washing. Washing all the things. Hands, countertops, magazines that arrive in the mail. You hand it to me, I’ll wash it. And I’ll probably ask if you washed that hand.

Okay, I’m exaggerating. But probably not as much as I wish I was. Things are getting weirder every day here. And by here, I mean a small remote island right in the middle of the world’s largest ocean. The entirety of this place is smaller than the area code I grew up in. When something runs out at the grocery store, there’s only so many other stores you can check before you run out of island to drive around. And all the other grocery stores are out of whatever you’re looking for, too.

Things are weird. And they’re only going to get weirder. Schools are being closed. Hell, everything’s being closed. I took my son to get a haircut this weekend, likely the last public setting we’ll go to for a while, and he was the only kid in the place that’s usually standing room only. We were done before our appointment was even scheduled to begin. They ended up cutting his hair shorter than normal. I couldn’t understand why at the time, but I think I’m starting to.

There’s not really a point I’m getting at here. I think all I’m trying to say is, I’m with you. Each and every one of you who is adjusting to this new now that we find ourselves in, I’m right there with you. Not physically, of course, because of that whole stuck on an island thousands of miles away from the rest of civilization thing. But we’re all clawing our way through this worst timeline together.

So it’s on us to make the best of it. Get creative. Grab a board game and play with the people you may be stuck indoors with. Do a video chat with other people also stuck indoors. Figure out how to play a board game over video chat. I think it would work with Battleship. Less so with poker, but let me know if you figure out how to make it work. Just keep your wits about you, and be kind when the opportunity presents itself. Because it will, and with increasing frequency as this continues. We’re only just now entering the gaping mouth of the tunnel ahead, but that daylight is going to feel sweet on our faces when we reach the other side.

Sourdough

I think I want to bake my own bread. I’ve been curious about the concept of baking bread for quite a while now. Years, possibly. I think it started when the wife picked up a bread maker machine. She’s used it many times, and every time she makes delicious breads. But most of the time it just sits on the kitchen counter taking up space, waiting. I would look at it from time to time, knowing that there was a potential for awesomeness just sitting there, neglected.

But then this week happened, and my web searches and online shopping carts have now taken on the distinct flavor of one who wishes to bake. Two specific experiences this week triggered this rising urge. Pun fully intended. You’re welcome.

First, I read a post on Medium extolling the virtues of maintaining and using your own sourdough starter. This struck me as an extremely California thing to write about. Not that I’m anti-Left Coast, I’m just not from there. And I’ve never lived there. And let’s be honest, some Californians do weird things in the name of happy and/or healthy living. So I read the post, found it interesting, but just shy of interesting enough to trigger me to look into it any further.

But then my mind started working the idea over. I recalled a book that came out a couple years ago that had been sitting on my To Read list, Sourdough, by Robin Sloan. I loved his first book, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, and his novella, Annabel Scheme. I was interested in his second novel, but the topic never seemed to catch with me. How interesting could a book about baking bread be, after all?

How wrong I was. The Medium post put Sourdough back in the forefront of my mind, and I sat down Wednesday night to start reading it. I’d say I read the whole thing in one sitting, but it’s not quite true. I read in bed that night until I fell asleep with the book still in my hand, betrayed by my own eyes. When I woke, I rushed to get my son to school simply so I could come home, brew some coffee, and sit back down to finish. I didn’t even wait for sitting. I was carrying the book around in one hand as I got the coffee started with the other.

I consumed this book. As a side note, I was in the midst of a 36-hour fast (I don’t shun all health/fitness trends, as it turns out), so I read this entire book with no food in my belly. I was sustained on Sloan’s words alone. And man, was I happily full by the turn of the last page. Sourdough was a warm breeze blowing around me, filled with the scent of baking bread, and maybe a slight tinge of bananas.

I find myself latching onto one book every year that sets itself apart from all the others. I know the year is still youngish, but I already feel confident that Sourdough will be this year’s book for me.

It’s a book about baking bread, and about the San Francisco Bay Area, and neither of those things resonated with me when I started the book. I finished and immediately started researching how I could make my own sourdough starter. I don’t know if the bread will have smiling faces, but I know I do thanks to Robin’s wonderfully relaxed style of writing.

So what’s next? I think I’m going to give this sourdough starter thing a try. Maybe I’ll make a few posts about it. From what I can tell, it takes about a week to grow your own sourdough starter. So that’s where I’ll start. And I’ll let you all know how it goes. Stay tuned!