This post is about the perils of being naughty, and of new mothers. And baking. It begins with a strange tale, drifts off into a discussion of sourdough starters (or ‘mothers’) and then documents our adventures with creating a new mother.
Lucy Clifford and The New Mother
Lucy Clifford (1846-1929) wrote a delightfully dark story called ‘The New Mother’, which was included in her 1882 collection The Anyhow Stories, Moral and Otherwise. In this story, the children Turkey and Blue-Eyes are sent to the village by their mother. On the way home, they meet a ‘strange, wild-looking girl’ sitting on a peardrum. The girl tells them that she is playing the peardrum in order to make the little man and woman dance. But the children cannot see any little man or woman.
The wild girl tells the children that she only shows the little dancing man and woman to naughty children. And that the naughtier the children are, the more furiously the man and woman dance.
The children go home, determined to be naughty, but their mother talks them out of it, telling them that if they are very, very naughty she will: “have to go away and leave you, and to send home a new mother, with glass eyes and wooden tail.”
Can you imagine what happens next! If you’d like to find out, you can read the story online at the Weird Fiction Review here …
Start Me Up
In his book on the delights of what the back-cover blurb calls ‘proper’ cooking, Cooked, Michael Pollan has a chapter called Air, which is largely about bread. And about the various processes devised by humans for creating wondrous loaves of bread with plenty of air in them (that is, loaves that are both well-risen, and have good cavitation, meaning they contain glorious bubbles of air inside them). This chapter includes a story about Pollan’s interviews with Chad Robertson, the wunderkind of bread. The god of baking. The owner and baker of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. Author of the stupendously intimidating but simply named Tartine Bread (in which is enshrined his 27 page recipe for making a basic loaf of bread). Pollan enters the kitchen at Tartine and asks Chad about his starter (this is intimate stuff, ladies and jellybeans!). Chad responds:
“When I was starting out I was superstitious about my starter,” Chad told me, as he swiftly cut and weighed lumps of dough. “I would take it on vacation because I didn’t trust anyone with it. Once, I took it to the movies with me, so I could feed it exactly on time … Chad showed me his culture, taking down from a high, warm shelf a metal bowl half filled with an animated white soup … He told a story about the night one of his apprentices, cleaning the bakery at the end of her shift, accidentally threw out the bowl of starter.
“I cried. I thought I was finished as a baker. But then I found I was able to start a new culture that within days smelled exactly like the old one.”
So, how do you create your own mother? Actually, despite the 27-page recipe in Chad’s beautiful book, creating your own sourdough starter is simple. All it takes is flour, water and time. So, let’s get started!
Mix 50 grams of flour (organic flour is best, I find. For this mother, we’ve used an organic, stoneground wholemeal flour) and 50 ml of tepid water. You can use whatever implement you like, I guess. I used a fork. SO FANCY!
Place in a good-sized container that you can put a lid on, but not necessarily seal completely. Don’t use an air-tight glass container unless you’d like to see what happens when your mother explodes into life and shatters the jar. We’re using a ceramic compost bucket because it’s a good size, and has a lovely lid with air-holes into which you insert a charcoal filter. This keeps the smells in, and the flies out.
Plus, it’s a beautiful container, that looks happy on our kitchen bench (the required warm place). Ideally, your mother would like to be spending her days at between 28 and 30 degrees celsius. A few degrees either side of that won’t bother her too much. A bit colder and she might be a little slower to get bubbling.
Open the lid and peek in at your mother. Stir in another 50 grams of flour, and 50 mls of tepid water. Put the lid back on, and get on with your day. Perhaps today is a good day to call your human mother?
Have you ever noticed how beautiful your mother is? How wonderful she smells? Day three, and when you lift the lid you should get an interesting, apple-y sweet but slightly funky waft of goodness. There might also be a slightly grey film on her skin.
Add the usual refreshments (50 grams of flour, and 50 ml of tepid water), and give her a little stir. Pop the lid back on, and put back in her cosy, warm spot.
|Being a mother is a tough gig. Everyone has stories to tell about their mothers: how wonderful they were, and how disappointing they were. The thing is, if you want to have a good relationship with your mother, you need to put in some effort. Feed her every day; make sure the water temperature is just right, and … she’ll be apples!|
Check your mother. It should have doubled in bulk since yesterday. By now, Mother should also be looking bubbly, even frothy. If you stir her, she will feel looser than yesterday and be filled with bubbles. You can taste a little: she should taste even more sour and vinegary.
If your mother looks, smells, and tastes good, she is ready to use to make a loaf of bread!
Time to make a sponge! The sponge is the base of your sourdough. Simply mix together, in a clean container:
- 150 grams of your mother
- 200 grams of bread flour (strong flour)
- 100 mls of tepid water
Seal the container, and store in a warm, dry place for 12-24 hours.
What about mother?
Now that she’s been depleted, top her up with the usual 50 grams of flour and 50 mls of tepid water. If she isn’t quite bubbly enough on day five, treat her tenderly: feed her her usual diet and give her an extra 24 hours to ripen.
From now on, you can put your mother on a kind of diet so that you don’t end up with a Monster Mother! Simply discard half your starter each time you feed her (before you feed her). This ensures you’re maintaining her good yeasty loveliness, but reduces her bulk over time.
You can keep your mother burbling away by feeding her every day, or store her in the fridge and feed her less frequently (like, once a week). If you’re going on holidays for a week, feed your mother double the amount of flour (but the same amount of water) to create a really thick, doughy mix that will keep for a couple of weeks in the fridge.
If you’re abandoning her for a little longer, smear her on a dry, clean surface (like baking paper on a tray, or a pastry mat) and let her dry out. Keep the dried-out flakes in an airtight container. You can re-start your dried out old lady by dissolving the flakes in an equal amount of flour and water (50grams/50ml).
COMING UP NEXT … FROM SPONGE TO BREAD
I've always been terrified to try this (probably because I've killed two mothers (sourdough not human) already), but your instructions are so friendly and sensible I may just give it a go.
Do have a bash! I've killed a few (non-human) mothers in my time. I think the thing is not to feel intimidated by the process, or precious about your Mother. They're living things, with temperaments that respond to the environment they live in. And, really, if it doesn't work all you've lost is 200 grams of flour, and maybe ten minutes spread over a week! No biggie :)