Sourdough Starter

Recently I’ve been sharing my sourdough starter as fast as I can bulk it back up. Two women two weeks ago, two more last week, and some for Dean who made sourdough dinner rolls and said they were kind of ugly, but delicious!

Here’s what I gave to Dean…

Typically my starter lives in my fridge, where I feed it once a week or less, if I’m not baking with it. It gets tucked all the way to the back left side, and usually has apples in front of it, or tubs of salsa, or a jar of homemade plum jam.

When I’m in a sourdough frame of mind, then the starter gets moved to the counter, where it lives in the open air and I feed it once, even twice each day. It goes bad out in the warmth if you don’t pay attention, so I keep it where I’ll always see it, right by the drawer that holds the dinner napkins and the phone charger. For the last two months, my starter has been working overtime.

Fido. I know it’s silly to name a sourdough starter, but Fi-means faithful and Do-is a lousy but fun version of dough. Catchy? Ha. Our family’s lore says that we Garaicoetxea folk (Ga-ra-ee-ko-eh-chay-uh… that’s the way you write our very Basque surname) brought our levain–our sourdough starter–all the way to the new world in the 1890’s. Since we were bakers in the Basque country, and immediately opened a bakery in California, it’s probably all very true! Here are some photos from my last trip there.

Anyway, what’s the big interest suddenly in sourdough? Well, articles are popping up everywhere about fermented foods, and so I thought I’d share a few links so that you might know a little more about this sour magic.

On food sensitivities

One person’s story on going grain-free, then reverting back to eating grains and their health benefits

The science behind sourdough, and a bit about San Francisco’s claim to sour fame

So, if you live near me and are tempted to try your hand at baking some of your own sourdough-based recipes, send me a message and I’ll put you in the giveaway lineup. If not, just make your own. Here are some sourdough starter recipes from trusted baking websites:

The Fresh Loaf

King Arthur

Bon Appetit–with some nods to Richard Bertinet, one of my favorite bread book authors, and a recipe for sourdough bread to boot!

Just be careful if you are inspired, but don’t want to bake sourdough bread yourself. Many of the commercial varieties aren’t all that special. Instead of using the traditional method of allowing the bread to ferment and rise over a long period of time–thus gaining that sour flavor and the benefits of fermentation, many of the large commercial bakeries simply add vinegars or souring agents to a typical loaf of industrial, yeasted bread… The ingredient list will be long, and you won’t gain any of the health benefits. Real sourdough bread has these three ingredients: flour, water, and salt. 🙂

Lastly.

Sourdough toast with butter and homemade plum jam. Stew and sourdough. French toast from sourdough bread. Bread pudding made from stale loaves. Egg in a hole. Grilled panini on homemade sour. Sourdough pancakes and waffles! Hot sourdough baked in a pot, on an open flame.

Are you hungry yet?

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Saint Brigid and Her Feast

Mixed and baked two loaves of my Never-Been-to-Maine Pumpkin Bread (recipe coming later this week–you’re gonna love it!)

Gave one loaf to an old schoolmate just diagnosed with cancer 😦

Researching and writing The Life of Saint Brigid: Abbess of Kildare was one of the most rewarding writing experiences I’ve had yet. Not only did I enjoy getting to know fifth century Ireland, learning about the foods and habits of people of that time and about the budding days of Christianity where the people were so receptive to Christ’s love–but I absolutely came to admire this young girl named Brigid–this open-hearted daughter of a slave, who loved man and beast, rich and poor, and who always held Christ foremost in her heart.

Celebrating her feast day each year has enriched our lives and brought about some good and healthy family fun, plus a lot of introspection….So much of celebrating Saint Brigid happens on the eve of her feast day–January 31st… and yesterday being that day, I’d like to share with you some of what went on.

First, I read the story of Saint Brigid to our little one early in the day. We cuddled and he asked questions, and that set the tone for all that happened afterward. In the late afternoon, we baked, making pumpkin bread to share, and Saint Brigid oatcakes for our meal, placing a portion for her on the windowsill.

For our evening meal we ate roasted chicken (fifth century folk did a lot of roasting on feast days) and made colcannon, a traditional potato, leek, cabbage mixture. There were the Saint Brigid oatcakes, too, along with honey butter and jams. I had a few sips of ale too, which made me feel especially Irish.

And after dinner we washed up, then prepared the table for making crosses. John Ronan and I broke the seed heads off the stalks, we soaked the stalks in warm water for about an hour, then brought everyone to the table and started weaving. Morgan, our favorite neighbor friend joined us. She wanted me to make sure I mentioned how she was part of the cross weaving gang!

I was the weaving manager, giving lessons round the table. My husband and daughter are especially proficient, making better crosses than I can, but the two boys struggled. Andrew threw several wheat shafts up into the air after an attempt or two, and John Ronan, using pipe cleaners, still fumbled and didn’t quite get the gist of it. Morgan, a perfectionist at times, also spent a bit of time moaning about her non-cooperative fingers. But we didn’t give up! Aid arrived, and everyone ended up making something that resembled a cross. John Ronan was so proud of his creation that we immediately hung it over his bed. Love the way little people think with their hearts…

So on this beautiful day of the feast of Saint Brigid, I leave you with this prayer of hers that I love…

O God, bless my pantry!

Pantry which the Lord has blessed.

Mary’s Son, my friend,

come and bless my pantry!

Let Them Bake Bread!

Baked all day with a host of munchkins

Many years ago, my husband and I helped found a small, classical school here in Santa Barbara. SJDA (Saint John of Damascus Academy) is still hanging in there, providing a wonderful education for families who value a small, private setting, engaged teachers, and the classical method. Both of my older children spent all their early years at this school, so it’s fun to give back when I can.

The class above has embarked on a long journey into the Middle Ages this September, so I was called upon to apprentice young bakers, using the methods and ingredients that you would find during Saint Brigid’s day. I’ve done quite a lot of research into bread baking during the early Middle Ages (see my posts from January 2010), so it was fun to share my knowledge with these eager learners.

First they chose flours–we had whole wheat, barley–plus some oat, rye, barley and wheat flakes available.

Then they added yeast (we used both dry active yeast and some of my brewer’s yeast starter).

Then sea salt that I made right here in my own backyard.

And finally, a choice of water, honey, and buttermilk (they were allowed to choose what proportion of each…).

Once all the ingredients were in their respective bowls, they set to mixing…

and kneading…

and waiting…

They sang with Mrs Sereda while the dough was rising, then climbed into the trees to read.

Then they molded the dough, and John Ronan blew bubbles.

From 9-2 we hung out, working, laughing, playing, singing, reading… And at the end of the day, each young apprentice had a loaf of bread, made with his or her own two hands, ready to taste and share… They were amazing. All kids, given the chance, are amazing.

Don’t you think?

Fifth Century–Signing Off

No bread (the twenty loaves sort of did me in!)–but made LOTS of crosses

What fun it’s been this last month dipping back in time to the world of Saint Brigid. The 400’s were a time of big change in Ireland and I’ve enjoyed all the added research, and trying my hand at baking with new ingredients (barley, oats, and brewer’s yeast) and using new methods (clay pots and dutch ovens).

To really celebrate the feast day of Saint Brigid I made crosses here at home with my daughter…

…and we played a little bit with the wheat heads…

…then headed over to the private school where my big kids used to attend: St. John’s Academy. After telling a classroom of students about Saint Brigid, and reading them her story, we made crosses of pipe cleaners for them to take home. We teamed big kids up with little ones, but it was new to everyone… They worked so hard! In fact, we worked so hard there was no one left to grab a camera and take shots. You should have heard the buzz of chatter, and seen the little fingers bending and the concentration in their eyes as they listened to my instructions. Beautiful.

I did get some photos of their crosses after the fact, sticking out of their backpacks, ready to go home and be hung over their doors so that they might think of Christ through all their comings and goings. We talked about how Saint Brigid used the cross to tell the dying chieftain the story of Christ’s life and death and resurrection, and also mentioned how the Irish place them over their front doors, near their roof, as protection from fire. Every child in that room has had his own experience of fright from fire these last two years, so we all agreed that it would be comforting to have an added reminder of God’s protection in our homes.

There was one little boy that I spotted in the midst of all the fun, who was paired with another munchkin who was struggling to bend and turn and shape with his hands. His cross was a bit of a pipe cleaner jumble. He looked depressed when he showed me the finished product as we packed up to leave.

So, today, I’ll pop back over to school at lunch time, a few pipe cleaners hidden in my purse, and we’ll make a new one while eating a pbj together. I think that’s what Saint Brigid would have done.

Don’t you?

Fifth Century–Loaves Multiplying

Twenty loaves of dark Irish soda bread

Mixed, molded and baked from 5 am -7:30 am

Fed 225 hungry church goers

In honor of Saint Brigid, our family, along with a close friend, hosted coffee hour at church. We decided we would serve dark Irish soda bread, tangerines, nuts, butter and creamed cheeses along with the coffee, tea and juice. At first I was planning on making about ten loaves.

But, after speaking with my friend, and learning we were meant to feed over 200 people, I revised my baking plan, bumping the number of loaves up to twelve.

The alarm clock sounded at 5am. I fell out of bed at 5:15. My fellow baker, my husband, who signed up as co-pilot the night before, didn’t stir. The first batch went in at 5:45–already behind schedule, and that’s when I noticed how very small a loaf of dark Irish soda bread really is…

Hmmm.

The co-pilot stumbled into the kitchen at 6 am, looking sheepish. Did the alarm clock go off?

Yup.

That’s when we had a pow wow about the amount of bread we were baking–how in the world we were to feed all the five thousand–and this prompted him to drive to the market in his PJ’s for more ingredients. I mixed furiously.

All through Saint Brigid’s life there are miracles recorded about how food was multiplied through her prayers. Butter overflowing their vats, milk spilling over the rim of the jugs, water turned into ale–these acts of God’s abundance helped feed, and sometimes heal, her poorer neighbors and show the mighty and merciful hand of the Christ she prayed to. I love this simple prayer. It makes the duties of the home so much more joyful:

O God, bless my pantry!

Pantry, which the Lord has blessed.

Mary’s Son, my friend,

Come and bless my pantry!”

So, with Saint Brigid in mind I mixed and baked, hoping that the now sixteen loaves I was baking would be enough. By 7 am everyone was awake, and the loaves were stacking up on the cooling rack.

I shifted and squeezed bread into all corners of the oven, and when we were finished, and dressed and ready to head out out the door, I counted the loaves as I placed them in brown paper bags. Twenty loaves.

Now, how did that happen?

A blessed Saint Brigid’s Day everyone!

Fifth Century–Saved by the Monks

Two loaves of molassas bread

Two loaves of no-knead sour, plus spent barley

Gave one to the Brunners and the other to a grieving family

During this month of January I’ve been reading through this well presented book on Irish history written by Thomas Cahill. The man must be Irish himself–the book is filled with the lively humor and playfulness so typical of the Irish. I’ve enjoyed every page, and though I am familiar with much of the story, it was passages like this one, about the early monks of Ireland, that kept me reading:

…And this lack of martyrdom troubled the Irish, to whom a glorious death by violence presented such an exciting finale. If all Ireland had received Christianity without a fight, the Irish would just have to think up some new form of martyrdom…

Cahill brilliantly distills the important forces of history, focusing on the people who have made an important contribution to their cultures and times, and tells their stories. In this book we travel from Ausonius, to Augustine, to Saint Patrick and Saint Columba. We find Saint Brigid entering the story on page 172 and she stays with us until the end. There are other characters who pop in to visit: Cicero, Medb, Cuchulainn and Noisiu–so many of them impossible to pronounce, which is why I thumbed to the the pronunciation guide at the end more than once. (Thank you, Mr. Cahill!)

There weren’t any explanations of how bread was baked in the fifth century. I’ll have to write the author a personal letter about that, even though I’m not entirely sure that Irish bread baking helped save civilization in any way at all, but perhaps he has some notes he could share with me. He presented so clearly his thesis of the simultaneous breakdown of the Roman world with the intellectual and literary build up of the Irish one, that I didn’t much mind. In short–it was Saint Patrick who paved the way for hundreds of peaceful monasteries to be built around and about that grassy, green land. The monasteries housed eager Irish monks who not only enjoyed their work of creatively copying out texts, but who also savored the ancient classical texts, spending their days, and nights copying and illuminating, learning, discussing, and writing little verses of their own in the margins and on scraps of vellum. While most of the lands under Roman rule were deep into the middle ages, losing their educations by way of poverty and serfdom and the burning of libraries… the Irish were enjoying a time of peace–a time of light and discovery–and they gave these treasures back to the Western world, once the dark ages began to wane.

If you don’t know the basic story of Saint Patrick–please go get yourself a copy of Zachary Lynch’s The Life of Saint Patrick: Enlightener of the Irish. Though it’s just a children’s picture book, the story comes with all the dramatic and important details that highlight his story; it is taken straight from St. Patrick’s own Confessions.

I’ve been gushing about Mr Cahill’s writing all month. No wonder it sat on the bestseller list for almost two years in the mid 1990’s. If you’re at all interested in learning more about Saint Patrick and his influence on Western civilization, or if you’re just looking for a an inspiring read that dips you back in history, have fun with this one.

And now, back to my oven. There’s bread in there, and I need to figure out who to give it to!

Any takers?

(…And, if you’re out there, Mr. Cahill, the bread is hot, and you’ve done your share of inspiring me to deserve a loaf–or three…)


Disclosure of Material Connection: Believe me, I have not received any compensation for writing this post. Wouldn’t that be nice if I had? 🙂 I have no material connection to Mr. Cahill, and though I do know Mr. Lynch, he doesn’t know that I’m mentioning his book here… nor will I get any sous, or Euros, or even a cracker for pointing you to either of the two books above. I know these disclosures are supremely silly, and take away from the sweet nature of this blog post, but I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Fifth Century–Weaving a Saint Brigid’s Cross

No baking today

At the end of my picture book, The Life of Saint Brigid I tell the story of how a certain chieftain was dying…

On one of her journeys she comforted an old pagan chieftain as he lay dying. She found the chieftain in a desperate state, raving so that even the servants feared him. As Brigid sat by his bed, silently braiding the rushes that covered the floor, he became calm and asked, “What are you making?”

“This is a cross,” the abbess said, “which I make in honor of the Virgin’s Son, who died for us upon a cross of wood.”

The sick man listened to Brigid’s words of faith, of how Christ gave His life to save mankind, to save both the rich and the poor, the old and the new. And on that day the chief was baptized and died, one more saint added to heaven because of the work and faith of Saint Brigid, the Abbess of Kildare.

I love this story. This way of telling a story of the heart, through your hands.

I’ve made several St. Brigid’s Crosses this year and last–it’s traditional to do this on the eve of her feast day, the eve being January 31st, her feast day being the 1st of February… I’ve discovered that pipe cleaners are the easiest medium to teach children with–just be careful of the cut, wire ends. Here are some that I’ve made out of sea grass and pine needles, and such…

I’m excited, though, to have finally tried my hand at weaving with wheat. I ordered the wheat specifically for this purpose from Dale Scott a professional wheat weaver in Idaho, who both sells the crosses, and the kits so that you can make your own. It’s a very affordable thing to do, and a great tradition for your home each January 31st.

As you might be able to see in the video, I didn’t realize that the wheat needed to be soaked before weaving. I was all ready, sitting comfortably in the sun, my back to our lovely new stand of raspberries, and as I started folding the wheat in half, each stock snapped in half in my hand. We stopped filming and the only remedy I could think of was to soak the wheat in warm water for a bit. Thankfully it worked! Phew. Though my cross didn’t look nearly as neat and symmetrical as the finished one I purchased from Dale, I liked the homemade outcome of my effort and look forward to putting it up above our door in just a few days.

Here are some online instructions–of a woman in County Sligo, who does it much better than I do: Weaving a St Brigid\’s Cross on YouTube

And here are some written directions online that you might find helpful…

Oh, and one last note. The music accompanying my video is Prayer, sung by Haley Westenra. A favorite artist of ours here at home–a young New Zealand girl, of Irish descent, with a heavenly voice. I know you can’t hear my narration very well in the video; I think Miss Westenra’s song is much more appealing than anything I might ever have to say!!!

Hope you’re enjoying these last few days of January.

Blessings, and cheers…