“There was a time when the word from which lady sprang meant a ‘loaf-kneader’. To our own and our families’ distinct profit–and with little effort–we housewives can become ‘ladies’ again” (I. Rombauer, 1962).

I grew up in the era of the bread machine. Throw the ingredients in, push a couple buttons, and leave to come home to a freshly baked box-shaped loaf. Sure, the house smelled wonderful, and the bread was guaranteed to rise and bake perfectly, but I missed out on the hands-on experience and comfort of bread making.

As early as March, the first month of quarantine in Georgia, many people, not just ladies, had turned to bread making to fill their free time. After the run on toilet paper and hand sanitizer, dry yeast quickly disappeared from the store shelves, and Facebook and Instagram filled with pictures of beautiful, brown loaves of bread. Flour was in high demand as millers struggled to make the transition between providing bulk flour for the restaurant industry to providing small packages for the retail industry. Castle Valley Mill was able to adapt quickly to meet the demand. The transition involved long backbreaking days, but my sister and her family took pride in knowing they were providing comfort in a time of unprecedented stress. 

After attempts to “reopen” the economy, COVID numbers are climbing, and I am waiting to be handed the “Go Back to Start; Do Not Pass Go” card. I told my sister I might want to try my hand at sourdough starter again, since yeast will be impossible to find. Last year, I managed to keep some gifted starter alive for several months before losing it in the back of the refrigerator. Keeping starter is like keeping another pet. I wasn’t ready for the commitment last year, but now that I have more time and structure in my days, I am ready to be a better dough mama. Last week, I got my sourdough care package from Castle Valley Mill and have begun my venture into raising my sourdough baby from a sterile dough ball into a yeasty living creature that needs to be fed every twelve hours.

In my true academic nature, I hit the books to do some research. It has been a tradition in our family that when a daughter leaves home, she gets the most recent edition of the family cookbook. I inherited my mother’s cookbooks and have three generations of these kitchen bibles. The earliest is my mother’s mother’s The Boston Cooking School, by Fanny Farmer, published in 1935. My mother’s copy is 1959. By 1962, she switched to Irma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking. Each edition contains entirely new recipes and advice based on the industrialization of flour and bread making. My edition of Joy is 1997, when I graduated college and moved to Miami, much to my mother’s horror (her only knowledge of the city came from Miami Vice). But, in Miami, I was a sous chef at a catering company where I was assigned to make focaccia. It was my first real experience working with flour and yeast.

Based on my literature review, sourdough starter appears to have been a staple in the traditional housewife’s kitchen, whereas now bread making is for people who have the luxury of time and patience. The ’62 edition only mentions starter in the “Know Your Ingredients” section and lacks the step-by-step instructions on growing your own yeast that my ’97 edition includes. “Natural Sourdough Starter” instructions fill most of the page with multiple steps requiring a minimum three days to cultivate. No wonder families kept this stuff alive for generations. Clearly, sourdough is not for the casual bread-maker. If at the end of the second day, it hasn’t formed bubbles yet, it tells me to throw it out, and Go Back to Start; Do Not Pass Go. 

Day 1

The next morning, bubbles started forming in the dough, and by the noon feeding, the dough had risen to the top of the bowl. I moved it to a larger container for its next 24-hour nap. Midway through the day, the dough had tripled. Exciting! But, just how much yeast is in the air in my house?  

At noon, I mix the first 1/2 cup bolted hard wheat with 1/4 cup warm water and make my little dough ball. I cover my dough baby and poke holes in the plastic wrap, so it can gather the yeast over the next 12 hours.

At the midnight feeding, it didn’t look much different.

Day 2
Day 3

It collapsed! But the book said it should have bubbles and start to smell sour. Another source mentioned it would become runny. As long as it is still “active,” I should just keep going.

Today is the day! It had lots of air bubbles in the morning, but hadn’t risen to where it was before, so I decided to let it sit a little longer. When I got home from my walk along the Chattahoochee, the starter was twice the size and ready to use.

Day 4

My first attempt at a sourdough boule wasn’t exactly uplifting, but it was edible and very flavorful. I was impatient and needed to give it more time on its second rise. It made hearty dipping bread and French toast bites the next morning. I have much to learn before I pull an Insta-worthy loaf from the oven, but the house will smell heavenly as I pursue this ancient craft.

The ’62 edition of Joy of Cooking asserts, “Nothing gives a household a greater sense of stability and solid comfort than the aroma of cooling bread.” Putting gender role assumptions aside, this statement has proven true in this time of quarantine. As social and political strife mounts, there’s been a return to the importance of home to provide that “sense of stability and solid comfort.” Many of us who are “nonessential employees” have experienced the shift from breadwinner to bread maker to ease our anxiety or at the very least to give us something to do with our hands.

Be sure to follow #castlevalleymillcreations on Instagram to see my progress and get a glimpse at some of the beautiful creations the pros are doing.

By Maren V. Henry