The Jew And The Carrot

Something from Almost Nothing

By Elizabeth Traison

  • Print
  • Share Share
liz traison

My new year’s resolution was not to eat bread that I didn’t make. Between December 31st and January 1st, this already proved too difficult, so I scaled it back to not purchasing bread. In other words, if I wanted bread, I’d have to make it.

I’ve already mastered my classic challah recipe (which is actually not classic because it’s vegan). What used to take me hours and hours of anxious waiting and careful kneading, I have now turned into a quick and easy Thursday night dough making, and a pre-Shabbat braiding that takes less than an hour including 30 minutes in the oven. And every time, people can’t believe that I actually made my own bread.

With a solid challah recipe under my belt, I set out for my next challenge and got my heart set on making sourdough. When I get my heart set on something, I don’t give up easily (just ask my mom about the teddy bear she didn’t buy me when I was two), I will continue to work on it until I’ve perfected it. Maybe it’s because I’m an eldest child.

For those who are unfamiliar, sourdough is simultaneously the easiest and most plebian bread and also the fanciest and most complex. In order to make the bread you need to make or obtain a sourdough starter – a simple mix of equal parts flour and water, allowed to ferment for a few days a room temperature capturing the natural yeasts in the air. A new starter needs to be fed daily, while a mature starter needs only to be fed once a week or so. I was ecstatic when a friend of a friend brought me some of her starter.

I started by purchasing the book she recommended to me, The Bread Bakers Apprentice, which is filled with gorgeous, glossy pictures of crusty-on-the-outside, airy-on-the-inside breads that will undeniably make you think “I cannot do this” and put it back on the shelf. Fatefully, I accidentally shipped the book to my parent’s house and was eager to try my hand at the bread before they could ship it back to me.

So I started the same way I start most other recipes I’ve never tried before, by reading a bunch of recipes, deducing the most necessary and cheapest ingredients, and hoping for the best. But with sourdough there are already only 3 ingredients already (flour, water, and salt), so I moved onto phase 2 of my research: watching bread-baking Youtube videos. There are a surprising number of internet videos about making sourdough, none of which I found particularly helpful - mostly because they all claim how easy it is to make sourdough and how hard it is to mess up. Of course, this only made me feel even more strongly that not only would I create dense, mushy bread, but that I would probably also burn my apartment down too. Feeling defeated, I fed my starter and left it out to see just how close I could come to doing the so-called impossible (killing the starter).

When I came back in the morning, I couldn’t believe what I saw: a bubbly, pasty, gooey mixture that was literally growing inside the container! It smelled tangy and sour, just like a freshly baked loaf would (note: don’t let this fool you, it doesn’t taste good). I scooped out a bit of the fed starter and put the rest back in the fridge. I added more flour and water to the starter, which after the additions is now called a barm – and hit the books again to see exactly how long I had to wait. Here was my first, and maybe my only mistake; contrary to popular belief, baking is not exact. This is particularly true with “slow breads”, the longer you leave them out, the more time they have to develop rich, complex flavors.

If you are a type-A personality like me, I highly recommend taking up baking sourdough as a hobby precisely because you cannot follow a single recipe. The variables brought out by humidity and temperature and air quality are so significant in the process, that it seems almost crazy to think you could have a recipe in the first place. You also don’t need a bread hook or a bread maker or a temperature controlled proofing box or even a banneton (thought this will probably make the final product look really pretty). I kneaded the dough until it felt ready, what was once sticky like paste had become smooth and soft. I let the bread rise in accordance with my schedule, rather than spending my nights and weekends waiting around for it (consequently, this also seems like good dating advice) Using my hands, a bowl, and a baking sheet I made 2 amazing loaves of bread. When the loaves came out, steaming from the oven I felt in a way like a parent. The process is absolutely amazing and mind-boggling; you take basically nothing, a little flour and water, give it time to rest and develop, and you create a miraculous product. Something from nothing, almost.

Liz Traison is a Program Associate at Hazon and a health coach through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. She is a graduate of The University of Michigan where she received a BA in History and Judaic Studies. She also studied at Midreshet Lindenbaum and Hebrew University. She is thrilled to be a member of the 2014 PresenTense fellowship. She likes being outside, particularly on Skeleton Lake. And also being inside, specifically doing creative workshops in prison.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: yeast, sourdough, challah, bread, baking

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover!
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.