My first day at seven thousand feet above sea level I was oxygen-deprived and staggering through the kitchen like a drunken sailor on some storm-blasted sea, searching desperately for a calm port of call for my fast-sinking ship. Land ho! There was a small yeasty package in the back of the fridge – sourdough starter – and with that sudden surge of familiarity I got my sea legs back.
What's in a starter that might get me back on my feet? Well in the past five years, I've lived in ten states – from Tennessee to Oregon to Colorado and now, New Mexico – and the one thing I've really kept with me, the one thing that says home when I don't have one, is my cooking.
For one particularly memorable three month stretch in Seattle, I shut myself inside and just baked. I'd stay up all night just to sit next to the dough as it rose, reading recipes and histories and whatever else about bread. Call me crazy. Maybe I am.
Anyway. There I was last Sunday, starting over again in this beautiful house with old friends and new and thinking, here's how we'll connect, or reconnect. I'll make bread. I grabbed the starter and threw it in tupperware with equal parts warm water and flour and just sat with it.
Sourdough is that rare synergy of transmogrified basics: flour, salt, and water become a beautifully golden dome. There's a primal feeling in that certainly very ancient act of catching wild yeast, kneading, shaping, and baking, and a blazing oven and a crackling loaf of fresh-baked bread is a sure-fire way to make new friends and strengthen the ties of old friendships.
Five hours of waiting later a frothing, sweetly fragrant starter was out on the counter waiting for more water, flour, a dash of salt and some olive oil. I felt good, recipe be damned – no measurements, just dump and stir and into the refrigerator we go for an overnight rise.
The next day saw me sitting pretty on the floor between the fireplace and my blazing oven, waiting for that bread, that floured shaped jiggling gaseous mass to rise and be thrown into a preheated cast iron skillet.
In it went. The key to good bread is time alone and, oh, the delicious torture of waiting. Out it came, crackling, smoking, and Maillard-ed to a husky umber and, "Oh my God! You made that? You can make bread? Gimme some of that!"
Mountain House Sourdough:
2 cups starter (pancake batter consistency)
1 cup warm water
1 1/2 cups bread flour
3 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup olive oil
Toasted sesame seeds (optional)
Combine all the ingredients in a large tupperware or glass container at least twice the capacity of the dough; briefly mix, cover, and store in the refrigerator overnight.
Take the dough out of the refrigerator. Place a baking stone or cast iron skillet (at least 2 quarts) in the oven and preheat at the highest setting for at least an hour. Once the dough has doubled (18 hours with my starter) dump it out onto a heavily floured surface and, with wet or floured hands, work it into a rough ball as quickly as possible. Remember, this is a very wet dough so you're not going to want to mess with it much.
After the second rise, dump the dough as unceremoniously or ceremoniously as you'd like onto the baking surface and get it into the oven fast. After half an hour, reduce the temperature to 475 and keep on baking for another 15 to 30 minutes depending on how the bread looks, feels, and sounds (it will sound hollow when it's done.)
To my mind, the bread acquires complexity of flavor as it ages, so try to keep some leftovers if you can manage!