By Shirley. This is where we ended up: Every state and every person by it/himself. In the wilds of Michigan, where bandanas are used not to protect against sun and dust, as the cowboys on TV shows did in my infancy, but to guard against a deadly virus; where some people find it necessary to show up heavily armed at the State Capitol. As in a crazy version of the wild west, we are each trying to protect our families and our own as we fight the enemy (and perceived enemies) from every direction.
My days are divided in taking care of our land (or our yard), sewing (masks), baking (an ever-growing amount of breads, cookies and cakes) and trying new and creative ways to mix and match pantry ingredients to create our daily meals.
It is all very domestic and, in a weird way, reminiscent of a different era. As we are faced with an almost war time scarcity of ingredients in our shelves, I have spent hours pouring over recipes and have learned how to use aquafaba (bean water) as a substitute for eggs and how to use nutritional yeast to give my sourdough crackers a cheesy flavor.
Breadmaking has been an area that I have been experimenting with. It all started at the very beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, as hordes of people emptied grocery shelves, we were faced with a problem at home: while we had made the dangerous trip to the grocery store, there had been no bread for sale. Remembering that I had bread flour and yeast at home, I decided to bake our own bread instead of venturing on another kamikaze mission to a different store.
I started with a Japanese Milk Bread recipe. As some of you are aware, Japanese bread’s fluffy texture is partly due to the use of all-purpose flour. Unfortunately, I had plenty of bread flour but no all-purpose flour. The bread still came out all right if you wouldn’t compare it to the original. But I realized that the recipe didn’t make the best use of the flour I had and also used eggs and milk, ingredients that by then were becoming scarce due to greater public demand.
No-knead Crusty White Bread
I opted next to go with a magic no-knead recipe that used just flour, water, salt and yeast (recipe available through link below). It allows you to mix the dough (no need to knead) and bake it anywhere from 1 to 7 days afterwards. I baked half of my dough (1 loaf) after 24 hours and the other half (2nd loaf) after 3 days. The bread came out perfectly, if I say so myself – an old European style bread, with a certain amount of “chewiness” but not heavy. I was so pleased with it that I baked more of it until I ran out of yeast. I mourned the end of our fresh breads, but by then it was clear that I had not been alone in my new “homesteading” life, since yeast was nowhere to be found, but bread was back on the grocery shelves.
Maybe I was just unconsciously moved by my yearning for fresh bread, or maybe it was my search for comfort in carbohydrates, but soon it became clear that the many loaves of bread we bought at the store were not enough to last until our next dangerous, exhausting and anxiety laden grocery run, two weeks later. Inspired by innumerous articles popping up around my reading material online, I decided to try my hand on growing my own sourdough starter and baking some sourdough bread.
A sourdough starter, if you are not familiar with the concept, is a natural, home grown yeast to make sourdough bread. It is originated from whole wheat flour and water, and like one of the creatures of the “Little Shop of Horrors”, has to be fed, initially, everyday and, once established and kept in the refrigerator, once a week, with more flour and water. Frank (for Dr. Frankenstein’s monster), my sourdough starter, brought me joy when after 5 days it showed signs of life. I had a moment of relief mixed with jubilation not dissimilar to Dr. Frankenstein’s rapture in the 1931 film with Boris Karloff (“It’s alive! It’s alive!”). But sadly, I’ve grown a stubborn, picky child, as I found out later one night as I tried to understand why my dough was not rising. I discovered that my young starter, although very bubbly, might be still too weak to give me anything but heavy, dense bread. It is true that each loaf is a little better than the one before, but I learned that sourdough requires very careful handling. The dough is very sensitive to temperature, it needs to be “massaged” in the right way periodically (stretch and fold), it needs to be cosseted in a bassinet (proofing basket) and sung lullabies to be cajoled into rising. Did I just sound bitter? Ok, so maybe you don’t have to sing a lullaby, but the other things are actually true!
Tired of Frank’s neediness, I put it in time-out in the refrigerator. Now I have a week to gather some patience before I have to feed it again.
Pear tree in full bloom in Shirley’s front yard
Meanwhile, I check our “farm crops”, a.k.a. my garden bed, where tatsoi (an Asian green leaf vegetable), lettuce and parsley have started growing and spring onions abound. In my front yard, the flower bed is in full swing: daffodils are in bloom while peonies are already tall and forming their buds. Spring is at its best as birds in their best plumage sing their hearts out, bunnies frolic in the yard and an audacious skunk visits our front porch, while we watch him from inside the house. We might have changed a lot during the past two months, but Nature continues undaunted. As the battle continues in the coronavirus frontier, we watch glorious sunsets of pink, orange and purple sky, while we patiently wait for the enemy’s retreat and withdrawal.
If you would like to try your hand in some breadmaking, here is the no-knead bread recipe I mentioned: https://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/no-knead-crusty-white-bread-recipe