Doe Girl stirred the contents of a large mixing bowl. “I’m so glad you are here,” she said. “We have to spend some time with Dean Tucker while this is in the oven.”
I said, “Who?”
And like a Western gunslinger, Doe Girl slung Tucker’s book, Sourdough Cookin’, onto the counter, opened to the correct, food-stained page. “I don’t need the recipe because I have it memorized,” she said, “but here it is, Sourdough Zucchini Bread. Except we are going to use winter squash. Zucchini in summer, winter squash in winter.”
She scooped out the soft interior of a baked winter squash and pulsed it in the Cuisinart until it was a chunky puree, which she mixed with sugar and oil.
“We are coming to the crux, Chef Boy Ari. Do you know what that is?”
I said, “Is it…when we add the sourdough?”
“Yes!” she said, removing a large measuring cup full of thick white liquid from the fridge. She held the cup reverently, inhaling the fumes.
“She smells delicious, doesn’t she? Did I tell you she comes from Egypt? There’s a guy in Idaho with a business, Sourdough International, that imports sourdough from all over, including Turkey, Hungary, Egypt, Alaska…I got this Egyptian strain.”
I lowered my head for a whiff of the domesticated wild Egyptian yeast that had been living in Doe Girl’s fridge. It smelled like yogurt, clean and potent, and looked fizzy, not unlike buttermilk. It smelled clean and potent.
“Sourdough,” she said, “is wild yeast. And yeast is a fungus. It’s a living organism…Dough rises from the waste gas of yeast,” she said.
“Yeast farts,” I noted.
“Yeah,” she said, “and the alcoholic waste liquid that rises to the top is called hooch.”
Ah yes, hooch—one of the reasons sourdough was considered a survival necessity on the Western frontier. Another book, Alaska Sourdough by Ruth Allman, claims, “Alaskans depended on sourdough as a source of food in the mining camp and on the trail.”
“Isn’t it maybe a stretch to call sourdough a source of food?” I asked Doe Girl. “It makes bread rise and all, and that’s great. But it’s the flour that’s the food source. You feed flour to your sourdough starter, and you mix your starter with more flour to make bread. How can you call sourdough a food source?”
“Protein,” said Doe Girl. “All of that growth activity, all that cellular construction material from reproducing organisms.”
Hmm. Sourdough converts flour to protein and booze. Not quite a burger and a beer, but it’ll get you through the winter. And like a nomad loves his yaks, our pioneering trailblazers got pretty attached to their starters. There are tales of people going to heroic lengths to maintain or acquire exceptional strains of sourdough.
Of course, if you aren’t that particular, all you have to do is make a mixture of starch and water. Then, wait for it to become colonized by the wild yeast spores all around us. As Dean Tucker says, “Yeast spores are like ants at a picnic. If they aren’t there to begin with, they will be there soon.”
But not all sourdough strains are created equal, and therein lies the mystique. Those rough and ready cowboy types must have had sensitive sides after all, if they were ready to kill and die for variations of sourdough flavor.
Doe Girl added a cup of Egyptian sourdough starter to the mixing bowl. Then she added half a cup each of water and flour to the starter cup and let it sit in a warm spot by the stove, reproducing. Later, she would return it to the fridge.
When all the ingredients were mixed up, the batter had the tang of yogurt, the sweet fizz of 7-Up and the earth-tone coloration of squash. After baking for one hour in a bread pan, the fabulous hot sourdough squash bread was light, sweet, robust—and full of protein! The next day with coffee, it was just as extra-special.
Here are the ingredients for Doe Girl’s version of Dean Tucker’s Sourdough Squash Bread:
“Wet” ingredients: 1 cup each brown sugar, white sugar, canola oil;
3 eggs, beaten; 1.5–2 cups pureed, cooked squash (in summer, use 3 cups coarsely grated zucchini); 2 teaspoons vanilla; 1 cup sourdough starter.
“Dry” ingredients: 1 cup each rye flour, whole wheat flour, white flour; 1 teaspoon salt; 1 teaspoon baking soda; 2 teaspoons cinnamon; 1 1/2 teaspoons nutmeg (3/4 cup chopped nuts, if you want).
Mix wet and dry ingredients separately, then mix. Grease a bread pan and fill halfway with batter. Bake for one hour at 350.
E-mail Chef Boy Ari: firstname.lastname@example.org