Asheville's Country Retreat

January 26, 2020

My Winter Project

Posted by: Rick

My Winter Project

What the hell was I thinking?

For those who don’t know, winter is a time when Asheville's innkeepers shift gears from getting ready for and taking care of guests to indulgent pastimes…using the downtime the slow season brings to work on their inns, to travel or just to sleep in and relax a little.  But this year, and instead of relaxing, I bit off a challenge that’s already making me crazy.

As those of you who’ve come to know Tom and me in the last couple of years, you’ve most likely learned how much we like to cook…a good thing if you own a B&B since breakfast is kind of a big deal.  That love of cooking spurred me on to solve for a challenge we’ve encountered since moving to Asheville.  That challenge?  Finding a GOOD loaf of sourdough bread.

“Easy,” I thought.  “I’ll just learn to make sourdough bread myself.  I mean, how hard can it be?  There are only four ingredients…flour, salt, water and something called a ‘starter.’”  You mix it all together, shove it in the oven, bake and enjoy.  Easy, right?  Nope…far from it!  Read on….

My sourdough journey began with the ubiquitous “let’s Google it” moment that is becoming an obsession.  It was then I first learned that “getting there” might not be a easy as I thought.  I learned about the key ingredient…the starter.  It’s actually a living culture used to start a fermentation process that, when mixed with the other ingredients, forms the dough.  As such, it requires regular feedings and other needs in order to keep it alive and viable.  And I was fascinated to read about starters that have been “living” and passed from baker to baker for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

So I ordered my starter and a cookbook (Artisan Sourdough Made Simple about making sourdough bread) from blogger Emilie Raffa at “The Clever Carrot,”.  The dried starter arrived from Long Island about ten days later in a little envelope along with some basic instructions about getting started.

Interestingly, one of her suggestions was to “name” my starter…it seems naming your starter is a baking tradition.  So I named my starter Mavis Pearl (after a cat I once knew), born of Emilie’s starter named Dillon.  (Dillon, it would seem, was born of Priscilla...I assume from “The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”  from Emilie’s baker friend in Sydney.)  Then, it was off to the races!

I got Mavis Pearl up and running and after about ten days tried my first loaf.  Success-ish!  Damn if that first loaf wasn’t pretty good looking and darn tasty to boot.  Tom whipped up a batch of his famous tuna salad, I grabbed the Duke’s Mayonnaise and the salt and pepper and we sat down for our first indulgence of “good” sourdough bread since coming to North Carolina!  In a feast of carbo-loading, that first loaf disappeared within two days!

And then, tragedy almost struck.  They tell you to keep the starter warm as you are nurturing it and suggest keeping it in the oven with only the light on.  Such was Mavis Pearl’s home.  Unfortunately, Tom forgot she was in there and while getting ready for dinner one night, turned the oven on to pre-heat it.  Within a couple of minutes, the aroma of melting plastic filled the house.  We raced in to rescue Mavis Pearl.  We were afraid he might have killed her (yeast dies at 140 degrees).

In the coming days, I set about reviving Mavis Pearl.  At the same time, and unbeknownst to me, Tom, feeling guilty about Mavis Peral’s situation, ordered another starter from King Arthur Flour as a back-up in case there actually was a death in the family.  Fortunately, Mavis Pearl survived.  And once the new starter arrived, Aunt Bea was born, too.

I’m happy to report that both girls are thriving now!  But the success I created with the first loaf hasn’t been replicated, a reality that had become a daily frustration!  I’ve tried a couple of loafs and while they come out tasty as hell, they always come out kind kind of flat and dense.  I just can’t figure out what the problem is!  And the more I research what to do, the further down this rabbit hole I seem to be taking myself.

Fortunately, and before I was tempted to give up, I happened to catch an episode of Chef's Table on Netflix (if you haven’t seen the series, you should!) in which famed chef Nancy Silverton, creator of La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles, talked, among other things, about the frustrations that can come with bread making.  I felt both vindicated and inspired.

Tomorrow I’ll be baking my next loaf.  I’m trying a new recipe and we’ll see what happens.  Either way, I’m hooked and am more determined than ever to get this right.  No matter how long it takes!

Next up?  Scratch-made breakfast biscuits!  Geez.  So much for my “relaxing” winter project.

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