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Tales of the Testers: Sourdough Mom

Finally, it's alive! (Jane Touzalin -- The Washington Post)

It all began with a simple pancake recipe. Now I have a million hungry mouths to feed.

Pancakes are my thing. When a sourdough pancake recipe came up on the tester list, I volunteered to take it. I figured Bonnie Benwick, the recipe editor, would give me some ready-made sourdough starter, the all-important culture of living yeast cells that gives sourdough its rise and tang. But no; this was to be a DIY project from beginning to end.

So I started the starter. It seemed easy: Combine flour, water and yeast, and let them sit in a warm spot. Soon it would become a foamy, bubbling mass of active yeast to use toward my original objective, those pancakes.

But that’s not what happened.

The pool of sourdough-to-be just sat there listlessly, a forlorn bubble breaking the surface every now and then. Though I had followed the directions exactly, my starter seemed thin, watery. So I turned to the Internet.

Hours later, I knew a lot about sourdough and sourdough starter. But much of what I’d learned was worrisome. Yeast is temperamental, and there’s a long list of things that can go wrong with it. Air temperature, for instance, is critical. And if you let the yeast get too hungry before you feed it -- that’s right, it wants one square meal a day while it sits out on the counter fermenting for you -- it could perish.

At that point I became obsessed. I peered at the contents of the crock constantly. I fiddled with the thermostat. I carried the stuff with me from room to room, trying to dodge drafts and hot spots. I kept close watch. It didn’t change too much.

But it was definitely alive -- the languid bubbles continued -- so I went ahead with the pancake recipe. Because my starter was so thin, the pancakes were thin, too. In fact, they were more like crepes. So I treated them that way, rolling them around a Greek-ish filling of spinach, onion, feta cheese and pine nuts, then baking them and topping them with lemon sauce. They were great, but I still hadn’t really gotten the job done right.

On to Batch Number Two. And this time: Eureka! The starter is thick and foamy, just like it should be. I did nothing differently, and yet the results are stunningly better. It’s just the vagaries of working with a living ingredient, I think. This stuff will make great pancakes.

You’ll see the recipes in tomorrow’s Food section, and they won’t mention any of the tester’s trials and tribulations. But now you know, as Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story.

-- Jane Touzalin

By Jane Touzalin  |  May 5, 2009; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Tales of the Testers  | Tags: Jane Touzalin, breakfast, recipe testing  
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Thanks for persevering!

Posted by: alysonthoner | May 5, 2009 7:04 PM | Report abuse

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