“Game on moles!”
With Frankie J Bodel’s words of encouragement ringing in my ears, I moistened one hand and gently pushed my fingertips into the shaggy mass which I found myself staring down at over my kitchen bench. Who would have imagined a few short months ago that I would have ended up home in Melbourne about to attempt my first sourdough loaf?
When the Corona virus began to pick up pace around the world I was living and working in the bustling city of Jakarta, Indonesia. A quick transition to online work gave me the perfect opportunity for a short three-week trip back to Melbourne to catch up with family and friends and time to ride out what I presumed would be a short period, after which we would all continue on as before. I booked my ticket and the night before departure was when things started to change. My planned seven day stay in an apartment had to be updated to a 14-day compulsory stay as the government changed their laws for Australians returning from overseas.
Post quarantine, the laws continued to change and I found myself back home at my parent’s house on the Mornington Peninsula, with the Australian borders closed and the Covid-19 pandemic situation in Indonesia worsening day by day. Work was all-consuming as we wrapped our heads around how to teach and engage young children in their learning around the world and across multiple time zones. I rolled into bed each night, eyes strained from hours of staring at a screen and my mind whizzing through a range of ‘what if’ scenarios about the security of my job, the opportunity to get back to my adopted home and what our new ‘normal’ was going to look like.
As the weeks progressed into months, I fell into a pattern of work, walks, eating and sleep. My first foray into baking was banana bread shortly followed by crumpets, a skill I thought would be handy back in Jakarta where crumpets are not easy to come by. One day in a rabbit hole of internet wanderings I stumbled across a sourdough starter shoutout for Necessity Kitchen. I read about how the founder of this business, Frankie J Bodel, had lost her job as a chef when Covid-19 hit and started selling her 35 year old dehydrated sourdough starter to make ends meet.
Maybe it was boredom, maybe the challenge of making something so rustic and primal as a loaf of sourdough or maybe the need for a project to dedicate myself to and for me to nurture and grow. I ordered a dehydrated starter and waited with bated breath for it to arrive. I printed out the instructions and, to be honest, was taken aback at how long and complex the process seemed. However, always up for a challenge, I started feeding my starter. Apparently naming starters is a thing so I called mine ‘A~deer’ as in ‘Dough a deer, a female deer…’ I subconsciously started referring to A~deer as ‘he’ and when Mum questioned me why it was a he, I told her that he was already a pain in the arse! Our little relationship had begun.
My sourdough adventure came at a busy time, with life feeling a heavy burden. I was busy with work. Stressed about being away from home, anxious about the future, missing my friends, house and pets in Indonesia. So the distraction was a welcome one and a chance to slow my busy mind down. Looking after my starter was like having a small child around or perhaps a Tamagotchi that I was responsible for. As soon as ‘he’ had doubled in size between feeds, I started the long task of turning this active little starter into a loaf.
To start I had to create a ‘sponge’. This step is basically giving your starter a big feed and readying it to be made into dough. The dough part involved weighing ingredients, measuring out correct quantities of water, flour and salt and water and then creating what was referred to as a ‘shaggy mass’. Frankie was there cheering me on, “Go forth young pandawan and get a shaggy mass happening!” My mind wandered to late drunken nights in my twenties…
When the shaggy mass had risen up, I finally began the process of mixing and kneading the dough. There was lots of down time between each step and an overnight stay in the fridge.
With a full day of folding, turning and flouring under my belt, I set the dough out to ‘rest’ in the morning sunlight and felt that perhaps I should be the one resting! After six hours, I flipped the dough out onto a sheet of baking paper and popped it into the oven. The 40 minute baking time was a time of nervous excitement and lots of peering through the glass door and I wondered if the sourdough could smell my fear.
My first loaf came out golden brown, hard and crunchy on top and looking lovely with its lines of flour (not from any planned artistic direction just the stripes of a colander I improvised instead of a banneton). I was ecstatic. What a sense of achievement! This little exercise had kept my mind occupied and given me a new focus.
Thanks Frankie for talking me through the process and answering all my questions. I hope to keep my little starter going for many years and to have it as a creative therapy to slow my mind in stressful times.
Dehydrated and fresh sourdough starters (including instructions and lots of fabulous expertise) can be purchased from Necessity Kitchen
Now I’m just wondering if it’s already time to start the next loaf….