Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Friday, August 26, 2016

30 Years in the Dough

most recent loaves,
August 20, 2016
Thirty years ago I took our son, Steve, who had just turned 14, to Alaska and the Yukon for about a week.* There were some reasons for this: (1) I had been teaching The Call of the Wild for about a half-dozen years to my 8th graders at Harmon Middle School (Aurora, Ohio), and I wanted to see some of the places that Jack London wrote about so specifically in his 1903 novella; (2) my father had recently given me the diary of his grandfather, Addison Clark Dyer, who had gone on the Klondike Gold Rush (1896-99), the very Rush that lies at the heart of London's book. Steve and I wanted to see if we could find the site of our ancestor's claim (we did).

Summer 1986
near Bonanza Creek,
near site of the old Dyer claim
Steve, by the way, had just survived a year with me as his 8th grade English teacher--and had, of course, read The Call of the Wild with me.

We flew from Cleveland to Seattle (where we spent the night with my great college friends, Claude and Dorothy Steele; he was teaching at the university there), then a flight to Juneau, Alaska, followed by another flight in a small plane from Juneau to Skagway, Alaska, a plane that was piloted by a young man who looked--oh, about Steve's age. Maybe younger.

In Skagway we rented a car and drove nearly 450 miles over the Coastal Mountains and into the Yukon, all the way to Dawson City, which lies at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike rivers, the center of all that Gold Rush activity.

In Skagway, we stayed at the Golden North Hotel, the oldest hotel in Alaska, and spent some time in and out of the local shops, looking for souvenirs--and for things I could use in class in subsequent years.

In one of the shops--and I wish I could remember which--I bought a little package of dry sourdough starter, a product that came with a little book of recipes. I knew that Northland veterans were called "sourdoughs," and I thought it would be fun to make biscuits or something to take into class when we were doing Wild.

I had no idea.

the booklet!
Let's back up ... I've just told you a little about the summer of 1986--when I acquired the starter. I should add here that I had been baking our family's bread since, oh, the early 1970s. Joyce and I were impecunious grad students (and I was not exactly making a fortune as a middle school teacher), so I started baking bread for austerity's sake. It was cheaper. (And, of course, a lot better tasting--and a lot better for you). I used principally white flour and dry yeast--pretty much every week. It was part of my weekly routine. So I was an experienced--if not particularly imaginative--baker.

Okay, back to 1986 ...

When we got home from Alaska--just before school started--I decided I'd give the sourdough starter a whirl--you know, just to see?

I remember--I think?--that I had to mix it with flour and water and let it stand overnight. And when I came downstairs that first morning and saw it had doubled and was bubbling away, I felt (as I know I've written before) like Victor Frankenstein--It's alive! It's alive! (He doesn't say that in the book--just that 1931 film ...)

But the first time I baked with it--a failure. The dough didn't rise much (later, I learned that I'd not given it enough time), and the resulting product was HEAVY. But I ate every damn bit of it, and Steve and Joyce pretended it was good, too.

I didn't give up. It worked better the next week--and the week after--and pretty soon I got rid of conventional yeast and, ever since, have done virtually all my baking with sourdough (scones and baguettes not included). My routine is pretty fixed: Saturday night, about 9:30, feed the starter; Sunday morning (after 7) put two cups of starter back in the container, bake with the rest.

I make, among other things: traditional multigrain (no more all-white now) loaves, round loaves, pizza, sandwich rolls, biscuits, pancakes and waffles, a Christmas tree bread, corn bread ... that's what I'm coming up with off the top of my head.

You have to feed and use the sourdough about every week, so it's a bit like having a pet in the house, one that needs periodic attention. Even love.

Every now and then, the sourdough reminds me who's in charge. If I don't do things right, it jars me by behaving poorly (like a surly teen). This doesn't happen often, just enough to keep me humble.

I should add that I'm not all that adventurous with it. Just practical. Bake what I need and love. I'm not interested in devoting hours on end to preparing exotic or excessively complicated recipes.

So ... this has been going on for thirty years now. Thirty years! Working with it is just part of my life now, and I would miss it horribly if I could no longer do it. We give a lot of the products away--our grandson Logan is especially fond of it. The neighbors get some. Family (when we travel). The freezer is sometimes jammed with it.

Anyway, Happy Birthday to Sourdough Dyer, age 30, going on forever.

Our fridge:
starter in container on top;
a recent loaf below

*I've written other times in Dawnreader about my two trips to the North. Google them if you want to read about "other" adventures.

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