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Faith in Vermont: Half Baked: Adventures in Feeding My Family

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Posted on October 25, 2016 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



Our family consumes a lot of food.

We are, after all, a family of six. But you might be thinking: Come on, how much food could four little girls possibly put away?

You’d be surprised. I’m surprised, because whatever it is they’re eating, I can assure you that it’s not dinner.

To give you an idea, in the average week our family goes through: two bunches of bananas, two loaves of bread, one gallon of milk, two dozen eggs, two packages of bacon, six sticks of butter, and roughly 40 apples. Cartons of berries of any sort disappear after one meal. Two of my daughters can devour three packages of dried seaweed snacks in a single sitting. This week, I baked five dozen chocolate chip cookies; they lasted three days.

One could say that many of our lifestyle choices have been determined by our family’s diet.

For instance, our move to a house with more cleared land was undertaken primarily so that we could grow more of our own food. What food are we planning to grow? Take another look at the list of what we eat in a week (setting aside the bananas and seaweed as impossibilities in Vermont, and the milk and butter because – for the moment – a family cow seems a bit much.) Blueberry and raspberry bushes are already in the ground, with strawberries and apple trees slated for the spring. (As is a vegetable garden, although the produce from that will be enjoyed almost entirely by my husband and me.) The laying hens will arrive – we hope – in a couple of weeks, as soon as we get our fencing put up, and pigs are not far behind. We’re also building compost bins because, for all the food we consume, we can’t stand to see the food that’s left over (mostly from dinners that our daughters don’t eat) go to waste.

Also, I’ve started baking sourdough bread.

If I’ve made all of those things sound easy, allow me to reassure you that we are far from confident, capable homesteaders, basking in the solar-powered glow of our own self-sufficiency. For somebody who enjoys doing things only if I can do them well, this entire enterprise in food production is immensely humbling. The raspberry and blueberry bushes bore one small handful of each berry all summer long. “Mommy, why are you always out here looking at the blueberry bushes?” my daughter asked one late summer evening, as I unsuccessfully willed the blueberries into nonverbally communicating how I could better tend to them. We’ve spent longer than necessary perfecting our chicken coop and fencing because, after losing our first flock of chickens to neighborhood dogs four years ago, I’m not taking any chances this time.

Being responsible for so many living things is scary. I’m afraid that the berry bushes won’t spring back in spring, I’m afraid that I’ll kill off other things that I plant. I’m afraid that predators or parasites will wipe out our chickens. I’m afraid that we won’t know how to take good care of future animals.

Nowhere is this insecurity more concentrated than in my efforts to bake bread.

I’ve wanted to bake bread, on and off, for a number of years. I love the idea of filling our home with the smells of baking bread, of pulling a fresh, warm loaf out of the oven for my family instead of simply pulling flavorless, pre-cut slices out of a plastic bag.

I’ve attempted to bake bread, on and off, for most of those years. I tried the labor-intensive “traditional” method involving kneading and punching down and multiple rises. I tried my mother’s old bread machine, which required exotic ingredients like powdered milk and produced tiny loaves with holes in the middle where the automatic mixing blade had been. More recently, I tried a “no knead” recipe, but I kept getting confused by the yeast: Was I supposed to use active dry yeast, quick-rise, or instant? What’s the difference? Which one has to be proofed in warm water? I give up!

Then, last year, I went with my daughters to pick up our CSA share at Elmer Farm. And there, under a white tent, was local cookbook author Andrea Chesman, selling signed copies of her recently published book, The Backyard Homestead Book of Kitchen Know-How, and preparing free samples of sourdough pancakes with apple cider syrup. My daughters tasted the pancakes and were smitten. “Mmmm! Mommy, can you make these at home?” In a rush of desire to support a local author and feed my children, I bought the cookbook.

Back at home, I opened my new cookbook and realized that it was impossible to just mix up a batch of sourdough pancakes. No, no! Sourdough pancakes required three cups of “sourdough starter,” which required a 2-quart Mason jar, a week to become “established,” and bi-weekly “feeding” with flour and water until the end of time.

For a full year, my eldest daughter asked me to make sourdough pancakes. For a full year, I put her off. I needed to find a big enough jar. We were going on sabbatical. We were moving.

Finally, with all those things behind us, I could put it off no longer: I made my first batch of sourdough starter.

Sourdough starter is yet another living thing for me to take care of. The internet is filled with a dizzying array of recipes for sourdough starters, but mine is a mix of flour, water, sugar, and yeast. The idea is that, with regular feedings of additional flour and water, the yeast remains active and reproduces itself. In addition to pancakes, the starter can be used for waffles, biscuits, and bread. The wonderful part of this, for lazy bakers like me, is that using starter makes baking easy: I use Andrea Chesman’s no-knead bread recipe that involves simply pulling my starter out of the refrigerator, adding some flour, water, and salt, allowing it to rise, and popping it into a Dutch oven to bake. 

The hard part is keeping the starter alive.

My first batch of starter ended up down the drain. Somehow, despite following Andrea Chesman’s instructions to the letter, I messed it up.  I realize now that what I did was akin to rearing my children by relying entirely on a single parenting how-to book. Working with sourdough starter is much more intuitive than just following directions. It requires careful observation: Is it bubbling? When fed, does it rise up in the jar? Is the level of starter beginning to drop below three cups? Should I toss in a little more flour and water, a pinch more yeast?

I’ve been using my current sourdough starter for a little over a month now. I have successfully baked several batches of sourdough pancakes and weekly loaves of bread. (Successful except for one loaf of bread, which gave every appearance of rising beautifully and then, when baked, resembled a large, cratered hockey puck. I still have no idea what happened.)

Every time I pull out the starter, my heart rate speeds up.

This weekend, I used my starter to bake a loaf of bread for a dinner at which we were hosting another family of six. Everything appeared to be going well; the starter was nice and bubbly. But twelve hours later, the bread dough hadn’t risen, and my heart sank. “It’s okay,” my husband comforted me, “I’ll just pick up some bread at the store later on.”

“All right. I’ll bake this so we don’t waste it, and we can eat it for lunch,” I sighed.

I plopped the rock-hard dough into the Dutch oven. Forty-five minutes later, a miracle: What emerged from the Dutch oven was a puffy, cracking, lightly browned, fully risen loaf of sourdough bread.

Why do I continue putting myself through this? I suppose every time my daughter asks, “Can I have a piece of your bread, Mommy?” it’s reward enough. But there’s more: With bread -- and gardens and animals -- it’s possible to get hooked on the miracle. It doesn’t happen every time, but for every hockey-puck loaf, every heat-killed plant, every predator-slain chicken, there’s the promise of a perfect loaf, a bountiful harvest, a basket of eggs.

We can do worse than hold out for the miracles.

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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