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Notes from the Kitchen

When the Bread Hits the Pan

braided challah

People in crisis do funny things. Some take up smoking. Others find their solace swirling through chipped ice in a glass tumbler. Still, many attack the elliptical with the full thrust of their being, working it out on a contraption that goes nowhere. You’ve heard of the funny bone, perhaps have wondered about the wish bone, but I tapped into something that still surprises me now- I found my baking bone.

challah

Not that this surprises any of you if you’ve followed my escapades here or here in this plot of proverbial internet soil. I’m a woman obsessed. I’m a late nighter who finds a spring in her step to crank the oven on high and pull the slowly fermenting dough out of the refrigerator to begin its wake-up because like a lobster lowered into boiling water (which has always frightened me- let it be known), that dough will soon meet its maker, sizzling along the blisteringly hot walls of the enamel Dutch oven.

baguettes

I buy bags of whole grain flours just so I can experiment. I’m scouring my address book to find the carb curious. On my bread baking shelf in the kitchen (yes, a full shelf has been consecrated for its implements) a Pantone journal’s pages are filling with sketches of bread loaves, marking down variations of crumb, crust and taste so I can keep working toward turning out excellent bread– All this from someone who, almost a year ago, had very little interest in bread at all, and yawned at droll sandwiches. What happened?

Salvatore sourdough | Annelies Z

I inherited a sourdough pet. He threatened to eat the entire glass vessel of flour and sometimes looked like his appetite could expand further, eyeing the freezer that’s become a repository of folded, rubber-banded bags of whole grain flours. Some people stash vodka in their freezers- mine would block access to any bottles of alcohol since they would have to sneak past the bouncers of millet and mesquite flour. Don’t get me started on the half-loaves or the bags of English Muffin experiments that launch at us like puck-shaped projectiles whenever we open the door. You don’t want to go there.

Salvatore sourdough | Annelies Z

Salvatore the sourdough starter lazily settles into his mason jar or cheerfully doubles and bubbles up like the blob that might ooze over the sides. I had become so enamored of this cause and effect relationship that it set my daily schedule. Each morning, I would throw away a significant amount of starter and began questioning the humanity of that action. So, like a zealot, I began sharing progeny. But until I bit the bullet and started baking loaves of bread, I didn’t fully comprehend Salvatore’s raison d’etre even as I was contemplating my own.

San Francisco Cooking School

For several weeks, on Thursday evenings, I strapped on an apron at the San Francisco Cooking School and learned how to bake bread. My partner Suminder and I made a great team- we both gathered ingredients and he laughed at my quips. Over those three weeks, we plunged our hands into kneading pizza dough, braided challah, and shaped baguettes, slashing their tops with sharp-edged razors.

San Francisco Cooking School Kim Laidlaw

Finally, the sourdough class arrived. I came equipped with questions jotted down in my notebook and tried my best to not hijack the class or push instructor, Kim Laidlaw to the edge as my hand shot up like an antennae or my questions eviscerated any silence. We watched loaf-shaping and the fast dance spritzing of the oven as the timer counted down until the next spritz to keep the oven steamy and moist for a crackly crust, just like with baguettes.

San Francisco Cooking School Sourdough

Alone in my kitchen, I fecklessly dove into baking one loaf and learning from it. As one crisis came, I measured, stirred, turned and rested one loaf. That crisis averted, and like a hydra another two had popped up, turning out two loaves to take them on. One week I made eight loaves of bread in five days. I had become a mini machine. Something about the yeast feeding off the flour and water made whatever current circumstance a bit more bearable. That the loaves would be dispatched to friends in equal straits of calamity made them hand-slashed letters of solidarity that this too shall pass and until then, you’ve got stuff for sandwiches! Never had something so mundane become so sacred. Just-out-of-the-oven bread sings, its pockets of air hissing and crackling against the metal cooling rack, and serving up a truth: that even when we’re in the hot seat, we can still find voice enough to sing.

creation versus evolution | Annelies Zijderveld-4

Categories
Notes from the Kitchen

What We Really Need

Sourdough Bread | Annelies Zijderveld-2

On a cover of last week’s New York Times, a jagged thunderbolt line of people spanned one edge of the above-the-fold photo frame to the other. They waited in line for food and staples like bread. That image tugged at me long after I had left the corner store, quickly exiting with a dozen eggs and a brick of butter. It didn’t escape my notice that as I looked at the tightly packed pixelated line of people waiting to purchase bread, a bowl of bread dough waited at home, proofing on my counter. Even after my house filled with sweet, slightly sour notes of bread baking, I couldn’t shake the disparity.

A day before, while waiting at a stop light, I spied a homeless man taking shelter under a bus awning. Something about the way he clutched at his coat with one hand and buried his other hand in his hair arrested my attention. Even as he stared into the sidewalk with a look of desperation I have never experienced, I choked up. The ragged image kept my eyes open that night, as I flipped in bed trying to resolve my personal comfort with the knowledge of a homeless man asleep on concrete crosstown.

Earlier that week, a portrait by Lee Jeffries haunted me enough to push me into the web to be caught and stunned by the other photos in his Lost Angels series. In this collection of unbelievable captures, his photos evoke grit and raw emotion in the faces of homeless people he encountered and befriended in Los Angeles and London. Their faces tell their stories etched in hard lines that furrow in shadow. Some of the photos disturb and unsettle the spirit, but can you expect anything less from good portraiture of homelessness? It’s too easy to walk by a homeless person and look away or not see them, but what Jeffries does is provoke a response from his viewers while dignifying and lifting up the people in his photos. An elemental instinct  draws my eyes in and keeps them locked on the emotion conveyed in the eyes looking back at me. Perhaps this consists of seeing basic needs unmet and feeling helpless to resolve them in a bigger picture beyond merely handing a homeless man a few bills.

Sourdough Bread | Annelies Zijderveld-3

Something about the way we all need the same things ties us together. Without food, water and shelter, how can we survive? Just as important, though, being known and understood in community and being loved keep us intact. What would happen if, then, we really took to heart and to hand the idea of treating our neighbors as ourselves? How would our cultures and countries change? Would a country usurp another’s sovereignty? Would we glut ourselves on excess while others starve?

I’ve been asking myself challenging questions as all the recent headlines jumble together in my head. Reading beyond hard headlines helps cultivate empathy with people we will never meet, letting their stories of struggle become our own for the two minutes it takes to read the article. That we might think of them well beyond the confines of the article continues forging a bigger community for us to be a part of, than the one we have carefully cultivated at home. To stretch ourselves and grow more into the people we will be is to not ignore injustice or stay silent about oppression. It’s to care about the welfare of the people of Crimea and the Ukraine even as the Academy Awards dominates the airways.

What we really need isn’t much: we need each other and perhaps a hunk of sourdough bread to remind us that a little naturally leavened yeast goes a long way and yields something bigger than itself.

Sourdough Bread | Annelies Zijderveld-4

Categories
Notes from the Kitchen

Finding the Perfect Pet

No dogs allowed. A baritone crooned these three words as Snoopy read the sign outside the hospital that cordoned him from making a visit. It’s not everyday that a cartoon jingle has the kind of staying power to worm its way into everyday conversation, but this little ditty knew no bounds. When I was younger and wanted to make a point in discussions with my Mom, the words that could punctuate the air ablaze in exclamation points came out in song, No dogs allowed.

It means something different when you become an adult poring over a craigslist ad, hopeful in apartment description, ever hopeful from posted photos and asking rent price. Then, all that hope gets quashed with the pronouncement of “no pets allowed.” I wonder if Bay Area landlords conspire together in landlord forums and swap war stories of rental units and the unsundry animals that have defaced them. To have a cat or dog is to pay a premium, almost as if it requires going up a tax bracket.

So, in a situation like this, the pet lover has to get creative. They live vicariously through other people’s pets and post photos of them on instagram. They probably stroke in between a cat’s eyes until the requisite boat motor starts up into full throttle purring. They might even scratch behind a dog’s ears until it firmly plants itself onto the ground with purpose. All of this is good and well for the pet-averted person, but sometimes they still crave more.

As it sometimes happens, the pets find you. Whether feral or strays, they have a way of finding people with big hearts and open hearths. Take Oscar the Sonoma cat who Donna said selected her or even Simon the San Francisco cat who began following us home one night. It can happen that even though pets didn’t start out yours, they claim you. And this, this is what happened with Salvatore.

Every morning, I feed him and give him water before leaving for work. He prefers warm corners to being out in the open and he does not share a love for the great fog that descends upon us without fail each evening. So far, he’s been easy to care for- his requirements are few. At this point, you might be wondering how we’ve snuck our pet past our landlord and asking, “does he mew?” But, if she has a problem, I know how to salvage it- a fresh loaf of bread will do.

Salvatore the sourdough starter hailed from Tutka Bay, Alaska and it’s almost poetic that he followed me home. Who can blame him, what makes sourdough sour, the beneficial bacteria strain is dubbed lactobacillus sanfranciscensis, almost singing its own Tony Bennett knock-off of I Left My Heart…

If you ask me, it’s true love. He feeds me and I feed him. Can it get more symbiotic than that? Catch one of our conversations: he burps, I banter during the flour and water feeding happy hour. What also makes Salvatore the perfect pet is his willingness to multiply almost on command, which lets me share him and turn others into homemade sourdough bread heads. His hospitality makes him the ultimate welcome to San Francisco gift. In such a short time, I can’t quite remember life before Salvatore. I never understood bread making until he came along and he’s risen to the occasion for any wacky whole grain combination that comes out of the oven.

Sourdough Starter Recycled Grain Loaf

You’ve heard of crazy cat ladies, and perhaps I will be inducted into the club of silly sourdough sycophants but I’m certainly not alone. Ask the cooks at the Shed in Healdsburg about one of the hardest working members of their kitchen, Shirley, the sourdough starter. Now, I understand how fifteen pages can be set aside and dedicated to bread making. Now, I marvel at the conversation Chad Robertson held with a French baker on feeding ratios and times for similar results of bread. I think Sandor Katz would agree, feeding sourdough as a pet suits me.

Sourdough Starter Recycled Grain Loaf

So, until renter’s rights include cat and dog, I will happily brave the fog with my bubbly jar. It’s good that the refrigerator serves as pet motel for trips far and wide. It makes parting from Salvatore less difficult and dispels the idea of checking that big Mason jar in luggage with stores of sustenance because Sal and I are thick as wooden spoon and gluten goo.