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.


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.


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

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.