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Palabras Pintorescas: The delicious gift that keeps giving

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By Editha Bartley

I never know what my friends will share with me next. They just hand me something, sometimes in a brown paper bag, and I soon discover I have yet another treasure in my possession.

I was handed a big ziplock bag with some white, foamy semi-liquid in it right after Christmas. My friends know I like to cook and often bake various breads and desserts. I really wasn’t sure just what I had in this new baggie, but a recipe came with it for Amish friendship bread.

This recipe really didn’t interest me, but the moment I opened up that baggie, I knew I had sourdough starter working away in there. I followed the instructions that came with it, which entailed 10 days of letting it sit in a warm spot, then adding more milk, flour and sugar to it. Yes, I had been given sourdough starter and suddenly I had the makings of some really spectacular bread.

It took a while, but I finally found my old sourdough cookbooks, and what happy memories they brought back! A fun guest brought us a San Francisco Sourdough starter kit way back in the 1970s when our guest ranch was in full swing. I had half a gallon jar of starter bubbling away in our old pantry for years, and our beloved cook, Eulla Belle Mallory was a master at baking all sorts of bread with it. She knew how to replenish it, and lovingly took care of it as any of us did who worked in our big kitchen.

Sourdough started in California by prospectors and the ‘49ers. The original starter was activated by the wild yeast that float in the air. I suspect these new starters have regular yeast as part of the flour, water, sugar mixture. It usually takes at least 10 days to get it working, and by far the best way to start it is in a large glass jar. Never, ever let anything metal touch it. I often stir my starter well, add flour, water, and a bit of sugar, then let it sit in a warm place for at least 24 hours.

When we had milk cows and then a dang goat that had to be milked, we’d add that raw milk to it as well. I think that made the best starter, and so did Eulla Belle.

The only thing missing in my kitchen now is the huge wood cook stove that baked and cooked everything so well. I really do miss that fabulous oven, but I don’t miss putting firewood into its firebox often, then oftener, to keep that big oven at the right temperature. Because my middle name should have been “curious” I had to know why the wood stoves of old worked so well, baked the absolute best breads, cakes, pies, cookies.

Luckily we had a home economics professor stay with us for a couple of weeks during our busy summer season, and she knew exactly how that old stove worked. It is called heat transfer, and the slower, very even heat one can generate with the correct fuel (wood in this case, but some  preferred coal, I know...) This teacher asked me to let her cook on the stove, and she agreed with all of us that it surely was the best.

We have a family reunion coming up and now that I’m back into baking with sourdough, I’ll have breads and rolls ready to go. Another neighbor gave me a big calabazita squash last fall, and I baked it, pureed the pulp, and I added a cup or two of that (it hides out in the freezer, luckily) to my roll recipe.

That makes the rolls healthy and kids don’t ever realize they are eating squash!

I have shared both sourdough bread and sourdough starter with several friends and relatives once again. This really is a gift that just keeps on giving... Yum!

Editha Bartley  lives in Gascon in Mora County. She may be reached at 454-0563.