Not by Bread Alone

One of my favorite stories about Andrew is how, when he was about 14, someone asked his mother whether he had any extracurricular hobbies or interests and she replied (in all seriousness), “He has an excellent palate.”

This story tells you a good deal about my in-laws’ priorities in life, as well as why I like them so much. They love good food as much as Andrew and I do, and they know more about it than either of us.  Thanksgiving is therefore an excellent holiday to share with them, particularly because they never arrive empty handed.  Before coming to visit, Andrew’s mother usually asks us if there is anything from New York that we’d like them to bring us, and normally we wave them off and claim that we are completely self sufficient.  This year, however, I had to make a request.

I had heard about a new butter being produced by a consortium of small, high quality New York dairy farmers and marketed as a cultured European style butter.  Supposedly, the butterfat in NYbutter is so high (91%) that it throws off baking recipes, but then, who would hide butter that good in a pie crust or cookies?  Normal butter contains 81% fat; other European butters like Plugra can get as high as 84%–this new butter sounded like the Holy Grail of flavor and I had to try it out.

The logical accompaniment to good butter is simply good bread, and I am fortunate to be the keeper of a venerable old sourdough starter (or if you want to get fancy, levain).  My starter’s roots lie in Tenessee, which perhaps explains the unconventional feeding instructions my friend Jamie gifted me along with my first tupperware of sourdough.  Jamie’s family feeds their starters a mixture of flour, potato flakes, and water, and makes the final bread dough with additional oil and sugar.  I dutifully followed the recipe for the first few months of baking (and it was good, just not sour) but gradually I began to pare back my ingredients to the basic flour, salt, and water.  Over time, my starter lost some of its sweetness and acquired more of the sour tang I love, and my loaves began to develop crisp crusts as I baked at higher and higher temperatures. I know my modified recipe now by heart and I whip up at least two loaves every week.

Having grown so accustomed to the routine (and the flavor) of my bread, I can begin to understand the habits of Yukon prospectors, who would sleep with a container of starter next to their skin, lest it freeze and die in the frigid Alaskan night.  As for myself (disinclined to bivouac in snowdrifts), I have carried my starter with me on roadtrips, and doubled back to retrieve it when it got forgotten in friendly fridges.  I’ve considered dehydrating a batch as an insurance policy against some unforseen kitchen disaster, but in lieu of that, I usually just give away portions to other avid bakers.

With turkey leftovers aplenty, we needed sandwich bread today, so I fed my starter last night and this morning I kneaded the bread.  It came out of the oven high and crusty, and the steam of the center melted my fancy butter upon contact.  The turkey would have to wait.

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