A side effect of the pandemic is the fascination with sourdough bread owing to an initial shortage of yeast. But when yeast came back, sourdough just stayed!
This pandemic is a bit of a piñata. Knock the world gallywumpus and it’s astonishing what falls out! The first surprise, of course, was the toilet paper wars. But that exposure of our deepest fears was just the first surprise of many. Jigsaw puzzles, that cozy lane of the woebegone, suddenly swerved into the mainstream. Puzzles have become prized possessions packed up and hanging on doorknobs in grocery bags via some mysterious underground network. Netflix has become as overpopulated as a passenger train in India, with so many hanging on that it had to slow to a crawl in self-defence. Everyone, over time, has become progressively more frowsy. There is some comfort to going incognito, for rare public appearances in masks and hats and sunglasses, so that even your nearest and dearest wouldn’t recognize you, but there’s no hiding from Zoom! Zoom has become our primary means of social interaction. No matter what we look like. Quick tip for the uninitiated. There is an option to “touch up my appearance” in Zoom. This provides a soft focus that smooths out the skin tone on your face and gives you a more ‘polished’ appearance if you haven’t already thrown up your hands in despair, that is. On Zoom on your computer go to “settings” choose “Video” choose “video settings” choose “touch up my appearance” under “my video”. If you’re on a mobile device, go to “Settings” choose “My meetings” choose “Touch up my appearance “. Once you make this selection, it will remain on for all your calls. If using FaceTime instead of Zoom, as many do, you can play around with the filters until you appear, if not presentable, at least playful.
One of the oddest prizes to tumble out of this pandemic piñata is the sudden compulsion to master sourdough bread. This was apparently ignited by a temporary shortage of yeast, and shows no sign of slowing. No one was more surprised than those of us who have been chugging along baking bread forever. It is a simple, reliable, controllable process that takes very little active time and rewards the baker et famille with deliciousness. But no. Suddenly isolated, home-schooling, puzzle solving, Zoomers have gone from trying to figure out how to skate at all to mastering the quad. Facebook and Instagram are awash with disastrous first, second and third attempts proudly displayed by those who obviously have no clear idea what they’re aiming for.
Bread is easy. Sourdough is not. To give you an idea of the steep climb ahead, you need a ‘starter’ (roughly the equivalent of adopting a new puppy), which you create by mixing flour and water and magically capturing yeast from the air. It’s a thing to name it, (my favourite name so far is Dr. Fauci) and fuss over its temperature. You must feed it at regular, though mysterious intervals until it begins to bubble and smell funny. Many aspiring sourdough bakers drop out of the race at this point, unsure of whether this smell is ‘good’ or ‘putrefaction’. The undaunted proceed to add a glop of this mixture to yet more flour, water and salt, stretching and folding it at prescribed intervals under just the right temperature until it’s time to form it, score it and plop it into a pre-heated Dutch oven, fervently praying that it will fluff up and develop that holy grail, an ‘ear’. It is difficult for the novice baker to assess their level of success, never having actually come across sourdough bread before. They eye it suspiciously, as one would imagine a mother bird might eye her first hatchling, with a combination of optimism and dismay. Once sliced, the result is, too often, damp, dense and smelly. Hope springs eternal. Perhaps sliced more thinly? Perhaps with butter? Sympathetic friends greet Facebook posts with kind applause. They know the weeks and hours and effort and hope that has gone into this homely baby.
So now what? Practice makes perfect. Eventually results will improve, or the party will be over, and the detritus from this piñata will be cleaned up and tucked away to await another disaster.
But, in the meantime, what’s to do with all these baked curling stones? There are only so many croutons and breadcrumbs you can use, or foist on your friends.
Rachel Ray to the rescue!
Sourdough Bread Pudding with Hot Honey Sauce
2 cups milk, at room temperature
1 stick (4 ounces) plus 2 tablespoons butter, melted
2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 1/2- 4 cups cubed sourdough bread
1/3 cup chopped pecans
3/4 cup honey
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Dash cayenne pepper
1/2 cup heavy cream
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees . Using an electric mixer, beat the eggs, then beat in the milk, 2 tablespoons melted butter and the vanilla. Gradually add the sugar and mix until dissolved.
Place the bread cubes in a 9-inch round baking dish and pour the egg mixture on top. Sprinkle the pecans on top and press them into the bread. Bake until set, about 50 minutes.
A few minutes before the pudding is done, in a medium saucepan, heat the remaining 1 stick melted butter with the honey, cinnamon, cayenne and salt over medium heat, whisking to combine. Remove from the heat and whisk in the cream. Drizzle half of the warm honey sauce over the bread pudding and serve the rest alongside.
Why not? Your pants don’t fit anyway.
Interesting to observe that all this isolation has resulted in sedentary puzzling and FaceTiming and bread baking and not so much Zooming Zumba. I suppose that’s the fun of a piñata. You don’t know what treats will fall out when you give it a whack. Things are bad enough. We must needs find comfort where we can. And it is ok to secretly bury those lumpish loaves left on your doorstep by generous novice sourdough bakers. We’re in isolation. They’ll never know.