Sourdough Bread from Century Old Starter

Life doesn't get much better than being able to combine friendship with good food and that's exactly what my friend and I were able to do last week.  We live over 2500 miles apart, have never met in person (having met online through The Family Cow Forum around a decade ago), but share a love of so many things that our friendship has grown and I can't imagine my life without her in it.  One of the things for which we both have a passion is preparing homemade meals in our farm kitchens.  Last week, my friend Dianne sent me a really special gift of sourdough starter (and polish or "old dough") that has been in her family for  near 50 years or more! The sourdough originally travelled by covered wagon to Washington State with a family most likely a lot like' Dianne's. (Dianne just published a book about her Grandmother, Bessie Knapp,  which I had the privilege of reading before it went to the publisher. Dianne's family homesteaded  land which was part of the Colville Indian Reservation. I can't recommend the book enough.  It is called TO THE RESERVATION AND BACK.  I will include my book review and contact information for Dianne at the end of this blog post.)   I can't tell you how much it meant to me to receive this special gift of sourdough from my friend and I could hardly wait to get started using it.  

Dianne sent me the starter and poolish in a double layer of Ziploc bags that were put inside several plastic grocery bags and then in a priority box and mailed USPS.  The weather was cold both in Washington State and in Virginia and the starter travelled well.  

From Wikipedia:  
A pre-ferment (also known as bread starter) is a fermentation starter used in indirect[1][2] methods of bread making. It may also be called mother dough.
A pre-ferment and a longer fermentation in the bread-making process have several benefits: there is more time for yeast, enzyme and, if sourdough, bacterial actions on the starch and proteins in the dough; this in turn improves the keeping time of the baked bread, and it creates greater complexities of flavor. Though pre-ferments have declined in popularity as direct additions of yeast in bread recipes have streamlined the process on a commercial level, pre-ferments of various forms are widely used in artisanal bread recipes and formulas.
In general, there are two pre-ferment varieties: sponges, based on baker's yeast, and the starters of sourdough, based on wild yeasts and lactic-acid bacteria.[note 1] There are several kinds of pre-ferment commonly named and used in bread baking. They all fall on a varying process and time spectrum, from a mature mother dough of many generations of age to a first-generation sponge based on a fresh batch of baker's yeast:
  • Biga and poolish or pouliche are terms used in Italian and French baking, respectively, for sponges made with domestic baker's yeast. Poolish is a fairly wet sponge (typically one-to-one, this is, made with a one-part-flour-to-one-part-water ratio by weight), whereas biga is usually drier.[3] Bigas can be held longer at their peak than wetter sponges,[4] while a poolish is one known technique to increase a dough's extensibility.[5]
  • Old dough (pâte fermentée) may be made with yeast or sourdough cultures, and in essence consists of a piece of dough reserved from a previous batch, with more flour and water added to feed the remaining flora. Because this is a piece of old dough, it has the typical ingredient of salt to distinguish it from other pre-ferments.[6][note 2] Once old dough had rested for an additional 10 hours of age, the French named it Levain de Chef

I fed the poolish/old dough for three days before making bread.  My house was a little on the cool side, so I learned to set the poolish in our bedroom on the mantle so the heat from the fireplace would give the starter the right atmosphere for the yeast to work.  That was the perfect arrangement and the poolish thrived in that environment.  

On the third day, I made my bread dough using my friend's recipe.  There are posts online that give mathematical formula's for adapting recipes so that one can produce a quality loaf without a lot of guesswork.  I simply followed a recipe that my friend had posted on her Facebook page for making bread with poolish/old dough.

Again, I found that the cool draft in our house didn't allow the bread to rise like I wanted, so I moved the dough to the mantle in our bedroom where we keep a fire going when it is cold outdoors.  It might seem a little strange to have dough rising in the bedroom until one considers that our early American history includes many one room cabins and dwellings where it would not have been unusual to have bread rising in close proximity to where the family might sleep.  I love any connection with the past and having this century old starter growing in the bread on my mantel was such a treat.

I allowed the bread to rise three times before shaping it into loaves and baking.  

I divided my dough and baked a rustic loaf in two iron skillets.  If I had a dutch oven without legs (which I don't) I could have baked the bread in that. 
I can't tell you how pleased I was with the results!  The bread had a wonderful flavor and texture with a chewy crust just as I like it!  The house was filled with the aroma of fresh baked bread and I felt a connection to my friend even though we were so many miles apart.

Dianne's recipe (in her own words)  for sourdough bread using poolish:

"I take out 1/2 cup sour dough from my bread making...leave it on the counter. I add 1/2 flour & 1/4 cup warm water to this everyday for 3 or so days. Then the morning I am going to make sourdough. I add 4 1/2 cups flour, 2 cups water, 1 Tbs sugar, 1 Tbs salt, 2 Tbs olive oil, 2 tsp yeast. I mix this together in the sourdough...adding enough flour to make a good dough. I let it rest for 20 min covered. I knead for 15 min or so & let rise for one hour. I then knead & save out a hunk of dough for the next poolish & shape the rest of the dough. I put on a stone with cornmeal. I let rise 40 min & turn on my oven to 425 deg. At one hour or when double I slice the top & spritz with water. I put in the oven & spritz the oven with water often in the next 5 min. I bake for 40 min or till browned. When it comes out of the oven I sprinkle with flour to give it that rustic look. YUM!!!!!!! They say the longer you can let it rise the yummer the flavor will be. I feel like it takes several times doing this & saving the poolish to make a wonderful out of this world taste!

Then I also have my sour dough that I keep always in the fridge. I feed it 1 cup of milk, 1 cup flour, 1 heaping tsp sugar. Feed it every several days if you use it & leave it out on the counter...If you leave it in the fridge feed it once a week if you want it more sour leave it out on the counter covered. If it comes inactive from little use, add 1/8 tsp yeast to 2 tbs warm water & stir that into your sourdough & it will make it smell better, taster better & give it pizzazz.

I always wondered why sourdough did not go bad...it is because it is preserved...The liquid at the top of sourdough when left undisturbed for a time is called HOOCH this is slightly less volatile than high test aviation gasoline & will give someone a hangover of gigantic proportions! HA!"
I highly recommend Dianne's Book TO THE RESERVATION AND BACK  The following is the review I wrote for her book after reading it before she sent it to the publisher.  The story and history in the book alone are a treasure and the historic photos are an added bonus.
TO THE RESERVATION AND BACK is one of those rare books where the reader feels as if they have been pulled into the story and are somehow a part of it.  The author and her family share the life of Bessie Knapp, the author’s grandmother, who followed her own grandparents to the Colville Indian Reservation to homestead.  As one reads these accounts, written in first person narrative, one feels as if they have been invited to be an honorary member of the family.  The reader will laugh at the humorous anecdotes, as well as marvel at this family’s strong survival instincts and the ingenuity that helped them find ways to exist and endure within a land that sometimes seemed intent on destroying their efforts.  When reading TO THE RESERVATION AND BACK the reader will feel as if they are a part of the struggles and walk away with admiration for this family whose hearts were captured by a remote piece of property in Washington State that continues to call them back to the land.    
I strongly urge the reader to grab a cup of coffee or hot tea and find a comfortable spot to settle in when you begin this book, because you will not want to put it down until you have finished it to the end.  Upon reading the last sentence, I felt the sadness one feels after having satisfying conversation with good friends and not wanting the visit to end.  
Warm, intimate, moving, inspiring and with nuggets of first hand history of the area, TO THE RESERVATION AND BACK is a book you will want to read more than once. 

Please contact me via email tcuppminiatures@yahoo.com and I will give out the contact information to order a copy of Dianne's book.  

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