Living History: Tea and Two Slices


In the late 1920s, George Orwell compiled his first full-length book. Although Down And Out In Paris And London wasn’t an epic novel about a dystopian future, the origins of his later works could be found in this semi-documentarian, semi-autobiographical look at the criminalization of the poor.

In the first half of Down and Out…, Orwell gives a grueling account of the French food industry; he worked in Paris as one of the lowliest kitchen staff buried in the basement scullery of a hotel. But even more fascinating was when Orwell’s main character returns to his hometown of London, and through a series of misfortunes ends up living life as a penniless “tramp” for a period of several months. Orwell, too, lived amongst the homeless while he was a young journalist: he wandered in and out of shelters with the permanently poor, and became critical of the housing and diet of these men, the latter being “tea-and-two-slices.”

Ironically, just off the boat from France, Orwell”s main character orders tea-and-two-slices with a sort of welcome nostalgia.  Standard 1920s British diner fair, it’s a mug of tea with milk and sugar, and two slices of toast spread with margarine. But as he gets caught up in the system of cheap lodging houses, work houses, and prison-like shelters called “spikes,” it is the only food offered to the homeless.  “Food..had come to mean simply bread and margarine, which will cheat hunger for an hour or two,” Orwell writes.

“It follows that the ‘Serves them damned well right’ attitude that is normally taken towards tramps is no fairer that it would be towards cripples or invalids. When one has realized that, one begins to put oneself in a tramp’s place and understand what his life is like. It is an extraordinarily futile, acutely unpleasant life…hunger, which is almost the general fate of tramps.  The casual ward [a sort of shelter] gives them a ration which is probably not even meant to be sufficient, and anything beyond that must be got by begging–that is, by breaking the law. The result is that nearly every tramp is rotted by malnutrition; for proof of which we need only look at the men lining up outside any casual ward.”

Orwell’s book goes so deeply, and personally, into societal views of poverty that I can’t even scratch the surface in this post. Go on and read it, it will fascinate you.  But in an odd sort of tribute, I’m going to reenact the part that fascinated me the most: the ongoing march of tea-and-two-slices, this very British meal that was the insufficient fuel for an army of homeless men. Four meals today: 8am, 12pm, 4pm, and 8pm–tea, bread and margarine only.  I’ll update this post with thoughts throughout the day.

Update 12pm: A few words on margarine: I hate it.  I hate the mouth-feel and greasy taste. My future husband & my temporary roommate LOVE it. That’s part of the reason I’m doing this experiment now, because there’s an economy sized tub of it in the fridge.  I haven’t been able to figure out why margarine was so incredibly popular in England – maybe someone out there can clue me in – but this line from Down and Out is particularly telling:

“An ordinary London coffee shop, like a thousand others…’Can I have some tea and bread and butter?’ I said to the girl.

She stared. ‘No butter, only marg,” she said, surprised. And she repeated the order in the phrase that is to London what the eternal coup de rouge is to Paris: ‘Large tea and two slices!’

Daily Mail UK online has some things to say about margarine.

Black tea with milk and sugar is one of my favorite things in the world, however. And sipped slowly over many hours, it does stave off hunger, as many an Irish domestic knew.

Update 4pm: I get really hungry about two hours after eating.  The tea always helps–I’m very happy when I’m filled with sugar and caffeine.  Tea is a drug, that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, helped the poor get through their day and functioned as a substitute for food when there was none.  The “lower classes” were also constantly criticized for spending what little money they had on frivolities like tea and sugar; or so it was perceived, in England and on this side of the ocean. Perhaps today’s replacement is coffee or Mountain Dew.

Update 8pm: I had my last tea-and-two-slices an hour early.  What I ate at 4pm didn’t satisfy me at all.  I was having trouble thinking and remembering by 5pm, and by 6 I had to go have a lay down. I feel weak, sick and confused.  When I ate my final meal at 7, I felt full, but gross. I really thought today would be a cakewalk–who doesn’t love tea and toast? But I cannot imagine eating this, and only this, day after day.  It would destroy you.

I think I might have a banana and some peanut butter before I go to bed.  Don’t judge.

The History Dish: To Make Hot Buttered Toast

toastHow to Make Hot Buttered Toast!

Bill Bryson, author of the awesome domestic history compendium At Home: A Short History of Private Life, doesn’t have a high opinion of Isabella Beeton.  Mrs. Beeton published Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management in the mid-19th century; it included thousands of recipes, instructions for house servants, cleaning tips, medical advice and more.  It is probably the most influential English cookbook of all time.  Bryson calls it “…done in carelessness and haste” “plagiarized” and “…An instruction manual that could be followed religiously and that was exactly what people wanted.”

Ok. Maybe her book is a little over the top.  Perhaps one of the best examples of the tediousness of her recipes can be found in her “precise steps how to make hot buttered toast.”


A loaf of household bread about two days old answers for making toast better than cottage bread, the latter not being a good shape, and too crusty for the purpose. Cut as many nice even slices as may be required, rather more than 1 inch in thickness, and toast them before a very bright fire, without allowing tho bread to blacken, which spoils the appearance and flavour of all toast. When of a nice colour on both sides, put it on a hot plate; divide some good butter into small pieces, place them on the toast, set this before the fire, and when the butter is just beginning to melt, spread it lightly over the toast. Trim off the crust and ragged edges, divide each round into 4 pieces, and send the toast quickly to table. Some persons cut the slices of toast across from corner to corner, so making the pieces of a three-cornered shape. Soyer recommends that each slice should be cut into pieces as soon as it is buttered, and when all are ready, that they should be piled lightly on the dish they are intended to be served on. He says that by cutting through 4 or 5 slices at a time, all the butter is squeezed out of the upper ones, while the bottom one is swimming in fat liquid. It is highly essential to use good butter for making this dish.

But I tried her recipe, and I have to admit: it was a great system of toast making. I didn’t use the best butter–just Land o’ Lakes from the fridge.  And no open fire: I have a combo pop-up toaster and toaster oven, and used both features to execute this recipe: first to toast the bread, then to melt the butter. But with the double-toasting method she suggests, the butter was evenly distributed and saturated into the surface. The salty fat squeezed out with each bite and oozed over the tongue.  The soft squares of toast looked ridiculously small on the plate, but the mouth-feel was  almost decadent without the tough and scratchy crusts.

Maybe I just have a soft spot for Isabella. She was writing in a time when women weren’t. She was trying to write more specific  better organized recipes when recipes were about clear as mud. And she loved her publisher husband fiercely–who also seemed to love her back, but also gave her syphilis (probably).

At least she had a handle on toast.

Kitchen Histories: Biscuits You Can Beat With a Stick

biscuits3Beaten Biscuits

Over on Etsy, I’ve got an article up about Beaten Biscuits, an old Southern recipe where you smack the heck out of biscuits dough with  a rolling pin.  It’s from one of America’s oldest cookbooks, The Virginia House Wife–read the Etsy article here.

The Virginia House Wife also contains the oldest known written recipe for gazpacho; I’ve made it, and you can read about it here.

The Virginia House Wife can be found on Google books here, or a hard copy can be purchased here.

The History Dish: Prehistoric Bread

bread_history1“Baking” prehistoric bread.

Finding a place to build an open fire is next to impossible in New York City, but it’s a must if you want to bake prehistoric bread.

Bread, in all its various forms, is the most widely consumed food in the world.  Recent scholarship suggests that humans started baking bread at least 30,000 years ago.  Prehistoric man had already been making gruel from water and grains, so it was a small jump to cook this mixture into a solid by frying it on stones.  The National Academy of Sciences published a study that paleoanthropologists have found the remains of the starchy roots of cattails and ferns in mortar and pestle-like rocks (read about it here and here.)  The roots would have been peeled and dried before they were ground into flour and mixed with water.  Finally, the paste would be fried on heated rocks.

If you feel inspired to replicate this prehistoric recipe–like I was– I’ll warn you that Bob’s Red Mill does not make a “Cattail/Fern Blend Flour” (yet). Settle for a “10 Grain Breakfast Cereal” full of ancient grains, like millet, coarsely ground.

Then, visit your local home improvement store and poke around the slate tiling.  You may be able to nab a few pieces of broken tile for free. That’s what you should do if you live in a major metropolitan area, like me.  If you live somewhere normal, walk outside and pick up a flat rock.

Now, you need to build a big fire.  That’s another thing that’s difficult to do in New York City.  Fortunately, I have a connection with a historic site in Brooklyn that has an outdoor fireplace and bake oven.  The site is surrounded by a park for tiny toddlers; it’s fun when they watch me cook, but it also makes me feel like I’m in Kitchen Stadium.

Let the flames die down until you have a bed of glowing, hot coals.  Set the slate tiles on top of the coals, and wait about ten minutes.  Combine three cups of grain with about a cup of water and mix into a thick, workable paste.  Make the dough into half-inch thick patties and place them on the stones.  After five minutes, flip them with a piece of bark and you’ll be amazed to see the grain is browning on the heated rock.  They may stick, so if you have any wild boar’s lard–or something similarly appropriate–I recommend greasing your cooking rocks in advance.


bread_history2The results!

In about ten minutes, you’ll have a pile of hot, crispy cakes.  The outside is crunchy and tastes like popcorn, the inside is moist and dense.  I fed one to a passing park baby–she described it as “pretty good,” but maybe she was just being nice.



A portion of this article originally appeared on


Origin of a Dish: What Was So Great About Sliced Bread Anyway?

We’ve got a guest blogger on FPF this week: Aaron Bobrow-Strain the author of the new book White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf.  Below, Aaron gives us a little teaser history of sliced bread and the reactions it garnered when it was first released.


When Frank Bench, the owner of a nearly bankrupt bakery, and his friend Otto Rohwedder, an equally down-at-the-heels inventor, successfully ran the world’s first automatic bread slicer in Chillicothe, Missouri, they accomplished something nearly every member of the American baking establishment thought impossible—and utterly stupid.

By July 1928, when Bench and Rohwedder’s surprising product debuted, retail bakers had used machines to slice loaves at the point of sale for years, but few in the industry believed that bread should be automatically sliced as it came off the assembly line. Bread was too unruly. What would hold the sliced loaves together? How would slicing affect the chemistry of taste? What would prevent sliced bread from rapidly molding or staling?

Rohwedder’s designs for the automatic slicer dated back to 1917, but he found no takers for the idea and had almost given up hope. For Bench, installing the machine was a favor to his friend and a last shot in the dark. What did he have to lose?

The results astounded all observers. Sales of sliced bread soared 2000 percent within weeks, and a beaming Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune reporter described housewives’ “thrill of pleasure” upon “first see[ing] a loaf of this bread with each slice the exact counterpart of its fellows…indefinitely better than anyone could possibly slice by hand.” News spread rapidly. Sliced bread took off first in Missouri,Iowa, and Illinois, then spread throughout the Midwest by late summer 1928. By fall 1928, mechanical slicing had hit New York, New Jersey, and the West Coast. By 1930, 90 percent of all store-bought bread in the country was automatically sliced.

Some bakers dismissed sliced bread as a fad, comparing it to other Roaring Twenties crazes like barnstorming and jazz dancing. Nevertheless, as bakers wrote in frantic trade magazine articles, anyone who resisted the new technology would be crushed by the competition.

An automatic bread slicer. source:

While awaiting deliveries of mechanical slicers from hopelessly backordered manufacturers, bakers asked themselves a logical question: What’s so great about sliced bread? “Why does anyone want sliced bread anyway?” one baker wrote. “The housewife is saved one operation in the preparation of a meal. Yet, try as one will,the reasons do not seem valid enough to make demand for the new product.”

He had a point. How much extra work is it really to slice your own bread? And what about housewives’ “thrill of pleasure”? A little saved labor couldn’t explain a reaction like that. Why did so many people care so much about perfectly neat slices? What had sliced bread come to symbolize?


Aaron tracks down the answers to these questions in his new book, and the answers will surprise you.  He says “…It may get you thinking twice about our own confident visions of what counts as ‘good food.'”  Ok, my interest is piqued.

But I want to throw this question out to you, readers: What do you think was/is so great about sliced bread?


NYHS: Bridget’s Loaf Cake

The front cover of Mrs. Maria Sneckner-Lintz’s Receipt book, from the NYHS archives.

This post is the first in a series of three celebrating the re-opening of the New York Historical Society.  We’re going to focus on examples from the NYHS’s culinary holdings.

Today, we’re looking at a beautiful manuscript from 19th century New York; beautiful both for its physical appearance, and for the important information it gives us about daily life in the city 100 years ago.

The book is written by Mrs. Wilbur Lintz (nee Maria Sneckner), who was born in 1817 and passed in 1889.  During her life, she decided to record her favorite recipes and culinary knowledge.   Overall, this book gives us a peek into what was being cooked in a middle-class, New York kitchen.

“Recipe book of Maria (Sneckner) Lintz (Mrs. Wilbur Lintz) b. N.Y.C. March 14, 1817 d. ” Dec 27, 1889 at 135 w. 48″

Mrs. Lintz was a very organized woman; her cookbook is alphabetically indexed in a way that allowed her to add to her recipes over time.

Sneckner is an old Dutch name, and in that line, the manuscript features several traditional New Amsterdam-style recipes.  The recipe book includes three different recipes for New York Cakes, a cookie flavored with caraway.  In the Dutch tradition, these cakes were passed out to visitors on New Year’s Day; the practice of visiting on New Year’s was revived by the upper and middle classes of New York in the middle of the 19th century.

Additionally, this manuscript features recipes at the height of their fashion and modernity, like this one, at left, for Parker House Rolls.

These rolls were invented in the Parker House Hotel of Boston in the 1870s  and quickly became very fashionable.  “They are made by folding a butter-brushed round of dough in half; when baked, the roll has a pleasing abundance of crusty surface. Recipes for Parker House rolls first appeared in cookbooks during the 1880s.” (Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, 2004)

Parker House Rolls.–One quart of cold boiled milk, two quarts of flour. Make a hole in the middle of the flour, take one half cup of yeast, one half cup of sugar, add the milk, and pour into the flour, with a little salt; let it stand as it is until morning, then knead hard, and let it rise. Knead again at four o’clock in the afternoon, cut out ready to bake, and let them rise again. Bake twenty minutes.–Mass. Ploughman.
—“Parker House Rolls,” New Hampshire Sentinel, April 9, 1874 (p. 1) (sourced from The Food Timeline)

The Parker House still exists, and still serves its famous rolls, as well as its other great creation, The Boston Cream Pie.

The recipe I found the most interesting is this one, for “Bridget’s Loaf Cake”:

I recognized this recipe as the one that Mark Zanger, the author of The American History Cookbook, identifies as the firsts explicity Irish recipe to appear in print in an American book.  He cites it as coming from Mrs. Beecher’s domestic Receipt Book (1848), and sure enough, it is the same recipe as in Mrs. Lintz’s manuscript:

The 1840s were a decade of dramatic increase in immigration to America, due in part to the famine that hit Ireland, decimating the primary food source of potatoes.  The political situation was far more complicated than just that, but the results was the emigration of about 2 million Irish to points around the globe; 1.5 million landed in American; and by the 1860s, one in every four New Yorkers was born in Ireland.

Many single Irish women immigrated here to take positions in domestic service, as there was an incredible demand for servant labor in American household.  As a result, “Bridget” became the generic, ethnically-charged term for a servant.  Bridget learned American cooking from her Misses; and in turn, influenced the American kitchen with cuisine brought from home.

Mrs. Lintz’s Loaf Cake recipe isn’t just important because of the cultural trend it reflects; but because she took the time to copy it from Mrs. Beecher’s Receipt book, it illustrates that this recipe was actually popular and it was being made in family kitchens.

Bridget’s Bread Cake
From Mrs. Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book, by Catherine Beecher, 1848.

Bake time and temperature from The American History Cookbook by Mark Zanger

For the bread dough:
3 cups flour
1 tbsp oil
1 tsp salt
1 tsp yeast (or one packet)
1 cup warm water

This is a basic bread recipe I received from a great breadmaking class at the Brooklyn Brainery.  Frozen bread dough can also be subsituted.

Place water in a clean, glass bowl; sprinkle yeast over surface.  Whisk gently with a fork. Set aside.

Combine dry ingredients and oil, mixing with a fork.  Add yeast water, stirring to combine.

As the dough comes together, form into a ball and place on a clean surface.  Knead for 3 minutes, adding more flour or water as necessary.  A wet dough works well for this recipe.

Place in a bowl and cover with a clean towel.  Allow to rise for one hour.

For the Bread Cake:

3 cups sugar (you can use 1/2 cup brown and 1 cup white)
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
1 nutmeg, grated (approximately 2-3 teaspoons ground)
1 tsp baking powder
3 medium eggs (or 2 large)
1/2 cup raisins

Using a fork, cream together butter and sugar.  Add nutmeg and baking powder, then eggs.  Mix until thoroughly combined.  Stir in raisins.

Add ball of bread dough to sugar mixture.  Combine thoroughly using your hands: first fold the dough into itself, incorporated the sugar mixture; then squeeze and mash the dough with you fingers until you have a dense, sticky batter.

Set aside and allow to raise for 20-30 minutes.  Butter two small loaf pans and preheat your oven to 425 degrees.

Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake 15 minutes more.  Remove from oven and cool, in pan, on a wire rack.  Remove from pan and allow to cool completely on the wire rack, or serve immediately.


At these proportions, the Bread Cake came out super ooey gooey buttery sugary, to the point where it formed caramel on the bottom of the pan, like an upsidedown cake.  Overall, the texture was something like bread pudding.  I don’t think that was the intended result of this recipe, but I don’t think I care.  The texture is amazing and delicious.  Sadly, the caramel bottom stuck to the bottom of the pan, but I bet it would be even more awesome with it.

I wasn’t so fond of the flavor, though: heavy doses of nutmeg in my baked goods just make me think of the 19th century, but doesn’t hold any appeal to my modern taste buds.  If I were to make this again, I would use apples and cinnamon instead of nutmeg and raisins   I would line the loaf pan with parchment, so I could lift the whole thing out without losing the caramel, and I would serve it hot from the oven.  In fact, I think I might do just that.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

Bridget’s Bread Cake – not particularly photogenic.

Appetite City: Schrafft’s Cheese Bread

Appetite City: Diners

I’m not old enough to know diddly about Schrafft’s, the New York City restaurant chain, first hand; but everyone who does always remembers the cheese bread.   There’s only one known recipe for the famous cheese bread and it looks like this: This document was dug up by Joan Kanel Slomanson, the author of When Everybody Ate at Schrafft’s: Memories, Pictures, and Recipes from a Very Special Restaurant Empire.  It gives the proportions to make cheese bread on an industrial scale; it seems like it would be simple to just scale it down, right?  Wrong!  The problem is the mystery ingredient: cheese tang! So what is a cheese tang? No one seems to know, or remember.  It was allegedly produced by Kraft, and some researchers have gone as far as to call the Kraft company and ask about it.  No one has any memory of its existance. With the loss of cheese tang, Schrafft’s cheese bread is gone to the ages. Hold the phone.  Time to do some deductive reasoning.  You know what else Kraft makes? Tang.  Like, orange Tang, that went up with the astronauts.  Tang is a bright orange, orange-flavored powder.  So perhaps cheese Tang is a bright orange, cheese-flavored powder.  Now in what Kraft product can one get bright orange, cheese-flavored powder?

This is my theory and I think it’s a good one!  At any rate, the bread made with Mac N’ Cheese powder is phenomenal and will be devoured within minutes of exiting your oven.  Should you have some left overs, toast it before consumption: it’s best warm.


Schrafft’s Cheese Bread
Adapted from the original Schrafft’s recipe, as reprinted in When Everybody Ate at Schrafft’s: Memories, Pictures, and Recipes from a Very Special Restaurant Empire by Joan Kanel Slomanson, published 2007.

1 package dry active yeast
1 ¾ cups warm water
2 tsp salt
1 ½ tsp sugar
1 tsp – 1/4 cup powdered cheese (depending on desired cheesiness); either from a Mac & Cheese box, or from online
3.5 cups flour
1 cup grated sharp cheddar.
1. In a large bowl, combine yeast and ½ cup warm water. Stir to dissolve yeast. Mix remaining water with salt; stir to dissolve.  Pour over yeast and set aside.
2. In another bowl, sift together flour, sugar, and cheese powder.
3. Add flour mixture to yeast and water, one cup at a time.  When the dough becomes hard to stir, turn out onto a floured work surface.  Let dough rest while you clean out the bowls.
4. Knead dough for ten minutes, adding more flour if necessary, until dough is smooth and elastic.  Up to another 1 1/2 cups can be incorporated here.
5. Butter a bowl and place dough inside; let rise until it has tripled in size, 2-3 hours.  Punch down risen dough and turn out onto work surface.  Sprinkle grated cheese all over.  Roll the dough up and knead just long enough to incorporate cheese.  Swirls of cheese in the baked loaf are not a bad thing!
6. Grease two loaf pans; plop dough inside. Cover each with a kitchen towel and let rise 45 minutes.  Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
7. Put loaves in oven.  After 15 minutes, turn down heat to 350 degrees and let bake for 10 more minutes.  Cool on racks.
P.S. – this bread is total munchies food!
A delicious loaf of cheese bread.


Cocktail Hour: Beef Beer

The short story: I was doing research amongst the stacks at the New York Public library.  In the appendix of a large volume called Virginia Taverns, I found a recipe for a “American Strong Beer,” dated 1815.  I read on to discover this beer was made with mustard, rice and beef.  Interesting.

While planning for Bread & Beer, I sent this recipe to the brewers at Brouwerij Lane as a novelty; the next thing I know, they’re making it.  And it was my favorite beer of the evening.  Joshua Berstein of the New York Press just wrote about it:

But I could definitely get pie-eyed from the second beer. It was a circa-1815 American strong ale fashioned with wheat, barley, rice, dry mustard and lean beef. Yes, beef. “You use it to make a sort of broth,” Olsen explained of the cow flesh, whose proteins aid the Belgian yeast. Instead of being overwhelmingly meaty, the beer drinks dry and slightly fruity, with gentle notes of hamburger.

You can read Berstein’s full article on the Bread & Beer event here.

Brewers: give this recipe a shot.  You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

They brewed this beer in two incarnations, one of which was infused with caraway.  Below, the full menu and tasting notes for the event.

On a Personal Note: Reality TV, 1940’s Style.

I’ve been watching 1940s House, the 2001 BBC series in which a family recreates the living conditions during war time Britain. It’s a really excellent show; I find the British versions of the “House” shows to be much more fascinating. They cast people with a sincere interest in history, and I think it makes for a better show than the American version, which leans more towards reality tv and drama drama drama.

The shows also features several appearances by Marguerite Patten, and a focus on rationing and food prep in the ’40s. The show is well worth adding to your Netflix que.
On Wednesday, I baked three more loaves of sourdough bread. I still don’t quite have my technique mastered, but I’m getting close. It let it rise longer, and I baked two loaves at 450 with the lid on for 20 minutes, and the lid off for 30 minutes. I also tried using a loaf pan, instead of the Pyrex casserole I have been using. It was still dense–I think I’m going to have problems getting the bread to rise until my steam heat gets turned in. My apartment is chilly is the fall. Additionally, the bread tasted more like a classic sourdough than the cheesy bread I made last week. It’s from the same starter, so I don’t get. I guess when you’re cooking and eating living animals, their always going to be some variation.
The prettiest loaf of them all will be traveling with me to our nation’s capital, where I’m visiting my friend Bryan this weekend. We’re going on a historic food adventure which includes a trip to the cafe at the Museum of the American Indian and a visit to George Washington’s distillery. More on that next week.

The Sourdough Battle: The Great Bake Off

Astoria Sourdough: highly recommended.

The time has come to bake bread from the starters I have so laboriously cared for!

After poking around for a simple bread recipe, I can across the video from the New York Times.

I selected this recipe because I had seen this photo from Simply Sourdough the Alaskan Way, of two turn-of-the-century gentleman making sourdough in cast iron pots. The recipe is so simple, I figured it had to be relatively similar. I found the recipe adapted for sourdough here.

Simple Sourdough Bread

1 cup starter
1 cup water
3 cups flour
2 tsp salt

1. Heat oven to 450 degrees. “Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic)” in oven to preheat. In a large bowl combine ingredients. Cover bowl and “let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees.”

2. “Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself…” (reference video for this technique)

3. Carefully pick up the dough, and drop into the preheated pot. Cover with lid and bake 20 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, “until loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack.”


When I busted out my Astoria (nee New York) Sourdough Starter and gave it a sniff, the smell had definitely mellowed from stinky cheese to almost imperceptibly sour. After scooping out a cup of starter for my dough, I added a cup of flour and 3/4 water back into the starter, mixed it up, and let it sit out for about 6 hours before I put it back into the fridge. Use distilled or bottled water; tap water could be chlorinated and will kill your yeast friends.

I prepared the bread according to the recipe above, starting with the Astoria starter. The loaf came out of the oven a little weird looking: shiny, burnt in places, and lopsided. The latter is the fault of my oven, which, like my floor, slopes to the center of the room. Despite its suspicious looks, the bread smelled delicious. Like Parmesan cheese.

I really should have let the bread cool, but I was excited, and my roommate talked me into slicing it open. It was incredibly dense, and I deduced that I had not let it rise long enough.

We tasted it anyway: it was wonderful. Like a Parmesan cheese bread, that occasionally also tasted like baked macaroni and cheese. It was delicious. I could have eaten it all day. I was amazed. I had literally created this bread from nothing. How can so much flavor come from a mason jar full of flour and water on my windowsill? After having to throw away so many starters to get here, the whole thing just seemed like magic.

“I made this from the air,” I pointed out to my roommate. “You’re eating a piece of New York City. Literally.”

I put the Alaskan sourdough into the oven next; it rose slightly better, and the result was slightly less dense. But nowhere near as flavorful as the Astoria Sourdough. The New York bread was hands down our favorite.

Both loaves came out too dense. I don’t think I let either loaf of bread rise long enough: I hit closer to the 8 hour mark instead of 12. Bittman even recommends letting the dough rise for another 2 hours after you pull it out of the bowl and fold it over, which may be worth a try. Bittman also suggests cooking at 450 for 30 minutes with the lid on, the 15-30 minutes with the lid off. I am going to try his cooking temperature next time, to see if it prevents burnt bits.

The flavor of Sourdough bread varies by the region in which it is baked: sourdough was baked in San Francisco and Alaska because itinerant men needed to start their own yeast cultures; the sourdough from these regions became famous because of the particularly tasty local strains of yeast. New York yeast apparently tastes like mac and cheese.

I declare this experiment a success, although the technique will need to be tweaked. I will definitely be baking another loaf of delicious, cheesy, Astoria Sourdough. And I feel much closer to being able to survive on the frontier, just like so many other women had to do, long ago. Next week: I learn how to slaughter a buffalo.(just kidding)

(or maybe not…)

P.S.: For a little more science behind sourdough, here’s Alton Brown: