Mandira from Ahaar recently mailed me a plastic bag filled with a gloopy gooey mixture. Was it some sort of a gag gift?? No, in fact, it was a precious Amish Friendship Bread starter. The idea is that you grow this live active starter for 10 days, then use some of it to bake a delicious sweet bread, and pass the rest on to a few friends, who in turn bake and pass it on. The concept of sharing the starter, and everyone making bread from the same starter, is what gives it the name Friendship Bread.
The instructions are pretty simple- you let the starter grow at room temperature, feeding it every few days, and then use it to make bread. But I was startled to read that the starter is a sweet and rich version of sourdough- it is fed with protein-rich milk, sugar and flour, and *never* refrigerated! Can this be safe? Well, two websites answered most of my questions, and in the end, it is clear that is the starter smells nice and yeasty, it is fine to use, but it is smells or looks "off", then it should be discarded. I had absolutely no problems with my batch.
Mandira made a delicious Banana-Raisin bread and I wanted to try something different, so I made mine with chocolate and pecans. Here is how I went about making it:
DAY 1 This is the day you receive the starter. It is never refrigerated, just left on the kitchen counter or wherever.
DAY 2-5 Mash the bag to mix up the contents.
DAY 6 Feed the starter: Add 1 C all-purpose Flour, 1 C Sugar and 1 C Milk (I used 2%) to the bag. Squeeze the bag a few times.
DAY 7-9 Mash the bag to mix up the contents.
DAY 10 Place starter in a bowl. Add 1.5 C flour, 1.5 C sugar and 1.5 C milk and mix well. Now I placed 1 cup starter into each of 5 bags, and used the remaining to make 1 loaf of bread.
To make the bread: mix the starter with 1 C flour, 0.5 C sugar, 1 egg, 0.5 C oil, 0.5 C chocolate pudding (made at home using Alanna's fool-proof recipe), and salt, baking powder, baking soda and vanilla extract. I stirred in 1/2 C chopped pecans and 1/2 C chocolate chips into the batter, then baked it in a loaf pan.
The Chocolate-Pecan Friendship Bread was utterly delicious! It was cake-like, the perfect accompaniment to a cup of coffee. The starter gave this sweet bread a light and airy crumb. The sliced bread was promptly shipped off with V to his workplace (they are the sweet and ever-obliging guinea pigs for all baked goods that emerge from my kitchen).
At one point during this 10 day procedure, my patience was being taxed :) and I was reminded of how we live in an age of instant gratification. This bread was a great way to take a break from the express-rapid-instant-i-need-to-have-that-right-now way of life that seems to wrap around me. Sometimes it is good to learn to wait. I was also reminded of the fact that people can and do cook without refrigerators. I am paranoid about food spoilage and tend to shove everything mindlessly into the refrigerator (and am hopelessly dependent on this appliance). But if done in an intelligent and logical way, and by harnessing microbial power in the right way, food can be preserved very well at room temperature. But the Friendship bread also raised some questions: why is there no "final rise" before the bread is baked? Why is baking soda and baking powder added at all? With all the ingredients that are added in the end (including quite a bit of oil, eggs, pudding), are we really using the starter to its full advantage? To me, the real miracle of starters are when they transform plain flour and water into a spectacular bread. In any case, my interest in bread-making and starters has been piqued, and I look forward to messing around with starter cultures some more.
Another thing I would change about this bread is, I would like to avoid using those large plastic bags to grow and distribute the starter- they just end up in the trash after use. The bags are ideal for shipping, I agree, but if the starter is to be distributed locally, I will use recycled yogurt tubs or some such non-metal container in the future.
For anyone who dearly wants to try this bread and has no access to the starter, there are recipes on the internet for making the starter- for instance, here and here. I don't know if this particular starter that I used started with wild yeast (like a true sourdough) or Baker's yeast.
I have sent this edible "chain letter" to...
1. Suganya (Congratulations on your winning photograph)
2. Linda (I'm amazed at your expertise with Indian cooking)
3. Bee (Thank you for all the baking inspiration)
4. My friend H in St. Louis who will be baking bread for the *very* first time!
5. My friend R in St. Louis, a fellow volunteer at CK and cooking enthusiast par excellence!
I'm crossing my fingers and hoping that the package makes it to the first three...I'm counting on you, USPS.
Many thanks to Mandira for letting me be a part of this sweet baking tradition!