My grandmother’s fresh sourdough bread will forever remain one of the best things that I have ever tasted. She baked it every week and would show up to our house on Saturday mornings with a loaf still warm from the oven. There was nothing better than that first slice, sometimes with a little butter and jelly but best without anything on it at all. My mom and I fought over the heals.
My grandmother has been gone for 14 years now and I miss her. I miss her cooking and her back scratches and her Saturday morning visits. I’ve tried my best to recreate some of her recipes that had no recipes. Trying to create with nothing but taste and memory, her fried okra and potatoes turns out pretty good, but I can’t get her tuna fish sandwiches right.
But sadly, I can’t recreate her sourdough bread because I don’t have her sourdough starter. Yes, I’ve tried to make her starter. It didn’t go so well. I tried multiple times. Each time, no better. I was disappointed. I have come to understand that one of the things that I miss most about my grandmother’s sourdough is what it symbolized. It was my grandmother’s love. It was warm and soft and filling and it made me happy. It was everything that she was and if I couldn’t have her back then I at least I wanted her bread.
I come from a long line of bakers and good cooks. Along with my grandmother and sourdough, there was my great-grandmother baked sandwich bread in her little kitchen in southwestern Oklahoma every week that was so good members of the community would come to her house to buy them. She didn’t own a bakery but that didn’t keep people from placing orders her German chocolate cake or her orange date cake. They order dozens of cookies and multiple pecan pies. People even paid her to make their fancy tiered wedding cakes. She would have won The Great British Bake-Off without question. Yes, baking is definitely in my DNA.
When I saw the book Braided: A Journey of a Thousand Challahs by Dr. Beth Ricanati I decided that maybe I needed to start my own bread baking tradition and perhaps that tradition needed to be with a new type of bread. I love Dr. Ricanati’s story about how baking challah every Friday for her family’s Shabbat dinner she slowed down and in doing so made space for spiritual wellness in her life. Watching her family enjoy something that she had lovingly made filled her with peace and satisfaction which I believe had to be the same feeling my grandmother had every Saturday as she watched a sleepy teenager emerging from her bedroom, heading straight for the kitchen for a warm slice of freshly baked bread.
So I decided to start the new year with a new tradition: baking fresh bread for my own family. We aren’t Jewish, but I love the Jewish traditions behind baking challah (there’s a great explanation of the importance of challah here.) I spent the day watching the Rose Parade while watching my challah rise. And before long I had created two beautiful loaves of warm, yummy bread.
My 13 year old made my bread baking dreams come true when he said, “It’s better than restaurant bread!” Can you get a better compliment from a teenager? I don’t think so. And just the other day he asked, “Mom, when are you going to bake that bread again?” He wants the tradition just as much as I do. And on Saturday morning I get my own teenagers to stumble out of their rooms with the fabulous French toast made with the leftover challah from the night before.