Author’s note: If you’d like a starter of your own, email me. I’ll be happy to give you some starter-starter.
Legend has it that Gold Rush miners snuggled their crocks of sourdough starter on winter nights to keep them healthy and warm. It’s also said that particularly hard-up miners would drink the alcoholic gray “hooch” that sometimes forms on top of a starter. There’s give and take in every good relationship, I suppose.
I have not been nearly so attentive to my own starter. Frankly, if it were a child, someone would have called the cops years ago. However, I’m trying to be better about feeding it each week. So now I’m facing the problem of all good starter-parents: What in the hell do I do with all this stuff?
A flatbread of our own
The King Arthur Flour website offers recipes for great sourdough crackers and a couple other things you can make with excess starter. But I had flatbread on the brain the other night, as I contemplated my foaming jar of starter. I’d been reading about msemen, a buttery Moroccan flatbread often sold as a street food. I had to have one, but I was miles from the nearest souk. A little experimentation and a lot of butter yielded a startlingly good, slightly tangy flatbread with a shatteringly crisp shell and an interior of delicate, chewy layers. I ate the first few drenched in honey, but they were perfect for swiping up stew when I made them again a few nights later.
Many other cultures have a flatbread that accompanies nearly every meal. We don’t, but we should. I like the idea that foreign influences and a very local ingredient — each starter is a microcosm of that region’s native yeasts — can combine to make something that connects us to the rest of the world and to our own heritage.
The world is flat
In Mexico, no one eats a hot meal without a rolled-up tortilla in one hand. Ethiopian families scoop up fragrant stews with enormous buckwheat crepes called injera. The Norwegians have lefsa; Native Americans, frybread; Malaysians, roti; Indians, naan. Throughout the Near East and Middle East, people eat variations of the pillowy round bread we call “pita.”
We don’t have an American flatbread “because we have utensils,” my Beloved opined. “By the time we got here, we were like, ‘Hey, we’ve got these things called knives and forks.’” If that’s actually true, then I submit that maybe we latched onto cutlery as a kind of status symbol. Maybe the unleavened breads that used to be ubiquitous in America have mostly fallen by the wayside because we associate them with hard times.
Hard times; hard bread
They say the formula for comedy is tragedy plus time. Tragedy, plus time plus flour yields a distinctly different result: breads that are designed to be eaten on depressing road trips. History bears me out on this.
When the Pilgrims quit England, they packed huge quantities of “hardtack,” a thin, extremely long-lasting flour and water cracker with roughly the same culinary qualities as sheetrock. Nicknames for hardtack, according the ever-reliable Wikipedia, included “molar-breakers” and “worm castles.” Well before their journey to America was through, their supply became infested with maggots and weevils. They ate it anyway, probably telling their wee Pilgrim progeny that it “built character.”
Pioneers often packed hardtack on their journeys west. It certainly beat the items on the Donner Party’s menu, but it was undeniably awful and lacking in nutritional value. With the advent of railroads, travelers were never more than a day or two from the next grocery store. Hardtack quickly fell out of fashion.
In 1864, the U.S. Government forced Arizona Navajos to take “The Long Walk”; a grueling 300-mile journey to a new settlement in New Mexico. Until then, the Navajo diet consisted largely of vegetables and beans, but those weren’t available after they left for their new “home.” The travelers quickly began to starve. “Relief” came in the form of government rations of flour, sugar, salt and lard. Being pretty much the only thing a person could make from that combination of ingredients, frybread was born.
Sixty-five years later, the economy went down like a lead balloon, and thousands of poor Americans were forced to hit the road in search of work. Again, flour and lard were among the only foodstuffs these destitute travelers could afford, so fried dough balls became a staple of Great Depression cooking. Cornbread soaked in buttermilk and biscuits covered with corn syrup are among the other foods our ancestors ate when they were just barely getting by.
Elephant ears and the arc of history
Frybread lives on in Indian Country; a staple for some, a symbol of adversity and survival for others. I’ve eaten it at a roadside stand on the Warm Springs reservation, with stew in Gallup, New Mexico, at a potluck for participants in the annual Canoe Journey, and buried under refried beans and ground beef as a “Navajo taco.”
Elsewhere in America though, people rarely consume fried dough unless they’re standing in a long line on a carnival midway, trying to decide, “Should I top my ‘elephant ear’ with cinnamon sugar or strawberry jam?” Lo, these many years later, the one-time Meal of Last Resort has become a special treat for which the vendors’ profit margin is roughly 6,000 percent.
My flatbread, while not so laden with either historical significance or lard, is no less rich.
Zombie bread and other tips
Like a lot of the foods I write about, these breads require nothing exotic. They take some time, but fairly little effort. You really don’t even need a particularly well-fed starter.
There are many better sources of information about sourdough than me. One I’d recommend is Mike Avery’s Sourdoughhome.com. But I’ll offer a few basic words of advice. If your starter develops a pink or orange liquid on top or an “off” smell, dump it and ask someone for a new starter-starter.
However, if it develops a gray liquid on top, just pour it off, and then feed it — it’s a sign of a starving starter. According to Avery, thicker starters, that is, ones with a higher ratio of flour to water, need feeding less often, and can be stored longer.
Flour amounts in starter recipes are always “squishy” because no two starters have the same consistency. The good news is, the stakes are very, very low. You can virtually always adjust the consistency, rising power or sourness of your recipe by adding more flour, more water, or more time.
Finally, these are best hot. By the next day, they become very buttery crackers. However, there is a very weird trick that really works for reviving hard, stale bread: Quickly rinse them in cold water. Stick them in a 300-degree oven. Check every two minutes. Your bread will be temporarily revived to its original glory.
Makes 10 flatbreads
2 c. healthy starter
1-2 c. flour, plus more for dusting
¾ tsp. Salt
¼ c. real butter
Fine cornmeal or semolina
Combine salt and starter in a large bowl. Add flour, about a ½ cup at a time, until it forms a dough that starts to pull away from the sides of the bowl. If your starter is very thick, this may not take even a cup of flour. If it’s thin like mine, it could require as much as two cups. You’ll know it’s ready when it’s still slightly sticky, but stiff enough to hold together.
Flour a clean surface. Cover your clean hands in flour. Turn the dough out and knead it for about five minutes. If it’s wet, and absorbing all of the flour or sticking to the counter, just add more flour. At first, the dough will be ragged looking, and not at all elastic. After a few minutes, it will become smoother, and spring back when you poke it.
Divide the dough into ten equal pieces. Cover each in oil. Put the balls in a tray with plenty of space around each — they will expand. Cover them with a damp, clean dishcloth, and put them somewhere warm (but not hot). I turn my oven to the lowest setting, turn it off as soon as it’s done preheating, then stick the dough in there. Or I put it on top of my dryer if it’s running.
Depending on the strength of your starter and the temperature, it could take anywhere from one hour to three hours for the balls to double in size.
Soften a stick of butter. On a floured surface, flatten each ball out until it is a rough rectangle shape about ¼ inch thick. Spread butter from edge to edge. Sprinkle on a very light dusting of cornmeal. This helps keep the layers separate. Fold the left third of the rectangle over the center. Fold the right third over, so that you have a “burrito” of dough. Paint the top with butter and cornmeal. Fold the top third down over the center, and then fold the bottom third up, so that you end with a little square packet of dough.
Return these to your oiled tray and let them rest at least 15 minutes. You can put them in the fridge overnight. If you forget to cover them like I did, the tops will dry out and get even crispier when you cook them.
Heat a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Using your hands or a rolling pin, flatten each dough packet. If you flatten it to a quarter-inch thickness, it will come out like a thick tortilla. If you go a bit thicker, you’ll get a more bubbly, chewy end-product that is more like a piece of naan. Both are great.
When your pan is hot, but not smoking, add butter or oil. Place one or two pieces of dough in the pan. Cook two or three minutes, until they’re are browned bubbles, and no raw spots. Flip it over, and cook the other side. They are done when they’re pliable and lightly browned, no longer doughy. If you can resist eating them straight out of the pan, store them in a warm oven until the rest are done.