“It shouldn’t be so hard,” he said. “My aunts never had any problems with theirs.”
My husband was referring to my four (or was it five?) previous failed attempts at establishing a sourdough starter. As a child, he had observed the female members of his family effortlessly maintain their sourdough starters, even taking a jar on camping trips for bread and sourdough pancakes. The process proved not to be so easy for me.
Having been successful with breads made with commercial yeast, I embarked on the challenge of baking bread with pure levain, a culture made with the naturally occurring wild yeasts in flour and the air. Simply put, you combine flour and water and wait for the wild yeasts and bacteria to form a culture that would provide both flavor and leavening power to bread. Time and a regular feeding schedule are important factors when waiting for the culture to develop a mature and vigorous starter. If you’ve ever read about establishing your own starter you will have noticed that everyone has their own method and they all differ by some degree: hydration (water/flour ratio), type of flour to use, feeding frequency (you refresh a starter with more flour and water), temperature, type of water, etc. In my case, I found that time and temperature were my biggest challenges in establishing a culture that would help me to produce good artisan bread at home.
After three or four days of seeing textbook results with my first starter (read: bubbles as a sign of activity) the mixture fell flat on the fifth day. Nary a bubble in sight. I managed to make these Sourdough Spelt English Muffins with that first starter in December but now I know that my levain wasn’t active enough to stay alive in the refrigerator when I flew out of town a few days later. My subsequent attempts after the new year yielded the the same disappointing results.
Three bread books and countless websites later, I finally came across a page that said it was perfectly normal to see this drop in activity after the first few days. The right types of yeast and bacteria were fighting for dominance over the other types in the culture. All I had to do was be patient and keep feeding my starter…and keep it at the right temperature. It turned out my kitchen was running a little too cold and yeast needs a little warmth to become active.
Finally being aware of the challenges I had to contend with and knowing what to do (I ended up using a heating pad to get my starter going on that fifth day and storing it in the oven with the light on after feeding), I had a fully active and vigorous starter just a few days later. My starter smelled right, it had lots of bubbles and it was doubling in size within hours of being fed–it was performing as it should. I can’t tell you how exciting it was for me to see my jar of yeast doing so well! At last!
When it comes to sourdough starters the smell of success is a pleasant, yeasty aroma…but the taste is even better. I have made the loaf you see above twice now and it is just as good as I had hoped a homemade artisan bread would be. I have decided to post my sourdough starter instructions here soon, mostly for safekeeping in case my mother starter should die somehow.
For now, here is a delightfully simple cake that I made out of some of the sourdough discard. There’s no need throw out all the excess starter when you refresh the mother. I found the base recipe online and made some adjustments to make it my own. The cake was made with my excess rye starter, whole wheat flour, chocolate chips, cinnamon and cardamom. This is no wallflower of a coffee cake. The flavors are bold, though they do mellow the next day. Use white flour and skip the cardamom if you like but don’t even think about leaving out the cinnamon streusel topping. I reduced the sugar from the original recipe so the streusel topping adds just the right amount of sweetness to the cake. My husband really enjoyed this with a cup of strong coffee while I thought it went equally well with my Irish Black tea. His only advice was to avoid pairing this cake with peppermint tea. Either way, it’s a great way to use up that sourdough discard…and look at the nice lift the sourdough starter gives the cake. Don’t be surprised if you see more sourdough recipes here soon.
Note: Just because this recipe uses sourdough starter doesn’t mean that the cake will be sour. Sourdough starters (levains) can be either sour or not. For this cake, think of it as lending extra lift to the final product.)
Sourdough Coffee Cake
- ***For the Cake***
- 160 grams roughly 3/4 of a dry measuring cup sourdough starter
- 1/3 cup dry measuring cup vegetable oil
- 1 egg
- 1 cup whole wheat flour white all-purpose would be fine, too
- 2/3 cup granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom optional
- 1/3 cup milk
- 1/2 - 2/3 cup chocolate chips
- ***For the Streusel Topping***
- 1/2 cup flour whole wheat or white
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar scant
- 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 cup cold butter diced small
Preheat your oven to 375℉. Spray an 8-inch round cake pan with cooking spray and line with parchment. I lined mine with the parchment paper sticking up the sides so the cake would be easy to pull out. Set aside.
Prepare the streusel: Combine all the streusel ingredients in a bowl. Pinch the butter with your fingers until crumbly and combined with the other ingredients
To make the cake: In a large bowl, combine all the cake ingredients from the sourdough starter to the chocolate chips. Stir until combined. Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan and sprinkle the streusel mixture on top.
Let the cake rise in a warm place for 20-30 minutes. Bake for 30 - 35 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean (or when the cake begins to pull away from the pan). Cool the cake on a wire rack before serving.
* This works well for a 100% hydration starter (equal parts water and flour)
* My sourdough starter has a rye flour base and with the ground cardamom, there are a lot of bold flavors going on here. Feel free to omit the cardamom. This cake is even better the next day.
* Recipe was based on this one, with modifications.