I was not thinking of my children when I drove to a District chef’s house to grab a sourdough starter from her front porch cooler in the peak-pandemic spring of 2020. Rather, the drive sounded like a great excuse to escape what had become a Groundhog Day of togetherness.
It was all I could manage to keep my husband, two kids and dog fed while seven months pregnant with baby number three. Why not add sourdough to the mix?
Chef Johanna Hellrigl had convinced us all it was feasible with her Instagram feeds full of thick pancakes and golden loaves. Hellrigl, chef at D.C.’s “sorta South American” spot Mercy Me, fed, grew and shared with hundreds of people a starter she’d made from an Italian apple. It was a together-apart thing we could do.
“I think what honestly impacted me the most is the family aspect of it — teaching the next generation,” said Hellrigl, who now has a one-year-old. “It’s this moment where you can do something together.”
Even with that cloud of witnesses at my back, my kids reminded me how ill-equipped I was for the task.
“Daddy’s the one who bakes,” they said, as though this were an irreversible fact of the universe.
“Well,” I said, grunting to pull the Kitchen Aid mixer from a dusty pantry corner, “not anymore!”
I overcame the initial setbacks — preheating my oven with the starter in it once, cutting my thumb on the dough lame, cutting it again — and soon I was a well-oiled baking machine.
I made rosemary crackers with Maldon sea salt, garlic-flecked naan and olive-studded focaccia, along with a better-with-practice weekly boule. I added a chocolate chip-studded banana loaf to the weekly lineup and started sharing our surplus with neighbors.
Initially skeptical their recipe-allergic mom could actually bake, my kids became my most ardent taste testers. They pretended they were Paul and Prue à la “The Great British Baking Show,” poking the center of a loaf to tell me “It’s underproved” or my three-year-old son’s favorite comment: “It needs more flavor.”
Occasionally, they gave me handshakes.
And then came the question I’d forgotten to dread in the midst of my baking frenzy: “Can we help?”
I had come to accept the band of flour almost permanently dusting the roundest part of my pregnant belly, but I was not ready to accept the next-level kitchen chaos that could come with a pair of under-five helpers.
“Maybe later,” I demurred. “Next time.”
They called my bluffs.
So, I started letting them watch the mixer and tell me when the chocolate chips were equally distributed, teaching them the dangers of getting fingers too close. Then I let them pour the dry ingredients, knowing I could often scoop out any extra with the help of the scale. I always perched the mixer paddle and spatula on the edge of the sink so they’d be ready for the kids’ favorite job: licking them clean.
I soon realized what they wanted most was to be included in this hobby rooting me to the center of our kitchen and rooting us all to a weekly rhythm of feeding, baking and enjoying new things together. The added bonus? My kids got to see their mom try something scary and new and rise, quite literally, to the occasion.
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