I knew a man in Maine who despaired when a road crew came to straighten the hairpin curve in front of his house. "Watching cars skid," he said sadly, "was what we did in winter."
But soon he discovered that you could use up a whole week of the cold season making sourdough. Ultimately, he admitted, it was more rewarding, and more exciting too, since sourdough with its bubbly expansiveness can explode when placed in a closed container and left too near high heat. Uncontained, in an open bowl, it will occasionally expand itself right over the top, oozing onto the kitchen table . . . the kitchen floor . . .
During the Alaska gold rush, prospectors depended on sourdough starter to make their bread, biscuits and the light airy hot cakes that could send a man into the wilderness knowing that today was the day he'd strike it rich. It was so much a part of their lives that people began to call them sourdoughs.
Even if you find winter less tedious than the man in Maine might and less difficult than the prospectors, you still might want to make a batch of sourdough and serve it to friends in the form of bread, biscuits or hot cakes. You can buy packaged starters or make your own. Georgetown Coffee, Tea and Spice, 1328 Wisconsin Ave. NW, and Hugo's Natural Foods, 3817 Livingston St. NW, carry the starters, and the latter also carries a sourdough bread mix.
Ruth Allman, in her book Alaska Sourdough, gives these instructions for sourdough starter:
"Boil potatoes with jackets on until they fall to pieces. Lift skins out and mash potatoes making a puree. Cool. Add enough water to make 2 cups liquid. Put in a pot with 2 tablespoons sugar, and 2 cups flour and let sit for from three days to a week, until the starter is bubbling. (Never use a metal pot or spoon; it will interfere with the fermentation.)
Set half a cup of your starter aside for your next batch of sourdough and use the rest to make Mrs. Allmans's Sourdough Hotcakes: 2 cups sourdough starter 2 tablespoons sugar 4 tablespoons oil 1 egg 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 scant teaspoon soda, or a full teaspoon if the starter is real sour.
Into the sourdough dump sugar, egg and oil. Mix well. Add soda the last thing when ready for batter to hit the griddle. Dilute soda in one tablespoon of warm water. Fold gently into the sourdough. Do not beat. Notice deep hollow tone as sourdough fills with bubbles and doubles bulk. Bake on hot griddle until seal brown. Serve on hot plates."