About three weeks ago, I received the "gift" of a starter for Amish friendship bread from an alleged friend. We'll call her "Lana." Now, I have the cooking skills of a caveman, but this was something I could appreciate--an easy, gradual-rising recipe with explicit instructions. Although my culinary past has been checkered at best, I saw myself working through my cooking issues with this, then moving on to more and more complicated recipes before finally romping gloriously through Elysian Fields with the Larousse Gastronomique.
The idea of the bread being slow and methodical appealed to me. I liked that "only the Amish know how to make the starter." I pictured some humble, Nurse Ratched-haired Amish lady back in rural Pennsylvania humming as she mixed it by hand before sending it out into the world, and I teared up at her innocence. I loved the notion of kneading and burping the bag every day and watching it bubble and ferment. I liked that you could only use wood and glass cooking implements. Somehow, it harkened back to a simpler time. AND, given my current fiscal constraints, and my ever-growing disdain for the gross commercialism Christmas has become, I thought it would neatly address both these issues. I would give a loaf of bread and a starter kit to many of the people on my list. It would be both thoughtful and frugal. That is, if I survived the vicious cycle of the bread itself.
The first run was almost biblical in its magnitude. Each bag makes four more starters and two loaves, which made me think of the five loaves and two fishes (or two loaves and five fishes, I forget). We were gonna feed the multitudes, except we couldn't give the things away. Most of my friends, it turns out, have already been through their friendship bread cycle and have no desire to get caught up in its yeasty clutches again.
Every day, there's work to be done with the starter bags. I'm either kneading or adding ingredients, or both. This is all well and fine--it doesn't take that long and it's easy--until day six comes and I'm late for work and out of milk and the $*^&# starters each need a cup of milk, in addition to a cup of flour and sugar. Then I realize, I have become a slave to the bread. I get two of the four situated at home by diluting the 2% milk with water to make two cups, dropping half a starter on the floor when the bag slumps over the counter edge while I'm diluting the milk. The dog dutifully laps it up before I can get to it, and I'm already running through my mental phone book in search of an auxiliary kneader for day seven, because I'll be at the vet all day with the sick dog. Because there's no way I can make it by the grocery store AND open on time, I drag the other two bags to work with me and do my duty by them with milk from the store, promptly squeezing a big splash of starter onto the counter and floor when I knead a bag that wasn't fully closed. It's 1050, I open at 11, and the bread has just taken over the last bastion of my sanity. By now, I am hating on the Amish--God bless their modern-convenience-hating, wholesome family-oriented gray-clad hearts! I seethe through days 7,8, and 9, lulling myself into a false sense of normalcy. Day ten rolls around, and I realize when I walk in the door at 9 pm and four bags are sitting there staring at me like some evil, amorphous, self-rising devils; that it's baking day and I was supposed to get the vanilla pudding on the way home, but I didn't and now Food Lion is closed. So I put it off a day, come home the next day proudly dragging the bag of vanilla pudding, only to realize I'm out of sugar. The bread is, by now, LAUGHING. I hear it when one of the bags explodes because I forgot to burp it on days nine and ten. Exhausted, I call Lana and make her feel somehow responsible--you GAVE me this stuff, remember? So she gets out of bed and brings me all her sugar and I manage to make it through baking two of the starters before I collapse in a flour-coated heap on the floor to awaken the next morning and start the cycle all over. I want to throw the remaining starters away, but somehow I can't bring myself to do it (what if it doesn't come back around in time for Christmas?). So I put an ad on Craig's List to give them away. So far, no takers.