Babcia’s Bread Experiment, part 1: the story

I may have mentioned in past posts, about my mother’s memories of bread baking in pre-WWII Poland. I was fascinated by what she could tell me. With no commercial yeast available, I had thought my Babcia (grandmother) had used a sort of sourdough. I know my father remembers this; a portion of the bread dough would be set aside to continue to ferment, and be used in the next batch of bread.

My grandmother did something different. She allowed her old dough to dry.

We lost our own sourdough starter, the Sourceror this past summer. It almost made it to 2 years, but we had a real problem with fruit flies this year. Somehow, they managed to get into the container and contaminated it.

Having a big bubbling bowl on the counter has been a bit of a problem for other reasons, so the more I heard about how my Babcia saved her dough, the more I wanted to try it.

My mother’s memories go back to the late 1930’s, early 1940’s. Then WWII happened and they eventually ended up in Canada, where commercial yeast was available. After questioning her about it, this is what I’ve been able to piece together.

Babcia would bake bread once a week. She would set aside some of the dough, adding in the scrapings from the wooden dough bowl, form it into a ball, then burying the ball in the flour. The night before she would be baking bread again, she would take out the dried ball of dough, break it up into pieces, and soak it in water overnight. In would get all bubbly, and that would be her yeast for her bread baking, with the cycle continuing each time.

My basic bread recipe includes things like oil, sugar, eggs, milk… all things that I just couldn’t see handling sitting in a bag of flour for a week without going off. On questioning my mother, I learned Babcia used none of these things. It simply wasn’t available. Her bread was flour, water, a bit of salt, and the reconstituted old dough. That’s it.

The flour would have been flour they milled themselves (at least they did until the Nazi’s caught them using an illicit hand mill and destroyed it), using grain they grew themselves. My mother says corn flour was also sometimes used, which they also would have grown themselves. The ingredients may have been few, but my mother remembers it as being the best bread; especially when corn flour was added. She remembers it was light and fluffy, too.

My mother was too young at the time to remember a lot of details, though, so I did some research. I know that bread can be as basic as flour and water, but if salt is used, would that be a problem? I know that sugar feeds yeast, while salt retards it. How would having salt in the dough affect the old dough yeast cake? Also, how much dough was set aside? My mother remembers a “ball”, but as young as she was, her sense of how large that was would be distorted.

In my research, I found quite a bit about “old dough” bread baking. This gave me a lot of the information I was looking for. For some types of old dough baking, dough is set aside before the salt was added, while others were taken out after. Both work. As for how much was taken out, I eventually found a general “about the size of an egg” description.

What I didn’t find was anyone who used old dough that was stored in flour. Nor did I find any that stored the dough for weekly baking. Most described setting the old dough aside in the fridge for 2 or 3 days, at most. In some forums I found, people described using it in their daily baking. Not a single person described using their old dough the way my mother remembers her mother did it. They all used wet dough. None used reconstituted dry dough.

I have decided, instead of getting a sourdough going again (for now), I will try and recreate my Babcia’s bread.

Of course, some things I will simply not be able to recreate; at least not now. We’ll be using plain old AP flour. I won’t be adding corn flour right away. I don’t have a big wooden dough bowl like my Babcia would have had (with a wooden dough bowl, yeast would have gotten into the wood itself, adding its own layer of flavours). I also don’t have a wood burning masonry stove (something similar to this, with a sleeping area on top) like my grandmother would have been baking in.

I found some proportions for ingredients for 2 loaves that I will start with, and I will probably experiment with making some a couple of times a week before I start adjusting quantities for larger batches.

One of the main differences in this experimental process is that I don’t have a yeast “mother.” My mother has no memory of where her mother got hers from. It was always just there. She may well have gotten her first old dough from the family members she was living with (my great grandparents having already gone to Canada to start a homestead, only to not be able to send for their children as they had planned, because of WWI). However, as they saw the warning signs leading to WWII, they abandoned their farm in Eastern Poland, taking nothing but the clothes on their backs and a goat they could milk for food, to settle in Western Poland. At that point, my grandmother likely got another old dough ball from one of their new neighbours.

It’s amazing how much history is intertwined in something so ordinary as how my grandmother leavened her bread!

So this is what I will be doing in my experiment that will possibly span years.

Today, I have started a first batch of plain bread; it’s rising as I write this, and I will post about it separately when it’s done.

I will be using a commercial “sourdough” yeast I happened to find, in this first batch.

After the dough is risen and before I shape it into loaves, I will break off some of the dough and store it in a container of flour, then bake the rest of the dough as usual.

In a few days, I’ll reconstitute what should be a mostly dried ball of dough overnight, make another 2 loaf batch, then continue repeating the process.

What should happen: the flavour of the bread should change and develop over time, just as with a sourdough.

What might happen: I’ll have sucky bread that doesn’t rise properly? The dough ball will start molding? The yeast will die off and I’ll have to start over? I have no idea.

For the first few months, at least, I will stick to the same basic mix of flour, water, salt and the old dough for yeast. Eventually, I will try adding corn flour. If I do decide to modify the recipe in other ways, it will be by doing things like kneading in herbs or shredded cheese or whatever, after the dough ball has been removed. I won’t be adding things to the base recipe, like sugar, milk, oil or eggs.

After I’ve done a few batches, and assuming this works, I plan to give some to my mother to taste. Hopefully, she will remember enough to be able to tell me if I’ve succeeded or not! 😀

The Re-Farmer

4 thoughts on “Babcia’s Bread Experiment, part 1: the story

  1. Pingback: Babcia’s Bread Experiment, part 3: reconstituted, and more of the story | The Re-Farmer

  2. I loved the picture of the oven and adjoining sleeping area. That was neat.

    My first husband was a Bernatowicz. His dad was first generation American and was a cook in the Army in WWII. His grandparents had gotten the hell out of Poland prior to WWI.

    I have an interest in making sourdough. I’d like to make some with Einkorn wheat.

    Liked by 1 person

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