The first time I scribbled Herman’s name atop a blank piece of notebook paper, I was a sophomore in college. My roommate, Sharon, introduced us, and for a while, Herman became my obsession. He was bubbly, sweet, and he made me … happy.
Today, that same piece of paper is stained and worn from the dozens of times I’ve looked at it and again tucked it safely away. The memory of Herman is always fond, warm and makes me think of … pancakes.
I gave Sharon a call, and she answered on the first ring. “Remember Herman?” I asked, skipping the pleasantries, even though it’d been a few months since we’d last spoken.
“Of course,” she said, laughing. “He lived in the fridge like a pet for at least a couple of years.”
During our college years, Sharon did what my mother, despite her best efforts, had never been able to do: convince me that cooking was a fun adventure. For the first time, I’d willingly roamed the grocery store aisles, planned menus and, despite my Piney Woods instincts to the contrary, tried new things.
When Sharon introduced me to Herman—our “pet” sourdough starter—baking became my favorite pastime. I called my mother regularly, asking for the tasty recipes I’d loved growing up.
While Sharon and I talked, I leafed through the yellowed note cards that held our recipes for everything from simple breads to coffee cake to fluffy pancakes. “We called him ‘Herman,’ ” Sharon said. “But lots of people call it Amish Friendship Bread. Somebody bakes something yummy, takes it to the office and brings a cup of starter to share.”
As Sharon and I talked, I realized that Herman was much more than a bubbling crock of yeast. In that little apartment kitchen, Sharon and I had baked a lasting friendship.
After we hung up, I remembered that Texas cowboys had a lasting affection for their chuck-wagon cooks. Sourdough was a camp cook’s prized possession, and on chilly, winter nights, the cook could usually be found curled up with his crock of sourdough tucked in next to him, keeping it warm. Freezing temperatures wouldn’t kill the sourdough, but unless the mixture was warm and bubbly, the cook wouldn’t be making bread, either. A batch of starter could be kept going—literally—for years on end, and every morning, when hungry cowboys craved fresh biscuits, the cook was a hero.
While there are many variations in creating a new starter, today’s packaged yeast makes it easier than it was in the 1800s.
Here’s the basic Herman recipe.
2 cups flour (all-purpose or organic)
2 cups warm (not boiling) water
1 package active, dry yeast
Mix these ingredients thoroughly in a crock, glass jar, stainless steel or plastic bowl that gives the starter room to grow. Do not use a reactive metal container. Cover the mixture loosely with a cloth, and put it in a warm place overnight. The next morning, your new friend Herman should be waiting to greet you, active and bubbly. He will also be hungry and ready to move into your fridge.
On the first and fifth days, feed Herman:
1 cup water or milk
1 cup flour
1/2 cup sugar
It’s a good idea to keep Herman covered in the fridge and give him a gentle stir each day. On the 10th day, you’re ready to start baking. Remove one cup of starter for your favorite recipe, and remove one cup to share with a friend. Then, feed Herman as before, stir and return him to the fridge.
Herman is resilient. I often forget to stir him daily; and instead of feeding him every five days, I only feed him about once a week using half the amount of milk, flour and sugar. He remains healthy and bubbly.
Despite the fact that Herman and I don’t spend as much time together as we did in our college days, he still holds a special place in my heart. Because of Herman, I discovered the adventure of cooking; I learned that warm bread can hold memories like fresh butter; and I found that the joy of friendship forged in even the tiniest college kitchen lasts a lifetime.
G. Elaine Acker is an award-winning writer who grew up in the Piney Woods. She divides her time between Austin and Santa Fe, New Mexico, and between Herman and her cinnamon-roll-crazy husband, Bill.