One of the things that still stands out from my senior year in college is learning to make English muffins from my roommate, Meg. Before the muffins could be made, she stirred flour, water and yeast together, letting it stand for two days at room temperature, creating a “starter” for the muffin dough. It was my first introduction to sourdough and bread baking. Most of the women I know on Little Cranberry Island are bread bakers. It doesn’t mean we do it all the time, but it sure is a good thing to know when you run out of bread and the store is a boat ride away.

Before Bruce and I married, I spent a summer baking and selling English Muffins on Islesford. I lived in a little blue house with my roommate Ann and her daughter, Mae. Ann baked bread and I made muffins and we took orders for cakes, pies, and whatever else people wanted. We got up to work in the wee hours so we could send some of our baked goods off on the first boat to Mrs. Pervear’s shop in Northeast Harbor. The house had very little counter space, so we used any available flat surface for various stages of rising dough. The ironing board became the counter for my electric fry pans to cook the English muffins. The top of the large console T.V. held several cooling racks. I bought a bread board at Shepard’s Hardware, in Ellsworth, to have a surface for kneading and cutting the muffins. (Eventually Shepard’s became the home of Rooster Brother, “a store for cooks.”) Ann taught me to bake bread that summer, giving me some excellent advice; “Don’t expect the yeast to work on an exact schedule, and don’t let bread dough get the better of you.”

At the start of our marriage I baked all of our bread. I don’t recall doing it to save money as much as doing it because Bruce liked it and it seemed like the perfect “island wife” thing to do. My loaves never rivaled the wonderful Anadama bread baked in the summer by Earl Spurling, or the hot rolls baked every Saturday by Bruce’s grandmother, Hazel Fernald, but I was comfortable producing homemade English muffins and oatmeal bread for sandwiches. It wasn’t until I tried making sourdough bread that I lost my confidence.

I bought commercial sourdough starter, but the loaves I made were flat. The starter soon became a thick white layer of paste, at the bottom of a glass jar, topped by funky smelling gray liquid. I had not “fed” it properly. I abandoned sourdough bread until I met Lancey, a woman who comes to Islesford regularly in October. She is an extraordinary bread baker who uses a sourdough starter that originated over a hundred years ago. She shared some of her starter along with a lesson on how to feed it. I followed a recipe for Quintessential French Sourdough Bread and produced a loaf that came close to the results I sought. However, I was daunted by the process and the author’s strict instructions. It never became a habit for me, and Lancey’s starter eventually turned to paste with the familiar gray liquid topping. The following October she gave me fresh starter, but it suffered the same fate. I couldn’t get comfortable with making sourdough bread. My loaves were flat, and the crust was not crusty. Sourdough bread was getting the better of me, but I gave it one last try.

I assumed it would be difficult to create my own starter, but I had nothing to lose. From years of baking bread, my kitchen had plenty of wild yeast floating around in the air. I mixed equal small amounts of flour and water, poured them into a very clean bowl, covered it with plastic wrap and poked a few holes in the top. I stirred the mixture after 12 hours and then fed it with the same amounts of flour and water after 24 hours. I repeated the process for 5 or 6 days and I ended up with a foamy mixture that smelled good and slightly sour. Could it be that easy? Apparently so. “Wild Miss Islesford” was born, and she made a pretty tasty loaf of bread, with enough of her left over to feed and grow for the next time. When Lancey appeared in October, she brought me some fresh starter. I said, “I don’t need it, but I have a surprise for you.” A little bit of Islesford yeast went off to live with Lancey in Connecticut.

Creating my own starter, literally from thin air, changed my whole attitude about sourdough. In December, Allison Reid, owner of Scratch Bakery in South Portland, and partner of my sister-in-law Kelly, taught me exactly what I needed to know as a technique to produce professional-quality artisan loaves from a noncommercial oven. The trick is to use a cast iron Dutch oven, or some such enclosed baker that can withstand 500º f. The same technique is described in the book “Tartine Bread” by Chad Robertson.

Half the fun of enjoying something is being able to pass it on. Last winter, I abandoned my moisturizer and shampoo so I could fit three little 3 ounce jars of starter in the zip lock bag of my carry on luggage when we flew to Baltimore. I wanted to share my bread knowledge and Miss Islesford with my daughter-in-law. She ended up making “just the kind of bread I always wanted to make” on her first try. In June, friends visiting from Waterloo, Canada, made bread at our house and took some starter back with them, giving Miss Islesford her first international trip. My sister-in-law Karen made sourdough bread all summer, giving some of her Miss Islesford starter to a family member to take to the Catskills. When I didn’t know what to buy my brother for his July birthday, I gave him a bread-baking lesson along with scales, a basket, a bench scraper, a bread book, and some Wild Miss Islesford. He now makes bread regularly in Washington, D.C.

Thirty-six years after my college experience, I am exactly where I want to be; smack in the middle of my own sourdough bread comfort zone, ready to share the Islesford air with anyone who wants it.

-Islesford, October 18, 2011