Meet Zola: She’s bubbly, vivacious and adaptable. She’s a romantic, but she excels at science, too. Zola is a networker, with a special skill for connecting people. Some accuse her of being high-maintenance, but those who know her best say she’s actually pretty chill, a real natural beauty. She grew up in the Midwest, but since settling in Maine has made many new friends. In fact, if you’re a fan of Rose Foods, in Portland, you’ve probably run into her, even if you don’t know her by name. Zola is both well traveled and a contented homebody, a nurturing mom who needs a lot of nurturing herself. She’s often hungry.

Zola is a sourdough starter, used to make baked goods, most often bread, without relying on commercial yeast to rise.

“It’s more forgiving than people think, and it’s so deeply satisfying,” said South Portland resident, expert sourdough baker and Zola caretaker – one of them anyway – Kate Whittemore about baking naturally leavened breads. “Before you’ve baked sourdough, there’s this feeling it’s really complex, or it’s really time-consuming, but it’s also really pure and simple. All you need is water, flour and salt. It feels like alchemy. Every time I open my oven, I am amazed at how something so simple is transformed into bread.”

Natural starters give sourdough breads their incredible flavors, marvelous chew and nutritional power. To make naturally leavened bread, some of the starter is added to flour, water and salt. Before the popularization of commercial yeast in the 19th century – the Fleischmann brothers introduced it to Americans at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition in 1876 – all breads were naturally leavened.

Sometimes called “cultures,” you find these starters in yogurt, vinegar, kombucha and other fermented products, too. Bakers coddle them — naming them, fussing over their diets, even taking them on overseas trips. Another name for them? Mothers.

This Mother’s Day, we pay them tribute.

“They are naturally giving birth constantly, you know?” laughed Kerry Hanney, founder of Night Moves Bakery in Biddeford. “They provide our food. If we care for them, they continue to nourish us eternally. There is such beauty in that relationship.”

Whittemore feeds Zola, her sourdough starter, at her home in South Portland. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

EARLY LIFE

Zola was born on Halloween day in 2011 in Minnesota, to Ainsley Judge. At the time, Judge baked laminated pastries for a living in Minneapolis, but at heart, she felt herself a bread baker.

In the fall of 2011, after coming home from an extended bicycle trip circling the Great Lakes, Judge realized she’d be staying put for a while, meaning she’d be able to nurture a starter. Depending on how much you are baking with it, starters may need feeding – with flour and water – as much as twice a day or as little as once a week. Judge mixed together two kinds of flour from an organic mill in Minnesota with equal parts warm water, and let the mix “relax” on the kitchen counter. Like many sourdough bakers, she gave her starter a name. Zola, she said, “just felt right.”

For a time, she and a few friends made use of Zola to teach sourdough baking classes on Judge’s back porch. They used Zola to leaven loaves (starters are also known by the French word “levain,” meaning leavening), which they sold at farmers markets. After a few years, Judge left Minneapolis. She moved to a farm in Michigan, carefully packing up Zola and bringing her along. From Michigan, the pair moved farther east, to Maine, where Judge got work as a bike mechanic at the Gear Hub in Portland and where, in 2014, she presented a smidge of Zola to her friend, Whittemore.

“When Ainsley gave it to me, she gave it with a little sticker, some masking tape on the container, with the name and the original date, the birth I guess you could say,” Whittemore remembers.

A few years later, Whittemore, who has worked as a line cook at Palace Diner in Biddeford and front of the house at Rose Foods, divided Zola again, giving a container to her friend and colleague Chad Conley, founder and owner of the Portland bagel shop. He was developing his bagel recipe at the time, and in went Zola, and while she lost her name along the way — there she is known simply as “the starter,” Conley said — she found local and national fame. Condé Nast Traveler, for one, noted in 2019, that Rose bagels “will make even the most opinionated New Yorker smile.”

Kerry Hanney, owner of Night Moves Bakery, uses her great-grandfather’s ruler to divide her rye loaf into three. The “mother” used to make the loaf is named Franz, for him. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

WORKING MOMS

If she were a party girl, Zola could find plenty of playmates in the area. There are Patti Smith and Franz, at Night Moves Bakery; and Shima Kirscher and two nameless gluten-free starters at The Purple House in North Yarmouth. “Shima” means “mother” in Navajo, baker/proprietor Krista Kern Desjarlais explained; the starter got its start in New Mexico.

Desjarlais uses it to make bialys and pizza at Purple House, which she plans to reopen gradually this summer; the cafe/bakery has been closed during the pandemic. Regarding her gluten-free starters, Desjarlais, who is newly gluten-free herself, said, “One is carrot, the other is rice. I am so unromantic with all of this. And I don’t weigh anything when I (feed the starters).  I just look at it and I say, ‘You look a little flat’ or ‘You’ve got too much liquid on top, and you smell strong.’ So I have a relationship. We just aren’t on a first-name basis.”

Over at Standard Baking Co., in Portland, find Whitey, 26 years old, and a nameless rye, some 20 years old, and nameless whole wheat starter (25 years old? 30? Anyway, she’s made a lot of loaves over the years). Then there are Lulu and Franz (the namesake of Night Moves’ Franz) at Scratch Baking Co. in South Portland; and a nameless starter at Belleville in Portland that owner Chris Deutsch brought to life when he lived in Paris, where he’d gone to learn bread baking and croissant making. Some 10 years ago, he poured his starter into a shampoo bottle, packed it in his luggage and brought it back to America.

“It got checked with our bag of toiletries in cargo-hold,” Deutsch recalled. “I had spent a good eight months feeding it and learning to bake with it. I just didn’t want to leave it.”

His starter, which he calls simply levain – “I’ve worked in plenty of kitchens where we had names for them, and some of them you probably wouldn’t want to repeat” – also spent time in Italy, New Orleans and Washington, D.C., before arriving in Maine. At Belleville (though the bakery is temporarily closed), he uses it to make pizza and baguettes.

Patti Smith is the wheat starter that Hanney made herself five or six years ago from Maine Grains 86% sifted wheat flour. “It just ferments with this really wonderful, sweet, complex wheat flavor,” Hanney said. “We are using all stone-ground regional grains, but that one in particular, I love the flavor it imparts.”

Punk rock and artisanal loaves may not seem like a natural pairing. What most people know of Smith’s appetite is this: “Desire is hunger is the fire I breathe. Love is a banquet on which we feed.” But Hanney read Smith’s critically acclaimed memoir, “Just Kids,” at a pivotal time, “when I was trying to decide what to do with my life and if I should step out on my own with my business and was really starting to dig into baking bread,” Hanney explained. “The writing is really beautiful. It was her coming-of-age story. I had not read a lot of really honest stories of women in creative fields and how they found their way. I finished that book, and it precipitated this big emotional shift for me: This is your path. As soon as I made the starter, ‘This is Patti.’ (The book) felt like it cracked open something in me. I could see all the past versions of myself laid out and was ready to become the next version of myself. It was a pretty important moment in life.”

Hanney sits at her great-grandfather’s roll top desk, which she uses in her office space at the Pepperell Mill in Biddeford. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Franz, Hanney’s rye starter, is named in part for the rye starter at Scratch Baking, where Hanney used to work. But the name also honors her German great-grandfather, an ornamental ironworker, who came to America just after World War I; Germans are expert rye bakers. While she never knew him, she uses his rolltop desk at the bakery – “a real living piece. You can see the wear of his use, the ink splotches” – also a ruler that belonged to Franz, with which she divides her long, dense, salubrious rye loaves into three for sale.

NURTURING WAYS

At Clear Flour Bakery in Boston, where Alison Pray, co-founder of Standard, trained three decades ago, the starter was called, simply, “The Mom.”

“It is the seed of bread. It reproduces,” Pray said. “Bread is a living thing, and the mother is a source of that life.”

“We definitely think of Lulu as the mama of all breads,” echoed Allison Reid, co-founder of Scratch.

But if starters are mothers, giving life to bread and nourishment to eaters, at the same time they’re children, requiring consistent care from bakers, who monitor their temperatures, diets, food/drink ratios and schedules. It’s a paradox. To feed their starters, many local bakers use Maine Grains flour, Vermont-based King Arthur flour, or a mix, and water, generally tap water.

An exception to that? Every summer Desjarlais brings her starters to Bresca & the Honeybee, her ice cream shack on Sabbathday Lake in New Gloucester, where they drink from her point well.

“I’m basically tapping into Poland Spring,” she said. “It’s undoubtedly the same aquifer. It’s so happy and active when I’m feeding it there. It’s like going away to a spa for my starters. They are really rejuvenated. When I bring them back to Purple House in the fall, they are on fire.”

Over at Scratch, Lulu — mama of all breads — has her childish side, too. “I definitely think of Lulu as a child, or a pet,” Reid said. “We can’t leave her if we close for a holiday. She’s come up to Sugarloaf with me. She’s come up to MDI with me. She doesn’t like to be left alone. I put her in a container, get a little kit with her feed bag all weighed out. I bring a scale, and then she just rides shotgun with me in the car.”

Similarly, because Night Moves is closed on Sundays, yet Patti Smith and Franz need to eat, Hanney brings her starters home with her to Scarborough on weekends. Another Night Moves baker picks them up Monday mornings to return them to the bakery, so they can start their work week. The changeable spring weather recently caused Hanney to fret over their wellbeing. “My partner got a little mad at me yesterday because I turned the heat on upstairs for the cultures,” she confessed. “He was thinking it was a waste of heat. But they are the backbone of our livelihood so I want to make sure they are really happy.”

“The Adventures of Lulu!” Written and drawn by Allison Reid for Baker’s Notes. Copyright Scratch Baking Co., reprinted by permission of the author.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT

If happiness equals popularity, sourdough is riding high this year. At the beginning of the pandemic, there were so many photos of beautiful handmade sourdough loaves on social media, it was easy to wonder if anyone was cooking or eating anything else. At around the same time, activities as mundane as a trip to the store to buy bread could feel terrifying. Bread baking, actual and as metaphor (“the staff of life”), felt the very definition of home, certainty and comfort.

Without exception, the sourdough craze pleased every baker interviewed for this story. Desjarlais said it was “amazing that everyone decided to bore into something that you would be so present with. You need to be present with sourdough and bread baking. It was great that people could connect with something so intimately when we were so isolated, and then bake bread for their families.”

Zola is no stranger to fame. Back when she was a girl in Minnesota, a fellow baker and friend of Judge’s, Rebecca Harnik, now a nutritionist in Washington, D.C., wrote a song about her.

“I am biased, but it’s just the sweetest song,” Judge said. “It started as a sourdough lullaby. Then it became “Zola Rise Up.” It’s acapella, and there is beatboxing mimicking the sounds of the bubbles and the yeast. It ends on this really high note that I can’t hit.” She tried anyway: “Oh let it rise. The rises up song has more revolutionary rise-up elements than the lullaby. For me, it’s very playful and imaginative.”

Added Whittemore, “It was a jokey theme song, but I think it speaks to just how affectionate bakers can feel about their starter.”

Lulu’s tribute was in a different medium: She has, or rather had, a comic strip of her own, “The Adventures of Lulu! The wild yeast culture.” The strip ran in Baker’s Notes, a magazine that Scratch Baking published in 2011 and 2012. In one strip, we learn about her birth, in another about her vacations, and in a third about her eating habits: “Baker Brian likes to create a nice atmosphere for Lulu to enjoy her breakfast. He turns the lights down low, puts on the classical radio station, and makes sure her flour and water are just the right temperature,” that last one reads in part. The multi-talented Reid, who wrote and drew the strip herself, doodled a hand, presumably Brian’s, waving at Lulu, who is seated at a candlelit table. “Enjoy your breakfast, Lulu,” he calls in a speech balloon. “Don’t eat too fast!”

MAKING CONNECTIONS

Lulu got her start at 158 Pickett Street Cafe in South Portland. Reid and her then business partner Josh Potocki “threw together this thing and we named her Lulu and she’s been with me ever since,” Reid said. When the partners split the business, and Reid went on to start Scratch Baking, Lulu was split, too.

Shima Kirscher was a gift to Desjarlais from Bill, “a super nice, super cool guy” who helped build her wood-fired oven at Purple House (working under famed Maine oven builder Patrick Manley). Bill – Desjarlais doesn’t know his last name, maybe Kirscher? – brought her the starter in a yogurt cup with a card detailing its history: birth in New Mexico, residency in San Francisco, move to Edgecomb, Maine, in 2006.

During the pandemic, Hanney used her Instagram account to offer Patti to anyone who wanted to start baking. At first, the starter was free, given away at the bakery or with its delivery to the Cheese Shop of Portland. Later, Hanney sold 200-gram ready-to-use packages for $2. It’s still available at that price at the bakery on Saturdays.

Whittemore, who happens to be a new mother, has given pieces of Zola to friends on the West Coast and to her brother just before he took off on a sailing trip from California to New Zealand. Incredibly, he made sourdough flatbreads on a grill during his ocean crossing. To distribute Zola, she mails “a tiny bit of starter” in a small, labeled deli container, instructing the recipient to feed it as soon as it arrives. “You lie at the post office when they ask if it’s fragile, perishable or liquid,” she said. Er, no, no and no.

Because starters evolve depending on their day-to-day existences – affected by their food and water, and the flora and fauna (the bacteria) in the environments where they live — even if they start out with a certain character, it’ll change as their lives change. The Zola residing in Whittemore’s home is not the same as the Zola who powers the bagels at Rose Foods or the seafaring Zola who took a Pacific ocean voyage.

“The threads of the connection are more through the people it gets passed through,” Judge explained, “not so much through the actual chemistry of the starter.”

In reporting this story, I asked Whittemore if I could meet Zola, maybe watch her eat or see how she bakes up into a loaf. Whittemore invited me over. “Hi, yes of course!” she emailed. “My only condition is that you’re definitely leaving with some Zola!”

Hanney at Night Moves Bakery. “As you work with these kinds of cultures, you see they are all just like us,” she said about sourdough starters. “They are just trying to survive. People are always afraid they have killed their starter, but that’s rarely the case. It’s bacteria and yeast, and they want to live. They want to thrive.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Sourdough Discard Chocolate Chip Walnut Shortbread Cookies

Recipe courtesy of Krista Kern Desjarlais, chef/owner of The Purple House in North Yarmouth. Recipes for sourdough starter and bread abound on the internet and elsewhere, so we offer something slightly more unusual here. Before feeding a sourdough starter, you remove a portion of the less bubbly, less active starter and discard it. Or, as long as that portion still looks and smells okay, you use “the discard” to bake other things. While it may not have enough ompf to leaven bread on its own, it adds mild tang and depth to sweets. Desjarlais said the discard used here should have 100 percent hydration, meaning the starter was fed one part water to one part flour.

Yield 40 cookies, each 2-inches in diameter 

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup light brown sugar
1/3 cup sourdough discard
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1¼ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup buckwheat flour
¼ teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon baking powder
¼ cup chocolate chips
¼ cup toasted chopped walnuts

Brown the butter by heating it in a saute pan on the stove until it melts, sputters, foams, and eventually turns a deep golden color. The milk solids will separate and brown. Watch carefully, so that the butter doesn’t burn. The process takes 5-10 minutes. Let the browned butter cool.

Combine the browned butter and sugars in a stand mixer and beat with paddle until creamy and light, 3-4 minutes. Add the sourdough discard and vanilla and beat to combine.

Whisk together the flours, salt, baking soda and baking powder. Add the combined dry ingredients to the butter-sugar mix and beat to combine. Stir in the chocolate chips and walnuts.

Roll the dough into 2 logs, 1¾-inches in diameter. Roll the log in turbinado or raw sugar. Wrap them in plastic or wax paper and refrigerate to firm up for 2 or more hours.

When you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Re-roll the cookie logs in sugar and slice them ¼-inch thick. Place the cookies on a baking sheet about 1 inch apart, lined with parchment paper, and bake for 16-18 minutes until golden. Cool on a cooling rack. 


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