Thursday, January 7, 2021

Adventures in Friendship Bread

An unexpected bag of goo arrived here at Our Outpost of Cookrye a few weeks ago:

Only a year or nine after the Amish Friendship Bread craze blew through kitchens across the country, leaving bags of yeasty glop in its wake, one of these has landed in our kitchen. It came with feeding instructions and a recipe:

I'm sure real Amish baking uses instant pudding.

I think the friendship bread fad died out because, as stated above, "If you keep a starter for yourself, you will be baking bread every 10 days." While most people keep bread on hand in the house, I think a lot of people decided they didn't want a massive oil-and-sugar bomb coming out of the oven every 10 days whether they wanted cake or not. And so, many recipients made this a few times for the combination of kitchen novelty and dessert. I'm sure that after the third or fourth massive cake, a lot of people decided they didn't want to commit to making everyone in the house eat such a almost once a week. A lot of starters probably ended up in the trash after everyone got fed up with friendship bread.

Like any urban legend, the story behind "Amish friendship bread" has evolved. At first, no one got the Amish involved into this, it was just "friendship bread" and a cute way to share the joy of baking with friends. Later on, the Amish got involved. Since our cultural hivemind generally imagines the Amish as people who live in Little House on the Prairie reruns, I suppose slapping their name onto this gave it all the lovely homey connotations of Ma in her homespun clothes, baking five pies at a time like it's still the1860s and therefore the old-fashioned way isn't old-fashioned yet. 

The most amusing part of this is the note at the bottom, warning us that only the Amish know how to make this stuff. I saw plenty of articles when friendship bread first went around that said "If you're not lucky enough for someone to give you a bread starter, here's how to make it..." But now, making starter has become a mysterious secret process somewhere between ancient wisdom and witchcraft that you can't do unless you have the power. It's nice to know that even though copy-pasting and photocopying should have eliminated changes like this, urban legends can still evolve with every retelling.

Well anyway, we in this house are all still in that phase after Christmas where we try to pretend we've had a dessert overload and therefore do not desire cake. That of course is a lie, and I've always wondered how those people who say "Oh I can't have more than a tiny sliver of pie" do it. Nevertheless, vaguely aware that eventually I will have to attempt to let out everyone's clothes if we don't take a sabbatical from the production of delicious pies and brownies, we aren't going to be making this oil-and-pudding-mix cake today. But you know what we keep forgetting to buy at the grocery store? Bread!

Nothing mysterious about this, just flour and a bit of salt.

If we put aside the urban legend that only the Amish know how to make this mysterious gravy-looking stuff, the main part of friendship bread is a dough starter. People have been keeping dough starters almost as long as we've been baking bread. Why do you think so many old bread recipes call for some of last week's bread dough?

Long before we could just go out to the store and buy a packet of yeast, people would cultivate it for themselves. It's said to be a straightforward process since yeasts are always floating about in the air. All you need to do is make a nice flour paste for the yeasts to land in, and after a while you have a bubbling ooze that smells like very concentrated bread. Since it does take a few days or weeks to get enough of this yeasty paste to actually make a loaf of bread rise, people customarily set aside bread dough every time they baked. To this dough they'd add more flour and water, which the little yeasts in the dough scrap would colonize until the whole thing bubbled with our microscopic friends. 

The practice of keeping a bubbling bread starter has a lot of names and variations. A lot of people all over the world independently discovered that if you save bread dough, you don't have to make bread rise from nothing every single time. We decided to find out just how hard it is to get an actual loaf of bread out of this stuff. Our grandmothers' grandmothers baked like this every day, so clearly it's possible. We followed the little feeding schedule on the paper, and soon enough we had what looked like white gravy and smelled like a combination of bread and beer. Everyone took to putting their noses to the jar because it just smelled so good.

And so, after we kept forgetting to buy sandwich bread, we decided to put this stuff to work. Our little microbes have lived in a cozy spaghetti jar for almost 2 weeks, and now we were going to try making bread the way our foremothers did before you could just buy a packet of rapid-rise granules while you were out getting out-of-season vegetables.

Believe it or not, this clumpy mess is a promising beginning for bread dough. It's literally called the "shaggy stage," and if all goes well, you will soon have a nice, smooth dough. Note that "if all goes well" is often a phrase that portends things not all going well. But this bowl of flour clods did not faze me, because it soon turned into a nice firm dough that suggested a wonderful crusty loaf awaited.

It looks like a log, but really good French bread looks like Play-Doh worms before it rises.

Furthermore, whatever bread-helping microbes resided in the starter certainly made the kitchen smell like everything was peachy and keen in our rising loaf. I know I've repeatedly said the smell was intense and concentrated, but this needs emphasis. Imagine if a bread factory decided to pipe all the air from inside its building directly into your house. I went outside while we waited, and the smell drifted through the door to greet me before I even touched the doorknob. The entire house smelled like I had been putting bread in and out of the oven all day. Keep in mind that we haven't even started baking it yet. It's still rising.

...or so I thought. After about half an hour, the bread looked suspiciously unchanged. "No matter," I told the loaf-to-be while giving it a sharp stare, "Letting bread rise is literally no work at all. I know how to wait, bread."  

I returned to three hours later to find the bread had not grown at all. It had dried out after spending so long "rising," but it was still a very dense log emitting the tantalizing smell of lies. The smell had spent the past several hours promising delicious bread before the night was out, and all we got was this lump of wet flour. 

Well, I thought, perhaps the dough was too firm for our microscopic friends. Perhaps it was so hard that they couldn't possibly push little bubbles into it. Maybe we were asking the little yeasts to inflate a rock. And so, we decided to make the dough just wet enough to stick to the hands. Instead of working it like clay, we just sort of dropped it into the pan and tried to spread it without getting all of it stuck on the spatula instead of in the pan where it should be. In theory, having softened the boulder into a bog, the yeast could actually make it rise.

 I've had plenty of bread refuse to rise. No matter how carefully I check if the yeast makes foam in water, every now and then a batch of bread will just sit there like an inanimate object when it should be literally expanding with life. Usually I just sort of stare at the dead lump of dough, mutter something like "still not rising, eh?", and forget about it until I eventually check on it again. But this thing was sending delicious lies to everyone's noses and then infuriating me when it kept refusing to rise. Eventually (and by eventually I mean over 2 hours later, so that is at least 5 hours total that this bread has failed us), I decided it looked like it had risen by like a millimeter. "Close enough!" I said. "We could leave this out all day and it would dry out before it rose any more!"



I have failed at many things in the kitchen, but I haven't had a bread disaster in a long time. You know all the jokes from old movies about how some inept newlywed bride's cooks so badly her husband uses her bread instead of bricks? Well, you could rage-thwack the top of this thing so hard the pots on the countertop rattled, and it still wouldn't give at all under your hand. It defied knives. The sides of it were as hard as a very old pink eraser. You may think I overbaked it, but we checked this thing with a thermometer to be sure we withdrew it from the oven at just the right time. And in case you still think we overbaked it, have a look at the still-doughy cross-section.

I could be euphemistic and say "It was perfect for dunking in soups!" but that is a lie. Soup would make the "bread" edible if you dropped it in there long enough to soften it, but then you'd be eating reconstituted flour paste. It is a fundamental truth of baking that only a fine line separates baking bread from baking flour-clay. I wouldn't be angry about the failure, except that this thing had been making the house smell so good. The very air told us that some delightful bread awaited, but instead we had a fragrant doorstop. I banished it to the trash outside, where it landed with an alarming clonk

Furthermore, we had dishes to clean. It turns out that dishwashers don't really remove gummy bread dough very well. Therefore we had to do a lot of hand-washing without getting delicious bread in return. Muttering to myself a lot, I consulted the instruction page again to see if I had fed our starter incorrectly. Reading through the list of ingredients in the cake recipe, I noticed something fishy:

Why you cheating liars! If you follow the recipe that came with it, the starter isn't doing a thing to make this thing rise! You could use literally any other liquid as long as you put in the baking powder and baking soda! (Well, maybe put in a splash of something acidic like lemon juice or sour cream for the baking soda to fizz with.) You might think "Oh, there's lots of bread recipes that use both yeast and baking powder!" Which is true, but read through those instructions again and tell us when we are supposed to let this rise.

Anyway, I did some reading on sourdough bread and other variations of having a bubbly ooze give rise to your baking instead of a packet of rapid-rise granules. While instructions varied, a lot of people agreed that you should feed your starter the night before (not five days before as stated on the instruction sheet). This wakes up your little yeastie-beasties, and they spend the whole night feasting on whatever flour or mashed potatoes you stirred in. The next day, you will find that the starter is downright sudsy with life.


I decided to go online and visit our friendly food manufacturers for recipes. Like a lot of people, I get recipes from company test kitchens a lot. The recipes almost always deliver what is promised unless you do something supremely daft like substitute powdered Parmesan for flour. We found a recipe for 100% whole-wheat bread (to make us feel less guilty about all the peanut butter and jelly we smear on it) from King Arthur Flour here. I don't pay extra to purchase their brand of flour, but their recipes are free and almost as reliable as Delia Smith's. There was only one change: instead of yeast, we put as much friendship starter into the liquid ingredients as the articles we found suggested as a substitution. Then we put in an extra dollop of it just to be sure we had enough microbes.


We followed every carefully-written step instruction. We measured the temperature of ingredients when we were told to. We mixed the dough, rested the dough, kneaded the dough, and rested the dough again as directed. We set the dough to rise, and left it while we finally got around to a lot of things we've been meaning to do. Once again, the house smelled like lovely bread as before we even had the dough mixed up. And once again, after an hour or two, we popped into the kitchen to find that the dough had not risen at all. You might think our yeast starter had died from inept feeding, but after two weeks it still smelled like bread and not like putrefying milk and flour. Clearly we need to find better instructions on making this stuff raise the bread, but for now we had a lump of paste that we wanted to turn into sandwiches. Refusing to waste all that flour that we had so lovingly kneaded, we decided it was time for our backup plan:

We put the yeast in a bit of warm water to make sure it was still alive. After the yeast produced a merry foam in our little testing cup, we dumped it on the bread dough while muttering "Take that, friendship starter!"

After having one loaf of become a dense doorstop and a second one refuse to rise, I was starting to wonder if I had lost all ability to make bread. Seeing this dense dough rise gave me such relief. It started out as this dense stuff at the bottom of our loaf pan, and rose until it nearly overtopped the rim. I would have let it rise longer, but it was such a delicate foam that it sank a bit every time I moved the pan a little. I was afraid I'd lose most of the bread's height in the act of relocating it from countertop to oven.


It sagged a bit in the middle and ended up a bit crumbly, but we have in fact made bread! We attempted to make grilled cheese, but it had a bit of a structural failure on contact with a spatula.

I initially made bread because we ran out while the grocery store was closed, and I figured we had everything needed to make it ourselves. But now this is a challenge. I will make whole-wheat bread that is not so bad it's good for you. I will make it with this starter burbling on the countertop. For now, we're just feeding it and looking up how to use it. It seems to like instant mashed potatoes- it smells flowery every time we stir some of those white flakes in. I also put in a bit the dough from the loaf that actually rose. When I was scraping the bowl, it seemed like a more productive use than trying to stick it onto what was already in the pan.

But for the meantime, this was actually quite lovely if you put leftover turkey on it, dropped a slice of cheese on top, and broiled it.

You may think that putting cheese on top of something and broiling it is cheating. That we're hiding our ineptitude with delicious browned cheese. However, the bread did taste pretty good (even if it was denser than we would have liked), and it wonderfully complemented all the deliciousness piled on top.


  1. Oh man! I haven't thought of the "friendship bread" fad in aaaages. And it turns out it's so much sneakier than I knew!

    1. I know, I felt so deceived when I realized after caring for the starter for so long!

  2. Oh, no! Friendship bread starter! I remember my sister being given some of that by a person at church in the 90's. As I recall, the resulting baked thing tasted disgusting and produced brightly colored patches of mold that permanently stained the Tupperware container where it ultimately died. We threw the rest of the glop out. I don't recall if the recipe was associated with the Amish back then. I haven't tried Alex's method of making sourdough starter, but he is an engineer turned chef. His recipes seem to be thoroughly researched and tested.

    1. Yeah, the one person in the house who's had the cake (the starter came to us from his sister) was not enthusiastic about making another one. I saw his videos, and will probably be trying out his method. Every other article I've seen throws a lot of complicated feeding-time tables and hydration charts at you.

  3. I've made a sourdough starter that works (using organic rye flour), but it did not rise in 2-3 hours - it was best risen popped in the fridge overnight or even longer. Definitely got there tho, and made some pretty tasty bread. Perhaps you just need to cover it with some plastic to prevent drying, and give it a really long time?