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My Quest for the Perfect Sourdough

One of my prized possessions is a 161-year-old colony of microorganisms. It lives in a small Tupperware container in my fridge, quietly bubbling away in bacterial bliss. It's the key to my weekly quest to recreate an elusive white-chocolate sourdough baguette I once tasted (more on this later). Every once in a while I will feed it some flour and water. And once a week, it feeds me.

My yeast collection (and bread obsession) began about a year ago when I heard about some dried sourdough starter born in 1847 on the Oregon Trail. The starter—a mixture of flour and water that sustains the yeasts and bacteria that give bread its flavor and make it rise—was kept alive and passed down through generations of a bread-loving Oregon clan.

Lucky for me, the starter was handed down to Carl Griffith, who cooked up a plan to keep his family's sourdough starter alive by sharing it with anyone who asked. I found Carl's Web site, sent in a self-addressed stamped envelope, and received a small bagful of dried powdered sourdough starter, free of charge. (Carl died in 2000, but the starter-distribution project remains, kept up by friends.)

As the proud papa of my own colony of 161-year-old lactobacilli, I began spreading the good news of sourdough to everyone who would listen (or taste). I haven't had to buy any bread in a year. Plus, it's enabled me to ingratiate myself to the Cooking Light staffers, who stop by my desk every Wednesday to sample my latest loaf.

Just when I was growing bored with plain sourdough, I found new inspiration. Last spring, I went to Raleigh, NC for a Cottage Living photo shoot (I was the foods intern there before I got the job here). That's where I discovered La Farm, a French-style bakery in nearby Cary that makes some fantastic sourdough.

La Farm takes sourdough to a whole new level. Their white-chocolate sourdough baguette, a transcendent creation, is somehow simultaneously dense and airy. It has this intense chocolaty sweetness that suffuses the whole baguette, yet it doesn't overpower the sourdough twang on the back of the tongue.

Like writers, good cooks borrow and great cooks steal. I got home and set about recreating the recipe. I melted a whole bunch of white chocolate and stirred it into a batch of dough, but it was too bready and chewy. Then I added some oil and sugar to the next recipe; no dice—the sugar made it rise too quickly and it was puffy. The failures were tasty, but not what I was looking for.

I'm still trying.

To keep things interesting, I've branched out. I've made 3-cheese sourdough (big hit), herb-and-olive loaves (okay, but not great), chocolate-filled batons (disappeared within an hour), and lots of others. This Wednesday I'll try a whole-wheat herb bread made with thyme and sage from my sad little window-box herb garden. (What, no basil? I overwatered and turned it all brown. Whoops!)

So, anybody have any ideas for getting the white-chocolate sourdough baguette just right? Or any other bread flavors? I'm starting to run out of ideas…