ISSUE 46  |  Painterly Landscapes

Gardenista Giveaway: Sourdough, a New Cookbook by Sarah Owens

November 17, 2015 4:00 PM

BY Marie Viljoen

Not many baking books include a primer on botanical Latin. But in horticulturist-turned-baker Sarah Owens’ new Sourdough: Recipes for Rustic Fermented Breads, Sweets, Savories and More (published by Roost Books)plants are an integral ingredient of the seasonal baking process; they offer inspiration and botanical fuel for recipes from Persimmon Spice Cake to Dandelion and Chive Popovers. Opulent double-page spreads of fruit and flowers introduce each seasonal section and most recipes include produce that reflects intensely the time of year.

We’re teaming up with the book’s publisher, Roost Books (a division of Shambhala Publications), to give away one copy of Sourdough to a Gardenista reader. To enter the giveaway, sign up for the Gardenista newsletter here and leave a comment below. The deadline is Monday, November 23 at 11:59 pm PT and a randomly selected winner will be contacted by Monday, November 30. 

Photography by Marie Viljoen except where noted.

Above: Photograph by Ngoc Minh Ngo courtesy of Roost Books.

One of Sarah’s happiest memories from growing up in Clinton, Tennessee, is of following the tractor on her parents’ land when it was time to dig potatoes. Covered in mud, she collected the spuds, and was thrilled to bits.

Above: Lately, it is sourdough sticking to Sarah’s hands (though mud still gets a look-in). But fresh, local produce continues to motivate the woman whose career has shape-shifted from ceramicist to Big Apple rosarian, to master baker and author. 

Above: In Sourdough parallels are drawn between the author’s experience as the steward of the Cranford Rose Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and her foray into the world of sourdough bacteria, which was spurred by her years of suffering from gastrointestinal distress. She started work at the BBG in 2009, fresh from the New York Botanic Garden’s Horticulture program, at a time when rose rosette disease, caused by a mite, was decimating the roses. 

Above: In the plague’s wake, the newly minted rosarian had to re-envision what was essentially a rose monoculture susceptible to pests, to create diverse borders of perennials and annuals as a rich companion playground for beneficial bugs. 

Above: Creating a balanced environment where insects have cover and food (not provided by roses alone) encourages them to stay, complete their life cycles and begin new ones. Predator wasps, lady bugs, lace wings, and aphid mummifiers are among the desirable visitors which combat pests, while the added flowers are a boon to local bees. Compost tea was added to the treatment. Humming pungently with microscopic life, it was fed to the garden. The garden thrived.

Above: After Sarah realized that she did not want to rely on pharmaceuticals to manage her relentless stomach troubles, a journey of discovery began, informed by her realization that introducing a fermented food like sourdough bread to her diet relieved her discomfort. She writes, “Converting a disease-ridden, chemically dependent rose garden into an organic oasis of insects and flower power has been a symbolic practice for doing the same with my own body.” 

Above: Fortunately for us these microbes are invisible, or we’d head for the hills. In the pages of Sourdough we find no critters, but rich images for recipes as distinct as Chocolate Chipotle Kumquat Cake, Fiddlehead Pizza (there are sidebars about foraged ingredients and edible weeds), Savory Kale Scones, Parsley and Herb Donuts, Beet Bread and Sarah’s Momma’s Buttermilk Biscuits. Autobiographical and botanical background adds spice to each recipe’s introduction: love-making in an Italian vineyard in truffle season? That would be the opener for the author’s Pizza con Funghi Selvaggi (and anyone who has made dough knows that it is a sensual act).

Above: Photograph by Ngoc Minh Ngo courtesy of Roost Books.

For home bakers new to the sourdough experience, there are trauma-free ways to ease into the process. The Autumn Upside Down cake (“best served warm with a side of maple whipped cream”) is fruity with persimmon, pears and cranberries, and requires 200 grams of starter to help it rise. No kneeding, no resting, no waiting. And aside from the baked treats, there are tantalizing floral extras, such as Lilac Sugar, Elderflower Cordial and Floral Honey Butter.

Above: Photograph by Ngoc Minh Ngo courtesy of Roost Books.

Sourdough’s pages move from a moody fall to a bright spring, from dark to light, with austerely gorgeous photos by Ngoc Minh Ngo, who, Sarah says, “has a very detailed eye that is sensitive to the slightest nuance of color.” It shows: her full-page compositions are deceptively simple, but exquisite, with scrupulous attention to how light falls on her subject.  Elaborating on her process, Ngoc explained, “I wanted the images to reflect the fact that this food comes from Sarah, who is a gardener before she became a baker, so there is an appreciation of natural ingredients first and foremost.” 

Above: Building good sourdough is like building a good garden. Both are processes involving layers of living organisms, a lot of patience, time, and creativity.  Both are seasonal, both are affected by the weather, both lie fallow, and come to life when fed. Both are susceptible to the occasional setback, but success is very sweet. (Especially if you start with something easy, like the Honey Rose Cake served at a recent party for the book, drizzled with syrup infused with Sarah’s signature flower.)

In the pages of Sourdough, the author writes: “To be a successful gardener and a successful baker… is a lesson in both faith and patience for the invisible.” 

That my friends, is the book Sourdough, an eloquent ode to, and a persuasive case for, microbes. It is available for $24.70 from Amazon.

For more of our favorite cookbooks, see: