By Michelle Sam

May 19, 2020

My love for cooking and baking started when I was a child growing up in South Africa. I was born in Johannesburg during the Apartheid era.  The South African government of that time did not know how to categorize the Chinese, so my Chinese immigrant family lived neither in the white nor black neighborhood; we were assigned to the Indian neighborhood. I remember the delicious smells and tastes of our neighbors’ curries, rotis, biryanis, and samosas. Needless to say, I developed a love for food during my youth.  My dad’s pet name for me was “Fats”! I spent afternoons sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen, watching her prepare fragrant Chinese dishes. I also savored South African specialties such as biltong, braaivleis, boerewors, and pap. When I was seven, I was given a children’s cookbook. I poured through the pages and recipes. Then I started to stray from the recipes and create my own flavors and processes. That is when I truly began experimenting in the kitchen. After completing high school in the US at Miss Hall’s, I seriously considered applying to culinary school. But my mother would never have found that acceptable. I received a scholarship to Wellesley College, so there I went. I suppressed my culinary dreams and went on to join the illustrious Wellesley alumnae ranks, graduating magna cum laude as an Economics major. Throughout college, I kept cooking and baking as a hobby. 

Sammy Wong's Teahouse image

During my first year at Wellesley, I met this goofy, compassionate, honest boy from Harvard at a party on Wellesley’s campus. Alex and I started dating and later during my sophomore summer, we capitalized on our shared passion for cooking. It involved a proposition to supply homemade Chinese lunches to the Harvard Medical School community. Sammy Wong's Teahouse was born - my blog's name is an ode to that first memorable culinary venture. We bought a $300 used grafitti-ridden postal van, which transported our make-shift kitchen to campus each day. That clunky vehicle and wok produced 200 lunches everyday which is where Alex and I perfected our super easy Chinese fried rice

A couple weeks after my Wellesley graduation, I married that Harvard boy and we have spent the past 33 years deepening our love and raising two daughters, Jocelyn and Jessica. After graduation, I was the only Wellesley econ graduate who did not have a marvelous banking job awaiting, so I applied my entrepreneurial spirit and launched “Michelle’s Cookie Gram”. I sold gourmet cookies that I baked in our small Brookline apartment kitchen for $1 each. Running a small business out of one’s own apartment is never easy. The straw that broke the camel’s back came during Valentine's week when I had to single-handedly bake and ship ONE THOUSAND cookies.  A week later, I decided that perhaps a real job was a better way to make use of my Wellesley education and I again relegated baking to a weekend activity

After a few more frigid East Coast winters, Alex and I reminisced about a picturesque suburb we happened upon during our honeymoon trip in 1988 when we drove down the coast of California. The dry, warm breezes and sun-baked chaparral hills of Southern California made an impression in my mind, harkening memories of the golden landscapes of South Africa. So when Boston became unbearably cold, we packed up and moved out to Pasadena and then to Orange County, CA, starting a family out there. I was adamant that my daughters would not grow up to be picky, ignorant eaters who whined for chicken nuggets and PB&J sandwiches. I thus devised a scheme to expand their taste buds.  We called this “New Menu Night”. In alternating weeks, each child picked a recipe from an international recipe book and we bought all the ingredients to make it together on Fridays. This opened their palettes to the world of food. We loved exploring different cultures through cuisine. When we traveled to other countries, we rejected the restaurant lists in tourist guidebooks and instead hunted for restaurants recommended by locals. I’m glad to say that a love for food now runs deep in my family and as my daughters have gotten older, that love has manifested into a passion for cooking and baking too!

Mom and girls image
Michelle with Chef Stephan Treand

My obsession with wild yeast came as a result of a need as well as an affinity for the science and math involved in baking. I’ve always been interested in the chemistry and mathematics components of baking. In 2018, I was diagnosed with pre-diabetes so I had to regulate the carbohydrates I consumed. For someone who eats a slice of toast alongside a cup of English breakfast tea EVERY morning for breakfast, this was a death sentence! Over the next few months, I researched breads and bread-making. I discovered wild yeast, commonly known as sourdough, as an alternative to the bread I was eating daily.  I was hooked on this new dough (pardon the pun!)

I learned that a natural sourdough product is very healthy.  It not only has a lower glycemic index, lower gluten and is more nutrient rich due to the nature of the bread-making process, but also has an incredible texture and complex taste!

One of my friends told me about Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bakery Bread, so I tested it out. The quantities in the recipe for the starter were suited for industrial kitchens, not the home baker.  I wasted tons of flour just developing and maintaining the starter.  As I learned more about bread-making, and being the numbers nerd, I decided to experiment and eventually developed formulas and techniques for the home kitchen.

Wild yeast or sourdough starters are living organisms and require regular feeding. Once you give life to your starter and get in the habit of feeding it regularly, it becomes, like some other bread enthusiasts would concur, a pet.  My starter has a name... Poolish.  Poolish has been trained to receive a feeding every 7-10 days and is thriving.  I have been known to get a sitter to take care of it when I go on vacation and have even taken Poolish in my purse on flights to New York City and Hawaii so I can bake fresh sourdough items!

Poolish has been used for regular sour-dough bread, chia seed bread, whole-wheat bread, sourdough pancakes, pizza dough, naan, Asian-style bread, hot-cross buns, malasadas, bagels, english muffins….the list goes on and I’ll keeping adding recipes on this blog as I discover new ways to use Poolish plus more! Happy baking and may your love and knowledge of sourdough increase in volume!

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