The Australian Writers Centre started the year as all years start, with a countdown. The other criteria for its January furious fiction were that it must include a character who shares a secret and the word ‘serendipity’. I hope you enjoy my take on these criteria.



Serendipity. To most it represents a fortuitous circumstance. To me it was home. No, don’t get me wrong. I’m not some celestial being who lives on a different plane of existence, even though ‘Serendipity’ is heaven compared to this habitation. I’m just a person, a human. Just like you.


I stifled a sigh, wishing I was home. But in my line of work, you go where you’re sent.

The plink of a tear hitting the table recalled me to my duty. The tweenage girl opposite me was the epitome of cuteness: blond curls, big blue eyes and cherub-like features. It made me suspicious.

As if aware of my doubts, she cried harder and smeared tears across her pinked cheeks. Ugh. If this is what peacekeepers normally had to deal with…

Her gaze flicked to my wrist, lingering briefly on the antiquated timepiece strapped there; something she was doing with increasing frequency. I resisted the urge to glance at its crazed-glass face. I hated it. My boss insisted I wear it – part of the costume, so to speak. But I longed to throw it away. I didn’t need any piece of artifice to tell me time was running out.

“I have a secret,” she whispered loudly. “Wanna hear it?”

Adrenalin flooded my system. After two days of trying to get this girl to talk she’d finally caved.

Eyes wide I leaned forward trying to look interested, but not too interested. “Why would I want your secret?” I whispered back.

Her breath caught and she glared at me. “What? You’ve kept me here for days all but begging me to talk.” A sharp report echoed through the room as she slapped her hands on the table. “And now—”

With a temper like that she was obviously older than she pretended to be. It gave me a lever. I leaned back, crossing my arms. “Maybe I’ve decided a child knows nothing worthwhile.”

She tensed, hands forming fists, before her gaze dropped again to my timepiece. She liked what she saw and visibly relaxed.

“Looks can be changed,” she said, shrugging. “I’d explain further, but…” With the arch of an eyebrow she invited me to look at my timepiece. “You’ve run out of time. You can tell your boss I’ve won.”

I didn’t need to look. Muffled voices in the corridor announced the change of shift.

She rose and began walking to the door before staggering as a violent shudder ran through the metal floor and walls. Panicked yells leached into the room along with a curl of acrid smoke. The habitation was being raided.

“Wait.” I grasped the table as the whole world shook. She glanced over her shoulder, impatience writ across her face.

I couldn’t help it. I grinned. The news I’d been waiting for scrolled across my vision.

“Let me tell you a secret,” I said, glancing at the timepiece. The door ripped open. Two of my crew members burst in and grabbed the girl’s arms. “It’s fast.”

Word of the week – Wosbird

My family bought me a copy of David Crystal’s The Disappearing Dictionary for my last birthday. We spent the next couple of hours coming up with descriptions of each other drawn completely from that book. ‘Wosbird’ is one of the gems contained within that compilation of lost English dialect words and, I have to say, one of our favourite words…

Wosbird or wuzbird: a noun which is a term of abuse for a good-for-nothing person. Also means an ‘illegitimate child’ as it is a local pronunciation of whore’s brood.


Sourdough starters – Day 5

You’ve nearly made it. One day to go on establishing your (still immature) sourdough starter. From tomorrow, you can start using your starter in your culinary explorations of the sourdough landscape. Be aware, however, that the starter will continue to mature and develop a greater complexity in flavours over the next months, if not years.

What will I do if I have to go away or just want to have a break from baking? I hear you ask. In the next post, I’ll point you in the direction of some suggestions to slow down, or even stop, the regular feeding schedule if you won’t be baking daily, or even weekly.

Then over the coming weeks, I’ll post some of my favourite sourdough recipes. Be aware that the sourdough community on the internet is active and engaged, and freely shares its collective wisdom on all things sourdough. I recommend you look at different sites for recipe variations or other views on how to care for or use your starter.

The wonderful thing about sourdough is that even if your bread doesn’t finish as expected during baking, it should still taste amazing. So eat up!


100g plain flour (I use organic flour)

100g water (tepid)


Weigh ingredients and place in the glass container with the starter from yesterday. Mix with a fork until all lumps are gone.

Depending on the size of the container you used, it will be getting full. If your starter is active it can expand up to three times its volume during the feeding cycle. So any container over half full after a feed runs the risk of having the starter ooze out over the top. At this point, either put your starter in a larger container or sit the container in a bowl or on a plate and expect to be cleaning up excess starter.


As I mentioned yesterday, I had to use a different flour as I ran out of my previous batch. Yesterday the starter was slow to rise and didn’t rise very much.

What a difference a feed can make! With the second feed of the new flour the starter became very active and more than doubled in size in around 7-8 hours, much less than the 18 hours it usually takes.

Day 5 starter after its expansion and deflation cycle
Day 5 – the rise and fall of the starter can be seen from the remains of the starter around the walls of the container

Look: The starter had expanded and fallen well before feeding (as you can see in the photo by the remains of the starter around the sides of the container). While not quite doubling in size, the yeasts and bacteria in the new flour responded more quickly to new food. Because of the delay in feeding, the top of the starter had lost some of its frothy appearance and looked more like spent spume on a sandy beach.

After feeding, it had a smooth appearance.

Feel: The starter continued to be very runny at feeding time.

Once you have the starter on a regular schedule of use and feed, you can always stiffen the mix by doubling the flour to water ratio for a feed (2 flour: 1 water). Note that this will impact your bread as the texture or crumb of the loaf is determined, in part, by the hydration level of the dough – a drier starter will (generally, depending on the starter called for in the recipe) require more water to be added to the dough than recommended in the recipe if you are after an artisanal-style loaf with larger holes in the crumb. Once you find a recipe you like, I suggest you play around with it to see what works best for your starter to achieve the crumb and appearance you would like in the baked loaf.

After feeding, the consistency of the starter was still that of a runny paste.

Smell: This is where things got weird for me and this starter. Who would have thought a mix of flour and water would smell like melted butter? But that’s what my starter smelled like at feeding time on Day 5. I even had one of my daughters tell me what she thought it smelled like. She agreed: melted butter. As I said, weird.

Taste: The starter had developed a young fruit flavour at the front of the palette with a sharp, almost acrid, aftertaste. The nice rounded yeasty flavours that were developing with the previous flour has been almost lost.

Your starter should have moved through the sharp vinegary taste and become more mellow with a rich yeasty flavour (and associated aroma). If not, don’t worry, it may be that it will take a few more feeds for the balance between the yeasts and lactobacillus bacteria to settle down. At any rate, you should feel comfortable cooking with your starter from tomorrow.

(Given the changes in my starter, I’ll give it a few more feeds to see if the flavours balance out before baking with it.)

Word of the Week – Otiose

I appreciate when I come across a new word in situations that are not known for new and exciting language choices. That happened with the word ‘otiose’. A reviewer had written on a report that some of the content was otiose. Being a biologist, and not having come across this word before, I assumed that it was related to ‘otic’: being of the ear, which confused me no end as the report had nothing to do with body parts. How wrong was I…

Otiose: an adjective meaning that something serves no practical purpose or result, or indolent or idle (Source)

… which I think it is an incredible word but, as yet, haven’t had much opportunity to use it in general conversation.

Sourdough starter – Day 4

I finished the last of the flour I was using for the starter before the feed on Day 3. So I started a new packet. Even though I opened another packet of the same brand and type of flour, it was incredible the impact using different flour had on the developing starter (and even on my existing starter which I used and fed with the new flour!). It didn’t rise as much as I anticipated, and the smell was also different (but within the realms of the expected). This is something to be aware of when establishing or maintaining a sourdough starter: changing flour can impact the microbial in the starter and change its characteristics quite noticeably.


100g plain flour (I use organic flour)

100g water (tepid)


Weigh ingredients and place in the glass container with the starter from yesterday. Mix with a fork until all lumps are gone.


Look: Before feeding, the starter had not quite doubled in size since the last feed. Larger bubbles were present throughout the mix and the top looked frothy.

After feeding, it had a smooth appearance.

Feel: The starter was again runny at feeding time. If you needed to, it would be easy to pour the near-liquid into another container at this stage.

Some starters, at this point in their maturity, get a webby texture and are quite elastic in consistency. I have only had this happen when I’ve left a starter in warm conditions without feeding it for two to three days. But if yours does develop a webby texture, it is nothing to worry about. Just feed it as usual.

After feeding, the consistency of the starter was still that of a runny paste.

Smell: The starter had developed a sour apple smell. Not a ‘bad’ smell, just unexpected. When I fed the new flour to my mature starter, it also developed the same smell. This suggests that even though I was using the same brand and type of flour, it was a different batch with different yeasts, and so led to a change in the microbial composition of my starter. Again, nothing to worry about so long as the starter doesn’t develop colourful growths or begin to smell ‘bad’.

Taste: The starter had a sharp, not-quite-vinegary taste with undertones of baked bread.

Sourdough starters – Day 3

Today is when things start to get interesting; bubbles appear and the starter does exciting things like double in volume through the day.


100g plain flour (I use organic flour)

100g water (tepid)


Weigh ingredients and place in the glass container with the starter from yesterday. Mix with a fork until all lumps are gone.


Look: Before feeding, the starter doubled in size today and small bubbles were visible through the sides of the container. A few larger bubbles formed and started to rise to the surface as the day progressed.

After feeding, it had a smooth appearance

Feel: The consistency of the starter changed throughout the day. Remembering that yesterday after feeding the starter was quite thick, by the time I fed today, it had become runny to the extent that it was more like a thick liquid than a paste-.

After feeding, the consistency of the starter was that of a runny paste.

Smell: Before feeding the starter smelt quite vinegary. This is usual in a maturing starter and will change over time.

Taste: As to be expected from the smell, the starter had a faint vinegary taste.

Sourdough starters – Day 2

Don’t be worried if your starter hasn’t done amazing things yet. It is only day two and the yeasts are still building to the numbers needed to create a distinctive sourdough.


100g plain flour (I use organic flour)

100g water (tepid)


Weigh ingredients and place in the glass container with the starter from yesterday. Mix with a fork until all lumps are gone.

Day 2 feeding
Mixing the feed (flour and water) into the starter.


Remember that I’m putting in the observations on how my starter is changing. This will vary depending on the feedstock and conditions under which the starter is grown. So if yours is different to what I have described below, don’t panic and keep going.

Look: Before feeding the starter, it hadn’t changed appearance over night. This is typical. For the starter to be whizzing along on day two would indicate you have really active wild yeasts in your area.

With the addition of today’s ingredients, my starter was a bit drier and more thick paste-like. Equally, depending on your ingredients, it could still be a quite wet mix after this first feed. No bubbles were present at this stage.

Feel: Today, my mix felt like a sticky paste. As you can see from the photo, it was less willing to run off the fork when lifted.

Day two after feeding
Appearance of the starter after its first feed

Smell: Before feeding the starter, it had a faint yeasty smell. This faded after the new ingredients were incorporated.

Taste: Before feeding, the starter had a mild yeasty taste.

Sourdough starters – Day 1

I’ll keep is simple and just run through the recipe. I’m happy to answer questions if you have them.


100g plain flour (I use organic flour)

100g water (tepid)


  1. Weigh ingredients and place in a glass container. Make sure the water is tepid. If it is too hot you will cook the yeasts in the flour and have to start again.
  2. Mix ingredients with a fork until all lumps are gone.
  3. Cover the container (either with a lid or cling wrap) and place somewhere warm, not hot. I’ve hear of some people putting theirs on top of the fridge. I put mine on top of a cabinet in the living room.
Sourdough starter ingredients
Day 1. Sourdough starter ingredients


Look: At this point the mix will be slightly runny. If it isn’t, it means the flour was on the dry side. Don’t worry, it will still work fine. The first starter I made was quite dry and more cohesive than the starter in the photos. This changed as I fed it.

Feel: Depending on how wet your mix is, the starter will feel like a smooth paste to a slightly sticky paste.

Smell: It will smell like home-made clag.

Day 0
Day 1. Sourdough starter after mixing
Day 1. Sourdough starter during mixing

Sourdough starters – basic information

I’ve been asked by a few people how to begin a sourdough starter. While I’m not an expert, and I’ve only had my starter for the last few months, it is working well for me (you can check this out on my Facebook site).

One thing you should know before embarking on a sourdough journey is that it requires commitment. Mostly at the start. However, once your starter matures you can take a more relaxed attitude to caring for it. Yes, I do mean caring for it. A starter is a living community that, like all living things, requires food and water for it to thrive. It is a microcosm that has moods and will react differently depending on how warm it is, the quality of food you give it and a host of other factors.

The microbes (wild yeast and bacteria) that make the starter the starter come from the flour and water used, from the local environment through the air, on the utensils and containers you use and off your hands. I prefer organic flour for my starter so it has the most variety in microbes it can.

Not all microbes are good, but you’ll know if your starter has some of these ‘bad bugs’ – it will turn different colours from orange to green to pink, red or black and smell really bad. If any of this happens to your starter THROW IT OUT AND START AGAIN.

But that’s enough blather. On to the recipe.

Basic idea behind making a starter

In a nutshell (see below for the detailed method), to make a sourdough starter you add equal weights (note, NOT volume) of plain flour and water together every day for five days. For me, I use 100g each of flour and water. By the end of the five days, my starter comprises 500g each of flour and water.

Some people recommend making the starter in the proportion of 1:1:1 each of starter, flour and water. So you don’t end up with kilos of starter by the end of it you discard part of your starter each day. I haven’t tried this method – I can’t bring myself to throw any of the starter away. That said, worms love discarded starter so if you do try this method, your compost will thank you.

For the purpose of this blog I’ll begin a new starter and run you through the ingredients, method and some observations on the process so you know what to expect. Don’t be surprised if your starter looks or smells different to mine, these will be affected by the source, age and moisture content of the flour, the type of flour you use, how warm it is and the yeasts and bacteria in your environment. But so long as it doesn’t smell off or become anything other than a creamy-colour, it should be okay.

What you will need to make a sourdough starter: flour (I use organic plain wheat flour), water and a glass container that either has a lid or can be easily covered by cling wrap – straight-sided is best so you can easily see how much your starter has risen.

There are lots of websites that go into more detail on sourdough starters and recipes. I recommend you have a look at them and work out what method is best for you.


  1. Ingredients are measured by WEIGHT not volume, including liquid ingredients
  2. Water: I’m lucky enough to be on tank water so I can use it straight from the tap. If you are on mains, reticulated water you will have to either boil it and let it cool down or let it sit for 24-48 hours to remove the chlorine from the water. Chlorine is used to disinfect mains drinking water so using it for your starter will kill off any of the desired microbes in the flour. Alternatively, you could purchase spring/filtered water to use.
  3. Container: For ease of seeing how your starter is growing, I suggest a glass, straight-sided container. A healthy, mature starter will double in size after being fed due to the gas produced by the growing yeasts before deflating. You will need to make sure your container is large enough to cope with the daily expansion of the starter. I use a 7-cup container with a tight, but not air tight, lid. This lets the starter breathe without letting it dry out.

Over the next five days I’ll run you through making a starter, what you need to do and what it looks, feels and tastes like.

Word of the week – Prestidigitation

Have I mentioned I love words? I was one of those nerdy kids who read the dictionary. Yes, I literally read the dictionary when I was growing up. Not your everyday kids’ dictionary with 16pt font and about 250 words. In the one I had the font was lucky to have been 8pt. And the volume was so thick it was sold to lucky readers in instalments that were compiled over months, if not years, until it reached its magnificent completion as a tome that must have weighed 5kg if not more. It was a great dictionary. Granted, you can look up anything on the internet now, but there is nothing as satisfying as poring through a real, tangible book and feeling its weight holding you firmly in the chair as your head flies into the clouds…

Anyway, on to today’s word:

Prestidigitation. A noun that means juggler or conjurer.

Not as catchy as juggler or conjurer, but could this not-so-simple word be the source of the oft-used “hey presto”?