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Janice Buckner's Sourdough Coffee Cake features Granny Smith apples, but you can stir in fresh blueberries and/or raspberries. Photo by Sue Doeden

Let's get it started -- sourdough, that is

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If you recall the 1980s, you'll remember Herman, a sweet cream-colored goop that got passed around from one friend to another along with a loaf of freshly baked quick bread. A chain letter was attached to a plastic bag or jar of sugar-spiked, bubbling brew affectionately referred to as Herman.

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Herman was alive, and needed feeding and a comfortably warm spot on the kitchen counter to bubble and grow. He came with precise care instructions.

I clearly remember pouring Herman down the drain after a short life in my small kitchen. He demanded too much of my time. That's why I was skeptical when I heard Janice Buckner has kept a sourdough starter alive for more than 35 years.

In 1976, Buckner and her husband, Jim, moved to Fargo from Idaho. Janice flew into the North Dakota city that was to become their new home. Jim drove their car loaded with some of their prized possessions, including a jar of sourdough starter.

"I was paranoid about losing it," said Janice. "I got the starter from a friend. It was already 98 years old when my friend got it from a friend. I don't know how long my friend had it before I got some."

The ancient sourdough starter made it to Fargo alive and well.

"The Herman that got passed around in the 1980s was made with sugar and flour and water," Buckner said as she stood at her kitchen counter stirring a bowl of bubbling fermentation. "My sourdough starter is made with only milk and flour."

The sourdough starter had a consistency similar to pancake batter. Buckner carefully poured the mixture into three glass jars, all the while giving me detailed directions for keeping my small jar of seething, beneficial bacteria-laden foam alive.

"Avoid introducing the wrong kind of bacteria to the starter," she said. "Store it in a glass jar and feed it in a glass bowl."

I was feeling nervous as Buckner continued. "Don't fill the jar too full as it will be so active it will climb up and out of the jar. Active is a very good thing."

The sourdough expert with a huge smile was giddy with excitement as she talked about her starter. I had visions of taking a toddler home with me. It was difficult to get enthused.

Buckner used a towel to carefully wipe around the top of each jar that held the living organism. She continued with her directives. I was feeling overwhelmed. I didn't know how I'd ever keep this starter alive.

"You'll know things are going well when it starts to bubble and rise up," she said. "Eventually it will separate and liquid will rise to the top. Just stir it back together when you feed it."

We packed my jar of sourdough starter on ice in a small cooler. I walked to my car with cooler grasped tightly in one hand and a thick packet of care instructions and recipes in the other. I drove to Bemidji, being careful to make each stop gradual and each turn gentle. I was haunted by the last words of advice Buckner delivered. "Have fun with it! Oh, and remember, if the starter turns pink, it's contaminated. You'll have to throw it away and start over."

I've gotten used to the feeding and care schedule, and I am having fun with the challenge of keeping my sour concoction alive. I must keep it alive. Janice and Jim Buckner are moving to Maine soon. The old sourdough starter will make the trip in their car.

Janice Buckner's friends and her colleagues at work will miss the sourdough coffee cakes she regularly bakes and shares with them. The sourdough-obsessed woman with the sparkle in her eyes still hopes a few of her cohorts will take some of her starter to keep the coffee cake tradition alive. "I won't object to that," said Buckner as she screwed the lids on the three jars, not too tightly - a little loose is just right.

Janice Buckner's Sourdough Coffee Cake

Cake:

1 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon

3/4 cup sugar

1 egg

1/3 cup vegetable oil

1 cup sourdough starter

2 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and sliced

Topping:

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 cup brown sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/3 cup chilled butter

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 9-inch round baking pan.

Sift flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and sugar into mixing bowl. In another bowl, lightly beat egg with fork. Add oil and blend. Add sourdough starter and stir to blend.

Pour sourdough mixture into bowl of dry ingredients. Stir to blend. Pour batter into prepared pan. Arrange apple slices over top of batter.

Mix topping by combining flour, brown sugar and cinnamon in bowl. Cut butter into small chunks and add to ingredients in bowl. Use fingers to work butter into dry ingredients to create a crumbly mixture. Sprinkle all of the topping over sliced apples in cake pan.

Bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 30 to 40 minutes or until a toothpick poked into center of cake comes out completely clean. Allow cake to cool in pan on wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Tips from the cook

--Sourdough starter mix is available in some grocery stores. It's also available online at www.kingarthurflour.com.

--Janice Buckner stirs fresh blueberries and/or raspberries into the coffee cake when they are in season rather than using apples.

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