Posts Tagged ‘Meet Caroline’

Baking Bread With Caroline

March 9, 2014

When I was a kid, I read about a girl in colonial times whose family had kept a crock of sourdough going from generation to generation. I’ve been fascinated with the idea of making bread with sourdough starter ever since.

Our great-great-grandmothers used sourdough starter to make bread rise in the days before commercial quick-rise yeasts were available. The starter nurtures naturally-occurring yeasts and bacteria.  This is the type of bread mentioned in Meet Caroline.

Meet Caroline:  An American GirlWant to give it a try? It’s a fun inter-generational project. Working with sourdough requires patience and practice, but the basic process is quite simple.

There are probably as many recipes for bread baked from homemade sourdough starter as there are bakers.  I’m sharing the process that has, after a fair amount of experimentation, worked for me.

Baking without commercial yeast means that the process takes a while. I make starter on a Saturday, tend it for a week, and bake the following weekend.

All you need to begin is flour and water.  Use a good-quality whole-grain flour. Flour which has been heavily processed might contain traces of chemicals that could kill the rise. For your first batch I suggest using distilled water for the same reason.  Once you’ve had success, you can try using tap water or other types of flour.

bread 1

 Day 1:
Stir 2 c. flour and 2 c. water together.

sourdough 1

I use my grandma’s mixing bowl.

Cover with a towel and let rest at in a warm spot—about 70 degrees is ideal. If it’s colder, the microorganisms will grow more slowly.

sourdough 2

My starter lives on the kitchen counter.

Days 2-5:
Stir 1/4 c. of flour and 1/4 c. water into the starter. Cover with a towel.

After a day or so you should see bubbles forming.  The starter will develop a pleasantly sour smell.  It should not change color; if it turns black or takes on a pinkish tinge, discard.

sourdough 4

Day 3.

sourdough 6

Day 5.

The starter should  get a little more active and frothy each day.  The yeast in the air and flour are happily consuming the flour’s natural sugar, and releasing carbon dioxide bubbles.

sourdough 7

The starter is about the consistency of pancake batter.

Day 6:
Remove 2 cups of starter and place in a clean bowl.  Stir in 4 cups of flour, 1-1/4 c. water, 2 t. salt, and 2 T. honey. (You can use sugar if you don’t have honey on hand.)  If the result is too sticky to knead, add more flour a little at a time, just until the mass holds together.

sourdough 8

Ready for phase 2.

Knead the dough on a counter or bread board until smooth, about 5-10 minutes.

sourdough bread 9

Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl, cover with a towel, and set in a warm place. Let the dough rise for 8-12 hours. Give or take. I mix the dough right before going to bed and let it rest overnight.

sourdough 9

About two hours into the rise…

sourdough rise

…and after 12 hours. The glass bowl reveals all the action taking place in the dough.

Lightly grease a pie plate and gently place the risen dough in the center. You could use a cast iron skillet, too.

sourdough 10

The dough should feel puffy and active.

Cover with a damp towel and let rise 4-6 hours. Make several slashes about 1/2″ deep in the top of the loaf with a sharp knife. Bake at 350 degrees for 45-50 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and a toothpick tester emerges dry.

sourdough bread loaf

A beautiful loaf!

After you’ve had success, you can experiment by using different types of flour and adding herbs, fruit, etc.

If you want to keep your starter going, spoon what was left in the original bowl into a clean container.  While a dry towel was necessary during the first week to allow wild yeast cells easy access, the starter now needs more protection to keep a crust from forming. Caroline might have used a crock with lid left a bit ajar.  You can  use a bowl covered with a plate.

If you’ve read Meet Caroline, you know that Caroline struggles to succeed at this bread-baking process:

Grandmother was teaching Caroline how to make bread, but somehow, Caroline never seemed able to mix in just the right amount of flour and water, or knead the dough to the perfect silky-smooth texture. Her loaves  turned out heavy and hard.

Like Caroline, I had a few failures on the way to a good loaf of sourdough bread. This is what happened when I didn’t give the dough enough time to rise.

sourdough mistake 1


And this is what happened when I forgot to slash the top of the loaf.

sourdough mistake 2

Steam split the loaf along the sides.  It tasted OK, but didn’t look nice.

So don’t be discouraged if it takes you a couple of tries to produce a successful loaf of bread with homemade sourdough starter. The results are worth it!

sourdough bread slice

Still warm and spread with homemade apple butter – yum!

A Sloop For Caroline

September 19, 2012

Readers will quickly discover that Caroline Abbott, the 1812 character I created for American Girl, loves sailing. Caroline’s family lives on the shore of mighty Lake Ontario, and Papa is a shipbuilder. The beautiful cover of Meet Caroline shows her on board her father’s newest sloop.

And chapter one opens this way:

Caroline Abbott leaned over the rail and laughed with delight. “Isn’t this wonderful?” she asked her cousin Lydia.  Sailing on Lake Ontario was fun any time, but being permitted to come aboard the sloop White Gull on its very first voyage was an extra-special treat.

Later Caroline confides a secret to Lydia:

“One day I’m going to ask Papa to build me a sloop.  I’ll be captain.”  It was her most precious wish, one she usually kept tucked away in her heart.

I loved creating this aspect of Caroline.  But I also knew that I had a lot to learn about sailing a sloop two hundred years ago!  I read accounts written by people in 1812.  I studied paintings of ships.  That was a beginning, but it wasn’t enough to let me bring Caroline’s sailing scenes to life.

Then I learned something amazing:  The Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven, MI, owns a sloop built to replicate a real ship from Caroline’s time.  Even better?  Visitors can go for a sail!

Michigan Maritime Museum photo.

So while I was writing the first draft of Meet Caroline, my husband and I made arrangements to do just that. The sloop is named Friends Good Will, which was the name of the original ship.

I’m all set to board the replica sloop.

Sailing on Friends Good Will was tremendous  fun. It was educational. Most of all, that sail fired up my imagination. I pictured Caroline on a sloop just like this one.  I used all of my senses so I could describe the experience vividly for readers.

What does a sail sound like as sailors raise it? What does the wind sound like when it hits the canvas? I paid attention!

One of the crew (foreground, in the white clothes and hat) demonstrated how hard sailors worked to raise the heavy sails.

My husband pitched in too.

In Meet Caroline, Caroline’s happiest moment comes when the wind fades and Papa allows her to help him at the tiller.

Here’s Caroline taking her turn.  (Illustrations by Robert Papp.)

And here’s me, taking my turn while the captain supervises. See how I’m leaning against the tiller? It was a windy day, and I needed my whole body to hold the ship on course.

In the first chapter of Meet Caroline, British soldiers board the Abbotts’ sloop.  I walked through the action while on board, imagining where Caroline would be, taking lots and lots of photographs.  When I got home, I quickly wrote that scene while everything was fresh in my mind.

Here’s the hold, where Caroline’s cousin Oliver would pack the supplies he expected to transport around Lake Ontario. Papa sends Caroline and Lydia down here when the British board their ship.

And when Caroline wants to hear what’s happening on deck, she creeps up from the hold below.

Can you make out the rope-and-slat ladder in the center of this photo? It’s collapsed here, but one end would be thrown over the side. The British soldiers came aboard the Abbotts’ sloop on a ladder like this, and Caroline leaves the sloop the same way.

The real history of the original Friends Good Will gave me a lot to think about, too. It was built as a merchant vessel, but in 1812 the United States government took the sloop into military service. While Friends Good Will was returning from a supply trip, the British tricked the American crew by flying the US flag over a fort they’d captured. The British seized Friends Good Will, renamed the sloop, and put it into service for their own navy.

In 1813 the sloop was recaptured by Americans, but that December it ran aground during a storm. In 1814 the British burned the still-stranded ship during a raid.

I’m very grateful to the people who had the vision to replicate the original sloop—no small undertaking!—and the wonderful crew. Because of their work, visitors today can have a rare and special experience.

To learn more about the Michigan Maritime Museum and Friends Good Will, visit their website:

Meet Caroline – And Her Home Town

September 4, 2012

Are you ready to meet Caroline Abbott? At long last, the 1812 character I created for American Girl is launching into the world! All six books are now available.

Caroline Abbott lives in Sackets Harbor, New York. The village is on the southern shore of Lake Ontario.

The Abbott family owns a small shipyard, situated to take advantage of a protected harbor. Readers will quickly discover that Caroline wouldn’t want to live anywhere else! She loves her family home, which is not huge, but quite a step up from the log cabin she was born in. She loves visiting the family shipyard. She loves to look over Lake Ontario and imagine sailing her own ship one day.

Native Americans had long lived in this area, which was rich with fish and game and surrounded by forests. In 1801 those same natural resources attracted a businessman from New York hoping to establish trade in the region.  He wrote, “There a harbor is found which is sheltered from the winds and surges of the Lake. A peninsula of limestone rock perfectly protects a sheet of water covering about ten acres.”

Although this photo was taken many years after Caroline’s time, it clearly shows the natural harbor.  Can you imagine Abbott’s Shipyard on the shoreline near the bottom of the photo?

When Caroline’s story starts, Papa’s small shipyard is already successful. The deep woods provide timber for the ships needed to transport people and goods around the Great Lakes. And that sheltered harbor provides protection as he builds his merchant ships.

Meet Caroline begins in June, 1812, just as the United States declares war on Great Britain. Sackets Harbor becomes the center of American naval and military operations. Caroline watches as her tiny village grows into a bustling town jammed with troops and shipbuilders. The British colony of Upper Canada was right across the lake—just thirty miles away!

Today, two hundred years later, it is very easy to stroll through Sackets Harbor and imagine Caroline there.

The view from Caroline’s bedroom window would have looked much like this.

A handful of buildings dating back to her era still exist.

Today this beautiful building overlooking the harbor houses the village Visitor Center.

Although no single house was used as the basis for the Abbott home in the Caroline books, a number of period homes—like this one—provided inspiration.

This shoreline must have looked very similar in Caroline’s day.

A lot of exciting things happened in this area during the War of 1812. Setting Caroline’s stories in Sackets Harbor gave me a wonderful environment and lots of exciting historical events to work with. I’ll share more about those in future blog posts, so stop back again soon!

Team Caroline

August 20, 2012

Have you ever thought about how many people are involved with producing the American Girl books, dolls, and accessories? It takes a whole team to see such a big project through from idea to publication!

My books about Caroline Abbott, American Girl’s newest historical character, will be available very soon. I’ve loved hearing from readers who are eager to read Caroline’s stories.

I’m eager for publication day too. I spent over three years researching, writing, and revising those six books:  Meet Caroline, Caroline’s Secret Message, A Surprise For Caroline, Caroline Takes A Chance, Caroline’s Battle, and Changes for Caroline.  But I didn’t work alone.

A researcher is assigned to each book project, which is wonderful—most publishing companies aren’t able to do this! As I began researching 1812, the time period for Caroline’s stories, the researcher helped identify good sources of information. He reviewed drafts of each story, checking for errors. He contacted expert historians and asked them to review the stories as well. The researcher also found many of the historic objects and images that helped inspire Caroline’s clothing and belongings.

Here’s researcher Mark Speltz at work in the library.  He’s great at finding resources I might have missed!

I also worked closely with my editor. When we started developing story ideas for Caroline, we had lots of meetings to discuss possibilities. Once I started writing the stories, the editor carefully reviewed each draft. She told me what she thought worked well, and offered suggestions to help make the story better. We worked through many drafts for each of the six stories.

Peg Ross, my editor, spends a lot of time reading through my manuscripts to make sure the stories are strong and flow well. We’ve worked on 15 books together!

In addition to the primary editor, other editors at American Girl read each draft and offered feedback. As we finalized each story, copyeditors helped make sure that each word and sentence and paragraph was clear, and that I hadn’t made mistakes with grammar and punctuation.

While the editors and I worked on the stories, the art director was working with the artists chosen to illustrate the Caroline books. They discussed ideas for cover art and the illustrations. The artists created rough sketches of their ideas, just as I wrote rough drafts. And while I revised my stories, the artists revised their paintings. The final results are fantastic!

Meanwhile, other people were busy developing the Caroline doll to represent the heroine of my stories. They also created her accessories, and the paper doll and crafts books that will accompany her. The talented people involved with those projects worked with the editor and researcher, so everything was connected.

As you can see, it takes a lot of people to launch a new historical character like Caroline. Everyone I’ve met at the company is passionate about what they do.  Everyone cares very much about American Girl readers, and has high standards for producing books that are fun to read and historically accurate.

And everyone is as excited about launch day as I am.  Check back in early September, and I’ll have a lot more to share about Caroline Abbott!