Strange Magic

Jen Holmer El-Azzi lights up when talking about sourdough. “It’s like maaa-gic,” she says slowly and playfully with a big smile — like a good witch casting a spell.

If you ask her husband and partner in The Sourdough Project, Danny El-Azzi, Jen’s not just good, she’s the best. “Nobody is as good as you are,” he says to her with conviction. What she’s good at is multifarious: growing and feeding her wild-yeast starter, turning that into sourdough with just the right consistency, rolling the dough into large, thin sheets so often that her forearms ache and cutting the result into cute, crimped-edge squares that once baked are, well, “addictive” is putting it lightly.

The label on their handmade crackers, which Jen charismatically hustles at farmers markets across Austin, says “snackable” right on it; consider yourself forewarned. When customers ask how long the crackers will keep, she and Danny, who launched their company in April 2018, try not to chuckle. It’s a “don’t kid yourself” situation. In other words, buyers are liable to consume all of their crunchy, savory treats long before their shelf life is up. Anyone who’s tried The Sourdough Project’s crackers, which come in original (sea salt), everything, sun-dried tomato and herb, and za’atar (a Middle Eastern spice mixture inspired by Danny’s Lebanese heritage), is in on the joke.

The couple has been “playing around” with sourdough — technically, bread leavened with wild yeast — for years. But it was Jen’s gluten sensitivity that brought it to the fore. “Sourdough culture eats the proteins in gluten and reduces it to an amount that doesn’t cause inflammation,” Jen explains.

“It was your love for pizza in part,” adds Danny, referring to a devotion that got them making sourdough pizza crust. It was in crackers, however, that they realized they had something special enough to sell.

One thing that makes their crackers so tasty is the weeklong, cold fermentation process. The longer something ferments, the more complex and interesting it tastes. “Bread tastes better the longer you ferment it,” says Jen. So, she thought, why not do that with cracker dough? Another winning factor is the dough’s short list of high-quality ingredients: flour from Texas-grown, stone-milled heirloom wheat, salt, water and olive oil (which makes them vegan). They’re really that simple.

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Jen’s favorite flavor is the sea salt. She compares them to Cheez-Its and says they’re a hit with families. Kids are into the satisfying crunch, and parents feel good serving a snack with so few ingredients, all of which are recognizable.

An Ohio native, Jen had culinary experience from working at Central Market and already loved talking to and teaching people about food before she got into cracker creation. Danny, who grew up in Austin, calls his contribution the “dirty work.” He pays the bills, orders and picks up ingredients, fixes the tent when it breaks at the market, and handles anything else that comes up. And he’s just as busy as Jen.

In fact, things have moved so fast they can barely keep up with cracker demand. In under a year, they’ve gone from running a tiny cottage industry business to getting a food manufacturing license and moving into a commercial kitchen; they’ve done demonstrations at fermentation festivals, added part-time staff and practically had to fend off eager distributors. In one way or another, “it is crackers all the time,” says Jen.

But the “project” in their company name is an indication of their desire to do more. The couple does occasionally sell sourdough spinoff items, including donut holes, granola bars, chocolate snack cakes and zucchini bread. They say their dream is to open a bakery cooperative. “To be able to share [space and equipment] and have everybody do their strong suit would be awesome,” Jen says.

The El-Azzis often return to the idea of community. “Anybody could do this if they wanted to,” says Danny. The scary part is taking the leap, something they credit their fellow farmers market vendors with inspiring them to do. Danny may be right, but there’s no denying that he and Jen have an ideal combination of skills and a unique passion for sourdough’s strange magic.

It doesn’t take long at their Texas Farmers Market at Mueller booth to see that sorcery in action. A couple walks up, takes samples, crunches, swallows. Then one of them asks, “What’s making these so tangy? Almost like sour cream … or cheese …” They trail off in wonder, unable to find the right descriptor.

Jen smiles and says, “That’s the sourdough.” She might as well have called it magic.

Written by Amy McCullough • Photography by Andy Sams

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