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Baking bread builds bonds

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You just never know what will serve as inspiration. For Waimea resident Darien Gee, it was a Ziploc bag of gloopy, bubbly liquid that her daughter, Maya, brought home from school. If Gee were a scientist, that would be understandable. But she’s a fiction writer, and it was in fact that bag of gloop that spurred her to write a whole new novel.

Sixth Annual Hawaii Book and Music Festival

>> When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
>> Where: Frank F. Fasi civic grounds, Honolulu Hale
>> Cost: Free; park free at the municipal lot
>> Visit: hawaiibookandmusicfestival.org
>> Note: Meet Darien Gee from 11 a.m. to noon Saturday in the author’s pavillion and noon to 1 p.m. at the Barnes & Noble tent, where she’ll sign books.

Friendship recipes

Darien Gee is offering Star-Advertiser readers a free booklet of more than 50 Amish friendship bread recipes that can be printed. Through next Wednesday, visit www.friendshipbreadkitchen.com/pantry/advertiser. The password is advertiser.

"Friendship Bread: A Novel" is that book, released last month. It will be among the tomes available at the Hawaii Book and Music Festival this weekend, and the author will make appearances Saturday. Gee has published three novels under the pen name Mia King; "Friendship Bread" is the first in which she uses her own name.

Gee builds an entire tale about a small town around Amish friendship bread, referred to as a culinary chain letter.

Amish friendship bread has been around for at least several decades, peaking and waning in popularity over the years. But for the uninitiated, here’s how it works: The baker makes a sourdough "starter" that is divided into four parts — one to keep, three to give away.

Recipients keep the starter for 10 days, adding ingredients to "grow" the mix. The intention is that each giftee continues the chain by dividing their starter and sharing it with three other people. The starter grows exponentially because each recipient makes four times the amount they originally received.

"Two years ago my daughter had a starter and some slices of friendship bread from a friend," Gee recalls. "I saw the bag and knew there would be work involved. But as I was eating the bread, I saw a vision of a woman, and there was a lot of sadness around her.

"That inspired me to start the novel that night. You know, they say the starter really starts things."

Gee’s story follows Julia Evarts, a resident of Avalon who’s suffered a devastating loss. A gift of friendship bread leads her to other folks in the town, all of whom are facing their own life challenges. The bread weaves its way through the town, instigating relationships and creating situations of change and growth for the characters that populate the book.

"The bread is a metaphor for how we’re all connected, how simple things can bring us together," the author, 42, says of her tale.

While Gee was writing the novel, she baked "a lot" of friendship bread, adapting the basic recipe, a cinnamon-sugar type loaf.

"I created about 125 recipes, most while writing the book. It was an inspirational thing, plus it’s fun," she says.

Gee’s recipes range from basic friendship bread with various fruit and chocolate chip add-ins to butterscotch muffins, carrot cake, snickerdoodle cookies and biscotti. She’s even figured out gluten-free and sugar-free variations. Right now she’s working on a Portuguese sweet bread version.

"I want people to know it’s versatile," Gee says. "Nowadays I make it once or twice a month. It’s a very giftable, quick bread."

Both the starter dough and the baked goods freeze well, she adds, making it friendly for busy families.

Gee should know. In addition to penning novels and raising Maya, 10, she’s also mom to sons Eric, 5, and Luke, 2. Her husband, Darrin, runs a golf academy.

People are usually introduced to friendship bread with some of the baked bread and a bag of starter.

That’s how it happened for Tania Opamin of Waimea back in 2006.

"I got it from my daughter’s godmother. She told me, ‘It looks nasty but you need to do this.’ I’ve been hooked ever since."

No, you did not misread: Opamin has been baking friendship bread continuously for the past five years.

"I’ve always got a starter on the kitchen counter," she says. "My family’s favorite is the original recipe with chocolate chips."

Opamin says she can’t even count how many loaves she’s baked over the five years. She bakes for her family, on holidays and for gift-giving. Plus, it’s a perfect family project.

"My kids like to be in the kitchen, and this is one recipe they can help with," she says. "It’s a great way to spend time together."

Gee agrees.

"Friendship bread is all about family and community," she says. "It’s about sharing something with others. You give them something passed on to you, and theoretically the bread you’re giving has something from every kitchen."

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