I almost got through Lent without making Hot Cross Buns. I’ve been very excited about English muffins, and they were sort of taking care of my need to make something small and bready and wonderful before Easter. But then I read this post by Tami Weiser and since I am mildly superstitious, I had to make some. And then some more.
“Great friendships are said to be sealed over a shared bun, and baking and eating them atavistically protects you from getting the evil eye,” she wrote on The Kitchn.
Those words got me baking, same as some other words got me baking in June 1998. My son Francis was just born, and I was reading Frank McCourt’s memoir. The thought of the author’s twin siblings potentially going to purgatory because they died unbaptized made me concoct a backyard ceremony.
My husband is a multigenerational agnostic, and I am a lapsed Catholic. I wasn’t interested in baptism until I read the book. Jack went along with my plan, and asked a friend who lived in a former matzo factory to bring water from the once-blessed pipes.
We invited friends, and I made loads of hot cross buns, and I said something silly and stabbing at eternity and protection. The day was sunny and there was dew on the grass.
Now my kid is almost 18. I gave some buns to friends, in gratitude and in superstition, trying to seal my pals to me: they are so dear.
Here is a hint of how I made mine from Tami Weiser’s recipe: I cut the sugar to ¼ cup, and upped the cinnamon to 2 teaspoons. I skipped the zest because I forgot it. I used Farmer Ground Flour, both high extraction and spelt, and even people who don’t adore whole grain flours gobbled them up.
Traveling around, I love getting to catch up with people I wrote about in the book. This week I got to go to Vermont, to one of the strongest grains education days: the Northern Grain Growers Association (NGGA) annual conference in Essex. This was the 12th one.
The NGGA started to investigate organic grain production for the dairy market, and shifted to food grade inquiries on production practices as the market developed. I love that farmers began and continue this work, very ably abetted by the enthusiasm and resources of Heather Darby and the crop and soil team at UVM.
This is where I met Jack Lazor, and his love of history and people. Where Randy George and Ben Gleason showed me how bakers and growers need to communicate about their work and needs. Where Loic Dewavrin helped me begin to understand the importance of seed.
I get such a charge from seeing these people and hearing about their work. Loic – from Le Moulins des Cedres in Quebec — is font of innovation. He told me about a rotary tine weeder he’s working on, and the way he’s rolling hulless oats. Blair Marvin from Elmore Mountain Bread told me about the shifts at the bakery now that Andrew is focusing on building mills.
I got to learn about nixtamalization from Joe Bossen of All Souls Tortilleria, and began to learn a little bit about grits from Greg Johnsman of Geechie Boy Mills in South Carolina. The world of corn is very big and tasty and confusing!
I got to share my love of pancakes and fresh flour, too, lending hints on making mixes to growers who sell at farmers markets and need some help introducing flour to shoppers. Mixes sell much better than flour, I’ve heard farmers report, and while the purist in me objects, I know it is best to meet people where they’re at, rather than not meet them at all.
Now I’m looking forward to my next visit to a member of the book: Nan Kohler! Nan is such a champion in grains. I really admire her ability to introduce off-grid flours to the world. Her history in wine gives her an ability to articulate the nuances of flavor, and her experience baking allows her to very clearly express the functionality of the flours. That I get to work with these beautiful flours, so artfully milled, is a huge thrill.
I’ll be talking about flat cakes and flours at Grist & Toll on April 1st. You can sign up for the event here.
Well, it’s conference season. Lots of people are interested in grains, so the book and I have been on the move.
The Cascadia Grains Conference in Olympia, Washington really put me on a flour pedestal. As I was scheming on how to get griddles across the country, I got an email from a flour pal asking if I’d like some flour for my pancake class. Oh boy!
I had a beautiful array of flours to choose from: Turkey Red, White Lammas, Sonora, Purple Egyptian barley – these were all from the Palouse Colony Farm, a small farm growing heritage varieties with lineage in the region. I also had Edison and Emmer from Camas Country Mill, and couldn’t have been happier. I decided to make both pancakes and crêpes to highlight the flavors of the grains, and show how well griddlecakes deliver these unique flours.
I truly felt like the pancake queen to have Andrew Ross, cereal scientist from Oregon State University, lend his scientific knowledge to the enthusiastic pronouncements I made in class. I am a fan of flour, and like all fans, my emotions can misinform me.
I also spoke about how policy helps small grains projects happen, like New York’s Farm Brewery licensing and Greenmarket Regional Grains Project’s major push to get bakers at their farmers markets using regional products. And I invited a few people from my book to tell their stories on another panel. Tissa Stein from Tabor Bread, Annie Moss from Seastar Bakery and Sue Hunton from Camas Country Mill are in my Oregon chapter, and it was so rewarding to hear them give voice to their work.
The middle weekend of January put me in the middle of New York, at Hartwick College, where the Farmer Brewer Winter Weekend migrated from its Pioneer Valley/Valley Malt nest. I had a ball planning the paired beer dinner for a Rye Feast – I’d love to do a meal like this again, and put grains on the pedestal, where they belong.
And last weekend I was at NOFA-NY’s winter conference in Saratoga. Five years ago, this is where I first met pioneers in regional grains, and began to get to know the people who populate my book! Leading a writing workshop there felt terrific. What better way to salute the book, which I hope is creating chances for more small grains projects by showing possible models for people to follow, than to show farmers and food entrepreneurs how to tell their own stories.
I used to love writing just because I love words, and I like to connect to people. Now I love writing for another reason: I’m fascinated by how storytelling helps move ideas in the world, and make ideas into actions. This is what I want the book to be, part of an engine for change. Thank you Cascadia, Farmer Brewer, and NOFA-NY for the invitations to help fuel new thoughts and chances for grains.
This book has taken me on the road. I feel like a flour vaudevillian, and wish I had stickers from my stops to put on my griddle and suitcase. They would read Seattle, New Haven and New York City. I loved speaking with people from my book at Yale and Stone Barns, and making Christmas cookies close to home at Honest Weight Food Co-Op.
Writing a book is so different than other things you do for other people. When I make a pancake I get fast feedback. I finished this book a year ago, and with my stunning patience, was ready to hear what people thought of it right away. I had a six-month lag time where the book was neither in my hands nor in my head, and that limbo makes the experience of hearing how the book is living in the world both surprising and satisfying.
My book is landing at a time when people want to hear something new about grains. Very often I get asked about gluten or big wheat. I’m not an expert in these topics, so I try to answer the questions with what I have learned, and always steer people toward the thing that directed my wonder on this topic in the first place: fresh flour.
I like when I can let the flour speak for itself. When I can hand someone a pancake, or shortbread, and people can taste a wildly lively ingredient. That’s the food that made me ask questions and led to my meeting all of the stunning pioneers who populate my book.
I was so happy this past weekend to lead a panel discussion at the Farmer Brewer Winter Weekend at Hartwick College. Some lions of local beer told their stories: Farmer Thor Oechsner, Brent Manning of River Bend Malt, Phil Leinhart of Brewery Ommegang, and Sam Filler from Empire State Development. Then I asked them to imagine what they need to help regional grains systems progress, and we had a conversation that was both dreamy and pragmatic.
This is all a very real dream to me. In January 2011 I began to meet people in grains. I went to NOFA-NY’s winter conference and could not imagined that a few years forward I would be writing about the people in the room.
Friday I’ll be leading a workshop in Saratoga at NOFA-NY’s winter conference. I’ll be working with Rebecca Frimmer from Kitchen Table Consultants. She’ll be guiding people through social media planning, and I’ll be doing some writing exercises to help people find their voice.
I’ll be signing my book in the evening – I feel content to bring the book to another place it began. Like I’m bringing a baby home.
My latest trip was nothing like my time in Kansas. In that state, the cars were few under the sky, whizzing like nuts to remote destinations. Driving across Massachusetts, I could hardly believe how many of us there are, crawling from spot to spot in our cars. The mills were very different, also.
I stopped by Gray’s Gristmill in Adamsville just because I was near. How could I resist taking a peek? Thinking about how many mills used to dot the landscape is a little unbelievable. This is how we got our flour: from great stones with waterpower. In New England, there were tide-powered mills. That we get basic foods so easily now doesn’t seem possible or right.
I like to run my mind over that conundrum, which is why I was thrilled when Kim Van Wormer, the miller at Plimoth Plantation invited me to come make pancakes at their Sampe Fest.
Saturday and Sunday I set up near the water wheel with my electric griddle and made pancakes with Floriani Red cornmeal and rye from Farmer Ground Flour. These are my favorite fall pancakes, so hearty and sweet. Plus they tell a story of what grows here, and how we eat what is available.
Wheat didn’t grow very well in coastal New England, but rye did all right. So the settlers combined it with Indian corn and ate what they could.
The settlers didn’t have a gristmill until 1636, 16 years after they arrived. At first, they would’ve used a mortar and pestle, and then they had a water powered mortar and pestle. Building a large stone gristmill and its protective housing was an expensive project.
Visitors to this mill can get an understanding of my favorite kind of milling, stone milling, and the other ways early Americans, both Native Americans and colonists would’ve processed grains. I love the history work that happens as the wheel turns and the building rattles, and I hope it helps get people’s gears turning in their heads about grains. Plus, you can get stone ground cornmeal!
Follow this link to my recipe for cornmeal rye pancakes. And put this mill on your map of places to visit.
I went to Kansas for the flour and came home with at least a 50 pound sack of ideas.
I flew into Kansas City, Missouri and drove right to St. Joseph, Missouri, where Aunt Jemima pancake flour was invented in 1889. Newspaper editor Chris Rutt saw an opportunity in a bankrupt flour mill, and his business partner took the title of a minstrel song as the product’s name.
The Pattee House museum, the old hotel where the Pony Express began is crowded with Western lore, and has 2 cases dedicated to Aunt Jemima. I didn’t think I would care for the Jesse James stuff, but the mythology of the mammy and the mythology of the frontier kind of go together, like peanut butter and jelly. And the pancake mix, born of an era when there was suddenly too much food, represents another myth, the myth of the land of plenty.
I also visited Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, and met people from the Kansas Wheat Commission. Everyone was a little worn out from 11 days at the state fair, but they still gave me a wide-open tour of their work. I got to see the kitchen where they test recipes for promotions, and the seed vault, and greenhouses full of breeding projects. I learned that there is a celiac safe research project, which is just in the mapping stages, not plant breeding.
Mark Fowler from the International Grains Program took me on a tour of the K – state mill. I have very little affinity for roller mills, but I like flour so very much that I’m even excited about this kind of milling.
I met Mark at the Kneading Conference and he was very helpful as I wrote the book. At the university’s mill, students were working on a problem the instructors set up. Mark made sure I understood as much as I could in an hour, taking off caps from the sifters and lining up samples of the flow so I could see what a milling student would study. I tasted fresh wheat germ. The whole thing was a great treat.
The reason I took this trip was to go to the Prairie Festival. My friend and grain buddy Howard comes to this spot in Kansas the last weekend each September. Seems like the trip puts roots under his feet, deep roots connected to the Iowa farm where he grew up.
Roots are a good way to think about the Prairie Festival and the work of The Land Institute. Wes Jackson began to investigate re-perenializing grains nearly 40 years ago. He wanted food farming to mimic the interdependency of natural ecosystems. The tall grass prairie and its web of plants, microorganisms, and deep deep roots hold an answer for what he sees as the 10,000 year old mistake of annual agriculture.
The festival is described as an intellectual hootenanny, and brings together speakers to push forward progressive thinking. Attendees often camp on the prairie, as I did the first time I went. Oh how windy that was! I felt like I was levitating in my sleeping bag.
That night, I understood something about the prairie. Everything has to dig deep and hang on. The roots of perennial grasses can dig 35 feet down. This matters to me as a metaphor almost more than a real phenomenon. I guess this shows how much I like ideas.
This year, Zach Golper from Bien Cuit came to make bread from Kernza, the name for the perennial wheat under development. He made two kinds, one from Kernza grown in Kansas, and one grown in Illinois. He preferred the Kansas bread he made, because its taste reflected the deep subsoil.
The speakers planted great thoughts. Mary Evelyn Tucker spoke about Pope Francis’ encyclical as a gathering force, drawing together her colleagues at the Forum On Religion and Ecology at Yale. Ricardo Salvador from the Union of Concerned Scientists and Angus Wright both made me more curious about the agricultural history of America in the mid to late -1900s.
Wes Jackson closed the weekend with a talk that compared soil to oil. “We’re not realizing that soil is as much of a nonrenewable resource as oil,” he said. “It’s hard to understand, but soil’s foundations require geologic time, not human time, to happen.”
Here is a flour postcard from Oregon, where I had a great time talking about flour and flatcakes at Cook’s Pots and Tabletops, a cooking store in Eugene. 15 people sat at a counter in front of me, including Sue Hunton and Stephanie Powers from Camas Country Mill, which I wrote about in the book. I passed around samples of flour, pancakes and crêpes, evangelizing about the great taste and nutrition of whole-grain flours. We had some extra time so I asked everyone what they wanted more of, and I invented a Red Fife cocoa crêpe for them on the spot. Funny I never thought of adding cocoa to the batter — worked really well.
Sue Hunton and Stephanie Powers were great to have in the class – I kept asking them to talk about the grains, and their perspectives added so much to mine. They are both retired schoolteachers, and have an easy and engaging way of delivering information. I admire how they bring their first careers into the life of the mill, taking kids field to flour with hands on lessons using simple tools to grind grains, and making muffins. Milling is so invisible in our lives and the tactile experiences they offer really plant the work in kids’ minds.
I also got to visit the mill, which is expanding, and I went to their new store and schoolhouse project. Mill owners Tom and Sue Hunton are restoring an old one-room schoolhouse to be their education center. The inside walls are signed by kids — in 1917 — who grew up to farm land that Tom and his son now farm – what a perfect place for Sue and Stephanie’s lessons!
Camas also works hard to get whole-grain flour into school meal programs. Stephanie experiments with formulas that fit within the nutrition guidelines and kitchens’ tool limits – a really tall order. How fun to see her in her lab! She made me tortillas from Edison flour, a white hard wheat with great taste. At home, I’ve been having a little wheat tortilla mania, playing with her recipe and all the flours I collect.
In Eugene, I also got to visit James Henderson, Farm Liaison for Hummingbird Wholesale. James was a great resource to me as I wrote the Oregon chapter, helping me understand the seemingly glacial pace of change in farming. I really love the work that he and the company do, pioneering Distributor Supported Agriculture. This business model functions like a CSA, leveraging change on both the farming and marketing sides of the food chain.
My last Northwest event was an evening at Tabor Bread hosted by Slow Food Portland. I loved reading from the book at a place I profiled. Bakery owner Tissa Stein spoke about running a fresh milling bakery, and people got a tour, and saw the mill and woodfired oven up close. Again, it was wonderful to have people I wrote about speak for themselves. Some books are private retreats, but I want this book to be an ongoing public conversation. I want people to know the people I’ve met, and get curious about their work in grains.
Seastar Bakery and Handsome Pizza is a new spot in Portland very worth finding. Annie Moss worked at Tabor, and left to start this with friends. The bakery is investigating grains as the wildly flavorful ingredient they can be, and I’m so happy to know a place like this exists, drawing staple crops out of the shadows and into the spotlight.
I had two servings of toast that are strangling my imagination: a perfect piece of Red Fife with peanut butter and strawberries, and another made from a seeded rye bread with hazelnut butter, hazelnuts, honey and big flakes of salt.
My flour tour of the Pacific Northwest began at the Grain Gathering, a serious salute to the revival of regional grain production. The conference was at The Bread Lab, the ship wheat breeder Steve Jones steers to help develop local grain farming and use. There were workshops on baking, milling, and even making a mill. I got to meet people I talked to on the phone, like baker Dave Miller, and people I only knew from word-of-mouth, like Josey Baker. I met people I felt I’d known my whole life: Marie-Louise from Skaertoft Mill in Denmark, and Dick Scheuerman.
For three years, Dick has been growing out a sample of White Lammas wheat that was stored in 1916. This year, he finally had enough wheat to use, rather than saving just to grow again, and he asked me to make pancakes. I consulted cookbooks to see what English settlers might have eaten in the 1820s to 1840s. I settled on a crêpe batter, and the taste was really great.
I brought some of this flour with me and made it into crêpes at my flat cake classes. The first was at Book Larder, a cookbook store with a kitchen in Seattle. I also had some white Sonora from Grist & Toll, a mill in Pasadena, and I made these heritage varieties side-by-side for people to try.
I realized that my job is to be an ambassador for flour. Gluten is the latest target in the American diet drama, and I want to make people less afraid of eating grains. I’m not trying to convert anyone who has celiac disease or a true wheat allergy. But I do think that people should fall in love with flour, and I love showing them how.
I brought 5 pounds of Red Fife flour from Maine and the Kneading Conference. The Red Fife I got in Canada, where the revival of this heritage grain is well established, made some memorable loaves, flatbreads, crepes and pancakes. The taste was a very robust whole wheat; I wish I could describe it better, but even people who are good at describing tastes are entering new territory with grains, and deciding how to name the flavors. Trust me when I tell you I was ready to marvel over the flavor of Red Fife some more.
However, I was a little skeptical of how this particular flour would work. This crop had sprouted in the field, which means the seeds started to grow, and the enzyme activity bakers rely on to cooperate with leavening in building dough had already begun. Normally, such grains don’t get milled, because the flour is unpredictable.
Yet Red Fife is in high demand in the Northeast, because it has a name and a story, in addition to its beguiling taste. So the mill decided to take a chance. This is the way things would’ve happened before grain production was centralized. Preharvest germination wasn’t a dealbreaker for farmers, because there weren’t alternatives. Grains that came from far away by water and land cost a pretty penny, and people ate what they had.
People around me have been pretty happily eating Red Fife pancakes. I made them using my standard formula, and I knew from the way the batter puffed in the bowl, and then the cakes shaped up on the griddle, that we were in for a treat. Jack wanted blueberries in them and I refused. This breakfast was purely about the flour.
I made a whole lot of them today to salute a cousin’s new baby. I did put some blueberries in some cakes, because I knew that the flour could speak for itself, and tell people that this was a lovely food they were eating.
Here is the way I make pancakes. I didn’t make any special arrangements because of the sprouting in the flour.
Basic Pancake Ratio
1 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder (the best choice is Rumford)
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp baking soda
Combine thoroughly and use for one batch of pancakes, or multiply ingredients to make mix, and store in a tightly closed container.
To Make Pancakes
1 cup mix
1 tablespoon yogurt
½ cup milk
Combine all ingredients. Let the batter sit for 5-10 minutes to allow the flour, and especially the bran, to absorb the liquids. Cook on a hot buttered griddle, and flip when bubbles begin to break on the surface of the pancakes.
I first heard about the Kneading Conference when I started talking to people about local flour, so it seems appropriate that the first place my book met the world was at this year’s conference, in Maine at the end of July.
Peter Reinhart gave the keynote address, and his words set the perfect stage for a two-day exploration of grains and bread.
“All cooking is transformational, but with bread we take something that was once alive and bring it back to life. This living organism called dough experiences secondary changes in baking. As it dies it transforms into something that we eat,” said the baker and cookbook author. The metaphor of the functions of baking and eat are themes Reinhart explores.
As he was researching his book about pizza, American Pie, he interviewed Chris Bianco, the poster boy of the artisan pizza movement. The man, he said was shy as he tried to get him to describe what was special about his pizza, but eventually admitted, “The secret is me. I can’t bottle that, and I can’t teach my passion.”
“What made his bread so special was the fact that he was making it,” said Reinhart, who said he also saw passion in action when he visited a cheese steak place in Philadelphia where he used to work.
This idea stayed with me like a captivating flavor the rest of my time in Maine. Andrew Janjigian gave a workshop on the Middle Eastern roots of pizza.
“Pizza is the food that got me cooking. I started as a teenager and it is the thing that I have cooked the most,” he said. While his job as senior editor at Cook’s Illustrated doesn’t focus exclusively on pizza, the topic still engages him, especially after he spent two weeks in Eastern Turkey over the winter. The class he taught drew from this experience of seeing Lahmajun, the Armenian flatbread he knew from growing up, in very different, pizza-like context. Seeing the breads served flat and hot, rather than stacked in a bag for home use, Andrew said his long fascination with pizza made sense in a new fashion.
Sam Fromartz spoke about his book In Search of the Perfect Loaf. This book is a great tour of our human history with grains, the science of sourdough, and bakers. “I went to Germany because I wanted to go to a place where whole grains were eaten because they were good, not because we should eat them,” he said. The loaves reflected the diversity of grains, and took him far from the book’s starting point, which was a quest for making the perfect baguette at home. This doesn’t differ drastically from his writing, but I loved seeing a more personal side of the information that was delivered in the book. Plus it was nice to see the author’s face smiling as he told the book’s story.
Steve Gonzalez from SFOGLINI pasta talked about using local grains, and got me curious about making noodles. Noah Elbers from Orchard Hill Breadworks gave a demonstration in shaping pizza dough, and I’ll never forget the slack dough round hanging over his big mitt hands. This is the way he described his hands, noting that people with longer thinner fingers and more slender hands have difficulty shaping with this method.
At these events, you never get to see all the presentations, and I’m really sorry I missed most of Richard Miscovich’s class, and all of Ciril Hitz’s workshop on whole grains. He is a very engaging teacher, and the flavor of his spelt bread made me regret my inability to be in two places at once even more. Luckily, I have a recipe to try at home.
I know what I make will be my version, and not even an estimation of his bread. That’s the way food works, as I’ve learned since I came home. I’ve been making ployes, a buckwheat pancake from a mix that Father Paul Dumais gave me. He spoke last year at the Kneading Conference about his family’s Acadian flatbread, and now he’s making a mix. What I make at home is tasty – and rather mystifying, because the buckwheat is yellow – but it doesn’t taste like the one he gave me in Maine. The texture is wrong, on the inside and on the surface. He is missing from his food, but at least I get a reminder.