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.
On the Fourth of July in 1817, the Erie Canal began. Important men scooped symbolic shovels of dirt at dawn. Someone understood the moment’s power, and captured it beautifully.
Of course the canal began far earlier, perhaps as soon as colonists started to explore. An inland waterway would allow access to bounty and land.
One of the Erie Canal’s most articulate supporters was a flour merchant. Jesse Hawley went broke shipping flour and grains to New York City. Sitting still in debtor’s prison, he had time to consider how to improve his situation, and fixed his mind on carving the land to best serve commercial interests. The Genesee Messenger printed his essays, which laid out a proposed route, and spelled out the specific benefits, pointing to the success of other canals as an example.
While the idea of a 350-mile man-and mule–made waterway seemed absurd to many people, Hawley’s writings helped DeWitt Clinton and others argue the case. On Independence Day in 1817, politicians launched this project at sunrise. Modern beginnings are so much less grand.
I had a small beginning on Friday. I thought the day’s big event was going to be six kids drenching themselves with water guns at my son’s birthday party. Then the UPS truck pulled up.
I thought it might be a birthday present for Felix, but the small package had the return address of my publisher. I knew right away what it was, but I was still shocked. This book began in so many places, and since I’ve never published a book before, each of its milestones take me by surprise.
One place this book began was at the griddle. My dad was the weekend breakfast king, and when he made pancakes I begged to be involved. The day he handed me the spatula echoes each time I look at the rounds of batter, waiting for bubbles to break so I can flip the cakes.
I have been studying pancakes for most of my life, and a few years ago I began studying flour. My husband brought me a cookie made with freshly ground wheat flour, and freshly rolled oats. Those grains had flavor galore, standing strong with the very good butter and chocolate will.
I traced these ingredients back to the field and to the mill, and got to know the pioneers who are growing and using staple crops at a small scale. I wrote their stories for farming newspapers and locavore outlets, describing the challenges and work.
THE NEW BREAD BASKET: How the New Crop of Grain Growers, Plant Breeders, Millers, Maltsters, Bakers, Brewers, and Local Food Activists Are Redefining Our Daily Loaf will be in stores very soon. The birthday party got my copy a little wet pretty quick, but nothing dampens my enthusiasm for this project.
I have loved meeting the grains all-stars who are working to make bread and beer local products. I can’t wait for you to make their acquaintance in my book.