Holiday Baking

Shortbreads are a great way to taste fresh whole grain flours. As Nan Kohler of Grist & Toll says, the flavors seem to amplify each other – the butter gets butterier, the salt tastes saltier, and good flour tastes fantastic in a shortbread.

 

Purple Egyptian barley shortbreads make a house I want to live inside.
Purple Egyptian barley shortbreads make a house I want to live inside.

Holiday baking makes me want to go fancy, and get festive with the ingredients & shapes. But shortbreads do best as themselves. Salt, butter, flour – maybe some sugar, maybe not. There is no need to dress these up, or make pretty shapes. Just cut a bunch of tiny squares and bake and you have done your best by the flour.

My favorite shortbreads I’ve made this year are from purple Egyptian barley grown on the Palouse Colony Farm. I could not get over the taste – this barley has a lot of flavor. It is not commonly found, so it may seem I’m teasing you by mentioning it. Sorry about that: I’m just in love with it.

I am also in love with spelt shortbreads, or rye-spelt, or 100% whole wheats. Sonora and other white wheats are great on their own, and oat flour is a great addition. When I used the purple Egyptian, I only used half barley because I didn’t have much of it. I also thought the cookie could be too crumbly if it were all barley – rye, oats and barley I think will do best combined with some wheat.

 

Bear in mind that if you use heritage flours, they are thirstier than flours you get on the supermarket shelf. What this means for cookies is that you might need less flour to get the dough you want. Start with 10 ounces and see how close to a pie crust style dough you get. If the dough isn’t stiff enough, add more. I’d start with 11 ounces for supermarket flours and modern varieties of wheat that are stone ground.

 

Recipe

10-14 ounces whole grain flour

¼ cup sugar

1 teaspoon salt

8 ounces butter, softened (but not melted)

 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Mix flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer. Cut butter into ½ inch squares, and using the paddle, mix into the dry ingredients. Start with 10 ounces and see what you’ve got. The dough should be pretty stiff, but come together in a ball. Think pastry crust, more than cookie dough.

You will likely need to add more flour to get to the right consistency. If you add too much flour — meaning that ball you made crumbles, just add a tablespoon of water or rose water, and add another if the dough is still crumbly. 

Put on a floured surface, and pat into a rectangle about an inch thick. Roll about ¼ inch thick, cut into 1 inch squares, and bake about 12-15 minutes on unbuttered cookie sheets. You might want to roll and cut on parchment to make the transfer simpler. I use a ruler and a knife to cut the cookie dough.

 

Tip: don’t try to make a shortbread into something else. Sugar cookie and gingerbread doughs are sturdier than this one, and the big, cookie cutter shapes you can make with gingerbread or sugar cookie dough will break with this one. Trust me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanksgiving

 

Today isn’t about the food. Yes the meal will be tasty and preparing it has consumed our time and imagination for much of the week, but when I think about all the Thanksgivings I’ve had, I remember the people.

 

Ellie Markovitch stacked flat circles and made them a lovely tower of corn crepes.
Thanks Ellie Markovitch for this picture and making cornmeal crepes look great.

The excitement of dinner at my grandmother and grandfather’s house – I loved them. They died too soon, and the excitement shifted to dinner at my aunt and uncle’s house. The first Thanksgivings I cooked on my own in Seattle, I was ridiculously happy reading old cookbooks and thinking about what to serve. I thought it was about the food, because that’s what had my attention.

 

Now I have a job where we make big meals five days a week, and I am becoming more aware of the many things that food delivers besides nutrition. I love the camaraderie of extra volunteers helping prepare the many dishes from scratch. A little girl raises money at her mother’s salon, and comes in with her Girl Scout troop to decorate the dining room.

 

Last year my dear friend Ellie steered us through making 150 sweet potato hand pies. This year, I am looking at pictures of her hands on Instagram – she’s moved to Brazil because her husband got a job.

 

Ellie is from Brazil, and the holiday was hers to invent while she lived here. I remember being shocked at what she made for Thanksgiving: a turkey leg in a Crockpot so that she could take the day to hike with her family.

This is how Ellie looked at flour. Her picture from my kitchen, cornmeal and rye.
This is how Ellie looked at flour. Her picture from my kitchen, cornmeal and rye.

Why was this such a surprise? Food is but a conduit for the connections we foster and hold dear. Ellie’s life revolves around cooking and teaching and exploring the potential of food to do very many things.

 

Yet in my stilted imagination, I assumed her Thanksgivings in America should take our shape. Now that she’s gone, I see that she recognized what we disguise with our seven-layer starch cake of a meal surrounding a large bird.

 

Today is about the people. The food (and the many millions of pots and pans and dishes we will wash) is incidental, a delivery system for the sentiment my friend captured by going out and walking with her family in the beautiful world.

Bridges & Badges

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Last night, I went to bed thinking about bridges – not real ones, but the idea of bread as a bridge. I crossed one with Sarah Owens, author of the beautiful and helpful Sourdough cookbook.

Yesterday she taught a great class at the Hillsdale Home Chef. What a nice space for me to meet this generous woman, and for her to introduce people to sourdough. The class made sweet potato dinner rolls, spiced with coriander, cinnamon, cloves and allspice.

Afterward, we talked, and I loved hearing about the bridges she is building with bread, through her classes and plans. I loved knowing more about the bread bridges she has built, like when she started selling sourdough breads through a CSA.

Greenwood Heights CSA asked her to use 60% local flour in her loaves, and so she used Wild Hive and Farmer Ground flours. This required some committed logistics. Miller Don Lewis delivered her flour, and she used a bike trailer to haul Farmer Ground Flour home from the Greenmarket at Grand Army Plaza. A bicycle!

I am but a kid in bread land, and so happy to have Sarah’s instructions guiding me, in person and in her book.

screen-shot-2016-11-20-at-5-14-37-pmI love her broad interest in taste. I forget that other foods exist besides grains. Her background in gardening really shines in her approach to food. She reminds me that food is a bridge to the land – not just grain kernel to loaf, but from the land to every leaf, fruit and every other thing we eat.

I gave her a Flour Ambassador sticker, because she one. A terrific voice and educator, she’s helping people gain baking skills and look at bread from another direction. I’ll send her one of the embroidered patches I’m getting made, too.

The patches are part of a holiday baking campaign to highlight fresh flours and wholegrain baking. Local grains, whole grains, alternative grains – these ingredients are bridges to better food and better farming. Using them, and bragging about it on social media, makes you a Flour Ambassador.

Would you like to be a Flour Ambassador? Please salute grain diversity by tagging your baked goods #flourambassador. Extra credit for naming the farm or mill that hides inside your loaf or pie. In thanks, I’ll send you a badge. Just send your name and address to flourambassador@gmail.com.

 

Palouse

I am home. The leaves on the trees are yellow, and not yet ready to let go of the branches. I’m glowing too, and hanging on to a journey that has me shining.

I got to see the Palouse in Eastern Washington. This is wheat country. Barley, too.

The Palouse hills were green with fall planted grains, or stippled tan with a 5 o’clock shadow of stalk stubble. The land looks muscular, and also at rest, like boneless sleeping giants collapsed on each other after a roaring party.

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Jenny! Thanks for the picture Don.

Every few miles huge elevators and bins are full of wheat and barley. The grain projects I write about are a drop in the bucket compared to this scale of production.

But tucked inside the big is what got me here. Dick and Don Scheuerman from the Palouse Colony Farm invited me to their hometown of Endicott. I made pancakes at Jenny’s store, on an electric griddle as people helped themselves to coffee, sat down with their mugs at paper-covered tables. Beyond this room people came and got breakfast sandwiches, bought other stuff at the general store. We used a recipe Dick traced to Martha Washington, with my favorite pancake flour, White Llammas, plus Scot’s bere barley, and cornmeal.

After breakfast, I sat with some growers and shared stories. The idea was to offer tales of alternatives to these 4th and 5th generation wheat farmers. I only got a hint of the challenges these growers face if they want to change course in grains.

I wish I could tell you all about the people I met, but I feel at a loss for description. We had a morning together. That’s not enough to get beyond first impressions, and I can’t wrap generalizations around people anymore. They’re like old bandaids on wet skin.

Dick Scheuerman has been a student of this area and its peoples his whole life. He’s written about the Russian German history, and the first nations’ histories in the Northwest. I landed just at the right time, to see a celebration of Palouse Regional Studies at Washington State University in Pullman. (I also managed to see a Troy friend who is working in a desert wheat research lab!)

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Shaun wins his Pancake King Crown!

That would have been enough for a trip, but it was just the beginning. Then I had a full weekend in Spokane, where I spoke at the Farm and Food Expo, and listened to Steve Lyons from the WSU Mount Vernon Station, who spoke with Dick Scheuerman about grain varieties. Other grain folk spoke too: baker Shaun Thompson Duffy of Culture Breads, and maltster Joel Williamson of Palouse Pint.

These people are very excited about using the unusual grains from Endicott. Shaun made bread from Turkey red and Sonora. He made me pancakes from Turkey Red and Abyssinian barley, with a touch of Purple Egyptian malt. (On a little backyard woodfired griddle!!!)

These grains have histories. They’ll have a future, in a brewery and a bakery, both businesses known as The Grain Shed.

Joel Williamson, me & baby beauty, and Don Scheuerman.
Joel Williamson, me & baby beauty, and Don Scheuerman.

I am just getting to know these people, the newly minted maltster and the chef-turned baker, the 4th & 5th generation farmers on the Palouse. Like grains, these people have names. I am just making their acquaintance.

What a privilege that the Scheuerman clan welcomed me to their world.

 

 

Questions

My friend Ellie Markovitch moved to Brazil. I always knew she might not stay here – she and her Russian husband have lived in a lot of places – but that doesn’t mean I’m ready to let her go.

Ellie Markovitch stacked flat circles and made them a lovely tower of corn crepes.
Ellie Markovitch stacked flat circles and made them a lovely tower of corn crepes.

 

Ellie is electric. Her mind and heart are wide open, whether she’s talking to you, cooking with you, feeding you, or teaching you something: photography, cooking, or both. Whether she’s using capeoira, the Brazilian martial arts dance, to help describe the focus and physicality of taking pictures, or priming your senses for a cooking class with the warm scent of pao de queijo, cheese pastries. The perfume of these little chews invites you into the kitchen, and into the moment: that is Ellie, always in the moment, and drawing you into it too, in as many ways as she can. Those moments include the past, each of our experiences stacked tight like Lego blocks, and building more.

 

I’ve never met anyone quite like her. There are friends who set you on fire, who make you feel good and grand and very alive. Ellie is one of these people for me, but she sets a lot of people on fire, not just her pals.

Could flour look lovelier? More of Ellie's eye on my interests.
Could flour look lovelier? More of Ellie’s eye on my interests.

Ellie trained as a photojournalist, and so for a long time I thought of her as someone who took pictures. As she trained her eye and questions on me, however, I realized that categorization was too narrow. The scope of her inquisition is broad. The questions she asked me stuck with me and made me think deeply about the answers I gave.

 

What are my first memories of baking when I was a kid? What did I like about the process of making pancakes? I answered them for whatever project we were working on – digital story, blog post – and then I kept answering them for myself, incorporating her quizzes into my writing, writing more on those topics.

Ellie catching me with Felix as he wondered when a crepe is ready to flip.
Ellie catching me with Felix as he wondered when a crepe is ready to flip.

Now I’ll have to find a reason to go see her – maybe we can teach together again – two years in a row we got to teach writing and photography to a group of women veterans, and all of us were charged by the classes. Brazil, I am sure you want Ellie and me to collaborate!

 

In the meantime, I have to not pout about her going, unless I scare away the next person who might have half the capacity to light up my mind and life. So I’m musing on this idea: questions matter more than answers. Keep asking the right ones.

 

Lessons

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In my job at Unity House, I know we are serving more than calories. We are offering nutrition for bellies and spirits, serving smiles and choices as people go through the line, and select what foods they want on their plates.

 

I am often applauding this part of eating – the opportunity to exchange affection and kindness through cooking. But I don’t easily accept the affection and kindness offered by other cooks, especially when it comes pancakes.

 

I have such a thing going with pancakes that I don’t really want to eat other people’s versions of them. I like my pancakes. I like the process of making them. I like the engagement. I can’t really eat someone else’s engagement, can I? Well, that’s what I ask of others, so maybe I can.

 

I pickled myself with a bicycle crash, and if I want pancakes, or any kind of food, I need lots of help. Luckily, I only earned a mildly fractured pelvis and some road rash. I’m delighted that I didn’t hit my head. I did earn a few days in the hospital.

 

Once I got home, my first meal was pancakes. I had to surrender the process to Felix. He is pretty well schooled, and made an excellent re-entry plate of spelt cakes for me, with minimal demandingness and micromanagement on my part.

 

That night, friends brought dinner and lo and behold, that was corncakes! From afar I helped with the heat on the griddle, and then all I could do was marvel and enjoy.

 

Enjoying the lovely cakey and soft corn cakes was simple. Topped with a couple of salsas – chicken tomatillo and very vegetabley tomato/summer squash – and sour cream, they were the perfect meal.

 

Swallowing my resistance to other people’s pancakes turned out to be pretty easy, too. No, I am not going to run out to restaurants and try their sweet takes on white flour cakes – that’s not my gig. But I am letting down my guard, and thinking a lot about how ideas can get in the way of communion.

 

I had two plates of perfect pancakes in one day. Thanks, accident, for delivering me the food, and the lesson.

 

 

Flour Ambassadors

 

 

I can’t believe The Kneading Conference is over. I never can – I love the bubble of bread that happens in Skowhegan the last weekend in July. I love the people I meet and the people I stay with – Susan and David are my Maine family and already I miss them dearly. But for a few days I got to be shoulder to shoulder with people who love bread and love making it. And I got to be the keynote for this event’s 10th anniversary. What a treat.


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This place is my book come to life and I hope that my speech makes more regional grain projects happen. I emphasized the importance of mills in giving farmers choices of what to grow. After the conference was over, I went on a farm tour that hammered home the point I was making. Up and up a hill, deep in the middle of nowhere I visited Rusted Rooster farm. Sean O’Donnell was showing people his equipment and crops.

He used an old Clipper cleaner to demonstrate seed cleaning. Behind the machines sat his Gleaner combine and the John Deere combine he uses for parts. He talked about the way his grains lodge and what he does to get those crops out of the field. He talked about soil pH and the hundred years of crop development that made other places better for grain farming.

Sean was really good at articulating how these facts and habits affect what people grow. “I’ve got friends who farm GMO corn and soy. And they aren’t evil. They’re just boxed in by a system,” he said.

My thoughts exactly! Mills are the key to creating new systems that serve the off-grid grain choices people want – heritage varieties, stone milling, non-Big Wheat stuff. The Somerset Grist Mill is fostering such alternatives. Rusted Rooster’s Red Fife – whose seed heads are still green as other growers in the Northeast are finishing up wheat harvest – will head to the mill. Crops from more than 20 other farms go to the mill, too.

Grains are a high volume, low value crop that needs intermediate processing to get to market. Mills are a critical piece of infrastructure. That’s what I told people at the beginning of the conference. Here is the oath:

I do solemnly, happily swear

that I am going to tell everyone I see

that it’s okay to love flour!

 

Bread is not poison. Invisibility is poison.

I will try to make visible all the labor in bread,

from seed to mill, from mill to loaf.

 

Mills are the levers to get more interesting

grains in the ground, and on our tables,

and under our butter.

 

 

Bread Builds Community

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A month from today I will be waking up in Maine, getting ready to talk about my favorite thing: fresh flour and the people who make it. The Kneading Conference has invited me to be their keynote speaker, and I’m thrilled. The Maine Grain Alliance is celebrating 10 years of this bread event, and the two days of the conference will bring my book to life.

 

When I first started talking to people about bread building community, the Kneading Conference kept popping up, like it was a country I had to visit. I was a little worried the place wouldn’t meet my expectations, because so many people spoke so fondly of it, but this is one instance where high hopes were very much met.

 

I love the bread community that grows each July at the fairgrounds in Skowhegan, and the year-round attentions to farming, milling and baking that have grown in Maine. The Somerset Grist Mill, home of Maine Grains, is housed in the former county jail: talk about transformation!

 

Grains require so much cooperation from seed to loaf and ground to glass; I’m fascinated by the shared work that is bringing so many people together. These collaborations cross the boundaries of political affiliations and schisms, and are a real emblem of human potential in practice – something we really need to see right now.

 

At the Kneading Conference, I can’t wait to see people interacting with the stories I caught in The New Bread Basket: Blair Marvin and Andrew Heyn will be leading a milling workshop, and Peter Endriss will be teaching a full two days for home bakers. Bien Cuit, Elmore Mountain Bread, Runner & Stone. Ciril Hitz, Richard Miscovitch and Zach Golper will be there too. I admire all of these bakers and bakeries to no end and can’t wait to be near them.

 

I’m excited to meet other presenters and attendees, too — like bread, the days will be a chance to share and get full, mind, body and soul. Find out more about the conference here.

Flying Pancakes

If pancakes could fly, they would go straight from me to the world. Since they can’t, I will.

Andrew Ross, cereal scientist, and me in the greenhouse. Thanks Shawn Linehan for the great pictures here.
Andrew Ross, cereal scientist, and me in the greenhouse. Thanks Shawn Linehan for the great pictures here.

 

Oregon State University flew me out to make pancakes for their Barley Day. I’ve never made pancakes in a greenhouse before, but I was in my element flipping pancakes for 100 eager barley hounds – growers, brewers, maltsters and bakers, and plenty of others, too.

 

These beer-curious people came to learn about what is happening at OSU’s barley breeding program. This was a daylong adventure in getting to know grains work, from plant genetics, to fields of test plots. Along the way, we saw the facilities – including the new micro malting tank that will allow them to analyze smaller batches as they investigate what varieties and crosses are worth pursuing – ate and drank barley goods, and got to hear from lots of people who are working with malt.

Pat Hayes is a barley researcher and breeder at Oregon State University.
Pat Hayes is a barley researcher and breeder at Oregon State University.

 

I met Pat Hayes, barley researcher, and cereal scientist Andrew Ross as I researched my book. Pat and Andrew are both good-humored brainiacs, and I wish I could plant myself in their work and write more about their studies, and all the grains things happening in Oregon.

 

The mesh of human connections required from seed to glass and seed to loaf fascinates me. Scientists, growers, millers, maltsters, marketers, brewers, and bakers: quite a bucket brigade of labors is underway. I got to catch up with James Henderson, Farm Liaison from Hummingbird Wholesale, and meet Scott Sayer, who grew out an OSU barley variety, Full Pint, that is now being used by craft brewers.

 

Oregon is a place where grains of known origin can work. I loved being at Seastar Bakery & Handsome Pizza, and tasting all the attention and affection these bakers give to my favorite foods, helping grains shine like the more coveted kids in the food kingdom. I loved making English muffins at a workshop put together by Adrian Hale of 1000 Bites of Bread & Communal Table. The Maris Widgeon (from Lonesome Whistle) & Star wheat (thanks Grist & Toll for finding this LOVELY wheat & making such amazing flour) English muffins we made were interstellar!

Thanks again Shawn Linehan for catching the cakes in action.
Thanks again Shawn Linehan for catching the cakes in action.

 

So thank you, OSU for inviting me to be a part of Barley Day. I’m very grateful, as I am to Food Tank, for putting me on their summer reading list – lots of great company in those titles!

 

And last but not least, thanks to WAMC, my local public radio station, for having me on Food Friday. I made a Flour Hour, taking calls on my favorite topic. The show is archived here. I could talk about flour all day long. How about a Flour Hour marathon? Any interested programmers, give a ring.

 

 

 

 

Fingers Crossed

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.

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“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.

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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.