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One of my best food friends is white pastry wheat. White refers to the tint of the bran — wheats are either white or red. Pastry means a soft wheat, one with low levels of gluten-forming proteins. Those proteins are what help build the gluten matrix when using hard or bread wheats; soft wheats make tender cakes and quick breads. The pancakes I make from Farmer Ground Flour’s organic, stone ground whole wheat pastry flour are the definition of perfect in my family, the pancake of request for my 11-year-old’s birthday. The pancake that means pancake and home.
Farmer Ground Flour is a mill that stone grinds organically grown New York State grains. Grain farmer Thor Oechsner is part owner in the mill; he and his fields, and millers Greg Mol and Neal Johnston, are great help as I try to understand flour from field to griddle.
My favorite wheat gets planted in the fall. Fall crops go in the ground in September or October, early enough for the seeds to grow a few inches before winter. Fall planting helps seeds get a head start on weed seeds that sit in the ground. Spring can be pretty wet, and hard for farmers to get in the field, so that’s another advantage of this habit. Grains take to this system pretty well, since they are the edible seeds of certain grasses, and much like a lawn, these grass crops go dormant.
Snow cover helps protect the crop. A certain amount of winterkill is expected in fall planted crops, but this past winter, things looked pretty dicey. In New York’s Finger Lakes region, plenty of snowstorms hit but the snow melted quickly. In low spots, that melt turned to ponds.
Beyond this local hint of doom, there was some general anxiety in the wheat world about supply and prices. By March, stores of North American organic wheat had dwindled. The 2013 wheat crop was limited by continued drought in the arid Southern Plains; regional supplies in the Northeast were limited by a very wet season. Larger organic mills were turning to Argentina for bread wheat. This fact, plus political pressures in Eastern Europe, created worry about what this year could bring for harvest. Late freezes hitting the Plains States during greenup, the time when fall planted grains start to grow, fueled my wonder.
Mid-April, I took a drive to Ithaca, N.Y., to see how my future pancake flour was doing. Amazingly, some of the fields were greening up quite nicely. Sure, there were spots where the plants did not survive, but those tan tips that sat over iced snow were getting crowded by green growth. What a delight to see.
This is what the field looks like now, a couple of weeks before harvest: a field of wheat rows, as American as a box of cereal. Look at those green stalks peaking through the gold heads. Ah, breakfast.
Why did this field and other fields recover? Winterkill is also known as winter survival. Plants that had enough room bounced back from the harsh conditions and grew well. Another factor was the plants having strong enough roots to withstand the pressures of temperature changes from winter through spring.
This tiny rye plant (pictured right) didn’t make it. It just didn’t have enough roots to hang on to the ground as temperature swings pulled the dirt together into frozen clumps. It was frost heaved.
Winter survival is tricky. Too little growth and the earth kicks out the plant. Too much, and the long green leaves attract mold, or other smothering problems. The malting barley crop in New York suffered a 50% loss due to winterkill, which is understandable, as growers are just figuring out how to make this crop work. The state’s 2013 Farm Brewery Law, which ties licensing for a certain kind of brewery to use of state agricultural products, such as grains, hops and honey, has caused a bit of barley fever.
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A work in progress
Growing wheat and barley outside of the grain belts is a work in progress. Grain farming and processing, like malting, concentrated in the Midwest, Plains States and Northwest in the late 19th and early 20th century; this consolidation wiped out knowledge and infrastructure for how to grow grain crops in the Northeast. Farms grow grains for dairies, but cows eat differently than we do. And they do not drink spirits or beer.
Growing grains for malting, distilling and flour markets is more complicated than growing for animal feed. These specialty markets need different seed varieties and fertilization practices to hit certain performance markers, like protein levels. Growing food grade grain also requires more cleaning, and careful post harvest handling and storage. The learning curve is steep as people switch from commodity production to community enterprises.
I’m lucky to have a window on these grain ventures, and see people cooperate as they try to figure out what works. Right now, my pancake-flour-in-the-making looks good. The crop isn’t in the bin yet; there’s still time for weather to wreak havoc. But the farmers and researchers I’ve talked to are optimistic. Yields will be down, but there will be wheat.
Main photo: Those tan and brown matchsticks are wheat plants, trapped in ice sheets. Oh my, I thought, what are we going to eat next year? Credit: Rachel Lodder
I love locally grown and ground flours because they taste great and think right. So when my son wanted to share a meal for his birthday, not just a cake, we used local rye to make crepes in the cow pasture near his boarding school.
While eggs and butter do a lot of flavor work in this recipe, the rye has a speaking role. I can trace the flour back to the field, and picture where the rye was milled, sure as I can remember my kid on his first birthday, standing at a coffee table and digging at a roasted chicken with hunger and delight. Beyond my love for my son and a beautiful day, does the flour stand on its own merits? To find out I interviewed a couple of New York City bakers who use Farmer Ground Flour.
Peter Endriss bakes at Runner & Stone in Brooklyn. I met his bread at a tasting of regional flours six months before I met him. His rye — dark and dense, sweet and sour — sat in my brain like a gargoyle perched on a building.
The name Runner & Stone refers to New York City’s first water powered gristmill, which was located nearby. In stone milling, the top stone is called the runner and the lower, stable stone is called the bedstone.
His breads appeared at farmers markets before the bakery nested inside the restaurant at the end of 2012; since then, good press has shined a star on the loaves, helping them march out the door long before lunch is even served.
“The only non-local flour we’re using is artisan white bread flour from Central Milling,” said Endriss in a recent interview, beginning a verbal tour of the invisible breads that sold out before 10 that morning, thanks to attention from the New York Times.
Runner & Stone features baguettes that are white, whole wheat and buckwheat. It also makes a whole wheat walnut levain, Bolzano rye, sesame semolina, and a rye ciabatta, all with varying percentages of whole grain Farmer Ground flours. The brioche and croissants have 10% whole wheat flour. Champlain Valley Milling, another mill in New York state, provides the white spelt flour used in its pretzel, modeled after a southern German pretzel that uses Dinkel flour, which is also spelt.
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These breads are built with many qualities in mind.
“First, I want the bread to be nice,” Endriss said. The second is “how much whole grain can we add to a baguette and still have it be my impression of a baguette?”
This means a thin crust and an open interior with a flavor that is not too sour; something pleasant to eat and a little lighter than a whole wheat sourdough.
The 1970s concept of whole grain breads carried a halo of self-righteousness and the reputation of a penitential texture, but these loaves — and the team that makes them — are more down to earth about blending earthy concerns with the loftiness of high bread.
“I have a degree in environmental science,” Endriss said, reflecting on what motivates his flour choices. “I think my experiences in studying natural resource management and doing fieldwork associated with that, [gives] the farm a stronger presence in my mind when I look at an ingredient.”
Local flours for flavor, not structure
In baking circles, the arguments against using local flours tend to focus on their unpredictability. Because smaller mills blend from fewer grain sources, the batches vary more than larger mills. This isn’t a problem for Endriss, who doesn’t rely on the whole grain flours for structure. The white flour provides that, and the local flours act more as flavor elements.
Whole grain flours get another strike because the bran acts like little knives, interrupting the formation of the gluten matrix. Using pre-ferments – fermenting a portion of the dough before the whole batch – helps ameliorate some of that.
“The scale of our production is probably the factor that allows us to adjust to inconsistency in the flour,” he said. “If our five kilos of dough is fermenting a little too fast, we just put the tub in the fridge and fix it.”
In a larger bakery, 300 kilos of dough running off the track would not be so easy to correct.
She Wolfe Bakery also uses Farmer Ground Flour, backing up the local whole grains with King Arthur organic flours. The bakery supplies Andrew Tarlow’s restaurants – Reynard, Marlow & Sons, Diner, Roman’s – and the breads are also for sale at Achilles Heel and Marlow & Daughters.
She Wolfe began at Roman’s, where Austin Hall baked bread in the wood fired pizza oven. In January 2013, the bakery moved to rented space in a shared kitchen and began baking seven days a week.
This bread has also enjoyed great press, and with good reason. The whole wheat miche — a kind of French country loaf that might be the poster child for the artisan bread movement — is still sitting in my mind, staring at me like Endriss’ rye gargoyle.
Linked to the land
Hall’s interest in local flour is linked to the land, and similar to Endriss’s. (Coincidentally, the two worked together briefly at Per Se, where Peter expanded the restaurant’s bread program.)
Hall grew up in Iowa, in an agricultural community but not in a farming family.
“Watching the farmland around me disappear into a bedroom community was frustrating,” he said over a pilsner at Achilles Heel, where his bread sat on shelves, down the row from whiskey bottles. The round ciabatta sat like a cake on a crystal pedestal, dimpled white rounds sandwiching the plump filling of a muffuletta.
Coincidentally, the Farmer Ground Flour in those loaves is the product of suburban sprawl. Outside of Ithaca, N.Y., the land that grain farmer Thor Oechsner was renting was getting snapped up for development. He needed to make more money from his crops, so he added value by switching from growing grain for animal feed to growing food grade grains and starting a flour mill.
Hall likes this local flour because he believes supporting stone milling helps preserve a body of knowledge. The miche serves that kind of preservation role, too.
“For me the miche is such a preindustrial thing, you know?” he said. Everything about it, from the lightly sifted stone milled flour, to the size of the loaf and the style of baking is related to a series of preexisting conditions.
“You’re using a stiff starter because it’s easier to control without refrigeration. You’re mixing a really wet dough, because if you don’t have a mechanical mixer, it’s just a matter of dragging your arm through a mixing trough,” he said. “You’re making a large loaf because if you’re baking once a week, you want it to keep for a long time.”
Hall delivers the romance of a bread that’s frozen in time. Even if people can’t taste the values a baker imagines, I love that Endriss and Hall want to feed people the landscape. That is a motive I understand, whether my griddle is perched on a campstove in the midst of a pastoral view, or steady at the home stove, steering in the morning pancakes.
Main photo: Bolzano miche from Brooklyn’s Runner & Stone bakery and restaurant using local flour. Credit: Mayumi Kasuga
The soup kitchen where I work has a beautiful griddle, perfect for pancakes — the food that spins my world. Yet I’ve been hesitant to make them because I like to serve them fresh, and serving 100 people necessitates making them ahead of time and keeping them warm. I’m also dedicated to whole grains, but people who eat here are the same as many Americans, dubious about whether they’ll like whole-grain foods. I often hear people ask for white bread for breakfast and reject whole-wheat rolls for lunch.
These breads are soft stuff that comes from plastic sleeves, the easy-to-catch remnants from supermarkets. Stale bread travels more freely to food pantries and soup kitchens than other foods, such as produce. That’s because bread looks better longer than fruit and vegetables, which show smelly and off-putting signs of age sooner. Produce is just more perishable than bread.
Plus, produce is more susceptible to food-safety problems. When’s the last time you heard of a sliced bread recall? You can probably remember salmonella in spinach, tomatoes and jalapeño peppers, not to mention more shelf-stable foods, such as peanuts.
How we got hooked on white bread
The preference for white bread goes beyond its mere shelf-stability. Long a hallmark of the rich, white flour only became inexpensive in the late 1800s, when roller milling became common.
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White flour is made from just the endosperm, the center part of a grain kernel, minus the bran and germ. These subtractions were pricey when stone milling was the main route to flour. Bran and germ also offer problems.
Roller milling was a boon to flour because it separates the component parts of the grain, making it easier to divide them. Germ contains oils that make flour spoil more easily. These oils can also gum up the mill process. In Michael Pollan’s latest book “Cooked,” anonymous millers told him that germ is such a trouble to milling that it is generally removed from national brands of whole-wheat flour.
Bran is less bothersome at the mill, but bakers don’t love how it acts like knives in rising dough. This makes whole-wheat breads more dense than their puffy, fluffy, white cousins.
This is because wheat’s main goal is reproduction. Wheat germ is the part of a kernel meant to start another plant. Bran is several layers of armor that protect the next generation of wheat — the germ and its food, the endosperm. Any function or flavor we get is secondary to the plant’s intention.
While bran’s benefits used to be dismissed, the current thinking is that the indigestible fiber slows down metabolism of the starches in flour. Because starches convert to sugars in digestion, eating whole grains translates to lower blood-sugar levels. However, habits make whole-grain baked goods a hard sell.
Bran and germ contain most of the flavor you can find in a wheat berry. That starchy endosperm doesn’t have a lot of flavor on its own. White flour takes its flavors from its processing. White flour gets flavors from fermentation (by yeast or sourdough), from salt and sweeteners added during processing, and from the chemical reactions of baking, which both colors and creates crust.
Embracing whole wheat
Whole-grain flours have more taste, and that is troubling. Luckily, there are some methods to help the dedicated white-flour eater take the leap.
Just as some fish are more fishy tasting than others, some whole wheats are wheatier. As with fish, freshness counts a lot, too.
Wheats are red or white. This classification refers to the color of the bran. Red wheats have more tannins than whites. Tannins in whole wheat can be perceived as bitter. However, even dedicated whole wheatsters like me can taste the sweetness of white wheats. I am a huge fan.
More reds are grown than whites because white wheats tend to sprout easily in the field. This is another example of the plant’s first function taking precedence over its edibility again.
Brands to consider
If you can get locally grown and milled flour, find out about the color of the kernels. I have a pretty steady affection for the white whole-wheat pastry flour from Farmer Ground Flour. The pancakes I make from it ride little magic carpets in my mind. They’re oh so sweet and fluffy.
White whole-wheat flours are manufactured by many national brands. My favorite are King Arthur, Arrowhead and Bob’s Red Mill. If you are trying to persuade people to use whole grains, these types of flour are good suggestions for first-time users.
Of course, there is still the hurdle of texture, especially in leavened breads. Whether the wheat is white or red, the knife-like action of bran can keep your loaf from fluffing. If you’re baking for eaters who demand softness, use half white whole-wheat flour and half unbleached flour. You could ease people into your program with foods that are supposed to be denser, like banana breads, where you could easily get away with 100% white whole-wheat flour.
Don’t cater too much to those preferences, though. When I made pancakes at work, I used a combination of King Arthur white whole-wheat flour and that heavenly pastry flour from Farmer Ground. The cakes were light, fluffy and well-loved. We served scrambled eggs, sausages and pancakes topped with blueberries.
The only complaints we got were from people who didn’t like pancakes for lunch.
Top photo: Whole-wheat pancakes. Credit: Jacob VanHouten/iStock
Local sourcing is an increasingly mainstream priority for restaurants, chefs and almost anyone producing food or beverages. But it’s not such an easy proposition for craft brewing. Unlike butchers who know their pig suppliers or jam makers who know their berry farmers, craft beer makers have a hard time finding local sources of hops and other beer ingredients.
“Everyone talks about local beer, but probably only the water and the brewer are local,” said Robby Crafton, brewer at Big Alice Brewing, during the recent Brewer’s Choice event at New York City’s Beer Week.
Truly local beer is hard to make. This is not the brewers’ fault. Blame it on a regionalized agriculture system that has centralized areas of grain production and processing.
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New York state used to be a prime hops producer, but humid summers invite fungal predators, so farmers quit growing hops there. In the United States, hops are now grown mostly in the Pacific Northwest.
Grain production used to be routine in the Northeast too, but climate challenges and westward expansion pushed the crop elsewhere. The last malt in the area was probably made in Buffalo, on the western edge of New York state. Grain processing lingered there because of its great transit location on the Great Lakes. Now, most malt comes from Belgium or the Midwest.
Everyone’s going local
However, a growing preference for local goods is helping change things, and brewers are excited about the flavors they can get from freshly malted and regionally grown grains.
“There’s a beautiful softness and fluffiness from the spelt,” said Joe Grimm, who was pouring Grimm Artisanal Ales’ spelt saison at Brewer’s Choice with his fellow brewer Lauren Carter Grimm.
“Historically, this has been a cool micro-trade show/hangout,” said Kelly Taylor, from KelSo Beer. “It’s awesome that we can take that GrowNYC component and add it to the event.”
Taylor, along with Jimmy Carbone, owner of Jimmy’s No. 43, and Dave Brodrick from Blind Tiger ale house, organized Brewer’s Choice with June Russell, from GrowNYC. GrowNYC is the parent organization of Greenmarket, which operates 55 farmers markets in the city, and Greenmarket’s Regional Grains Project.
The organization promotes regional grain in a number of ways. Greenmarket set a minimum percentage of local flour that farmers market bakers must use. The grains project collaborates with other groups on initiatives, such as New York Farm to Bakery, which paired New York City bakers with millers from New York, Vermont and Pennsylvania.
This recent collaboration with Brewer’s Choice echoes a 2010 bread tasting at the French Culinary Institute in New York City that put local flour on bakers’ radars and in their mixing bowls. Now local malt is in the hands of regional brewers.
Valley Malt, a pioneering malt house in Hadley, Mass., supplied 6,000 pounds of malt to 20 brewers, who had to use at least 30% local grain. Malt from startup Farmhouse Malt also came to Brooklyn. Other beers at the event featured local ingredients such as honey and apples.
In search of local ingredients
In general, brewers are curious about local grain, but limited availability and high cost keep them from using more of it.
“The fact of the matter is that local grain is three or four times the price,” said Taylor, who uses some local grains at KelSo and also at Heartland, where he is the brewmaster. Although the resulting beers have a certain terroir, the extra layer of flavor is very subtle and delicate. The beers, he said, are not two or three times better than others. “But from a social and economic standpoint, it’s 100% better.”
The value, he said, is in trickle-up economics. When local farmers prosper, the economy grows.
“I think in a couple of years this could be 100% local,” Taylor said.
Part of the problem is that small-scale malts, unlike their big-market cousins, don’t have easily understood or well-known performance characteristics. Their qualities vary and working with them can bring uncertainties for brewers. Russell identified another problem on Carbone’s radio show the night before the event: the processing bottleneck. There are not enough small malt houses in the Northeast.
Since New York state’s 2013 Farm Brewery law linked licensing to use of local products, a number of startup malt houses in the state are beginning to address the need. Like the recent Farm Distillery and Farm Cidery Laws, the new law makes it easier for small-scale producers that use local products to get necessary licenses.
If this was local malt’s debutante ball, her many suitors loved the dance. People kept tipping their glasses for pours even after the lights went up and security started guiding the lively crowd out of the hotel.
“It’s over,” Bill Herlicka, of White Birch Brewing in New Hampshire, told one hopeful drinker after he’d unscrewed the taps on his Bill’s Brown Rye and First Sparrow.
The rye was made with Danko, a Polish variety of the grain. Herlicka described the result as sweet and bready, with an interesting coffee quality. Typically rye makes a beer that is dry, sharp and spicy, he said.
Herlicka said brewers would love to use more local ingredients for a number of reasons, including the fact that customers also prefer it. He would be willing to pay more for local ingredients if he could promote that on his beer’s label, he said.
“I would use more local grain,” Herlicka said.
Top photo: Michelle Crafton, Scott Berger, center, and Robby Crafton from Big Alice Brewing at Brewer’s Choice. Credit: Corey Offsey
I almost skipped my first chance to visit Valley Malt, New England’s first malthouse in a century. Although I love learning about people who are using grains, I don’t drink anymore, and I never made beer. What use could I possibly have for barley malt?
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Lucky I reserved my reserve, and met malt pioneers Andrea and Christian Stanley. They showed me their first malting system and how they germinated grain — mostly barley — for brewers and distillers.
I stuck my nose in a bag of malted barley and I smelled Grape Nuts. Criminy. Let me at the kitchen. Here was an ingredient I could use.
Grape nuts is quick bread made in a sheet pan, baked, crumbled and baked again. I’d only used whole-wheat flour in my experiments, not the cereal’s mainstay, malt. That ingredient just isn’t on the market. Bakers use active and inactive malt powder for sweetening and to help boost yeast performance. Barley malt flour, however, is a DIY deal.
So there I was, in a garage that had once been a potato processing site, in Hadley, Mass., sniffing cereal. “Grape Nuts!” I said to Andrea. “You can use it in pancakes, too,” she said. If I wasn’t already sold on the stuff, that was the kicker.
I have long had an obsession with pancakes. Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix ushered me into my love affair at the stove. Decades later, pancakes were the first meal I made the man who would be my husband. Ages ago, I calculated we had them about 250 times a year. The serving ratio went up to daily when I found malt.
The best of brewing makes baking better too
Malting is germination. The same stuff that happens in the ground when you plant a seed, or on your counter when you make sprouts, is what maltsters like Andrea or Christian seek. Steeping grains in water starts the growing process. Kilning stops it once the seeds reach a certain point.
What brewers love about malt is that the process loosens up the starches in the grain’s endosperm and readies those them for conversion to sugar. That makes the starches available to feed the yeast in fermenting beverages.
Malt is often used in the food industry as a sweetener and sometimes as a flavor. Ovaltine takes advantage of both properties, the sweetness and flavor. In bagels and other breads, however, malted barley is added in tiny amounts to take advantage of malt’s enzyme activity and make yeast more muscular.
I am still figuring out exactly what properties I’m using. I know that malt is a boon to my pancakes, adding flavor and helping the whole grain flours I use rise a little bit.
I don’t make sourdough or yeasted pancakes, so I’m not certain all the chemistry that the malt is achieving. I just know I see a marked difference.
Experimenting with pancakes and other baked goods
The pancakes are such a hit that I started making mixes for Valley Malt: malted cornmeal with rye, spelt and buckwheat with malt, and of course, whole wheat with malt, my absolute favorite.
When Andrea and I were making mixes in December, she asked me to make pancakes and snacks for the Farmer Brewer Conference she and Christian organize. I love to spread the gospel of what malt does on the griddle. Plus any excuse to play in the kitchen is great.
So I’ve been fiddling with malt in more than pancakes. I’ve figured out how to use the pancake mixes to make biscuits. They take tons of butter and less milk. I added cornmeal made from malted corn to shortbreads, cornbread, and pie crusts, all with fine results.
Adding malted barley to whole wheat shortbread stumped me, though. Fresh from the oven, the cookies were adored. A few days in, I opened the tin where I’d stored them, and I could smell the butter was going off. Had I used bad butter? Was the tin a funk fest? Help! I’m still not sure what went wrong, but I managed to make my recipe work by not refrigerating the dough, and by freezing the cookies immediately after baking.
At the conference, I found people to help me figure out what’s happening in that recipe, and in my other experiments. While the presentations focused on malting for brewing, people who study malt are also curious about what it does in baked goods.
The snacks I made — crackers with malted barley, almonds in a barley meringue, and those shortbreads — went down just fine. The biscuits and pancakes for breakfast were a hit, too.
As I mentioned, this is real DIY territory. If you want to play with malt, and you are lucky enough to have a local maltster, get a little bit and start experimenting. If you don’t have a maltster to befriend, you can use malts from a brewing supply place. Either way, grinding is the way to go. I use my blender for the first grind, and a milling attachment on my Kitchen Aid to finish the job.
You can’t use malt like flour, because the enzyme activity changes the gliadin and glutenin in the grain, interfering with their gluten-forming capacity. But you can add bits of it for flavor and sweetness. Here’s a recipe to get you going.
Making your own malt flour
To make your own malt flour, start with a pound of barley malt from your maltster or from a home brew shop. Your maltster might have a mill that will make flour. Ask her or him to grind it as finely as possible, husks and all, for your baking fun.
Home brew stores are used to grinding grain, but not into flour. They crack grains for brewers, who only need the starches released for access in the brewing process.
If this is your scenario, ask the store to crack the malted barley, and bring it home and put it in a coffee grinder or sturdy blender and go to town. Sift off anything chaffy with a strainer.
In my house, I grind the malt first in my blender, and then put it through the mill attachment for my Kitchen Aid stand mixer. Otherwise, the malt gums up the works and I don’t get flour. Other types of table top flour mills should handle the challenge better.
Based on Laura Brody’s multi-seed crackerbread recipe from “King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking”
3 cups (12 ounces) whole-wheat bread flour
3 ounces home-ground barley malt flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoon olive oil
1 cup water
1. Preheat oven to 450 F.
2. Mix together the dry ingredients, and stir in oil.
3. Add water gradually. You may need more or less than 1 cup, depending how much water your flours absorb. If you’re using local flours, the moisture content of the flour can vary a bit. Add enough to make a stiff, but not dry, dough.
4, Knead a bit until the dough is smooth. Cut into 8 sections. Roll into balls and, on a barley-malt-flour-dusted surface, roll very, very thin. I shoot for something like thick paper, less than the width of a cereal box.
5. Bake for 5 to 7 minutes. Watch carefully, as edges darken easily.
6. When cool, break into pieces and serve. Store in a container that closes tightly.
Top photo: Barley germinating. Credit: Amy Halloran
“A Commonplace Book of Pie” is anything but common. While some cookbooks may help you make poetry with food, this cookbook is poetry, and more. It is a collection of facts, real and imagined, about pie.
“I created these prose poems that are this imaginary zodiac,” Kate Lebo said of the writing in the book that leaps beyond the expected instructions. These are not anecdotes about your aunt’s legacy bubbling up in sunny syrup each time you make peach pie. Rather, these lyric narratives are gripping slices of dreamed lives.
The pumpkin pie fancier befriends bartenders. “People who love chocolate cream pie move through the world in a swarm of music,” Lebo writes. OK, sure. Or maybe not. Maybe you believe other things about these people, and that’s just fine, because this book makes room for discovery within accepted standards.
“We’re both really attracted to obvious things and finding things that are not obvious, shaking people out of their complacency with that object,” Lebo said of Jessica Lynn Bonin, who illustrated the book and accompanied her on tour this fall.
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By Kate Lebo
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The paintings of pie and its many component parts, Lebo said, are not just renderings of physical objects, but images that have their own stories. The poet is working in a similar fashion with her subject.
“I’m doing that in the pie book by taking something as commonplace as pie and using a form, using poetry, using language to talk about it and break it open in completely new ways,” she said. “We owe allegiance to surrealists because that’s what they do as well, but it’s not surreal.”
“This is not a pipe,” the painter René Magritte said of his painting of a pipe. This is not a cookbook like one you’ve known, but yes, it is a cookbook, and from it you can learn how to make pie.
The poetry of pie instruction
“Position your hands palms up, fingers loosely curled, the same way you relax your hand above your head while falling asleep,” reads the instructions in a recipe for crust. When a pie master suggests a shape of supplication for handling flour and fat, even those with deep attachments to pastry cutters will try to leave them in the drawer.
Like pie, the book has quite a life beyond its crust, or covers. The project started as a collaboration between Kate Lebo and artist Bryan Schoneman. In 2010, the two did a gallery show that involved a pie safe and people clamoring for the pies cooling teasingly inside it. “A Commonplace Book of Pie” appeared first as a zine and part of this show. Lebo sold 2,000 copies of the zine, and expanded the cardboard-bound booklet into a book, just published in October by Chin Music Press.
Here are some ingredients of Lebo’s life that are not inside the book. She was not interested in cooking until she was in her 20s, when she had a kitchen with a view of downtown Seattle and the Olympic Mountains. She baked her way through the “Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook,” and recalls that era as her “cool lady in the city time, singing Doris Day.”
After she got her master of fine arts from the University of Washington, she sold at a stand in her front yard to raise rent money. Her pie stand traveled to places like the Sasquatch Music Festival, and begat Pie School, which let Lebo pass along the fine qualities of pies by teaching people to make them.
Connecting with “A Commonplace Book of Pie”
“Pie is warm, inviting, a symbol everyone is connected to in this culture,” Lebo said. “I can talk to anyone about pie. It’s like football except I actually know something about it. So that kicks the door open for further discussion about something that is less approachable, something that is less familiar.”
Discussions on the book tour have covered a lot of topics. Seattle events drew a lot of literary folks. At a cooking school in the Midwest, people came who love pie. Questions ranged from what’s the secret to making the perfect pie, to how do you revise the manuscript?
People are reading the book to each other, which is something Lebo heard with the zine, too. She has a picture of a child — who attended a reading in Milwaukee, Wis. — reading the book to her family while they were making pie. Another fan is giving the book, along with a letter about what pie means in her family, to her children.
“Pie is a gift and that’s something I’m trying to evoke with the book,” Lebo said.
Top photo composite:
“A Commonplace Book of Pie” jacket cover and author Kate Lebo. Credit: Amy Halloran