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Holiday baking is a great way to get kids into the kitchen. If they don’t have a natural interest in cooking, they might have an unnatural interest in sprinkles, icing and silver dragées.
However, if you blithely attempt to make sugar cookies with a 3-year-old, thinking it will be a living tableau of family harmony, you may end up with something much less pleasing. The holidays are so loaded that it is really, really easy to NOT get those cozy memories you want to create.
Here are a few tips on making a baking session that might just fit the picture books.
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1. Lower your expectations.
Whatever they are, dial them down. If you think matching aprons and carols on the stereo, and a batch of gingerbread men rolled to perfect thickness, think again. Visualize molasses-coated jeans and wildly rippled dough. Picture worst-case scenarios — broken mixing bowls and 2 cups of salt instead of sugar — and be happy when the disasters are minor.
This is crucial. If you want everything to be just-so, you are going to interfere with the experience the child will have. And you want that experience to be pleasant, not scripted to fit an ideal.
Being tender with the impulse to explore tools and materials you are introducing is more important than working toward the most tender sugar cookies. You can make those at nap time, if you must.
2. Suit your crew.
Bear in mind abilities and ages.
Before you start to bake, observe the child — yours or a favorite nephew or pseudo-niece — at a meal. How do they handle forks and spoons? Could they manage pouring the vanilla? Maybe they would do best just opening the sticks of butter and turning on the mixer. Because many cookies require refrigeration, making the dough ahead of time can skirt a lot of trouble.
Don’t set the bar too high, but don’t set it too low, either. That 10-year-old could be incredibly well skilled and training for junior chef Olympics. If that is the kind of kid you will have in the kitchen, do a lot of talking before you get there.
3. Involve everyone as much as possible.
Inclusive planning can be scaled to fit. A 4-year-old should see you take the splattered index card from the inside flap of the “Betty Crocker Cookbook” and hear how you used to bake king-sized gingersnaps every single Christmas. The 5-year-old might want the story in more detail. A 6- or 7-year-old you’ve baked with before might want to plan which kind of cookie to bake at which session.
The fancy-pants chef-to-be is fully capable of planning everything with you, from recipes to shopping, and decorating storage containers. However, be aware that kitchen dreams can overshoot the limits of time and experience. Maybe don’t make sea foam candy together unless one of you is well versed in working with sugar.
Keep the afternoon manageable, especially if you are working with a group of kids. Leave room for tasting the products with a cup of cocoa. You don’t have to make fudge and gingerbread men the same day.
4. Invite another family.
The best way to conquer your own crazy expectations and/or buffer dynamics between you and your kids might be to make a crowd. This will call for you completely surrendering to the crowd, of course, and that is a good thing.
There is a lot of pressure to make holidays all about the nuclear family. Creating a nontraditional scenario might seem sacrosanct, but it could also be the trick you need to trick yourself out of wanting to stage a Tremendously Wonderful Time Baking, which is sure to end in tears.
5. Remember your own holiday times in the kitchen. (And maybe forget them.)
Each holiday recipe is probably linked to some moment in your life. I remember the year I discovered Edith’s Sugar Cookies in a cookbook I took from the library. The year, in my 20s, I learned how to make Viennese Crescents from my boyfriend’s mom.
Stepping into those memories is a beautiful trap. I think I can time travel, or that the cookies will carry me. Repetition seems to be the magic maker. However, if I really think about what I loved about those times, it was exploration, rather than repetition, that seared them into my brain and heart.
When I bake with my kids, I try to remember that exploration is a key wonder to cultivate. Good cookies are great, but curious cooks are in short order. Make me some more of those.
Top photo: Felix, 10, shows off his Christmas cookie. Credit: Amy Halloran
Richard Miscovich stands long and lean by the oven, a ponytail trailing down his back. Though the world doubts skinny cooks, he is the real deal, very aware of the fire behind him and all it can achieve.
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The baker is also aware of the crowd in front of him as he leads classes, tending curiosity as if it were as important as loaves of dough. He knows his ingredients, so he can predict what those ingredients need. He’s also attentive to environments, so he can address questions that arise, in a wood-fired oven or a weekend workshop.
I’ve seen him at the Kneading Conference and Kneading Conference West, teaching workshops on baking with sprouted grain flours, and, most recently, making full use of the heat generated for wood-fired bread baking. He explores this potential — to make everything from beautiful bread to dried figs, not to mention rendering fat and building a classic pot of New England baked beans — in detail in his book “From the Wood-Fired Oven: New and Traditional Techniques for Cooking and Baking with Fire.”
Immersion in the American baking movement
The book puts his energy and knowledge at your fingertips, and appeals to a wide range of interests, from home bakers to those considering starting a small enterprise, or looking to revise an existing baking operation. These are the people Miscovich encounters at the Kneading Conferences, or when he guest-teaches at King Arthur Flour’s Baking Center, where he used to work in the bakery. He also sees these people in his baking and pastry classes at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., where he’s been an instructor for 11 years.
Miscovich speaks and writes as one not yet removed from the thrill of learning. The book is a scrapbook of his immersion in the American bread movement and features quotes from stars and sages of that movement, such as James McGuire and Thom Leonard. That immersion happened by chance and circumstance, more than design.
“I was working at a grocery store and they opened a bakery and I thought that would be fun,” Miscovich said in a recent phone interview, describing his random entry into the field. He was attending the University of Michigan, studying English literature. The store served an international population, and received deliveries from scratch bakeries in East Lansing. Once weekly, German bread came from Detroit. “I could tell that the bread that was delivered had more character than what we were thawing and proofing and baking.”
Pioneer bread makers
His passion for baking as a career, however, did not take root until much later, when the book “Bread Alone” exploded his idea of bread in 1994. The book ratcheted up his home bread-baking practice from yeast to sourdough, and inspired him to travel from North Carolina for two weeks of workshops at the newly formed San Francisco Baking Institute. This was in 1996, a big moment for bread in America.
On that trip, he met Alan Scott, the New Zealand-born baker and oven builder who, with oven plans, workshops and, later, the book “The Bread Builders” (written with Dan Wing) pioneered the wood-fired bread oven movement in America.
When Miscovich visited Scott in 1996, breadmaker Chad Robertson was using Scott’s oven. There was grain growing behind the house and inside, Scott had hooked up a Diamant mill to a washing machine motor, to mill flour for his baking.
“I distinctly remember him talking about the benefits of whole grains and showing me his little mill,” Miscovich said. “The whole wood-fired oven thing hadn’t started yet, and the local grain movement hadn’t even started yet.”
Practical and accessible
“From the Wood Fired Oven” is, like “The Bread Builders,” also published by Chelsea Green. There’s enough information on artisan baking to stand as a thorough guide, but the language is not too technical to lose the home baker who has never touched a sourdough. Similarly, the practical instructions on building an oven, and managing fire and combustion, are in depth enough for anyone who is ready to build a backyard oven or launch a microbakery.
The book has profiles of bakers and oven builders who are helping push community-scale artisan bread baking to another level. Information on equipment, oven size and production practices is presented to help show how to make baking and ovens physically practical and economically feasible.
“People get burned out,” Miscovich said of baking, but the improvements he and others outline in the book can help prevent burnout and help keep artisan bakeries alive. “I think the book talks about materials and design and efficiency in a way that’s hopefully going to help those businesses become or stay viable,” he said.
Yet cooking is at the core of the book, so these details didn’t drive me, who has little interest in starting a bakery, away. I love the book, and its author’s classes, for helping explain how ingredients become foods, and how those foods become most flavorful. Even in my $25 oven.
Top photo: “A Wood-Fired Oven” and Richard Miscovich. Credit: Courtesy of Red Door Media
One winter when I wasn’t eating sugar, the idea of not baking was really plaguing me. If I couldn’t make cookies, how could I find that holiday feeling?
After much pouting, I came up with an idea that wouldn’t get lost in a sea of homemade treats. Pancake mix would stand apart from the crowd. Plus, when the people I loved headed into the kitchen one lazy weekend morning, I could go with them to the griddle — one of my favorite places on the planet.
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Pancake mix is one of the easier mixes to make because you don’t have to add fat. You can, of course, but then you have to worry about potential spoilage, and incorporating the melted butter or oil evenly throughout the mix. If you want, you can add fat to the batter, but I don’t. I find it drags down the cakes, which pick up plenty of butter from the griddle.
Highlighting lovely flours is another advantage of this gift. Stone-ground whole-grain flours do really well in pancakes. The bran and germ layers of grains contain much more flavor than the starchy endosperm, which is the only part of the grain milled for white flours. This means that whole-grain flours can be celebrated for vibrant flavors, not just their banner fiber.
Regionally produced flours are fairly easy to find. Because they are freshly milled from interesting varieties of grains, they have great tastes. They also add ecological and community economic values to your giving.
Last but not least, when you make your very own pancake flour, you are echoing the first packaged mix. Aunt Jemima Pancake Flour was invented in 1889, and contained only wheat flour, corn flour, salt and sodium phosphate. The name came from a song in a minstrel show.
Within a year, another milling company bought the formula and the mill. R.T. Davis added powdered milk to the mix, and hired a spokesperson. Nancy Green was a former slave who worked for a Chicago judge, and she played Aunt Jemima inside a booth shaped like a flour barrel at the Chicago World’s Fair. She was so popular that extra security was hired to tame the crowd waiting for her cakes and tales.
Those stories, and the ones featured in ads well into the 20th century, celebrated the imaginary cook’s ability to keep Union soldiers from scalping her master. Her pancakes mollified the troops, and her colonel kept his hair, and his life.
I’m amazed that just a generation after the Civil War, appetites for antebellum fairy tales were so strong. The way the company has held onto the Mammy stereotype for more than a century is also amazing.
Packaged food started with simple breakfast items
What is most stunning to me is the fact that such small improvements as adding leaveners, salt, and powdered milk could make a product succeed. How much time does it take to blend these ingredients at home? Less than a minute.
I see this as the dawn of packaged food. Breakfast is where we began to surrender our ability to feed ourselves to an anonymous industry. Aunt Jemima put a face on food as production scaled up, removing the faces of the farmer and miller from the immediate community.
Here’s how you can put your own face on your loved one’s breakfasts. My basic formula is this.
Homemade Pancake Mix
4 cups flour
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1½ tsp salt
2 buttermilk powder, optional (if you want people to use just water and egg for their mix)
Mix all ingredients well with a whisk and put in plastic bag, or a container with a tight fitting lid. Brand new coffee bags are handy, and you can decorate them.
1 cup homemade pancake flour mix
¾ cup milk
1 tablespoon yogurt
(Or skip the milk and yogurt and add ¾ cup water for the buttermilk variation)
1. Blend well and let sit for 10 minutes before using. This helps the flour absorb the moisture thoroughly. If the batter needs a little thinning, add some more milk.
2. Cook on a hot buttered griddle, flipping when the first side has little bubbles.
This mix takes well to variations. Mostly I fiddle with the flour. Some great combinations are:
- 2 cups whole wheat pastry flour, 1 cup rye flour, 1 cup cornmeal.
- 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour, 1 cup rye flour, 1 cup cornmeal, 1 cup oats or ground oats.
- 2 cups buckwheat flour, 2 cups rye flour.
- 2 cups buckwheat flour, 2 cups whole wheat pastry flour.
- 2 cups cornmeal, 2 cups rye flour.
- 3 cups cornmeal, 1 cup rye flour.
If you are making mixes for people who are not devoted to whole grains, you can use all-purpose flour in place of some or all of the whole-wheat pastry.
I never add sugar to pancakes, because I find whole grains sweet enough on their own. If you want, add ¼ cup of brown or white sugar per batch.
Please use a baking powder you know is strong and sturdy. For me, that is Rumford Double Acting baking powder.
If you really love the recipient, buy them an old cast aluminum griddle at a thrift store. Aluminum griddles distribute heat very evenly, and nothing makes a better pancake.
Top photo: Pancakes from a homemade mix. Credit: Amy Halloran
“Bread is like dirt,” said Naomi Duguid, describing an attitude she encountered while researching flatbreads in the Soviet Union. “Yes, it’s the essence of life, but it’s so ordinary. How can you give it attention?”
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Duguid smiles when she speaks and lifts her voice with its an appealing Canadian accent, inviting people into her considerations. The cookbook author was giving plenty of attention to a very flat bread at the Kneading Conference West, three days of workshops in mid-September centered on grains and baking.
People sat on folding chairs under a tent and watched her make crackers. She and Dawn Woodward, the baker-founder of Evelyn’s Crackers stood at tables in front of a mobile wood-fired oven. Attendees asked questions, rolled dough and took notes.
The fourth year of the conference at Washington State University’s Mount Vernon Research Station was just underway. Bakers, farmers and people otherwise interested in grains came from as far as South Africa to learn everything they could about flour and its life from field to loaf. There were classes in sourdough, pastries, pizza, local flours, and soba noodles. People built an oven. Experts gave presentations on barley breeding, malting, baking science and gluten intolerance.
This is the sister event of the Kneading Conference, which began seven years ago in Skowhegan, Maine. Wheat breeder Steve Jones has spoken at that conference and is the director of the station at Mount Vernon, Wash. Bringing this bread brainstorm home made a lot of sense.
The western version is rooted in the Skagit Valley, lush farmland nestled along the Interstate 5 corridor just north of Seattle. The area was once used to grow oats for the city’s horses. Now farmers grow 80 different crops, including tulip bulbs, vegetable seeds and potatoes.
These farmers grow grains in rotation, to help build up the soil and break cycles of disease and pests. The grains generally go to the commodity market, which means the farms lose money compared with what they earn from the land other years.
Jones and others are helping farmers earn money from grains as specialty crops. Skagit Valley Malting Co., a small-scale malthouse, is almost up and running, malting test runs of barley for breweries, distilleries and culinary use. With help from the breeding program at the WSU station, vegetable farmers are branching into grain production. Nash’s Organic Produce is now growing and milling Espresso wheat, and marketing it along with their vegetables.
The conference highlighted these local projects and others in the region, such as Camas Country Mill. Farmer and owner Tom Hunton spoke about the way his Willamette Valley mill has facilitated production and use of grains, and other field crops. Growers now ask what they can grow for the mill, and consumers are eager to buy the flours and other foods the mill provides.
Wayne Carpenter and Mike Doehnel from Skagit Valley Malting spoke about custom malting. Bakers from Seattle and the surrounding area spoke about using local flour.
Jonathan Bethony is the staff baker at the station’s The Bread Lab. This bearded fellow is a dynamo, ready to tackle wheat varieties in all their complexity, and figure out how to make the most of all the flour’s qualities, good and bad. His tours of the lab, with Ph.D. student Colin Curwen-McAdams — who endearingly linked his studies in seed breeding to baking with his mother — were both lively and thought-provoking.
Bethony gave an enthusiastic presentation on how to work with sourdough, praising the reactions that occur between its wild yeast and bacterial components.
Breadmaking tips from the experts
“If the world would just work like a sourdough, we’d be all set,” he said. Bethony drew parallels between starters and any other relationship. Leave your starter in the fridge for a while, and like a neglected friend, it is going to need a while to warm up and be ready to use.
Scott Mangold from Breadfarm Bakery referred to Bethony as he gave a workshop called Learning to Love Your Local Wheat. “Jonathan said he started looking for signs he knew from baking with white flour, and stopped worrying whether it’s going to fall apart,” Mangold said. “That was a big breakthrough for me, to just trust that it is going to work.”
Bakers are trained to expect certain performance from flour, because most flour is milled to narrow industry standards, from grains that have very specific quality profiles. Local flours tend not to fit these strictures, and can really behave differently in leavened doughs, causing the anxiety that necessitated a workshop with such a name.
“When I’m testing new flour, I’m making observations and writing everything down,” Mangold said, passing around a chart that detailed the way he used his hands and eyes to gather information from different batches of bread.
This and other workshops — one on soba noodles led by Sonoko Sakai — had bakers up and at the bowl, honing the practice of work and observation. Bakers from King Arthur Flour led discussions and classes that were a little more geared to professional baking, but not too much for the experienced home baker. Richard Miscovich showed people how to use wood-fired ovens for bread and beyond, a live version of his new book, “From the Wood Fired Oven.”
Lectures and discussions on baking science, barley breeding and gluten intolerance also filled the schedule, and two keynotes framed the larger conversation about grains in practical and symbolic terms.
Darra Goldstein, founding editor of Gastronomica, spoke about bread culture, using examples of bread in Western art as a lens to discuss its symbolism. She showed how people used to hold bread close to the heart, and how 20th century paintings have bread on cutting boards.
These presentations presented ideas people considered throughout the rest of the conference, and when they went back home.
The farmer-miller-baker model Oechsner presented is something people could see happening, and help make happen, in their own back yard. Bakers mused about how to bring bread close to the heart again. If we do away with bakery bags, will we have lovely images of people carrying bread close to their chests posted on the bakery walls?
The discussions illustrated the ways that grains have glued us together, body and soul, and we can imagine that gorgeous connection again.
Top photo: Zester Daily contributor Sonoko Sakai demonstrates breadmaking at Kneading Conference West. Credit: Amy Halloran
New York State has malt fever. This January, the Farm Brewery Law went into effect, and people are amped up about homegrown beer. The law makes it easier to open small breweries that use the state’s agricultural products like hops and grains. Everyone from politicians to home brewers thinks this is swell. Not me.
I’m a baker, and I’ve been following flour back to the field for a few years, meeting people who are putting wheat into local markets. I’m getting to know the brewers and distillers who are thrilled about barley for malting, which turns the grain into base ingredients for beer and spirits. Barley and wheat are small grains, and need similar infrastructure for growing and handling, so the interest in alcohol has the potential to expand small-scale grain farming overall. Still, I’m sorry this frenzy didn’t happen over bread.
Why does beer command more attention than bread? At the state level, I believe it is strictly mercenary. If there was a bread tax, I’m sure I would have met politicians on my flour tours a long time ago.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been meeting farmers, millers and bakers working outside the wheat belt. They are passionate, and devoted to helping grain production get rolling in the Northeast and elsewhere in the country. So are the researchers and food activists they work with. But those with beer fever outnumber them.
The interest in localizing beer is impressive, but confuses me. Meetings about hops and barley are booked beyond capacity, crowded with people thinking of planting hops to get agricultural tax credits, and farmers who have never grown grains.
I am not immune to the powers of alcohol. I used to adore India Pale Ales, or IPAs, especially any made by Stone, but I can’t drink anymore. It just makes me feel lousy. Still, I remember how beer brings unity and bliss, creating a brotherhood of the bottle. Even cheap beer can do this — I never understood baseball better than when I held a plastic cup of Budweiser in Yankee Stadium. America, understood.
Bread is also communion. This social symbolism works even for the non-religious. We break bread to be together literally and figuratively, yet neither the concept nor the practice influences our expectations of cost. If bread means so much, why do we think that the staff of life should be cheap?
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Sure, artisan breads command our imaginations and a good market share in bakeries and supermarkets and at farmers markets. But think about the way you think about staples. Don’t you want your milk and bread inexpensive, so you can spend money on treats like lattes, cupcakes and craft beers?
Milk doesn’t have as many philosophical strings attached, yet it, like grain, when removed from standard pricing systems (commodities for grains, fluid milk prices for milk), costs more than the price of production, and more than most people are comfortable paying — myself included.
The dairy industry is working to change the way fluid milk is priced. The current system was developed in the 1930s and is bizarrely linked, by an algorithm few can understand or explain, to the price of cheddar set by the Chicago Board of Trade. Making milk is often more expensive than farmers can earn selling it. No wonder, then, that over the last 30 or 40 years, dairy farms have disappeared quicker than ice cream on a hot day.
Bread makers know the cost of cheap
We get cheap flour and bread because grain production is centralized on 2,000- to 5000-acre farms in states such as Kansas and Montana. While heirloom tomatoes are almost clichés of local food, grains are late to local tables because these low-value crops need a lot of land, labor and equipment. Prize vegetables such as arugula or heirloom tomatoes can bring a lot of money per acre. Grains generally cannot. Grain growers need costly tools, like combines and grain bins. A nuanced understanding of planting, harvest and storage techniques is required to produce high quality grains.
We’ll pay 4 bucks for a cupcake, but bakers have a hard time making the numbers work for flour whose cost is not balanced by federal subsidies for commodity crops. Beyond price considerations, bakeries of all but the smallest, most hands-on scale are hesitant to work with flours that do not have the predictability that comes from blending seas of pan-American wheat.
Bakers used to know how to work with flour that varied from field to field and year to year. Mills were local — look for the abandoned millsones at the edge or your most tumbling stream. Is the answer to retreat from industrialized food so that what we eat costs what it costs to grow? I don’t know, but I would like to see fewer fields of corn and soy and more amber waves of grain.
Sowing outside the grain belt
That is happening, bit by bit. Farmers are figuring out what varieties of wheat grow and harvest well in the humid Northeast summers. Having more demand for barley for malting or wheat for baking will help build the infrastructure required to get grains in the ground and get those grains to market.
There are discussions of community mills and cooperative granaries in New York, Maine and elsewhere. Many partners — the Northeast Organic Farming Assn.-New York, the Pennsylvania Assn. of Sustainable Agriculture, Cornell, Greenmarket Regional Grain Project, OGRIN and others — are in the middle of a four-year grant sponsored by the USDA’s Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative. They’ve been educating farmers about growing practices, building a mobile cleaning unit to help process grains, and conducting field trials of wheat varieties.
Despite my sour grapes at the beer frenzy, I am hopeful that the desire for local barley will feed the need for local flour, and help bring prices closer to manageable for bakers and eaters. Let’s see whether beer — in a sense — grows bread.
In the meantime, there are things you can do to urge flour along. Ask your artisan baker if they make a local loaf. Buy that local loaf once they start baking. And get your co-op to carry that flour and use it for your biscuits, pancakes and pie crusts, OK?
Top photo: Baked goods. Credit: Courtesy of Amy Halloran