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The Rev. Paul Dumais has spent much of his free time in the past year sorting truth from rumor concerning the science behind a traditional comfort food in his home state of Maine.
Dumais, a Catholic priest who lives in Lewiston, has been studying the chemical composition of ployes (rhymes with toys). He’s attempting to discern the scientific facts about the batter for these traditional French Acadian buckwheat pancakes or flatbreads from the theatrical stories passed down by generations of Acadian people living in northern Maine.
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For example, his grandmother would use only Rumford baking powder in her ployes. “The rumor was that if you didn’t use Rumford’s, your ployes would turn green,” said Dumais, adding that he can’t scientifically support that claim.
He can, though, methodically corroborate his grandmother’s “feel” for when there is enough water in the mix because he’s calculated that a hydration rate of 170% (170 grams of water to 100 grams of flour) makes the best ployes. If the batter is too thick, they don’t cook evenly. If it’s too thin, the finished product is not hearty enough to do its job of providing a simple carbohydrate filler food for the local population. One serving of ployes has 100 calories, 21 grams of carbs and 2 grams of protein.
Dumais says “flatbread” is a more accurate term than “pancake” for ployes because they are not traditionally eaten for breakfast and traditionally not served with maple syrup. They are buttered, rolled and served at lunch or dinner with savory dishes like creton, a pork spread containing onions and spices; baked beans; and an Acadian chicken stew called fricot.
Never flip a ploye
Ployes are never, ever flipped like a flapjack. The batter, which must not be over mixed, is portioned on a dry, hot griddle; swished once into a 4- or 5-inch circle; and cooked face up so you can see the heat “fait les yeux” or “make the eyes.” Those “eyes” are the air bubbles that dot the surface of perfectly cooked ployes.
Dumais is a Mainer in the true sense of the word. He serves as Catholic chaplain to Central Maine Medical Center and Bates College and is a founding member of the Fraternity of St. Philip Neri. He was born and raised in the small town of Madawaska, which sits in the middle of a place called “the Valley” in Aroostook County. “The Valley” forms part of the international border with Canada along the St. John River. Madawaska, which now has a population of 4,000, was founded by French-speaking agrarian settlers in 1785 after they were forcefully dispersed by the English from the region of Acadie, a part of New France that included sections of what we now recognize as Eastern Quebec and the Maritime Provinces.
Dumais is armed with both taste memory and newfangled kitchen gadgets (like his infrared thermometer, a highly accurate kitchen scale and his preferred Danish dough whisk) and is enthusiastically fond of mixing experimentation with deep-set culinary tradition. His end game — spurred on by his Great Aunt Prescille’s faint memory — is to produce a ploye batter much like his great-great-grandmother made from local grains and natural, ambient yeast.
Dumais recently evangelized the scientific wonders of ployes at the annual Kneading Conference in Skowhegan. The starting point in his public demonstration involves ready-made ployes mixes from two sources: his cousins’ garage in Frenchville, and the more commercially available mix sold by Bouchard Family Farms. The measurements — 1 cup of ployes mix to 1⅓ cups of cold water — are spelled out on the side of the stand-up paper sacks. So are instructions for letting the batter rest for 5 minutes, the proper amount for each ploye (3 ounces), recommended thickness (⅛ inch) and expected cooking time (60 to 90 seconds). Dumais does advise users of these mixes to play with the amount of water added as he believes the viscosity should be a bit thinner than the labels’ recipe prescribes.
The ingredients for these mixes comprise a simple list and look much like his mother’s “from scratch” recipe (below), which serves as his second data point. Here he likes to demonstrate his hydration discoveries, making dramatic pouring gestures of too-slow ploye dough that has only 100 percent hydration and requires the cook to work too hard to spread it on the hot griddle. He also shows how too-fast batter quickly seeps across the boundaries of its allotted griddle real estate.
Sharing tips for success
But Dumais gets most animated when he presents his progress on developing a recipe for the naturally leavened ployes he suspects his ancestors made, even though he has been unable to find historical documentation of this process in the University of Maine Acadian Archives. He relays the story of when he tasted a savory pancake made by a Somali immigrant named Angela at a potluck dinner celebrating an urban farming program run by St. Mary’s Nutrition Center in Lewiston last winter. They did not have a spoken language in common, but it didn’t matter. With bread as a cultural currency they both understood, Angela could convey that the secret to her bread was a yogurt-based starter that she kept in a jar and from that jar she began each new batch of pancakes.
It clicked for Dumais at that moment and he ran with the fermented flour starter idea, playing with flour amounts and types, feeding times, temperatures and hydration ratios. “Then one day, I made a batch. Watched and tasted. And finally thought, ‘Why, I think I’ve got it!’ ” Dumais said.
As he poured, swished once to form the right-sized circumference for the flatbread and watched for the heat to fait les yeux, Dumais said, “Now that is a ploye my mémé could be proud of.” These ployes looked much like the others, but had a bit of a sourdough finish.
In honor of the 2014 Acadian World Congress held in multiple locations along the U.S.-Canadian border over two weeks in August, Dumais hosted a continual feast near an ancestral homestead.
“My personal little quest was to reintroduce the naturally leavened ployes in honor of the event,” Dumais said. One evening he cooked alongside his mother to create some chicken stew and his new recipe for old-fashioned ployes for family.
Just as his mother had done every other time she’d eaten Acadian chicken stew, Dumais said for this meal “she buttered a ploye, rolled it up and dunked the end in her stew and remarked to another family member: ‘These are made without baking powder. They are very good.’
“Part of what might be difficult to appreciate is that people eat ployes all the time. … My mother was able to appreciate the moment largely because I had been in conversation with her all along,” he said.
People enjoyed Dumais’ ployes, but it “was an understated return of the traditional Acadian flatbread,” he said. The fact that they were made with family, for family, in an open-air kitchen on the banks of the St. John River near a cedar cabin built by his grandfather was satisfaction enough for him.
Ployes from scratch
This is Father Paul Dumais’ formula to replicate his mother’s ployes, traditional French Acadian buckwheat savory flatbreads. A scientifically enthusiastic baker, he highly recommends weighing the dry ingredients to yield the most authentic ployes.
Prep time: 1 minute
Cook time: 9 minutes
Total time: 15 minutes (including rest time of about 5 minutes for the batter)
Yield: 10 ployes
100 grams (½ cup plus 1 tablespoon) buckwheat flour
100 grams (a scant ¾ cup) all-purpose flour (Dumais uses King Arthur)
4 grams (½ teaspoon) salt
6 grams (2 teaspoons) baking powder (Dumais uses Rumford)
340 grams (1¾ cup) cold water (possibly more)
1. Preheat a griddle to 400 F.
2. Stir together buckwheat and all-purpose flours, salt and baking powder in a large bowl. Using a wire whisk, beat in the cold water until all the lumps are dissolved.
3. Let the batter sit for approximately 5 to 10 minutes.
4. In a circular motion, use back of spoon to spread 3 ounces of batter to ⅛ inch thick circles that are 5 inches in diameter. Cook ployes for 1½ minutes until the tops are bubbly and dry. Remove from griddle and serve warm, slathered with butter, with savory soups and stews.
Main photo: Father Paul Dumais. Credit: Christine B. Rudalevige
Securing sustainable seafood is a convoluted prospect at best. That statement applies whether you are the individual harvesting groundfish from the ocean’s floor, farming shellfish in local estuaries or buying wild salmon at the fish counter.
Buyers have to be “well versed in the adjectives (and colors) needed to ensure they are really buying sustainable seafood,” says Sheila Bowman, manager of culinary and strategic initiatives at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Organizations such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Geographic have built seafood buying guides called Seafood Watch, FishWatch and Seafood Decision Guide, respectively. These guides employ green, yellow and red visual cues to advise consumers which fish are sustainable choices. Those ratings are based primarily on species population numbers and how pulling those fish from the ocean affects the overall marine ecosystem.
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According to Barton Seaver, a longtime sustainable seafood advocate, seafood buying guides represent a good start. They help eaters choose the types of seafood the oceans can afford to give (those with green ratings and sometimes yellow), as opposed to the ones (red ratings) that may be overfished.
Seaver serves in a dual capacity as director of the Healthy and Sustainable Food program at the Harvard School of Public Health’s Center for Health and the Global Environment and as a sustainability fellow at the New England Aquarium in Boston. He argues that issues of economic viability for the fishermen, cultural preservation of fishing communities and the overall health of seafood eaters must also be taken into consideration when assessing seafood sustainability. Pulling these multiple elements of the sustainable seafood picture into focus will require advanced technology.
Seaver, Bowman, Steve Eayrs, a research scientist with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, and Shah Selbe, an aerospace engineer and National Geographic Emerging Explorer, can readily point to technologies they believe are changing the sustainable seafood landscape. Their suggestions fall into three categories: making fishermen more efficient at harvesting fish in a sustainable fashion; cracking down on illegal fishing; and providing eaters with a reliable means of tracing where the fish on their plate came from and how it arrived there.
Technology No. 1: Precision Fishing
Smart Catch Technologies is a company co-located in Newport, Ore., and Palo Alto, Calif., that creates products to support sustainable commercial fishing. Seaver pointed to the company’s CatchCam and SmartNet products because they enable “precision fishing,” a scheme under which non-target fish are released from nets before they are hauled ashore, thereby reducing both bycatch and waste.
Technology No. 2: Revamped Bottom Trawling Gear
Bottom trawling is the practice of towing a funnel-shaped net anchored open by two “doors” that have continuous or occasional contact with the ocean floor. Trawls catch shellfish and groundfish found near the seabed, and they have long been criticized for entrapping everything in their path, including sponges, corals and non-target species. Eayrs cites a recent study conducted by his institute showing that changes in the trawling gear — in how the doors are constructed to minimize contact with the floor and changes both in the size of the net holes and the materials from which they are constructed — reduce seabed impact by as much as 95% and yield a 12% reduction in fuel consumption with little or no variation in the targeted cod catch. If eaters are educated enough to be able to accept the premise that the fish was caught legally using the best available science, “then they can buy their cod with confidence,” Eayrs said.
Technology No. 3: GPS-Enabled Selective Trawling
According to Bowman, establishing a trawling footprint — clearly articulating which parts of the ocean floor can or can’t be open to trawling — and having fishermen (and enforcement agencies) use GPS technology to make sure fishermen do not drop their nets within a set distance from protected areas, is a use of technological application that holds the most promise for helping to feed the planet’s 9 billion people. “But it will also likely raise the most controversy on what the ocean can continue to give up for the sake of human consumption,” Bowman said.
Technology No. 4: Cheap Open Source Gear Helps to Decrease Illegal Fishing
In his recent lecture at the New England Aquarium, Selbe outlined FishNET, a project that focuses on developing integrated, low-cost technology solutions that help improve the ability to observe and collate data about illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU). This suite of technologies comprises a Web-based data collection server, off-the-shelf drone and cellphone equipment, and cheap, open-source monitoring devices that together capture and analyze official and crowdsourced data on fishing vessels and exploited areas.
Technology No. 5: Sophisticated Satellite-Enabled Poaching and Dumping Surveillance
Seaver points to companies such as Windward and SkyTruth to illustrate the role of satellites in vessel tracking and how these efforts can help with all IUU issues and enable better fisheries management.
Technology No. 6: Bar Codes for Near Real-Time Seafood Supply Chain Tracking
Norpac Fisheries Export is a successful processing and distribution business that has developed and implemented traceability software to track fish from catch to retailer. Through the use of bar codes and back-end software, this system lets sellers and buyers know where their fish are at any point in the process, letting them pinpoint procedural inefficiencies and keeping illegally caught fish out of the chain. Seaver also points to the emerging field of DNA bar coding as a possible evolution. “Whoever invents a hand-held tissue sampler that can accurately ID a species on the spot will win big!” he said.
Technology No. 7: Sustainable Seafood Matchmaking
Colorado-based FishChoice Inc. has built an online matchmaking service for buyers and suppliers of sustainable seafood. According to Seaver, this service opens up the chance to distribute and purchase sustainably sourced products and streamlines recommendations and certifications from the NGO community. “The service … provides education and the opportunity to conduct the transaction right there,” Seaver said.
Technology No. 8: Storied Sushi
Owners of San Diego-based Harney Sushi have developed edible quick response codes (QR) — made of rice paper and edible ink — that customers can scan with their cellphones before eating any fish served to them. The codes link back to NOAA’s FishWatch database. “By demanding this kind of detail, we help send a message to suppliers that they need to know and verify their seafood sourcing,” Seaver said.
Main photo: San Diego-based Harney Sushi serves edible QR tags with its sushi, so eaters can scan the tags and get information about the sustainable status of the fish on the plate. Credit: Courtesy of Harney Sushi
in: Baking w/recipe
As New England’s maple sap started to drip in March, David Moore of The Crooked Chimney sugarhouse in Lee, N.H., counted the days until it would stop flowing. Right about the time the maples are tapped out, Moore collects a less sugary sap from slender, white paper birch trees.
Moore, one of the only known commercial birch syrup producers in New England, says his reddish-brown syrup tastes like a mild, slightly acidic molasses with a hint of raspberry. The viscosity at room temperature is slow, albeit a bit quicker than molasses. Its unique taste makes it well suited as an ice cream topping (Moore’s favorite); a glaze, salad dressing or braising liquid ingredient; and an intriguing baked goods sweetener.
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In addition to its uses in the kitchen, birch syrup has high market values that could help maple syrup producers supplement future revenue streams in a sustainable fashion, according to researchers at Cornell and the University of Vermont. Its production relies on many of the techniques currently employed in making maple syrup, and birch trees are in rather good supply in the Northeast.
Birch syrup is not entirely a novelty in North America. Native Americans for centuries used it as an anti-rheumatic. Twentieth-century Alaskans also tapped it to fill gaps in wartime sugar supplies, and birch syrup production has become a cottage industry there. Still, last year’s 5,000 gallons of domestically produced birch syrup were just a drop in the bucket compared with the 3.25 million gallons of maple syrup produced.
Chef Evan Mallett of Black Trumpet bistro in Portsmouth, N.H., says Moore’s syrup has a rich, deep and slightly resinous quality that makes it suitable as a finishing syrup and a glaze for grilled chicken or pork. Mallett’s seasonal menu features brioche Texas toast, a thick slice of house-made bread stuffed with roasted mushrooms and cheese and served with huitlacoche (fungus that grows on ears of corn) butter, candy cap mushroom oil and a few drops of birch syrup.
“I like it on pancakes too, but it’s pretty expensive to slather on,” Mallett said.
The going rate for a quart of birch syrup is $78, compared with $10 for Grade A maple syrup. The selling price is very attractive, said Moore, who last year charged $25 for 8-ounce jars and sold out by the end of May. Moore sells his product at a half dozen locations in New Hampshire and will be taking some mail orders this year if supplies last.
“Making birch syrup takes more energy than making maple syrup,” explained Moore, who collects 100 to 120 gallons of sap (he typically gets about 5 gallons a day from each of his 170 taps) to make one gallon of birch syrup. Maple syrup requires only 40 gallons of sap per gallon of syrup.
Abby van den Berg of the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center said the profitability of birch syrup production in the Northern Forest — the region that stretches from Maine through northern New Hampshire and Vermont into northern New York — in the past has been limited due to the fact that the low sugar content of birch sap (about 1% compared with 2% in maple) means producers need lots of evaporator fuel to concentrate the sap to syrup density.
But she argues that reverse osmosis, a process used in Alaskan birch syrup production that concentrates sugar densities (to 8% or greater) in the sap before it goes into the evaporator mitigates that hurdle. Modern sap collection techniques such as using a vacuum also help to increase the sap collection during the short three- to four-week birch sap season.
Moore has considered using reverse osmosis, but he currently processes sap in a 3- by 12-foot double-panned evaporator inside the wooden sugar shack he built himself. He uses a team of draft horses to help haul the firewood (ash, hickory, maple and oak) needed to fuel the evaporator. The new reverse osmosis machine would require him to run power to the sugarhouse. He estimates adding reverse osmosis would cost $7,000. “It could be a tough sell for me,” Moore said.
Neither van den Berg nor Michael Farrell, director of Cornell Sugar Maple Research & Extension Program’s Uihlein field station in Lake Placid, N.Y., could provide more than anecdotal evidence that maple syrup producers are clamoring to make birch syrup.
At a maple syrup taste test he conducted for maple syrup producers earlier this year, Farrell threw birch syrup into the mix. When he asked for a show of hands from those who liked the taste of New England birch syrup, not one went up. The producers then were offered a taste of birch syrup made with reverse osmosis. “Nearly everyone changed their mind,” Farrell said.
“This altered process gives birch syrup a wider range of flavor that should appeal to more people. They’ve just got to be willing to taste it,” he said.
Chewy Ginger and Birch Syrup Lumberjack Cookies
Yes, birch syrup is expensive, but it adds an interesting twist to these spicy chewy cookies that people won’t place until you tell them. Think of it as money well spent for tea time conversation.
Makes 24 cookies
2¼ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon mustard powder
½ teaspoon allspice
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
¾ cup unsalted butter (1½ sticks), room temperature
¾ cup packed light brown sugar
1 large egg
½ cup birch syrup
⅓ cup finely diced candied ginger (optional)
Granulated sugar for rolling
1. Preheat oven to 375 F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.
2. Whisk together flour, baking soda, ground ginger, cinnamon, mustard powder, allspice, salt and black pepper.
3. Beat butter and sugar together in bowl of electric mixer until light and fluffy, 3 minutes. Add egg and birch syrup. Mix to combine well. Stir in dry ingredients. Stir in candied ginger, if using. Refrigerate the dough for 30 minutes.
4. Roll dough into 1½-inch balls and then roll them in the raw sugar. Arrange on the baking sheets and gently flatten them with the bottom of a flat glass. Bake until set and crinkled on top, about 12 minutes.
Let the cookies sit on the baking sheet for 2 minutes and then remove them to a rack to cool completely.
Top photo: The Crooked Chimney sugarhouse where Lee, N.H., resident David Moore boils down paper birch sap to make birch syrup. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige