Articles in Baking
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
Driving along shoulderless highways in northern Michigan, it’s hard to miss row after row of Montmorency cherry trees loaded with fruit waiting to be baked into pies or squeezed into a liquid elixir that scientists and doctors assign superfruit status.
With more than 2 million cherry trees, Michigan produces over 70% of the country’s tart cherry crop, and July is the start of the season for a fruit that has been credited with controlling cholesterol, lowering weight and boosting heart health. Not to mention being at the heart of a mean cherry pie.
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Tart cherries might well deserve a medal for their healthy attributes, but I’d much rather test their ability to satisfy my craving for the yin-yang balance of sweet and tart enveloped in one glorious double-crusted pie. That’s because tart cherries, not sweet, have always been the basis for the best cherry pie. Bakers can control the amount of sweetness with sugar and the tangy essence of tart cherries keeps the pie from becoming cloyingly sweet.
In a part of the country where any proper pie judge will tell you that cherry pies are not to be trifled with, I decided to go out on a limb and conducted a loosely structured pie contest of my own. In traditional measure, blue ribbons become a battle between best crust and most cherry-packed (but least gooey) filling, and awards only go to those that deliver both.
Ferreting out the best the region had to offer, I sampled options from The Cherry Hut, a 92-year old pie-making institution in the little town of Beulah (8 points for cherry-packed filling), to local behemoth Cherry Republic (9 points for crunchy, tender crust). Naturally, I couldn’t avoid including a few farm stand options in between. In the end, a roadside pie spiced with a bit of balsamic vinegar took the prize for my personal favorite. Cask-aged balsamic, which delivers its own magic blend of sweet and tart, was the perfect complement to the fruit and provided a deep base of flavor to the freshly harvested cherries.
But after all that pie, I was feeling a bit sleepy, and no wonder. Did I mention that tart cherries contain melatonin, a natural hormone that helps you sleep at night?
The winning farm stand pie inspired my interpretation of the classic Michigan cherry pie. I’ve blended a rich, cask-aged balsamic vinegar into the filling and added a bit of Fiori di Sicilia, a blend of floral, citrus and vanilla essences, to keep the flavors bright.
- Pie dough, enough for two crusts, chilled
- 3 pounds, pitted fresh or frozen (do not thaw) tart cherries
- ⅓ cup Pie Enhancer (or 6 tablespoons flour)
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3 tablespoons cask-aged balsamic vinegar
- ½ teaspoon Fiori de Sicilia extract (or vanilla extract)
- Sparkling sugar
- Preheat oven to 350 F. Roll out enough dough for one crust and place in 9- to 10-inch deep dish pie plate, leaving a 2-inch overhang. Return to refrigerator while assembling filling to keep dough cold.
- In a large mixing bowl, toss to combine cherries, Pie Enhancer or flour, sugar, salt, balsamic vinegar and Fiori di Sicilia. Fill pie dish and return to refrigerator again while preparing top crust.
- Roll out remaining pie dough and trim into 1-inch slices. Weave for latticework and gently transfer over filling. Turn lower crust up and over edges of lattice and crimp with fingers or fork.
- Whisk egg with 2 tablespoons water and gently brush over top crust. Sprinkle with sparkling sugar.
- Place the pie on a baking sheet and bake for 1 hour to 1 hour 20 minutes, crust will be golden brown and fruit will be gently bubbling when done. Remove to rack to cool.
Not one to cling to tradition, when I find a new ingredient that is a big improvement over my old ways, I embrace it. Such is the case with King Arthur Flour’s Pie Enhancer, which I use to thicken fruit pies. A blend of superfine sugar, modified corn starch (aka Instant Clear Gel) and ascorbic acid, it sets the pie juices but avoids that gluey texture that flour sometimes imparts. But follow your own tradition and if flour works best for you, then substitute 5 tablespoons of flour for the Pie Enhancer and increase the amount of sugar in the filling for a total of ⅓ cup sugar.
In our house, asking for cherry pie means one thing: sour cherry pie. Just as there are “eating apples” and “cooking apples” that differ in acid level and sugar content, these same differences exist between cherries. Sweet cherries — like eating apples — are delicious raw. Sour cherries, with their higher acid level and lower sugar content, will make you pucker if you pop them into your mouth straight off the tree. While a pie made with sweet cherry varieties (such as Bing or Rainier) can be cloying, a pie made with Montmorency or North Star cherries has the perfect balance of sweet and sour.
It’s been my experience that people who say they don’t like cherry pie have never tasted a sour cherry pie. Surprisingly few folks know that sour cherries exist, partly because it’s hard to find sour cherries (Prunus cerasus) in many parts of the country. Sour cherries, also called tart cherries, are thought to have originated in the region between the Caspian and Black seas. Cherry trees still grow wild in that area, which includes part of Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Greeks were cultivating sour cherries by 300 B.C. and the popularity of these tart cherries spread quickly to Italy and throughout Europe.
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French colonists brought sour cherries to North America and by the mid-1600s cherries were plentiful in Virginia, my home state. Today most sour cherries commercially grown in the U.S. are produced along the Great Lakes in western Michigan, as well as in parts of Wisconsin, New York and Pennsylvania.
My love of cherry pies came early courtesy of my mother. She truly is famous for her pie baking skills — at least in her Virginia town where the local paper has profiled her and her homemade pies. She has forged some deep relationships with local sour cherry growers, who reserve gallons of cherries for her each summer. Even in a bad winter – like this last one, which killed off much of the cherry crop — my mother somehow leaves a supposedly “sold out” orchard with brimming boxes of cherries unavailable to the typical customer.
The harvest season for sour cherries is short — just a few weeks at the end of June and early July. This delicate fruit doesn’t ship or store well, so the first step in making pies for the rest of the year is preserving the fruit. Sour cherries may be canned in the traditional way, but it’s even easier to freeze them.
Although my mother often gets gallons of cherries at once, she freezes them in small batches. Seeding cherries is no small effort and it’s nice to spread the work out over a longer period of time. But the biggest advantage to this method is that you can freeze the precise amount of seeded and sugared cherries you need to make one pie. My mom actually prefers making pies from frozen cherries because it’s easier to control the amount of juice that goes into the pie filling if you separate the liquid from the cherries during the thawing process.
How to preserve sour cherries
To freeze, wash and seed four cups of cherries and place them into a large bowl. Sprinkle cherries with ½ cup of sugar, stir to combine, and let rest for 30 minutes. Freeze sugared cherries in 1.5-pint freezer containers or quart-sized freezer bags. Be sure to label your containers with contents and dates. Frozen cherries can be stored for up to one year. When taking frozen cherries out to thaw, put them in a colander with a bowl underneath to collect the juice.
If dealing with fresh sour cherries seems like too much work or sourcing them is an impossibility, you can often find jarred or canned sour cherries at Trader Joe’s or Middle Eastern markets. These canned sour cherries are usually Montmorency cherries and they’ll work fine. Just be sure that you’re not buying cherry pie filling, which is usually more sugary goop than cherries.
The hardest part of making a sour cherry pie is finding the cherries, but making cherry pie does require a certain amount of practice. The following recipe comes straight from my mother. I cannot guarantee that it will make you the focus of local newspaper profiles or will make your kitchen a place where neighbors drop in simply on the off-chance they can get some pie. But it will make you a convert to sour cherries.
Recipe courtesy Linda Lutz.
- 2 quarts sour cherries (fresh or frozen)
- 1 cup and 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
- 3 cups plus an additional 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon plus a pinch of salt
- 1 cup vegetable shortening
- 1 egg, beaten
- ⅓ cup plus 1 tablespoon cold water
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar
- ¼ teaspoon almond extract
- 1½ tablespoons butter
- Wash and seed cherries.
- Place about 4 cups fresh sour cherries into a medium bowl and add ½ cup of the sugar.
- Let sit for at least an hour to allow cherries to draw juice, stirring occasionally.
- To make pie dough, place 3 cups of the flour and 1 teaspoon salt into a large bowl.
- Measure 1 cup vegetable shortening and add in small pieces to flour mixture. Using the tips of your fingers, pinch the shortening into the flour mixture until the flour-covered fat balls are the size of slightly flattened peas.
- Beat one egg in a small bowl. Add water and vinegar to beaten egg and stir to combine.
- Slowly pour liquid into flour mixture, stirring gently with two fingers until all liquid is added. Have a light touch with dough to keep it flaky. Stir no more than is necessary to work dough into a ball.
- Divide dough into three parts and shape into flat rounds. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate while you making pie filling.
- Drain cherries into a colander, reserving juice.
- In a saucepan, combine ½ cup sugar, 4 tablespoons of flour and a pinch of salt. Slowly stir in reserved juice.
- Cook mixture until it begins to thicken, then add cherries, almond extract, and 1½ tablespoons of butter. Cook over medium heat for 5 minutes.
- Remove cherry filling from the heat and let cool while preparing pie dough.
- Take two rounds of pie dough out of refrigerator and unwrap them.
- Working with one round at a time, roll pie dough out on flour covered pastry cloth or countertop.
- When the round of dough is about half its needed size, use fingers to pinch any cracked edges back together. Continue rolling dough until it’s large enough to cover your pie pan. Dough should be no more than ¼ inch thick, but a generous 1/8-inch thick is even better.
- Place first round of dough into bottom of pie pan and roll out the top crust using the same method.
- Pour cherry filling into pastry lined 9-inch pie pan. (My mother prefers a glass pie dish so she can see how the bottom of her crust is browning.) If filling appears too thick at this point, add a bit of water before pouring filling into pie crust.
- Cover with top crust and cut approximate10 half-inch long slits in the top crust.
- Sprinkle the top of the pie with 1 teaspoon of granulated sugar.
- Cover the outer edges of the pie crust with aluminum foil or a metal pie edge protector to keep the edges of the crust from burning.
- Bake at 425 F for 35 to 45 minutes or until golden brown. If top crust seems to be browning too quickly, lay a piece of aluminum foil over the top of the crust for the last 10 minutes. Let pie cool before serving.
You can use up to 1½ cups sugar, but we like cherries pies tart. Extra round of pie dough can be frozen for future use. Keep dough round in plastic wrap and place in a freezer-safe plastic bag. Pie dough will keep in the freezer for several months.
Main photo: Mom’s Sour Cherry Pie is always a crowd-pleaser. Credit: Susan Lutz
Of the American cities traditionally associated with cake — New Orleans with its King Cake, St. Louis with its gooey butter cake, Boston with its misnamed cream pie — Denver has never rated particular mention. But when that changes — and it will — it will be thanks to native daughter Heather Alcott and her extraordinary efforts to bring Baumkuchen to the U.S.
Though Baumkuchen has ancient roots and a long history in Europe, the concentrically layered cake has become a phenomenon in Japan in recent years. That’s where Alcott discovered it a few years ago, on a visit while living in Singapore, and immediately “fell in love,” she recalled.
Bringing Baumkuchen to U.S. proves to be no easy task
“It’s cooked on a rotisserie, so it isn’t fried, yet it has this doughnut-type texture. … I went back to the hotel and started doing some research that evening,” she said. Upon learning “everyone has had a hand in this cake — the Romans, the Germans, the Romanians — I thought, ‘This is something pretty special.’ And I knew I wanted to be the first person in the country” to offer the commercial Japanese version.
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She became just that in February 2013, when she opened Glaze: The Baum Cake Shoppe — the name by which the online-retail business is still known, though the brick-and-mortar eatery is now a sushi-and-dessert lounge called Glaze by Sasa, in partnership with local Japanese eatery Sushi Sasa. Centered around the Red Dragon, her nickname for the 2,200-pound, custom-built oven outfitted with six spits, Alcott’s success has captured the attention of national media, including NPR. But the sheer lengths she went to to realize her dream make for a story in themselves.
Consider that the seemingly straightforward first step, signing a contract with the oven manufacturer, took more than two years. Even learning the name of the family-run company took some legwork, Alcott said. To this day she prefers to maintain its anonymity, and her first overture, by email in English, resulted in a flat refusal.
“I got a one-line response that said, ‘Thank you for your interest, but not right now. We’ve got a lot of growth already, and we’re just not ready for the USA.’ ” So she hired a translator and tried again, this time in Japanese. Clearly, her gesture was appreciated, as the team continued to respond, but there were “a good eight months of going back and forth” before a meeting was agreed to, and a year after the initial contact before it finally occurred.
“I took my husband with me to Japan,” Alcott explained, “because he has business experience there; he knows their style. First you go out for drinks and see if you even like each other. They hired a translator, and we could tell there was something there, so — many sakes later — we arranged for me to show them my business plan the next day.”
The result? “They ended up rejecting me. They didn’t understand Denver at all.” But they asked her to come back in a couple of months; by that point, they’d done some research on the market. “This time, they said, ‘Why not New York or San Francisco or Seattle?’ I said, ‘You have to trust me with this.’ They could see it in my face; I loved this product. But Denver is my home; I had to make it work here.”
Still, another no. Alcott admits that if she’d been living in the States, she’d have given up at this point. But because she was “on their back doorstep in Singapore,” she pushed onward — and finally, the company president agreed to build the oven.
“I’ve since been told that the Japanese reject you three times before they accept you,” she said, laughing.
Getting the Baumkuchenmeister seal of approval
The second step was for Alcott and her pastry chef to go through the certification process, training with the manufacturer’s Baumkuchenmeister and not only learning the recipes but adapting them for use in a high-altitude American kitchen. That meant more international flights, more translators and months of ingredient adjustments as Alcott began her search for the perfect organic cultured butter, matcha (green-tea powder) and so on.
“They flew over here to test and weigh my eggs! They had to be fresh and just the right size — not too large, not too small. I had to fly over my almond flour, cake flour, sugars. It probably looked like we were shipping cocaine,” Alcott joked.
But every little detail made a difference: “If the batter’s too runny or too thick, it won’t stay on the spit.” In the midst of all this, she received a call from the president: “They said, ‘The oven just isn’t perfect enough. We have to take it all apart and start over.’ ”
Eventually, of course, that darned oven did arrive in Denver. “I actually hugged it before it got on the boat from Japan,” Alcott said. Once it was installed behind glass in her Congress Park space, “the president, his top engineer and his top chef all flew out to turn it on for the first time,” per a contractual agreement. “We all cheered.”
It’s hard to believe that the drop-dead gorgeous, luscious-but-refined Baumkuchen cakes Glaze now turns out are infused with such blood, sweat and tears. Each takes 24 hours to make; the pastry chefs shoot for 21 layers, but the final tally can depend on everything from the base flavor (“the chocolate is so fluffy, it sometimes has to be pulled earlier”) to local weather conditions.
They also experiment with new flavors, such as orange and pumpkin. Surprisingly, “the Japanese are so supportive; they love the innovation,” Alcott said. “We have become the test kitchen for Baumkuchen in this country.”
While we Denverites are lucky to have them, you can purchase Glaze’s products too. But don’t hold your breath for a brick-and-mortar outpost anytime soon. As Alcott put it, “I take this opportunity I’ve been given day by day.”
Main photo: Baumkuchen is cooked on a rotisserie. Credit: Adam Larkey Photography
After tasting 2,734 entries, it was easy to spot food trends. I was one of the dozen judges for the coveted sofi Awards given to this year’s outstanding artisanal food products. One of the unexpected benefits of being a judge was the opportunity to taste everything in neatly organized categories. Usually, when attending a food show, you sample food in a random order, tasting the 2,000-plus exhibitor’s products in the haphazard order of booth geography, meandering from a taste of vinegar to jam, salsa and beer. But not this year.
In April and May the Specialty Food Association, which gives the awards, grouped the entries into categories. Finally, instead of a random mix of flavors, submissions were organized into 32 groupings, such as appetizers, beverages, condiments, desserts, salad dressings, snack foods, and USDA-certified organic products. The items in each group were set out on long tables in a half dozen rooms in the association’s New York City offices. We tasted more than 2,000 entries! We taste-tested 111 cheeses, 167 cooking sauces, 154 diet lifestyle foods, and 144 snacks in 1½- to 3-hour sessions. Palate fatigue was kept at bay by slices of green apples, crackers, pitchers of water and seltzer.
This year’s sofi Awards finalists reveals five fascinating trends, where new tastes meet classic traditions:
1. Molecular gastronomy
Also called modernistic cuisine, molecular gastronomy combines chemistry with cooking to alter the texture, look and taste of foods. This kitchen-based rocket science, popular with many top chefs in recent years, is moving into specialty foods. Several companies are introducing faux caviar, little gelled spheres that burst in your mouth. They can be filled with just about anything, from pesto to balsamic vinegar to espresso to truffle juice.
Get ready for floral-flavored waters, teas and even cocktail mixers, the next wave cresting in the beverage category. Blossom Water combines fruits and flowers in tandem, such as Lemon Rose, Plum Jasmine and Grapefruit Lilac. Rishi Tea is blending blueberries with hibiscus, and bergamot with sage. Owl’s Brew Pink & Black is a tea-infused cocktail mix blended with hibiscus. As unusual as these combinations may sound, they’re nothing new. Rosewater and orange flower water, familiar to Moroccan food enthusiasts, date to the Renaissance.
3. Savory sweets
Pushing the envelope on savory sweets has been a growing trend since the realization that chocolate and caramel only get better with a sprinkle of sea salt. At this year’s Fancy Food Show we’ll be introduced to cauliflower kale muffins, savory ice creams, and Blue Hill’s vegetable yogurts, which derive their vegetal sweetness from beets, sweet potatoes or winter squash. Bacon marmalade, anyone?
Smoke as a flavor component began as an important food preservation technique for our early ancestors, but now it’s showing up in items you wouldn’t expect. Smoke goes beyond barbecue and moves into chocolate chips (Hot Cakes Molten Chocolate Cakery Co.), smoked pizza flour, shortbread with smoked hickory sea salt (The Sticky Toffee Pudding Co.) and even smoked cocktail mixes. The aromatic allure triggers a primitive taste memory that we seem hardwired to love.
5. Compression and dehydration
Compressing or dehydrating foods not only changes their textures, but it also concentrates their flavors. Manicaretti’s dehydrated capers add a crisp, briny crunch to pasta, salads and seafood. The compressed cube of concentrated maple sugar made by Tonewood is so hard it can only be grated, but the delicate wisps that gently fall from a microplane taste more intensely of maple than maple syrup or maple candy. Grace & I’s tightly pressed Fruit + Nuts Press not only looks like a pretty pound cake, but slices like cake too. Coach Farms has transformed some of their goat cheese into grating sticks that allow you to easily add a subtle, cheesy tang to pastas, salads, and vegetables. It won’t be long before these trends and most likely many of these products will appear in the aisles of your favorite supermarket and specialty food shop. When you do see them, it’s fine to feel a little smug — you read about them here first! This year’s award ceremony will be hosted by Cronut creator Dominique Ansel on June 30 at the Javits Center in New York City.
Main photo: Among the food trends is molecular gastronomy; in this case, faux caviar that tastes like basil. Credit: Specialty Food Association
In the United States and perhaps elsewhere, most picnics are simply enjoyable outdoor meals and social occasions, where thoroughly normal groups of people decide to have a fun time and eat and drink some well-prepared goodies out of doors. In the United Kingdom, things are rather more complicated. By tradition, British picnics are of three sorts: the romantic, the grand and the disastrous.
The romantic picnic encapsulates simplicity in beautiful surroundings with a wonderful view, a stream, a wood or flower-filled meadow. The tradition started a couple of hundred years ago, when people began to see nature and the countryside as picturesque rather than dangerous. The food, drink and company are all planned to add to the picnickers’ awareness of nature and its beauties and seem particularly associated with happy and impressionable youth. Such a picnic involves little display or showing off, and not even a great deal of organisation. Sandwiches, fruit and some chilled wine or lemonade would be enough to make the right company happy in this setting — if it can be found. Somehow, this is the sort of picnic people dream of, but don’t very often end up having.
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Over the top
The grand picnic is often and sometimes deservedly mocked. At its worst, it is based on the assumption that conspicuous expenditure will win the envy and admiration of spectators and guests. Victorian writers such as Anthony Trollope describe picnics with attendant servants, Champagne and dancing. Nowadays, grand English social occasions such as horse racing’s Royal Ascot, rowing’s Henley, opera’s Glyndebourne and the end-of-term speech days of the most expensive private schools all provide opportunities for showing off. Too much expensive food and drink such as lobsters, oysters and the very best Burgundy and Bordeaux, overdone table decorations, gilt wood chairs, striped awnings and tents, and even uniformed staff to wait on the picnickers are all to be seen. The hosts are often reduced to a state of nervous anxiety by the knowledge that highly competitive picnics are taking place all around them, and so only the richest, most confident and best prepared can expect to win.
When all goes wrong
The disastrous picnic is generally a product of nature winning the war with man. Although it can start out as one of the previous types, is somehow felt to be very traditional in itself. A romantic picnic in a field can be quickly spoilt by a herd of inquisitive farm animals, or worse, a loose bull. The British climate is far from reliable and can ruin the best-laid plans. Insects such as bees, wasps and biting flies can rout a group of potential picnickers. Rain, gusting wind, cold and driven sand at the seaside are some of the other hazards that British picnickers may have to face. In addition, picnics taken by a river provide the opportunity for at least one guest to fall in, and for others to feel duty-bound to follow as rescuers.
Then there’s the grand combination
When the grand merge, as they sometimes do for some reason with the disastrous, the situation is regarded as particularly amusing by spectators. Not only bad weather but the influence of gravity on expensively prepared cold collations can cause havoc. One of the smartest horse racing meetings in England takes place annually at Goodwood in West Sussex towards the end of July. Most people, of course, just come to enjoy themselves, but every year some overdo it. The most elaborate picnics are held on a steep slope and each year at least one of these is bowled downhill, with elegantly clad members of the (presumed) aristocracy in hot pursuit. Shellfish, the finest vintages of the best wine, cold beef and salmon, along with the occasional windblown table, glass, cutlery and awnings, have all been known to end up crushed against a boundary fence at the bottom of the hill. It is not, of course, considered polite to laugh too openly.
Since International Picnic Day is on June 18, this seems the right moment to celebrate with a delicious cold dessert. The recipe that follows is taken from our book “For the Love of an Orchard,” and would enhance any picnic. Pretty enough to pass for grand, delicious enough to increase a sense of romance and consoling enough to mitigate a disaster, it is based on a dessert dish that a visiting French friend prepared for Chris and his family a few years ago. Alice Soubranne, who is an excellent cook, was kind enough to give us this family recipe.
- Sweet pastry (use pâte sucré or a half-pound block of good-quality chilled supermarket pastry)
- 3 to 4 apples, peeled, cored and sliced, approximately 2 cups
- 4 to 5 tablespoons caster or superfine sugar
- 6 egg yolks
- 20 U.S. fluid ounces tub of crème fraîche
- 2 ounces butter
- Blind bake the pastry in a buttered 10-inch tart pan or flan case with removable base at 350 F. The shell should be firm and dry but not browned or biscuit-like.
- Arrange the sliced apples prettily in concentric circles and again bake at 350 F until softened but holding their shape (say, 10 minutes).
- In a big bowl, beat the egg yolks with enough sugar to make the mixture neither too sweet nor solid. Then fold in the gently melted butter and crème fraîche and pour this custard mixture over the apples in the baking case.
- Turn the heat up to 375 F and cook the tart for about 30 minutes so it is, in Alice's words, "goldy and has a tan," but does not burn. It must not even turn dark brown or the custard will curdle at the edges, making a break line where it meets the pastry.
- Eat cold, served with crème fraîche or cream. Other fruits can in principle be used for this tart, including plums and probably cherries, but the right liquid content and height in relation to the finished custard is important.
Presentation is important, with evenly cut apple rings and golden custard. Good apples for this recipe should have a slightly spicy taste with good acid, and hold their texture when cooked in the custard. Norfolk Pippin, Ashmead's Kernel and most Russets are really good. Of the generally available supermarket apples Braeburn is reliable and tastes good, holding enough texture. Bramleys are too tart.
Main photo: Picnickers gather at St. James Park in London. Credit: iStock
There’s only one thing better than eating berries straight from the bush, and that’s putting them into a buttery pâte sucrée crust. Here are just a few of the blissful berries that can go into your summer berry tart.
Aronia berries: Aronia is in the apple family, and the clusters of dark fruits have an intense tannic flavor that dissipates when they are cooked. Native to North America, aronia is popular in Poland and Russia, where it is used to make juices, jam, syrups and flavored spirits. It is high in vitamin C and has many times the amount of antioxidants found in blueberries and pomegranate.
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Blackberries: New varieties of blackberries are larger and sweeter than older varieties, but all are high in vitamins and antioxidants.
Raspberries: In addition to red raspberries, there are golden ones that are also high in vitamins C and K.
Blueberries: Great in pancakes and muffins, blueberries contain high levels of antioxidants.
Red, white or black currants: Very high in vitamin C, currants are used in jams, pies, ice creams and tarts. Black currants have more intense flavors than the red or white currants, and are packed with iron, potassium, phosphorous, iron and vitamin B5.
Gooseberries: These small berries can be red, green and purple and are good in tarts, pies, puddings and fruit salads. Gooseberries are high in vitamins C and A, potassium and manganese.
Strawberries: Go for whichever strawberries have the strongest aroma and you won’t be disappointed. They contain high vitamin C, manganese and folic acid levels.
Mulberries: These soft fruits have zero shelf life, but you can often find them growing wild at the edges of woods or parking lots. If you do, eat them right away or put them in a pie or tart.
All these berries are nutritional powerhouses, offering many phytonutrients, such as anthocyanins, ellagic acid, quercetin and catechins, that provide deep colors, rich flavors and disease-fighting attributes.
You can double, triple or quadruple the tart crust recipe below, portion it into one-tart amounts, then freeze it for up to two months. As each new berry comes into season, thaw and roll out the dough for that week’s tart. By the end of the season, you will be a pro at making berry tarts, and you will most likely have a lot of new friends!
The following recipe is adapted from Alice Waters’ Santa Rosa Plum Tart in “Chez Panisse Fruit.”
- Summer berries of your choice, about one quart (I use a mix of blueberries, raspberries, aronia berries and red currants)
- 1 pre-baked 10-inch pâte sucrée tart shell (recipe below)
- ¼ pound (1 stick) unsalted butter
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 2 eggs
- ¾ cup sugar
- 1½ teaspoons of plum brandy, grappa or kirsch
- ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
- ⅛ teaspoon salt
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 2 tablespoons heavy cream
- Preheat the oven to 375 F.
- Put the berries in a single layer in the tart shell, or arrange them in concentric circles.
- Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Let it bubble gently and cook until the milk solids turn light brown. Remove the butter from the heat and add the lemon juice. Set aside.
- Beat the eggs and sugar together with an electric mixer until the mixture is thick and forms a ribbon when dropped from the beaters, about five minutes. Add the butter, brandy, vanilla, salt, flour and cream. Stir just until mixed. Gently pour the mixture over the berries, filling the shell, and just barely covering the berries.
- Bake in the top third of the oven until the top is golden brown, about 35 minutes. Let cool on a rack for 15 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature
The following recipe is adapted from Alice Waters’ “The Art of Simple Food.” If you’ve never made a tart before, read her section on tarts, where she walks you through the process step by step.
Pâte Sucrée Tart Crust
Prep Time: 20 minutes, plus 4 hours chill time
Cooking Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 35 minutes (4 hours 35 minutes including chill time)
Yield: 1 (10-inch) tart crust
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
⅓ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg yolk, at room temperature
1¼ cups flour
1. Beat the butter and sugar together until creamy. Mix in the salt, vanilla and egg yolk. Add the flour, stir and fold in gently until there are no dry patches. The dough will be soft and sticky. Gather it up into a ball and wrap in plastic. Flatten into a disk, and chill for at least 4 hours.
2. Preheat the oven to 425 F.
3. Take the dough out of the refrigerator. If it is very hard, let it sit 10 to 20 minutes to soften. Roll it out between two sheets of wax paper or parchment paper until it is about ⅛-inch thick and about 12 inches in diameter.
4. Put the dough into the tart pan and press gently into the sides. Trim any excess dough, and lightly prick all over with a fork. Bake for 5 minutes at 425 F, and then reduce temperature to 350 F and continue baking for 10 to 15 minutes or until light gold.
Main photo: The red, white and blue hues of Summer Berry Tart before baking. Credit: Terra Brockman
Sun, Sea & Olives: There’s a lot of talk these days about ancient grains, but frankly, as far as wheat is concerned, it would be hard to get more ancient than einkorn (Triticum monococcum). Einkorn, archeologists agree, is the oldest cultivated grain in the Mediterranean, and the Mediterranean is the great cradle of wheat in all its forms — whether as porridge (probably the oldest wheat “dish”), bread, pasta or even tabbouleh or couscous, it all begins in and around the Mediterranean.
Einkorn is, then, the ancestor, the wheat that precedes all others, including modern T. aestivum, aka bread wheat, from which we get our all-purpose flour. T. aestivum is “only” 10,000 years young; einkorn is much older. Botanists call it a relict crop, meaning its cultivation has died away except in a few remote places.
That’s too bad, because it has a number of virtues modern wheats lack, principally a gluten structure tolerated by gluten-sensitive people (although not by those diagnosed with celiac disease). Some types of Italian farro, called farro piccolo or small farro, are in fact T. monococcum, though most farro is emmer, T. dicoccum, or spelt, T. speltum.
All this may be confusing to most people, but not to Eli Rogosa, a wheat farmer and grain investigator of exemplary determination, who, after identifying and researching einkorn in the Palestinian territories and Israel, set herself to growing einkorn, as well as emmer, on fields in central Maine and western Massachusetts. Growing the grain and milling the berries into flour that is uniquely gratifying to turn into bread — as I’ve been discovering in recent weeks.
Einkorn is a whole grain in the truest form
Einkorn flour is sweetly nutty and flavorful. Unlike most whole-wheat flour, in which various parts of the grains are milled separately then recombined, this is a genuine, whole-meal, whole-grain flour with nothing separated or recombined — just pure whole grains of wheat milled to a soft, tan flour. You can find out more and order flour (or whole-wheat kernels if you wish) at growseed.org, the website of The Heritage Grain Conservancy. Meanwhile, here’s how to turn it into a delicious bread, made with approximately half einkorn flour and half unbleached all-purpose flour.
The process takes two to three days, although you will only be working a small amount of time each day. The tastiest bread I can make begins with a pre-ferment, also called a sponge; in France, this is a poolish, while in Italy it’s a biga. Handling the dough like this -- letting it rise, gradually adding more liquid and flour -- helps to develop fermentation and the complex flavors that result. Note: I prefer King Arthur unbleached all-purpose flour for this. I also set a pitcher of water on the counter the night before so the purifying chemicals added to most tap water will evaporate.
- ½ teaspoon instant yeast, divided
- ½ cup room-temperature water
- 3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, divided, plus more for dusting
- 2½ to 3 cups einkorn flour (or use whole-wheat or whole-rye flour)
- 1½ cups water, at room temperature
- 1 tablespoon fine sea salt
- Cornmeal or semolina flour, for dusting
- Combine ¼ teaspoon of the yeast, ½ cup of water and ½ cup all-purpose flour in a bowl and beat gently for about 30 strokes with a wooden spoon to activate the gluten. This is the starter sponge. It will be a thick slurry, more like a batter than a bread dough.
- Cover with plastic wrap and set aside to rise overnight in a cool place (not the refrigerator).
- The next day, combine the sponge with about 2 cups of all-purpose flour and 2½ cups of einkorn flour. Dissolve the remaining ¼ teaspoon of yeast in 1¼ cups of tepid water and add to the bowl. Stir to mix well; it will still be quite shaggy. Cover again with plastic wrap and set aside to rest for at least 20 to 30 minutes; it can also rest for a couple of hours. This is what bakers call the autolyse.
- Use the remaining flours to lightly dust the bread board. Add the salt to the dough and knead it briefly by pushing it onto the board, then folding it over itself, turning it a quarter turn and then pushing it out and folding it over again. Keep doing this until the consistency of the dough is springy and no longer sticky. Add more flour to the board if the dough starts to stick. It should be neither so wet that it doesn’t hang together nor so dry that it looks and feels powdery. You may add a touch more water or flour from time to time, depending on how the dough feels to you.
- Return the dough to a rinsed-out bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Set aside to rise once more -- several hours at room temperature or overnight in the refrigerator. Once or twice during this period, punch the dough down and fold it over itself, then let it rise again.
- When the rising time is up, turn the dough onto a lightly floured board and divide it in two, each piece weighing about 1½ pounds.
- Press the dough out on the board as if you were shaping pizza, and fold it over onto itself several times, like a letter you’re folding to go into an envelope, very firmly to get rid of excess air holes. Give the dough a quarter turn each time you fold it. Finally, shape the dough into a round boule or a longer, more slender piece, like a thick baguette or what French bakers call a bâtarde.
- Scatter cornmeal or semolina over oven trays or sheet pans and set the unbaked breads on the pans. (Some home bakers use terracotta baking tiles set on a rack in the oven. If you do that, instead of sheet pans, scatter cornmeal or semolina thickly on a bread peel -- a wooden shingle with a handle that will allow you to transfer the breads directly onto the tiles.)
- Cover the breads with a damp cloth and leave to rise for 2 to 2½ hours.
- Preheat the oven to 450 F. (If using baking tiles, preheat for at least 30 minutes; even if the temperature control light goes off, the tiles will need more time to heat to baking temperature.) Have ready a deep skillet on a rack just above the oven floor. When you’re ready to transfer the bread to the oven, have ready a teakettle of boiling water.
- Just before transferring to the oven, use a sharp knife or razor to slash the tops of the loaves in whatever pattern pleases you.
- Slide the breads on their trays into the oven, or set the peels directly on the oven tiles and give a jerk to shift the breads onto the tiles. Immediately pour an inch or more of boiling water into the skillet and close the oven door.
- Bake for 30 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 F and bake another 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the breads from the oven when done and transfer to a wire rack to cool.
For no-knead bread: Another foolproof method, developed by New York master baker Jim Leahy of Sullivan Street Bakery and made popular by New York Times writer Mark Bittman, is “no-knead bread.” (But as you can see, there’s not a lot of kneading with the previous method.)
More from Zester Daily:
In this case, prepare the dough as above, but after folding each loaf and shaping it, set it on a heavily floured kitchen towel and cover with a dampened towel to rise for about 2 hours. Toward the end of that time, heat the oven to 450 F and insert a heavy covered pot, like a cast-iron Dutch oven. (Le Creuset pots are perfect for this.) Let the oven and the pot heat for at least 30 minutes, then, working rapidly and carefully, pull the pot out of the oven, uncover it and turn the floured cloth over to drop the bread dough into it. Give the pot a shake to let the dough settle. (There is no need to slash the loaf.) Clamp the lid on again and return to the oven. Let the bread bake for 30 minutes or so, then remove the cover, lower the heat to 350 F and continue baking for another 15 minutes before turning the bread out on a rack to cool.
The advantage to this method is that the pot with its lid on acts like a miniature oven and creates a crisp toasted crust without either slashing the loaf or adding steam to the oven. The disadvantage is that unless you have a very large oven or double ovens, you must bake one loaf after another, but the results are so spectacular that it’s worth it.
Main photo: Bread made from a mixture of einkorn flour and all-purpose flour. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins