Articles in Baking

Paula Marcoux's sweet crispy borek, or campfire baklava. Credit: Ellie Markovitch

“Flatbreads really grabbed me because they’re ancient in nature,” Paula Marcoux said at a class in early August. “Stone or clay or metal griddles grew up with domesticated grains. As nomadic people spread those grains they brought the griddle with them.”

In Saratoga, N.Y., the kitchen at the Healthy Living Market is very modern, which was fitting for the class introducing a group of contemporary cooks to how these ancient technologies and old foods have traveled through time and the world.

“I studied archaeology, and one of the things I love the most about the Middle East was eating the food. You can learn from documents, and you can learn from archaeology but you can learn by cooking too. And it’s not going to be the same unless you cook with fire,” Marcoux said, identifying the path to her passion.

ZESTER BOOK LINKS


Cover-Cooking with Fire by Paula Marcoux. Credit: Courtesy Storey Publishing

"Cooking With Fire"

By Paula Marcoux

Storey Publishing, 320 pages, 2014

» Click here to buy the book

That passion is outlined in her new book, “Cooking With Fire: From Roasting on a Spit to Baking in a Tannur, Rediscovered Techniques and Recipes That Capture the Flavors of Wood-Fired Cooking” (Storey Publishing). A food historian, Marcoux is the food editor of Edible South Shore magazine, and has worked as an archaeologist, cook and bread oven builder. The book, her first, covers a lot of ground with food and fire, from the most rudimentary fire and stick methods through managing the nuances of retained heat in an oven — brick or otherwise.

I can’t get my head out of the middle chapter, which covers griddles and flatbreads, a food ghetto I see no reason to leave.

“The fact is that baking technologies develop to suit the grains available,” Marcoux wrote. “With its smooth horizontal surface allowing even and controlled baking, the griddle has been used by cooks the world over to convert gluten-free grains and even tubers into tremendous breads.”

I love this. People talk about flatbreads and batter breads being as old as, and older than, our life with grains. But her explanation seems more perfect than others I’ve heard, perhaps because it comes with recipes. At Marcoux’s class, she traced how the stretched doughs of Anatolia had moved around the world in a cross-cultural arc of flaky, griddle-baked wheat goods that included scallion pancakes, and boreks savory and sweet.

“The modern borek derives from the ancient Semitic root word b-r-k,” Marcoux said. “From this came borek, pierogi and Tunisian brik. The Middle Eastern word is a blazing clue to these flatbreads, where a fine stretched dough delivers filling. I think it’s amazing how one idea can travel 10,000 years. That’s longevity.”

Marcoux has shoulder length dark hair and a ready smile. Being with her is like having searchable access to an encyclopedia of our human history with cooking and food.

Griddles have been used by cooks everywhere to convert gluten-free grains into tremendous breads. Credit: Ellie Markovitch

Griddles have been used by cooks everywhere to convert gluten-free grains into tremendous breads. Credit: Ellie Markovitch

For a flour and griddle fiend like me, she has been a joy to find. Her name crept into my life at the Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Massachusetts where she used to work, and where I went to visit erstwhile Pilgrims handling grains. This was in the spring, and people at Plimoth were excited about Marcoux’s work documenting early ovens in New England, and about her book, which was released in May. Now that I’ve met her, and have her book in my kitchen, I understand the enthusiasm.

“For the scallion pancakes, I’m just rolling out a simple circle of dough,” she explained at the market. She poured a little sesame oil on the disk, and spread it thickly with chopped scallions. “Roll it up like a long cigar. Coil it up like a snail, and let it rest a while.”

After that while had passed, maybe 10 minutes, she rolled the snail into a pancake, and fried it in a little canola oil on a tava, a concave pan generally used for dosas.

Gas not like using live fire

“I feel funny cooking this indoors,” she said, adjusting the heat so the pancake wouldn’t burn. “As lovely as this kitchen is, cooking on a gas stove just isn’t the same as using live fire. Instead of struggling with these controls, you’d just be pulling a twig out, or pushing a twig into the fire.”

As the pancakes cooked, she made Middle Eastern pastries, and invited us to come up to the counter and learn.

“This technology is older than tossing pizza,” she said, moving a piece of dough from hand to hand. She urged people to look for videos of Armenian women tossing dough to learn the method.

The volunteers rolled their dough flat, then stretched it using a sway and throw motion between fingers and hands. Once it was thin enough, they put it on a cutting board again, where they buttered, then filled it.

“Puff pastry works because the fat and gluten layers have to work together,” she said, noting that the doughs we used were only wheat and water. “It doesn’t take huge expertise to make this because of the amazing geometry of dough. This quality of wheat is what made us love it, and we’ve been loving it for a really long time.”

Chive Pancakes

Yield: 4-6 servings

Ingredients

    For the sauce:
  • 1 tablespoon light soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce (or another of light soy sauce)
  • 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon sambal oelek or other Asian hot chile paste
  • ¼ cup chicken broth (or water, plus another dash or two of soy)
  • For the pancakes:
  • 1¾ cups (8 ounces) all-purpose flour
  • 1¾ cups (6 ounces) unbleached cake flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons peanut, canola or corn oil, plus more for frying pancakes
  • 1¼ cups boiling water
  • Asian (toasted) sesame oil for brushing
  • 1½ cups chives or scallions, finely chopped

Directions

  1. Make sauce first to let flavors marry. Mix all ingredients and let rest while you make the dough.
  2. With a food processor or by hand, mix together flours and salt. Stir in 2 tablespoons oil, then, gradually, the boiling water. (You may need a few more drops of water, but wait and see.) Once it comes together in a ball, knead by hand for a few minutes, then let rest airtight for 30 minutes.
  3. Roll the dough into a cylinder, and cut into 12 even-sized pieces. Roll each into a smooth ball. Cover with a moist towel or plastic wrap so they don’t dry out.
  4. Roll one ball out thinly, brush with sesame oil, sprinkle liberally with chives, and roll up snugly in a cylinder. Coil the tube of filled dough in a spiral, keeping the seam to the inside. Press together a bit, and set aside, covered, while you fashion the rest.
  5. Gently roll each pancake flat. They should be 4 or 5 inches in diameter and about ¼-inch thick. (Light-handed rolling preserves all-important layering for the best texture.) Set up a couple of large skillets or a griddle; heat ⅛ inch of oil over medium heat. (You can continue rolling as you fry.)
  6. When the oil is hot, fry the pancakes (as many as you can at a time without crowding) until golden brown and crispy and cooked through — they should take about 3 minutes on the A side, and 2 minutes on the B side. Drain briefly on a rack or paper, cut in quarters, and serve hot with dipping sauce.

Notes

Recipe excerpted from "Cooking With Fire" by Paula Marcoux, used with permission from Storey Publishing.

Main photo: Paula Marcoux’s sweet crispy borek, or campfire baklava. Credit: Ellie Markovitch

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Lavender is ready for harvest when most of its brilliant purple flowers have emerged. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

A little lavender goes a long way in the kitchen. But use too much and that floral essence you love from one of the world’s most versatile culinary herbs might turn a dish to something as welcome as a perfume-soaked Chatty Cathy on a long-haul flight.

Below are seven ways to use lavender in a manner that will enhance, not overpower.

Preparing the flowers

A member of the mint family, lavender grows in upright, evergreen shrubs that might reach as tall as 3 feet and as wide as 4 feet. The bushes are fragrant on their own, but summer is when lavender stems shoot up, blossoming in tight, brilliantly purple flowers. These flowers will produce the most pungent and aromatic additions to your experiments in the kitchen, lending a perfume that mingles well with the flavors of the season.

Now is the time to let your dreams of cottage life in Provence come to life, no matter where you live. If you have access to one of the many wonderful lavender farms popping up in the United States, such as Hill Country Lavender in Blanco, Texas, Los Poblanos Historic Inn & Organic Farm near Albuquerque, N.M., or the English Lavender Farm in Applegate, Ore., you can pick your own. Better yet, you might be growing it in your backyard. Note: If you buy lavender from a farm for culinary use, be sure to ask whether it was grown with pesticides. You don’t want to eat it if it was grown using pesticides.

If you grow lavender, here’s the steps to preparing the flowers:

  • Harvest the lavender. The blossoms are ready when the brilliant purple flowers have emerged and have not yet begun to wilt. If you are cutting lavender yourself, cut the stalks a few inches above the plant’s woody growth and gather the lavender into a bunch. Tie it together.
  •  Dry the lavender. At this point, you can use it fresh, or you can hang it up or lay it flat to dry it. Note: If you are cooking with fresh lavender, use three times the number of flowers as in a dried lavender recipe.
  •  De-stem the lavender. You can use the whole stalk in cooking, but many people prefer to remove the flowers from the stalk and store them separately.
  •  Store it well. Store lavender in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. A Mason jar is a good choice.

Lavender farm

Lavender farm
Picture 1 of 4

At Los Poblanos, a historic inn and lavender farm near Albuquerque, N.M., several acres of lavender are processed into lavender oil and culinary lavender. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

7 ideas for eating and drinking your lavender

Lavender works a lot like rosemary — a little can create a great perfume. But just as with all scents, too much can overpower. Use it sparingly, and adjust the amount of lavender according to your specific palate.

Lavender butter

Take a stick (½ pound) of room-temperature butter and top it with a tablespoon of dried, ground (if desired) lavender. Mix the lavender and butter together in a bowl. Chill it for a few days to let the lavender flavor develop. Use it with honey atop your favorite biscuit, scone or other baked good.

Lavender sugar

Use about 1 tablespoon dried lavender for every 2 cups of sugar. Grind the lavender in a food processor for about 15 seconds to develop the lavender flavor. Add a cup of granulated sugar to the process and blend well, about three or four quick presses on a Cuisinart. Store the lavender sugar in an airtight container such as a Mason jar and use it in all of your favorite sweet baking recipes that call for sugar.

Lavender vodka

Using a funnel, drop about a ¼ cup lavender flowers into a bottle of your favorite vodka. Take out the funnel and close the bottle. Shake, so the flowers mix throughout. Store in the freezer for three days. Strain the vodka into a separate container, using a fine-mesh sieve, a cheesecloth or a paper towel. Squeeze the bundle with the flowers in it to extract as much lavender flavor as possible. Pour the vodka back in the bottle and store in your freezer for use in a lavender vodka tonic with a splash of lime.

Lavender balsamic vinaigrette

Lavender can add a quick, floral kick to any basic vinaigrette recipe. In vinaigrette recipes calling for a combination of balsamic vinegar, oil, honey and ground pepper, add 1 tablespoon of fresh lavender (or a third of that of dried) for every 1½ cups of vinaigrette.

Lavender-roasted chicken

Create a rub for roasted chicken using about a tablespoon lemon juice, 1 teaspoon lemon zest, 1½ tablespoons dried lavender, 1 teaspoon dried thyme, 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil and 1 tablespoon honey.

Lavender and blueberry anything

Lavender and blueberry are fast friends, and in many parts of the country appear at the same time. Try putting lavender sugar into your favorite blueberry cobbler at the height of the season, bake some lavender directly into blueberry lavender scones, or infuse some milk with lavender and pour it atop fresh blueberries. About half a teaspoon of lavender is usually a good fit with a pint of fruit.

Salmon and lavender

Create a rub of lime zest and lime juice from two limes, ½ teaspoon thyme, ½ teaspoon dried lavender, 1 teaspoon pepper, 1 teaspoon sea salt and 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil. Rub the seasoning mix on salmon fillets and bake as you would in your favorite salmon recipe.

 Main photo: Lavender is ready for harvest when most of its brilliant purple flowers have emerged. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

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Sad Cake. Credit: Barbara Haber

A British friend recently told me about a cake she grew up with called Sad Cake. That title struck me as pretty funny because when we think about cake we are conditioned to connect it to happiness — birthdays, anniversaries, all sorts of joyous celebrations. It turns out, though, that this British cake found in Lancashire got its name because it’s made from leftover pastry and has no filling such as the layer of candied peel, lots of currants and spices found in Eccles cake, a British favorite. Instead, sad cake is studded with just a few currants, and comes out of the oven looking flat and a little dejected.

Deflating dishes

Discovering sad cake got me thinking about the sorts of foods that sink my spirits, and I will be quick to say that what brings on melancholy in me may give others joy. For instance, when I order a restaurant main course described as including green vegetables only to wind up with a large hunk of meat, a pile of potatoes and two lonely string beans artfully placed, I feel a little sad because I wanted more of the beans. No doubt, this same plate of food would be completely satisfying to someone else.

I remember a time when I ordered tarte tatin, fully expecting to receive the classic upside-down caramelized apple pie, thick and toothsome. What was placed before me was a deconstructed version of the dish, a circle of pastry on one side of the plate, a pile of stewed apples across from it, and in the middle a little puddle of caramel sauce. The pastry chef no doubt had fun taking apart this wonderful dish, but I was left feeling bereft, longing for a thick slice of this beloved pie in which the flavors commingle.

Another sort of food that lowers my mood is the sight of blue or pink frosting on cakes. For me, only chocolate or caramel frosting will do, a prejudice I suspect comes down from my mother who used to say rude things about artificially dyed foods. This brings me to an important distinction I must make between foods that make me sad and those that are revolting. Sad foods leave me feeling forlorn and disappointed. Revolting foods are downright stomach-turning.

What usually turns off people are foods outside of their culture and experience. If you didn’t grow up eating chicken feet or even rabbits, the thought of them can send chills. The mere idea of eating other small wild animals is repulsive to people who are not used to dining on squirrels or raccoons. What I find disagreeable these days is how bacon turns up in unexpected places. I was served a sugar cookie recently, and instead of coming across chocolate chips or raisins, I bit into little chunks of greasy bacon. Disgusted by this innovation, I discreetly spat a mouthful into a napkin and ditched the rest of the cookie. So, it is the unpleasant combination of ingredients and flavors that also are candidates for my revolting foods category. I don’t like Fluff with peanut butter, or bananas with anything, but unlike many people, I just love Miracle Whip, especially on cold chicken sandwiches. Again, I find that tastes vary considerably, not only from one country to another but from one family to the next.

One person’s anger is another’s …

The last related category in my compendium is foods that make you angry. When the medium-rare hamburger I ask for in a decent restaurant comes back well-done and gray, my passions rise. Sometimes entire meals can be vexing. I once attended a tasting dinner at a high-end restaurant, and of the six people around our table, only my husband was new to the game. Each course had different dishes that were set before us, and the idea was to take a taste and then pass the plate on to the person seated at our right. That way we all had a taste of everything without getting stuffed, and as far as I was concerned, the meal could have gone on forever, for we foodies, or “foodists” as some would prefer, were feeling happy about having our appetites and curiosity appeased. However, when I later asked my husband if he had enjoyed the meal, he told me that it made him mad because every time he really liked something, the plate was snatched away and he was handed something not nearly as good. Go figure.

The moral of all of this is that food creates mood, a well-known observation that is played out in literature and life. In “Like Water for Chocolate,” a young girl, thwarted in love, projects her grief onto the food she prepares, causing all who eat it to cry and sob. A more recent novel, “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” uses a similar magical device to give a young girl the ability to identify the cook’s genuine emotions in what she eats. In tasting her mother’s lemon cake, for instance, the girl discovers that her seemingly cheerful mother is a lonely and unhappy woman. These books, though full of high drama and literary license, are just another way of telling us that food affects our emotions.

I would only add that we each experience this truth in our own way.

Main photo: Sad Cake. Credit: Barbara Haber

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Chocolate icebox cake with Valrhona, Scharffen Berger and Ghirardelli chocolate. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Sometimes hand-me down family recipes need a little nudge to make them suit today’s tastes. In the case of my grandma’s icebox cake, she traditionally labored over creating homemade pound cake and then paired it with homemade chocolate mousse-like pudding. My mom updated it for her day by using Jell-O pudding instead. It was tasty enough to be my favorite dessert as a 6-year-old, but as an adult, I want something more. More chocolate, to be specific.

So I followed a big sister’s suggestion and combined the best of these family ideas. I added all the extra-dark chocolate I could find to the pudding as it cooked. Valrhona, Scharffen Berger, Callebaut, Guittard, Ghirardelli — pick your poison. And it didn’t seem to matter how much I threw in, so I took advice from my 8-year-old grandnephew, who is fond of promoting “add as much chocolate as you want” to almost any dessert recipe, and included three full bars of Valhrona, 1½ boxes of Scharffen Berger and a partial bag of Ghirardelli dark chocolate chips. And always on the lookout for simple and fast, I found that a three-loaf package of store-bought pound cake works just as well as homemade when chocolate is the star of the dessert.

With all that input — and all that chocolate — this cake might just live on to be a five-generation heirloom. I think Grandma would be proud.

Extra Chocolatey Icebox Cake

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 25 minutes

Yield: 12-16 servings

Ingredients

  • 3 store-bought pound cakes
  • 18 ounces or more of dark chocolate (bars, bits or chips)
  • 2 large (5-ounce) boxes of Jell-O Cook and Serve Chocolate Pudding
  • 6 cups whole milk
  • 2 cups whipped cream

Directions

  1. Cut pound cakes into ½ inch slices. Each cake should supply enough slices to fit in a single layer in a 9 x 13 baking pan.
  2. Break up chunks of dark chocolate bars. Combine two boxes of pudding mix and 6 cups of whole milk in a large saucepan set over medium high heat. When it starts to warm up, add chocolate pieces and continue to stir until the mixture boils. Remove from heat and set aside.
  3. Line a 9 x 13 baking pan with one layer of ½ inch slices of pound cake. Spread one-third of the pudding over the layer of cake. Repeat layering process two more times, alternating cake and pudding.
  4. Insert a few toothpicks in the top of the cake to keep plastic wrap from resting directly on pudding and cover. Refrigerate for 12 hours to allow the cake to chill and the pudding to settle.
  5. Prior to serving, spread a layer of freshly whipped cream over top of cake.

Notes

If you have a stash of good-quality baking chocolate, I encourage you to simply empty it into the pudding. It seems to be able to absorb quite a bit without consequence. You can serve this cake with as little as 3 hours’ chilling time, but it is best if left to settle and chill overnight or at least 12 hours.

Main photo: Chocolate icebox cake with Valrhona, Scharffen Berger and Ghirardelli chocolate. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

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Vegetable bread and vegetables to be used in bread

Growing your own vegetables and making bread are two of life’s great pleasures. How wonderful it is that they can be combined, so that much of the produce from your garden can be made into delicious and unusual breads — including often overlooked, but wonderful, vegetable breads.

Root vegetables make excellent bread and can be used grated (raw or cooked), or cooked and mashed. Beets, carrots, parsnips and potatoes can all be used like this. Spinach and all members of the squash family can be used to make lovely and unusual loaves. As a rough guide, equal weights of flour and puréed vegetables work well; if using grated vegetables, use half the weight of vegetables to flour or equal weights, depending on the concentration of flavor that you want.

Be aware that the vegetables will alter the structure of the loaf. The texture of the dough may become heavier and it may not rise as much as a basic wheat loaf, but don’t worry; the finished loaf will be fine. Some vegetables have a high water content, which can make the dough unmanageably sticky, so add water slowly and be prepared to use less than you might expect. If you have cooked the vegetables, use the cooking liquid instead of plain water for added flavor. The moistness in these breads means that they keep well, usually staying fresh longer than wheat loaves (keep them in a bread bin). They can also be frozen.

You may not think of them as vegetables, but dried onion flakes, garlic, chopped olives or chilies will also give your bread excellent flavor without really altering the structure. Be careful using fresh garlic, as it can inhibit the action of the yeast. Add only small amounts of garlic and slightly increase the quantity of yeast.

Use our Endlessly Adaptable Bread recipe as a jumping-off point for variations. Here are some of our favorite combinations, and a recipe for tomato bread that is perfect for this time of year.

Potato bread

This bread has a lovely chewy quality and doesn’t taste of potato! It is delicious with a handful of sage, rosemary or thyme mixed into the dough. If there is any left over, it makes very good toast the following day. It was often known as “poor man’s bread” and became popular in areas where wheat was hard to grow. The poor Irish farmers famously survived on little other than potatoes for many years and there are many Irish recipes for potato bread. Potatoes are too starchy to use alone to make bread, but they can be substituted for some of the flour. When making mash to use for bread don’t add milk or butter, as it will make the mash too soft. Remember this when you are preparing mash for the table and set aside some potatoes first. There is a recipe for potato bread on the Hafton & Kelly website.

Pumpkin and squash bread

Tomato bread with cheese and salad.

Tomato bread with cheese and pickle spread. Credit: Jane McMorland Hunter

Bread made with pumpkin or squash is slightly sweet and has a soft crust. To emphasize the sweetness, nuts, chocolate chips and dried fruit are delicious additions. Spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger or cloves also work well. Boil or roast the squash and then mash the flesh or purée it in a food processor. You can make this bread all year, using canned pumpkin. In season, butternut squash makes particularly good bread. Just before you put the loaf into the oven, brush it with an egg glaze and sprinkle with pumpkin seeds.

Spinach bread

Spinach makes a wonderful bread with an attractive mottled appearance. This is the bread to eat with cheese and pickles or with a hearty winter soup. It also makes excellent sandwiches; as well as its look and flavor, it holds together well. Garlic, rosemary and thyme are all good additions. You can use fresh or frozen spinach; fresh spinach should be wilted and finely chopped, either should be  well drained. Roll the dough in grated Parmesan just before leaving it for its second rise for a cheesy crust.

Beet bread

The addition of beet produces a soft loaf with a delicate flavor that is a brilliant raspberry pink. The crust is usually more subtly colored, but, depending on the beet, the inside can be quite a startling color. You can grate raw beet or cook and purée it. This bread is particularly good with cream cheese and makes great sandwiches.

Zucchini or courgette bread

Grate the vegetables and add 1/2 cup of soft brown sugar for a deliciously moist, sweet loaf. Nutmeg, cinnamon, chopped walnuts and dried fruit are great additions. Onions, garlic and mushrooms will produce equally delicious savory bread, which can be sharpened with paprika or red chili.

Tomato Bread

Prep Time: 3 hours

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 3 hours, 30 minutes

Yield: 1 loaf

This bread is a perfect partner to cheese and pickle or soup and, of course, tomato salad. The recipe comes from “The Kitchen Garden Cookbook: Tomatoes,” by Jane McMorland Hunter.

Ingredients

  • 3 ½ (500 grams) cups strong white flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons (7 grams) easy-blend yeast
  • 1 tablespoon tomato purée
  • 6 sun-dried tomatoes, chopped or whizzed briefly in a food processor (If you are using dry tomatoes, soak them in olive oil first so they soften up. When you add the tomatoes to the bread mixture they should be in about 2 tablespoons of oil.)
  • 12 black olives, pitted and chopped (optional)
  • 1 ¼ (300 milliliters) cups tepid water
  • Handful of rosemary
  • 3 to 4 cherry or baby plum tomatoes

Directions

  1. Put the flour, salt, yeast, tomatoes, tomato purée, and olives (if using) into a large bowl and mix well. Pour in the water gradually, mixing in well, until you have a dough that is soft and workable but not sticky. Turn onto a floured work surface and knead for about 10 minutes.
  2. Shape the dough into a round and put it in a greased bowl, turning so it is well coated. Cover with a damp tea towel and leave in a warm place. After 1 ½ to 2 hours it should have doubled in size.
  3. Punch the dough down, remove it from the bowl and knead gently for a minute.
  4. Grease a large baking tray and shape the dough into a loaf (long or round, whichever you prefer) straight onto it. Cut the cherry or baby plum tomatoes in half lengthwise. Push them and small sprigs of rosemary into the surface of the dough. This is easiest if you make a cut in the dough with a pair of kitchen scissors and insert the tomato or rosemary into the resulting gap, otherwise they tend to spring out of the dough. Cover with a tea towel and leave for another 30 minutes to rise again.
  5. Preheat the oven to 455 F (230C/Gas 8).
  6. Cook the bread for 10 minutes and then reduce the temperature to 400F (200C/400F) for another 15 to 20 minutes. The loaf should be nicely risen and golden and sound hollow when tapped.
  7. Remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack.

Main photo: Bread and the vegetables that can be used in it.  Credit: Jane McMorland Hunter

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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

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.

Golden wheat heads, a couple of weeks before harvest. Credit: Amy Halloran

Golden wheat heads, a couple of weeks before harvest. Credit: Amy Halloran

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.

winterkill-2

Soft white pastry wheat in April. Credit: Amy Halloran

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 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. Credit: Amy Halloran

This frost-heaved rye plant lacked the roots to survive. Credit: Amy Halloran

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.

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

 

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Balsamic cherry pie

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.

The tart cherry’s superfruit status is due to its high levels of an antioxidant called anthocyanin, which is also responsible for the cherry’s intensely sour flavor and bright red color.

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?

Cherry Balsamic Pie

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Yield: 12 servings

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.

Ingredients

  • 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)
  • Egg
  • Sparkling sugar

Directions

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Whisk egg with 2 tablespoons water and gently brush over top crust. Sprinkle with sparkling sugar.
  5. 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.

Notes

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.

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Sour cherry pie. Credit: Susan Lutz

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.

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.

Mom's Sour Cherry Pie

Prep Time: 2 hours

Cook Time: 1 hour

Total Time: 3 hours

Yield: 1 (9-inch) cherry pie, plus an extra round of pie dough

Recipe courtesy Linda Lutz.

Ingredients

  • 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

Directions

  1. Wash and seed cherries.
  2. Place about 4 cups fresh sour cherries into a medium bowl and add ½ cup of the sugar.
  3. Let sit for at least an hour to allow cherries to draw juice, stirring occasionally.
  4. To make pie dough, place 3 cups of the flour and 1 teaspoon salt into a large bowl.
  5. 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.
  6. Beat one egg in a small bowl. Add water and vinegar to beaten egg and stir to combine.
  7. 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.
  8. Divide dough into three parts and shape into flat rounds. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate while you making pie filling.
  9. Drain cherries into a colander, reserving juice.
  10. In a saucepan, combine ½ cup sugar, 4 tablespoons of flour and a pinch of salt. Slowly stir in reserved juice.
  11. Cook mixture until it begins to thicken, then add cherries, almond extract, and 1½ tablespoons of butter. Cook over medium heat for 5 minutes.
  12. Remove cherry filling from the heat and let cool while preparing pie dough.
  13. Take two rounds of pie dough out of refrigerator and unwrap them.
  14. Working with one round at a time, roll pie dough out on flour covered pastry cloth or countertop.
  15. 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.
  16. Place first round of dough into bottom of pie pan and roll out the top crust using the same method.
  17. 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.
  18. Cover with top crust and cut approximate10 half-inch long slits in the top crust.
  19. Sprinkle the top of the pie with 1 teaspoon of granulated sugar.
  20. 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.
  21. 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.

Notes

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

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