Articles in History
The chimney top peeks over a fence just off the main street of downtown Point Reyes Station, Calif., wisps of smoke drifting out. The smell of burning wood is accompanied by the aroma of freshly baked bread on the morning air, as the cottage housing Brickmaiden Breads churns out the day’s loaves.
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Inside, the yawning mouth of the wood oven is filled with dancing flame, warming the room while owner Celine Underwood measures out ingredients for the next batch of dough.
“Bread is my passion,” she says. “I started baking it when I was a teenager.”
And her passion has become a thriving business with a dedicated following of restaurant accounts and customers throughout the Bay Area who look forward to Brickmaiden’s flavorful crumb and chewy crust. The process that creates the artisan loaves is at once old-fashioned in technique and thoroughly modern.
Wood-fired oven at work all day
All the loaves are levain leavened, meaning a starter is used instead of yeast. The starter is a living thing, sometimes called wild yeast, which needs to be fed everyday and picks up the terroir of the area in the form of bacteria, imparting a flavor and texture that is particular to Point Reyes. The starter is the very beginning of the bread and contributes to Brickmaiden’s characteristic texture and flavor.
The dough is mixed up, shaped and then left in a retarder overnight, where it slowly rises. The retarding process encourages fermentation, which helps break down the proteins in the flour. This makes the bread easier to digest and the nutrients more readily absorbed by the body.
Meanwhile, the vast oven is heating up. It is an imposing structure that is faced with brick and takes up most of the interior of the cottage. Through its wide opening, the brick-lined ceiling is visible, as is the fire that’s building the heat for that day’s bake. It takes 12 to 14 hours to get the oven fired completely, a process that starts with getting the temperature up to 900 F (measured with a thermocoupler buried in the oven as well as a “heat gun,” a type of laser thermometer).
At this point no more wood is added and as the fire burns down to coals, heat saturates the bricks and the temperature begins to drop. When 600 F is reached, the oven is ready for baking. The coals are shoveled into an ash can and the surface stone is brushed and cleaned off. Now the first batch of loaves goes in.
It seems tricky to depend on such a temperamental, time-consuming device, but Underwood loves baking with fire.
“I’m attracted to the simplicity of it, working with the fire element,” she says.
It is a dance of coordination to have the dough ready at the same time the oven is and to get the temperature to hold long enough to bake the supply for each day.
The Brickmaiden crust and flavor
The oven can hold 70 loaves at a time. Brickmaiden does about six loads per day, baking more than 400 baguettes, rolls, Pullman sandwich bread, and several types of round levain. During the busy summer months, the bakers make as much bread as the oven heat will allow.
“There is a finite production capacity with this type of oven,” Underwood says, hinting that she has been looking at other wood oven systems that aren’t as limiting.
The first couple of loads of bread are more caramelized because the oven walls and dome are the hottest. This creates the signature crust that Brickmaiden fans long for, very dark with a deep flavor and rustic texture. The starter and long rise add a slightly sour flavor and impart a moist, almost fluffy interior that stays fresher longer than other breads.
These initial loads bake in less than an hour due to the high temperature the oven still holds. Gradually that starts to decrease causing the bake time to increase so the last load takes 1½ hours to finish. After the bread is done, there is still plenty of heat left in the oven, giving the bakers a chance to cook off all their other products, which include granola, cookies, crackers, biscotti, scones and croutons.
Great bread is made from great ingredients. Brickmaiden gets most of the flour it uses from Central Milling, the well-regarded artisan flour company, including California-grown whole wheat, kamut and spelt. They have also been experimenting with some of the wheat being grown in Mendocino County and are in the process of forming a Sonoma Marin grain-growers group. With the goal of getting things as local as possible, the group hopes to grow, harvest, mill and bake with different wheat and grains in the near future.
Underwood is looking down the road and has many goals and dreams for her operation.
“I hope to have a retail shop soon, house a stone mill and gardens on the property, provide a place for growth and development of young bakers, and create a place that perpetuates building connection to our environment, sense of place, self and community,” she said.
Once you’ve had your fill of fresh bread slathered with butter or dipped in olive oil, here are a couple recipes to help use up the loaf.
Wild Mushroom Bread Pudding
Makes 7 or 8 puddings
I found an assortment of wild mushroom at the Far West Fungi booth in San Francisco’s Ferry Building. Farmers markets offer good mushroom options. You also can use whatever your local grocer has in the produce section. The puddings make a tasty side dish for pork or poultry and a satisfying brunch or lunch entrée.
1 cup half and half
½ teaspoon salt
5 grinds of fresh pepper mill
⅛ teaspoon nutmeg
2 packed cups ½-inch Brickmaiden bread, including crusts, cut into ½-inch cubes. Their levain breads are especially tasty for this recipe
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 green onions, both green and white parts, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ pound fresh, wild mushrooms, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon parsley, finely chopped
½ cup shredded cheese — blend of Italian varieties like Parmesan, Fontina, Asiago is delicious, but any sharp, hard or semi-hard cheese will work
Olive oil spray for greasing muffin cups
1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease 8 muffin cups well with olive oil spray.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, half and half, salt, pepper and nutmeg until combined. Add the bread cubes and submerge. Set aside while you get the veggies ready.
3. Heat a 10-inch skillet over medium heat. Add the olive oil and when it shimmers, add the green onions and garlic. Sauté until the garlic is aromatic, then add the mushrooms. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Stir and cook until any liquid mushrooms give off has evaporated and they are golden and tender. Stir in parsley and cook 2 minutes longer. Set aside to cool slightly.
4. Add shredded cheese to egg mixture then stir in mushrooms, mixing well until all ingredients are evenly distributed.
5. Spoon mixture into greased muffin cups, mounding bread cubes slightly and adding liquid to just under the lip of each cup.
6. Place muffin tin on a sheet tray to catch any drips. Bake until tops are golden and crusty and knife inserted in center comes out clean, about 30 minutes
7. Run a sharp knife around the edge of each cup then allow to cool in the pan for 10 minutes. Remove and serve warm. These puddings can be reheated in the microwave for 30 seconds.
Fresh chives add a springy note and the crusty goodness of the Brickmaiden levain style breads work well in this recipe.
Serves 3 or 4
1 large clove garlic
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon chives, finely sliced
¼ teaspoon Gray Maldon sea salt
2 (1-inch) thick slices artisan bread
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Rub garlic clove on both sides of each bread slice. Set on a small sheet tray.
3. Mince garlic clove and combine with butter, oil and chives in a flat, microwave-safe pie plate.
4. Microwave on high in 10-second bursts until butter is fully melted then stir to combine ingredients.
5. Dip one side of each slice of bread in the butter mixture, scraping garlic mince into the nooks and crannies of the bread. Sprinkle each slice evenly with the salt.
6. Bake for 5 minutes until slightly crisped. Cut each slice into three pieces and serve.
Top photo: Bread at Brickmaiden Breads in Point Reyes Station, Calif. Credit: Brooke Jackson
One of my first purchases upon moving to New Delhi, India, in 2005 was Charmaine O’Brien’s “Flavours of Delhi: A Food Lover’s Guide.” The guide became a favorite go-to as I looked to taste and discover the diverse culinary gems of India’s capital. I was therefore delighted to learn that a recent trip back to India would coincide with the launch of O’Brien’s new book, “The Penguin Food Guide to India.”
Now, having had my own copy in hand for a couple of weeks, I can tell you that each time I pick up this book, I am happily tormented. Her descriptions of regional delicacies, particularly the ones that I too have eaten from the same stall or restaurant, make my mouth water, often forcing me to put down the book, head to the kitchen and prepare some of my own favorite Indian recipes.
O’Brien, an Australian writer and culinary historian, first visited India in 1995. Since then, she has visited every state in India with the exception of three in the northeast. In essence, the book is her journey of discovery informed by the core truth that India does not have one homogenous cuisine, rather the greatness of its food lies in its enormous variety and subtlety.
Her primary goal — and she can be gratified in her success at its achievement — “was to create a historical and cultural guide to India’s regional cuisine and to recommend places where — domestic tourist or international visitor — can find distinct regional food.” She gives readers the tools to experience genuine, local flavors.
Long history flavors Indian food
This was an ambitious and enormous undertaking. India as a unique country is still relatively young. Aside from the last 64 years as an independent republic, India has, as O’Brien points out, “been occupied as a patchwork of kingdoms, principalities and chieftainships, each essentially functioning as an independent country.” Imagine if you drew a line straight down from the top of Denmark to the bottom of Italy and colored over all the countries west of that line, including the United Kingdom and Ireland, and then decided to write a book about the local flavors and food cultures of all those countries. That gives you a sense of the task she set for herself.
By Charmaine O’Brien
Note: Currently, the book is only available in hard copy in India, and soon Australia, but it can be purchased as an e-book.
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The book is divided by geographic region, and within these each regional state is given its own chapter, beginning with a concise and condensed history. The historical details O’Brien weaves and connects through the book make for engaging reading that surpasses many travel guidebooks. We learn that all of these past rulers left a culinary imprint affecting the development and evolution of a region’s cuisine.
O’Brien’s personal encounters and insightful observations keenly illustrate that the prevalence of local and regional food in India is not a new trend or movement prompted by discriminating foodies but is part of an intricate food system born out of necessity and survival that has evolved over thousands of years. She does, however, indicate that as India’s growing middle class increases its appetite for foreign foods, some of the country’s elite has switched their attention to the perceived health benefits of traditional regional cuisines.
There is so much interesting information to digest — among my favorite nuggets are the descriptions and names of dishes or ingredients in Hindi or a regional language. Some of them you want to chew and savor. Yet perhaps due to sheer volume (or poor indexing), they can be a challenge to return to for another taste. Even for someone familiar with some of these terms, I wanted a short glossary of the region’s dishes at the end of each chapter to refer to.
Similarly, while the selected cookbook suggestions are a good place to start for trying new regional recipes, a handful of recently published regional cookbooks would have been welcome additions.
When O’Brien first arrived in India, her knowledge of Indian food was limited to the rather homogenous Indian restaurant menus from her native Melbourne that in many ways continue to dot the globe. She realizes that many readers, whether it is their first or fifth trip to India, want to sample new dishes but are concerned with hygiene at food stalls or restaurants, fearing the dreaded “Delhi Belly.” Aware of this but also eager for you to become a culinary explorer, she offers support with thoughtful and reassuring dining recommendations as you veer off the typical tourist menu road map.
It is interesting that two of the most recent well-researched books on Indian cuisine, this one and “Tasting India” by Christine Mansfield, are by non-Indians. A decade ago, Indian chefs and food writers seemed to be more interested in cooking and writing about foreign cuisines. However, over the past five years, there has been a noticeable shift in Indian food professionals revisiting and exploring their culinary heritage.
India’s culinary landscape is so vast and nuanced that there is much more to be recorded. As I believe K.T. Achaya’s historical books on Indian cuisine inspired O’Brien, I hope this book motivates others to investigate and preserve India’s rich diverse cuisines.
Sautéed Amaranth Leaves With Coconut (Tamdbi Bhaji)
Throughout her travels, Charmaine O’Brien discovered that no matter where she was, Indians love dining on bright, leafy greens. On my own visits to South India, I also found that cooks enjoy adding green and red amaranth leaves to soups, dals or even making fresh chutneys out of them. Here is a recipe of my own that spotlights its flavor.
Along the Konkani coast, blood-red amaranth leaves are typically used to make this quick coconut accented side dish, which is suitable to accompany fish, meat or poultry. Increasingly, farmers markets are selling amaranth leaves. However, if they are unavailable, beet greens, Swiss chard or spinach are wonderful substitutes.
4 cups red or green amaranth (or beet greens, Swiss chard or spinach)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup finely sliced onion
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 green cayenne chilies, seeded and finely chopped
Pinch of turmeric
Salt to taste
¼ cup to ½ cup grated coconut (fresh, frozen or dry unsweetened)
1. Wash the amaranth leaves a couple of times in running water to remove any dirt or grit. Drain, cut off any of the tough bottom parts of the stalk and discard. Roughly chop the trimmed greens into bite-sized pieces.
2. Heat the oil in a sauté pan over medium high heat. Add the sliced onion and cook for 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until the onions are soft and translucent, about 5 minutes.
3. Add the chopped garlic and green chillies to the pan and continue to cook for another 2 minutes.
4. Toss in the chopped amaranth and a pinch of turmeric. Mix well, cover and cook for about 4 minutes until the leaves are wilted and tender. If using spinach, the cooking time will most likely be halved. Remove the lid and continue to cook to allow any excess moisture to evaporate.
5. Add the grated coconut, salt to taste and sauté for another minute. Serve immediately.
With shrimp: Many Konkani cooks like to toss in some sweet, tiny shrimp close to the end of cooking. Use 1 cup small shrimp (or medium shrimp roughly diced) cleaned and deveined, and add it at the same time as the grated coconut. Cook until the shrimp has changed color and is just cooked through.
With cooked chickpeas: If you have some extra cooked chickpeas, black-eyed peas or kidney beans leftover in the fridge, toss in about a half cup of them into the pan when adding the greens and continue accordingly.
Top composite photo:
“The Penguin Food Guide to India” book jacket, with author Charmaine O’Brien. Credit: Photo of author courtesy of the Australian Consulate in Mumbai
Just as Solomon Northup’s story has moved audiences who’ve seen the Oscar-nominated film “12 Years a Slave,” the narrative of his wife Anne offers a rare window into a meaningful period of culinary history.
Food historians and chefs celebrated this significant period during a recent lecture, tour and dinner at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, the New York City estate where Anne worked for the Eliza Jumel during her husband’s bondage.
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In “12 Years a Slave,” we learned that Anne Northup was headed to a cooking job for a few weeks when her husband was kidnapped in 1841. Not until about a month after Solomon went missing did Anne find out her husband was kidnapped. The couple’s local white Northup family first informed her of the abduction.
So, we can only imagine how distraught Anne and the children felt when they decided to move in with Madame Eliza Jumel, the flamboyant second wife of Vice President Aaron Burr. They apparently lived and worked at the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Harlem Heights off and on for three years.
Free black woman’s role in food history
Before moving to New York City, the two women met at the United States Hotel in Saratoga Springs, New York, a playground for the rich and famous. Anne lived and worked at the historic hotel and, according to several sources, was a “highly regarded chef and kitchen manager,” said Jane Lancaster, Brown University visiting history professor and event lecturer.
“Madame Jumel’s rags-to-riches story — having been born in a mixed-race brothel and raised in a work house — might explain the two women’s relationship,” Lancaster said. “It probably was more of an employee-employer bond than friendship. We are not sure if Madame paid Anne well or if it was barter. Nonetheless, Madame Jumel informally “adopted” Anne’s children as companions for her own, as referenced in madame’s scandalous divorce papers.
“Free blacks were not always paid on the same scale as whites and that might explain why Anne took on so many cooking jobs through her 50-year career. The stereotyped black female cook and washerwoman did exist in the north among jobs for free blacks. But Anne was strictly a cook of some status. Good cooks were seriously valued in those days,” Lancaster said.
A nearly lost food history
During the 1820s, printed menus were rare and few restaurants existed. The hospitality industry was in its infancy. Hotels, inns, lodges and private homes offered simple to elaborate meals.
“Anne Northup was an ambassador of sorts of a very unique America menu, a northern Creole cookery style,” said event curator Tonya Hopkins of The Food Griot.
“Anne was a master chef in the purest form. She was knowledgeable about farming, butchering, harvesting, chemistry, timing, temperatures. You really had to be physically strong, smart and authoritative and have your senses about you to manage a colonial kitchen — a hearth, a cooktop and a staff. Everything was made from scratch — stock, brine, pickles, sauces, corn meal, dried herbs, salad dressing and more.
“She apprenticed from a young age at the Eagle Tavern and worked strictly as a cook and kitchen manager at Eagles Tavern, Cheryl’s Coffee House, United States Hotel and for the rich and not so famous,” Hopkins said as she led a tour of the mansion’s kitchen where Anne cooked.
We rarely discuss northern Creolization of American cuisine, but Anne’s story created an opportunity to consider this history. It served as a reminder that American cuisine was always fusion cooking.
“Northern American food is really the result of a double Creolization. The first Creolization, or mixture, happened in the Caribbean by the fusion of Africans, Asian, European, Spanish and indigenous foodways. The second phase happened in the Northern states with free blacks (infused with Caribbean ancestry), First Nation people, English, Dutch, German, French and others,” said Hopkins, a food historian.
The predecessor of soul food
Anne was a free African-American of mixed heritage, but surprisingly not literate. There were no photos of her. Research revealed her signature was an X mark. Her recipes, sadly, were not recorded. These recipes would predate the oldest known African-American cookbook by Abby Fisher of 1881.
“Anne cooked in 1825. What makes her story interesting is how we think of the African American influence on American cuisine. She predates what we call soul food, which is Southern, rooted in slavery. Anne is Northern, free and cooked with ingredients that predate soul food by decades,” Hopkins said.
The program’s menu was an imagined Anne Northup colonial high-end dinner.
The meal featured Indian meal cake, a corn bread and molasses-style cake; pepperpot soup, a Caribbean soup made with oxtail stock, baby turnip greens, allspice, taro and Scotch bonnet pepper; dandelion salad with balsamic and bacon dressing; Madeira homemade ham, which is brined-marinated in Madeira, sugar, salt, cloves, cinnamon, lemon, orange zest and juice; roast chicken with heirloom applesauce gravy; mashed potatoes; and glazed baby turnips. Dessert was jumble, a spice and rose-water cookie. Red and white wines and coffee were also served.
“It was a very humbling and rewarding experience to re-create a meal based on one that would have been prepared by Anne Northrup,” Chef Heather Watkins Jones said.
“Converting the historic recipes to our more modern cooking techniques had its challenging moments,” she added, “but the experience I feel can only make me a better cook and culinary professional.”
Jones said students from the Culinary Institute of America and the Institute of Culinary Education who helped prepare the meal were eager to learn about the period dishes. “Getting the next generation of culinary professionals involved in projects such as this one will ensure that legacies like that of Anne Northup’s will continued to be studied and passed on,” Jones said. Participants said they enjoyed experiencing the history as revealed through the meal.
“The evening combined two of my favorite things: history and eating,” said Elizabeth Mahon of Harlem. “I felt connected to the past, not just learning about Ann but also eating food she might have prepared for the families and establishments that she worked for.”
Top photo: The dining room is set for an Anne Northup-inspired meal at the Morris-Jumel Mansion in New York City. Credit: Courtesy of the Morris-Jumel Mansion
Early February in France means it is time to get your pans ready. The winter days are finally getting a little longer and sunnier and la chandeleur (derived from chandelle, “candle” in French) is at hand, which means crêpes are in the air.
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The French tradition, combining pagan and Christian origins, has been going on for centuries, but it seems to be losing momentum. Everyone still knows about it, but fewer and fewer seem to indulge in the annual crêpes orgy.
As in other parts of the world, home cooking is on the decline while TV food shows are getting more popular. Bakeries now sell ready-made crêpes for a quick fix at nearly $2 a pop. “Ridicule,” said my mother over the phone the other day. And Maman, as often, is probably right. Crêpes are a fun, easy to do homemade affair.
The church, crêpes and a sweet tradition
What are we celebrating, besides a humble form of sweet gluttony? In the Catholic Church, chandeleur marks the presentation of the child Jesus, his first entry into the temple, as well as the day of the Virgin Mary’s purification. I fail to see how thin pancakes came in the picture, except for the resemblance one could see between them and the halo depicted over the heads of holy figures in religious paintings since the 4th century or so.
The pagan origin of the chandeleur links more directly to the round disks of cooked dough the form and shape of the sun which, come February, becomes more and more present as days get longer at a faster pace. It’s not spring yet, but you can see light at the end of the tunnel, and it is still cold enough in most parts of the Northern Hemisphere to stand in front a stove flipping pancakes without having to turn the air conditioning on.
This is also the period of the year when winter wheat was being sowed. Crêpes were a way to celebrate the flour to come by using the one at hand. Interestingly enough, a Comité de la Chandeleur was founded and funded by a major French flour producer in 1997, reminding the population of the godly tradition with ads and billboards. The committee no longer exists. It is now in our hands to make the tradition survive.
A simple crêpes recipe for indulgence
Like every person brought up in France in the last century, I have my good share of childhood crêpe memories: pleasure and pain mixed in a batter of family recollections. While my father and brother were expert at eating the end result, my mother and I were excited by the making process.
We didn’t bother with a recipe and that in itself shows the tradition was still vivid, culturally ingrained. We just knew what to put in the dough: flour, eggs, milk, as well as water, cider or beer, a little fat (oil or melted butter), a little sugar, a touch of booze, traditionally dark rum, and a dash of salt. The trick was to avoid any lumps by using first a wooden spoon and then a whisk.
After letting the batter rest for an hour or so, came the time to show more developed skills. For years, we didn’t have a non-stick pan. We dipped a halved potato in oil to grease the thin metallic pan we used for about everything. With time, I’ve favored using a piece of paper towel folded in fourths and dunked in oil rather than a spud, leaving me to wonder how common paper towels were in Paris in the 1960s. The first crêpe always stuck, no matter what.
At age 7, there was my culinary confirmation that you can’t always get things right the first time in life. The ugly torn crêpe was eaten nonetheless, giving the chance to adjust the recipe-free batter with a little more liquid, salt or sugar if necessary.
If the crêpe didn’t have enough elasticity an egg was added and then, we were good to go. A super-hot pan is essential to achieve one of the essential criteria of a noble French crêpe, thinness, or finesse. Held as a rising sun, the crêpe was supposed to let light go through it, if not the image of my smiling mother behind the lump-free delicacy. A ladle was poured in the super-hot greased pan and then, with a swift movement of the wrist, the batter was to cover the whole pan in a thin coating.
Mastering crêpe-making technique
Chandeleur folklore says that if you manage to flip the crêpe in the air while holding a gold coin in your left hand, good fortune will come your way. I’ve personally never seen this done, perhaps because our entourage didn’t carry gold around so often. We just weren’t keen on the tossing-in-the-air show, partially because our crêpes needed some help with our bare fingers to be lifted off the pan.
When the edge started to get brown, we lifted one side with a small knife, then pinched the crêpe with both hands and flip it as fast as possible to avoid blisters in the process. I was always fascinated by the fact that the A-side of our edible records had a beautiful, uniform golden hue, whereas the B-side looked so different with its erratic brown spots.
We kept piling the crêpes on top of each other on a plate set atop a pot of simmering water so that we could enjoy our crêpes warm en famille. Brother and father were called to come and the filling game began with a variety of jams and spreads. For me, butter and sugar were the only fixings I needed to make me forget my reddened fingers, as crêpes were washed down with Normand cider, mindless of the few degrees of alcohol that helped make the pain go away and the party feel special.
Makes about 12 crêpes
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
¼ tsp salt
2 large eggs
1 cup milk
6 tablespoons water (or beer or cider)
1 tablespoon melted butter (or neutral oil)
1 tablespoon dark rum or cognac (optional)
Oil and paper towel to oil pan
1. Sift the flour with sugar and salt in a mixing bowl. Whisk in eggs, milk, water, melted butter and rum or cognac.
2. Let rest for 1 hour or more.
3. Heat pan greased with oiled paper towel. Add ¼ cup of batter or so and tilt the pan in a circular manner to spread the batter as fast as possible. When edges begin to brown, flip over with your hands or in the air and cook the other side 30 seconds.
4. Place cooked crêpe on a plate and repeat, repeat, repeat!
Tips and variations:
- To avoid any lumps and go faster, mix batter in a blender adding dry ingredients into the wet ones.
- For savory crêpes, eliminate sugar and alcohol from batter and add a dash more salt.
- To keep crêpes warm, place them on a plate sitting atop a saucepan with simmering water.
- Typically, French crêpes are rolled or folded in four.
- You can also layer the crêpes one on top of each other smeared with one or several toppings until you obtain a form of cake that you can then slice in wedges.
- Crepes can be kept wrapped in plastic and refrigerated up to 3 days or frozen up to 3 months.
Top photo: Crêpes to celebrate chandeleur. Credit: Philip Sinsheimer
Although not specifically promoted by the National Restaurant Association as a top food craze this year, umami is generating a lot of buzz on the street as a trend to expect more of in 2014. In part, these expectations are due to the continued expansion of the Umami Burger restaurant chain, but it is also because the umami content of produce and prepared foods and snacks is increasingly a selling point in the mass-consumer market. In short, we are becoming more umami aware, and consciously seeking out savory foods rich in umami.
Sort of like a sixth sense, umami is the fifth taste that represents savoriness. Like me, you may remember learning about the four tastes we inherited from the ancient Greeks: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. I vividly recall mapping these tastes on different areas of the tongue with a cotton swab in elementary school. A combination of modern science and culinary explorations into how we taste food, however, has turned this notion on its head and added umami to our pantheon of tastes.
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Umami is carried in a number of molecules, but most notably in glutamic acid. Many foods are rich in glutamic acid, including ripe tomatoes, some mushrooms, asparagus, seafood, seaweed, kelp, soy sauce and some cheeses. Tasteless on its own, it is only when glutamic acid is broken down into L-glutamate by cooking, fermentation or other processes such as ripening in the sun that it offers up its savory taste.
Discovered in 1866 by German chemist Karl Heinrich Ritthausen, glutamic acid was later identified in evaporated kombu (kelp) broth in 1908 by Japanese researcher Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University. When he tasted the crystals in the evaporated broth, Ikeda found that they had an undeniable savory flavor that he detected in many foods. He named this “pleasant savory taste,” umami or うま味 from a combination of umai (うまい) “delicious” and mi (味) “taste” in Japanese.
Around the same time that Ikeda was investigating the science of taste, renowned French chef Auguste Escoffier was developing recipes rich in umami flavor using his intuition and culinary skill to explore the sensory qualities of food. One of the secrets to his deft use of umami was the importance of stock (particularly veal stock). He deglazed seared roasts with it, made soups with it, and used gelled stock in a wide variety of other dishes to add savory flavor to them.
What Escoffier didn’t realize was that his use of stock to add umami to French dishes was similar to the use of dashi in Japanese cooking. Dashi is a stock made from umami-rich fish (anchovies or sardines) or fish flakes (bonito) often in combination with different kinds of kelp and a small amount of sake. The best dashi is made by allowing ingredients to soak overnight before straining to extract and concentrate the glutamic acid in the stock.
So, many classic French recipes are ready sources of umami, as are a wide variety of Japanese dishes. Where else can you find umami-rich combinations? Well, dishes made with tomatoes and cheeses are like umami bombs that are enjoyed all over the world. In the Mediterranean, the most familiar sources are Italian dishes made with marinara sauce and Parmesan cheese. In Asia, the Tibetans enjoy the combination in their tomato-laden lamb or beef curries that use the blue cheese churu, and in the cheese-filled momo dumplings accented with a spicy tomato sauce dip.
Elsewhere along the Silk Road, salads mixing tomatoes and cheeses abound from western Asia through the Himalayas and into western China. One of my favorites is from Turkmenistan that uses cider vinegar and a little salt to accent the tomatoes and cheese flavored with cilantro. Another is one from Bhutan that uses the crackle of Szechuan peppercorns to blend pungent yak’s milk cheese with tart tree tomatoes. Both salads are loaded with glutamic acid and have high umami factors.
Other Silk Road dishes that have umami appeal are Persian omelets, called kukus, which are enjoyed all around western Asia. Turnovers stuffed with lamb and cheese with herbs, often called samosas, are enjoyed from western Asia to western China and are a great source of umami. I had the samosas pictured here at the bazaar in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, last year. Along with a salad of tomatoes and cheese, and a small kebab, it was a perfect lunch and in a way, indescribably savory and delicious.
Top photo: Uzbek lamb and cheese samosas loaded with umami. Credit: Laura Kelley
|The Glutamic Acid Content of Umami-Rich Foods|
|Food||Glutamic Acid mg/100g|
|Cheese (Parmesan, blue, feta)||8,208; 5,179; 2,421|
|Nuts (blanched almonds, roasted pistachios)||5,337; 3,970|
|Lamb (cubed for stew, braised)||4,889|
|Beef (chuck roast, braised)||4,518|
|Chicken (diced, stewed)||4,340|
|Mackerel (Atlantic, cooked)||3,559|
|Shitake mushrooms (dried, cooked)||2,579; 353|
|Oyster mushrooms (raw)||632|
|Soy sauce (tamari, shoyu)||2,411; 1,479|
|Soybeans (natto, miso, silken tofu)||3,337; 1,915; 1,176|
|Egg (whole, cooked)||1,409|
|Seaweed (laver, wakame)||547, 199|
|Coconut milk (canned)||462|
|Potatoes (baked with skin)||419|
|Ripe tomatoes (cooked)||393|
|Chili peppers (red, raw)||264|
|Data from USDA SR-21|
I almost skipped my first chance to visit Valley Malt, New England’s first malthouse in a century. Although I love learning about people who are using grains, I don’t drink anymore, and I never made beer. What use could I possibly have for barley malt?
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Lucky I reserved my reserve, and met malt pioneers Andrea and Christian Stanley. They showed me their first malting system and how they germinated grain — mostly barley — for brewers and distillers.
I stuck my nose in a bag of malted barley and I smelled Grape Nuts. Criminy. Let me at the kitchen. Here was an ingredient I could use.
Grape nuts is quick bread made in a sheet pan, baked, crumbled and baked again. I’d only used whole-wheat flour in my experiments, not the cereal’s mainstay, malt. That ingredient just isn’t on the market. Bakers use active and inactive malt powder for sweetening and to help boost yeast performance. Barley malt flour, however, is a DIY deal.
So there I was, in a garage that had once been a potato processing site, in Hadley, Mass., sniffing cereal. “Grape Nuts!” I said to Andrea. “You can use it in pancakes, too,” she said. If I wasn’t already sold on the stuff, that was the kicker.
I have long had an obsession with pancakes. Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix ushered me into my love affair at the stove. Decades later, pancakes were the first meal I made the man who would be my husband. Ages ago, I calculated we had them about 250 times a year. The serving ratio went up to daily when I found malt.
The best of brewing makes baking better too
Malting is germination. The same stuff that happens in the ground when you plant a seed, or on your counter when you make sprouts, is what maltsters like Andrea or Christian seek. Steeping grains in water starts the growing process. Kilning stops it once the seeds reach a certain point.
What brewers love about malt is that the process loosens up the starches in the grain’s endosperm and readies those them for conversion to sugar. That makes the starches available to feed the yeast in fermenting beverages.
Malt is often used in the food industry as a sweetener and sometimes as a flavor. Ovaltine takes advantage of both properties, the sweetness and flavor. In bagels and other breads, however, malted barley is added in tiny amounts to take advantage of malt’s enzyme activity and make yeast more muscular.
I am still figuring out exactly what properties I’m using. I know that malt is a boon to my pancakes, adding flavor and helping the whole grain flours I use rise a little bit.
I don’t make sourdough or yeasted pancakes, so I’m not certain all the chemistry that the malt is achieving. I just know I see a marked difference.
Experimenting with pancakes and other baked goods
The pancakes are such a hit that I started making mixes for Valley Malt: malted cornmeal with rye, spelt and buckwheat with malt, and of course, whole wheat with malt, my absolute favorite.
When Andrea and I were making mixes in December, she asked me to make pancakes and snacks for the Farmer Brewer Conference she and Christian organize. I love to spread the gospel of what malt does on the griddle. Plus any excuse to play in the kitchen is great.
So I’ve been fiddling with malt in more than pancakes. I’ve figured out how to use the pancake mixes to make biscuits. They take tons of butter and less milk. I added cornmeal made from malted corn to shortbreads, cornbread, and pie crusts, all with fine results.
Adding malted barley to whole wheat shortbread stumped me, though. Fresh from the oven, the cookies were adored. A few days in, I opened the tin where I’d stored them, and I could smell the butter was going off. Had I used bad butter? Was the tin a funk fest? Help! I’m still not sure what went wrong, but I managed to make my recipe work by not refrigerating the dough, and by freezing the cookies immediately after baking.
At the conference, I found people to help me figure out what’s happening in that recipe, and in my other experiments. While the presentations focused on malting for brewing, people who study malt are also curious about what it does in baked goods.
The snacks I made — crackers with malted barley, almonds in a barley meringue, and those shortbreads — went down just fine. The biscuits and pancakes for breakfast were a hit, too.
As I mentioned, this is real DIY territory. If you want to play with malt, and you are lucky enough to have a local maltster, get a little bit and start experimenting. If you don’t have a maltster to befriend, you can use malts from a brewing supply place. Either way, grinding is the way to go. I use my blender for the first grind, and a milling attachment on my Kitchen Aid to finish the job.
You can’t use malt like flour, because the enzyme activity changes the gliadin and glutenin in the grain, interfering with their gluten-forming capacity. But you can add bits of it for flavor and sweetness. Here’s a recipe to get you going.
Making your own malt flour
To make your own malt flour, start with a pound of barley malt from your maltster or from a home brew shop. Your maltster might have a mill that will make flour. Ask her or him to grind it as finely as possible, husks and all, for your baking fun.
Home brew stores are used to grinding grain, but not into flour. They crack grains for brewers, who only need the starches released for access in the brewing process.
If this is your scenario, ask the store to crack the malted barley, and bring it home and put it in a coffee grinder or sturdy blender and go to town. Sift off anything chaffy with a strainer.
In my house, I grind the malt first in my blender, and then put it through the mill attachment for my Kitchen Aid stand mixer. Otherwise, the malt gums up the works and I don’t get flour. Other types of table top flour mills should handle the challenge better.
Based on Laura Brody’s multi-seed crackerbread recipe from “King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking”
3 cups (12 ounces) whole-wheat bread flour
3 ounces home-ground barley malt flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoon olive oil
1 cup water
1. Preheat oven to 450 F.
2. Mix together the dry ingredients, and stir in oil.
3. Add water gradually. You may need more or less than 1 cup, depending how much water your flours absorb. If you’re using local flours, the moisture content of the flour can vary a bit. Add enough to make a stiff, but not dry, dough.
4, Knead a bit until the dough is smooth. Cut into 8 sections. Roll into balls and, on a barley-malt-flour-dusted surface, roll very, very thin. I shoot for something like thick paper, less than the width of a cereal box.
5. Bake for 5 to 7 minutes. Watch carefully, as edges darken easily.
6. When cool, break into pieces and serve. Store in a container that closes tightly.
Top photo: Barley germinating. Credit: Amy Halloran
Many cooks overlook the unusual vegetable called the Jerusalem artichoke, also known as the sunchoke.
The best part of the sunchoke is the tuberous rhizomes that can be eaten raw or cooked. The tuber looks like a knobby potato and tastes similar to artichoke heart. The plant can grow 6 feet high in a sunny and dry location.
A word tour of name confusion
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Its Latin binomial is Helianthus tuberosus L., indicating that it is a tuber related to the sunflower.
The sunchoke’s name in various languages indicates the confusion about its origins. In Arabic it is known as tirfās, ṭarṭūfa, kamāiyya balād al-āmrīk. This name combines the words for truffles and country potato of America. In French, Italian and Spanish it is known as topinambur, the name of a Brazilian tribe that has nothing to do with the origin of the plant. In English and Turkish, the sunchoke is the Jerusalem artichoke and yerelması, the Jerusalem, which brings us to how it got that name as the plant has nothing to do with either Jerusalem or artichokes.
The sunchoke is native to Canada and portions of the eastern United States. It first entered Italy in 1617 and was grown in the Farnese garden in Rome with the name girasole articiocco (sunflower artichoke).
The English name “Jerusalem” has long been claimed to be a corruption of the Italian word girasole, sunflower, but agricultural historian Redcliffe Salaman pointed out that the name “Jerusalem” was used to refer to Jerusalem artichokes before girasole. He argues that “Jerusalem” is a corruption of Terneuzen, a town in Holland from where the sunchoke was first introduced to England.
The sunchoke was first introduced to France from Canada no earlier than 1607 by lawyer and historian Marc Lescarbot and explorer Samuel de Champlain. It entered Provence about the same time as it did Italy and recipes are rarely found for sunchokes anywhere else in the Mediterranean but these two locales.
How to choose and store sunchokes
When buying, storing and preparing the sunchoke for cooking, look for firm tubers with unblemished skin. Choose the tubers that are the least knobby and make sure there are no spongy spots.
Store them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator crisper drawer where they will keep for two weeks. They go well with goose and other meat. Because the tubers can turn black when cooking, do not use an aluminum pan. A delightful way to use sunchokes is in soups such as this one from the Piedmont region of Italy.
Cream of Sunchoke Soup
2 ounces (½ stick) unsalted butter, divided
8 slices of French baguette
6 sunchokes (about 1 pound), peeled and thinly sliced
2 large onions, chopped
1 quart chicken or vegetable broth (preferably homemade)
½ cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. In a large sauté pan, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter over medium heat and then cook the bread slices until golden on both sides, about 5 minutes. Set aside.
2. In a large saucepan, melt the remaining butter over medium heat and add the sunchokes and onions, stirring them and cooking until softened, about 15 minutes.
3. Add the broth and bring to a boil over high heat for 15 minutes, then remove from the heat.
4. Pass the soup through a food mill and transfer to a saucepan.
5. Bring to a boil and add the cream. Once it’s hot, season with salt and pepper and serve with the bread.
Top photo: Sunchokes (Jerusalem artichokes). Credit: Clifford A. Wright
German food can be quite inaccessible. Many people think of it as heavy or they aren’t sure exactly what it is beyond sausages and sauerkraut. But what’s wrong with starting off with sausages and sauerkraut, especially for a cold winter party? This all came to mind because of an old family photo I came across while scanning.
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It was of my mother sitting on the terrace of the General Walker hotel in Obersalzberg, Bavaria, in 1954. It dawned on me that nine years before this was the Berghof, Hitler’s Alpine retreat. The U.S. Army captured it in 1945, and the property became a hotel as part of the U.S. Armed Forces Recreation Center (AFRC).
My father was stationed with the Air Force in France at the time, and we often vacationed at U.S. Armed Forces retreats. In the photo, my mother, Helen DeYeso Wright, enjoys the sun on the same terrace where Hitler sat only some years before with Hermann Goering. During the same visit, I played nearby with my sister dressed in Bavarian costumes my parents bought.
The early 1950s was a time before the West German economic miracle, and the Germans were a vanquished and humbled people, ashamed but confused about their recent Nazi past, fearful of Soviet Russia, and very friendly towards Americans. I asked my mother about that time and she told me that the area was beautiful. She described Hitler’s bunker, which still existed in 1954.
The Germans in the mid-1950s, she said, were very friendly and my parents opted to eat in town rather than at the General Walker, which only served American food. My parents wanted German food, and although neither one of them were beer drinkers, they downed their steins of lager with, as she called it, those “big fat sausages” (weisswurst), spaetzle, sauerkraut, roast potatoes and “really fantastic” apple strudel.
Bavarian sausage traditions
To this day Bavaria is sausage central, where hearty and delicious food is still enjoyed by beer-loving Germans and tourists so far removed from those horrible times it’s hard to believe it happened there at all. At that moment I realized I wanted to sink my teeth into some weisswurst. A Bavarian weisswurst mit sauerkraut is not hard to do, because you’re only reheating as you will have bought the weisswurst and the sauerkraut and the mustard, hopefully from your nearest German delicatessen.
Weisswurst, literally white sausage, is a traditional Bavarian sausage made of very finely chopped veal and pork fat back flavored with parsley, lemon, mace, ginger, onions and sometimes cardamom, though different sausage makers make it a bit differently each time. Traditionally it is eaten with a warm soft pretzel and sweet mustard. In the rural tradition, it is eaten in the method known as zutzln where the sausage meat is squeezed out of the casing with one’s teeth directly into the mouth.
Once you find weisswurst at a delicatessen or grocery store, you can boil it before serving, or you can boil and then fry it.
Finding weisswurst harder than preparing it
The best advice I can given about having a weisswurst mit sauerkraut party in the middle of winter is to visit a local German deli and buy their freshly made sausage, not pre-cooked or packaged weisswurst from the supermarket. There are plenty of German delis all over the country and a quick Google search will turn one up for you. The same goes for the sauerkraut. Mail order is a second option, although weisswurst are highly perishable and you’ll need to have your sausage shipped express, overnight in a cold pack.
Bavaria Sausage of Wisconsin sells sauerkraut and Bavarian mustard as well. The beer you should be able to get everywhere, and only Bavarian lager will do. Prost und gutes Essen! (Cheers and bon appetit!)
Top photo: Weisswurst and sauerkraut. Credit: Clifford A. Wright