Articles in History
Blenders today are ubiquitous and taken for granted, but there was a time when these humble kitchen tools were central to aspirational American cooking — with one cookbook elevating the appliance to its proper place in the kitchen.
Ann Seranne, a lesser-known but prolific cookbook author, published “The Blender Cookbook” in 1961 with Eileen Gaden after they both left editorial positions at Gourmet Magazine to form a food consulting company. Inspired by their consulting for Waring, the first major American blender manufacturer, Seranne and Gaden began work on a blender cookbook. Invented in 1922 by Stephen Poplawski, blenders populated upwards of 5 million American kitchens by midcentury. In his musings on the appliance, however, Craig Claiborne of The New York Times bemoaned that the average housewife used her blender for little more than daiquiris and whiskey sours. At the same time, gourmands from Julia Child to Alice B. Toklas embraced the appliance’s abilities, even as they favored more traditional techniques.
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Describing herself as “a devoted disciple of the electric blender,” Seranne assured readers that next to the stove and refrigerator, the blender was the kitchen’s most essential appliance, a “treasure” worthy of a permanent place on the kitchen counter. Wrapped up in both haute cuisine and convenience cooking, Seranne and Gaden brought this enthusiasm to home cooks with “The Blender Cookbook.” With dozens of black and white illustrations, the text features more than 500 recipes not only for dips, soups, sauces and drinks, but also for scrambled eggs, turkey stuffing, crab-and-macaroni casserole, meat loaf, beef Stroganoff, lamb curry, white-fish quenelles with sauce Normande, and fruit tarts.
In his initial review, titled “Blender Magic,” Claiborne honored Seranne’s contribution, asserting that the cookbook “fills a culinary void that has been apparent since the first blender was placed on the market nearly three decades ago.” Overall, he rated the cookbook as the “most comprehensive and imaginative and by all odds the best” among blender texts. Although Claiborne critiqued one of the recipes (a blended minestrone recipe that he quipped was simply “not minestrone”), he lauded Seranne’s hollandaise sauce. Easily whipped up in mere seconds with the blender’s aid, Claiborne proclaimed, “This alone should qualify her for some sort of gastronomic hall of fame.”
Far beyond a gimmicky contribution, “The Blender Cookbook” appeared in Claiborne’s round-up of the year’s best cookbooks, alongside seminal gastronomic tomes, such as the English translation of “Larousee Gastronomique,” “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” (which he called “a masterpiece”), the newest edition of “The James Beard Cookbook,” and Claiborne’s own “The New York Times Cook Book.”
The 1960s cookbook boom
Among such esteemed company, “The Blender Cookbook” came into being during a meaningful culinary moment. In her Oct. 23, 1961, New York Times article, “Food: Cookbook Boom,” June Owen wrote that more cookbooks were to be published that year than ever before.
Nika Hazelton, a well-known cookbook author and food writer, echoed this sentiment, albeit more colorfully, in 1963, when she observed, “Americans are taking to cookbooks the way the Romans took to orgies.” Orgies aside, Owen situated cookbook publishing and sales within broader changes in American culture. She argued that etiquette rules, like those penned by Emily Post, which quieted discussions of cooking at the hostess’ table, had shifted. As Americans developed a “tremendous interest in food,” kitchen labors became a topic of newly suitable conversation over dinner.
In her analysis of these burgeoning food interests, Owen also engaged David Reisman, Nathan Galzer and Reuel Denney’s “The Lonely Crowd,” a sociological study, both landmark and contested, first published in 1950 and again in 1961, in the midst of this cookbook boom. Reisman traced growing interest in cooking to the rise of servant-less households among the middle class, which shifted the responsibility for cooking. He also cited the increasing abundance of food that made eating well an accessible luxury for more than just the supremely affluent. He argued, as sociologist Pierre Bourdieu also would, that under such conditions, food became a primary method for demonstrating taste and social status.
Cookbooks in midcentury America — focusing on desserts, eggs, ethnic cuisine or even blenders — served as both the means and symbols of this upward mobility. Or as Hazelton quipped on the price of cookbooks, “You’ve got to spend a little to build up your reputation as a gourmet, which appears to be the current ambition of every red-blooded American” — a sentiment not too far afield from today’s mainstreamed and seemingly ever increasing interest in food and cooking, sipping and tasting, cookbook buying and kitchen outfitting.
Ann Seranne, kitchen sorceress
Beyond the prominent position of “The Blender Cookbook” in the 1960s culinary canon, what do we know of the woman behind the blender? Originally from Canada, Ann Seranne came to the United States in the 1930s and worked her way to executive editor at Gourmet before she began her consulting partnership with Gaden in the mid-1950s. Throughout her career, Seranne published not just “The Blender Cookbook,” but more than two dozen cookbooks, including “Ann Seranne’s Good Food & How to Cook It,” “Good Food Without Meat,” “The Complete Book of Home Preserving” and “The Art of Egg Cookery.”
Claiborne wrote fondly of her in The New York Times, describing her as a tall (she was 5′ 8″), blond, handsome woman; “a born cook;” an indefatigable food consultant; and “a kitchen sorceress who would rather cook than eat.” His description of her 1963 cookbook, “The Complete Book of Desserts,” may have applied to her as well: “At once as down to earth as an apple fritter and as sophisticated as a cream-filled génoise.”
Impressive as they are, Seranne’s cookbooks were but one of her life’s accomplishments. She nurtured twin passions for cooking and breeding Yorkshire terriers, five of which shared her New York home and whose breeding line claimed more than 60 championships. Her canine brood supped on a ragout of beef, lamb shanks, parsley, carrots and garlic; garlic being her dogs’ most favored flavor. When famed dog show reporter Walter Fletcher purportedly asked Sarenne of the similarities between cooking and dog breeding, she replied, “Both contain equal parts science, art and luck.”
Main photo: Invented in 1922, blenders populated upwards of 5 million American kitchens by midcentury. Credit: iStock/Eva-Katalin
Some ancient grains get all the press. Quinoa, freekeh, and spelt are the darlings of the food world these days, especially in the United States — and rightfully so, since they were ignored for millennia. But one ancient grain seems to lag behind: barley. Plain ol’ barley never makes a Top 10 list. It needs a spunky dance partner and great choreography to be seen. Mushrooms have often been its companion for comfort food — think of all the savory mushroom-barley soups. But wild mushrooms, exotic and even more flavorful than the cultivated variety while still just as earthy as barley, may serve as the most perfect partner of all.
During the chill of January, foraging for comfort food is often a search for simple, earthy foods — like barley and mushrooms. But these foods can also be rich and elegant, intriguing and satisfying, old and new. Sometimes all it takes is one little change to make a comfort-food dish special.
Barley and mushrooms, ancient foods
Barley is no newbie to the food scene. There is no way to overstate its importance in the Fertile Crescent and the Levant (present-day Iraq and the Middle East). Wild barley was an integral part of the human diet, so much so that it became a domesticated crop. It was the basis for a key everyday comestible that is still popular today: beer.
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In Europe by the Middle Ages, barley was the flour of poor man’s bread and the filler in Scotch broth. It was — and remains — a common food for livestock. Notwithstanding the changes in the world around it, domesticated barley is, in essence, a simple whole grain with plenty of nutrients. And it has countless culinary benefits.
There is a good reason why barley’s long time partner is the mushroom.
An ancient, originally wild food, mushrooms are fungi, and are incredibly healthy — high in B and D vitamins, selenium, copper, potassium and antioxidants that appear to protect DNA at the cellular level. Some of these benefits can be found in common button mushrooms and their close cousins, baby bellas, criminis and portabellos. But mushrooms are more than that. They are a natural flavor enhancer. All mushrooms contain glutamic acid, a version of the flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG).
Wild mushrooms, or those that were once wild and are now cultivated (called “exotic” by growers), burst with all of these benefits. No wonder wild ones have been popular across Europe, Asia, the United States and India for centuries. Each variety of wild mushroom has its individual charms. The one I used for this mushroom-barley risotto is the chanterelle.
Chanterelles, a sexy and mellifluous a name for fungus if there ever was one, evokes images of five-star French chefs cooking up lavish, sophisticated and warming dishes. To many a chef and connoisseur, chanterelles — golden and floral, earthy and fragrant — are in the same pantheon as morels and truffles. Chanterelles have even been considered male aphrodisiacs, with the 11th-century Normans in Britain serving them at wedding feasts to the grooms. Widely found in both Europe and the United States, fresh in season and dried year-round, the lightly peppery, softly fruity chanterelle is an ideal candidate to gussy up the Plain Jane barley.
The wine that links all the flavors
The element that can put it all together? A wine born from the same soil as those wild mushrooms. Barley risotto style is now a restaurant mainstay. But when the mushrooms in the risotto are the prized chanterelle and the wine is Willamette Valley — what you have is dinner alchemy.
Willamette Valley, Oregon, where chanterelles have long grown wild and are now cultivated, is a well-regarded region for producing fine grapes and even finer wines. The Pinot Noir grapes grown in the Willamette Valley are characterized by robust notes of black raspberry and bogs, of vanilla and cloves. The old cooking adage “if it grows together it goes together” is certainly true with Pacific golden chanterelles and Willamette Pinot Noir. Pairing these two is not for the faint of wallet. But the cost of the barley balances that out a bit.
And that wine — ooh — that wine is the essential link tying, literally binding, the mushrooms to the barley. All together, chanterelles and barley become something genuinely soul satisfying. The flavors and textures support and encourage each other, revealing the best they can offer. Perhaps that is what a plate-mate, a bowl-mate and soulmate should always be.
Barley Risotto With Fresh Chanterelles and Willamette Valley Pinot Noir
This special-occasion dish is impressive to serve and even better to eat. It showcases a classic Italian cooking technique applied to humble pearl barley and highlights the quality and unique flavors of fresh wild chanterelle mushrooms. The result is extravagantly delicious and memorable, worth every penny and every stir.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 50 minutes
Total time: 1 hour, 5 minutes
Yield: 4 servings as a meal, 6 as a starter
2½ cups low-sodium mushroom broth
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 large shallots, peeled and cut into ½-inch dice
Leaves of 6 sprigs fresh thyme, minced (about 2 teaspoons, see Kitchen Tips)
1 cup pearl barley
2 cups Willamette Valley Pinot Noir (see Kitchen Tips)
1 pound fresh chanterelle mushrooms, sliced, cut into bite-size pieces
1 large fresh bay leaf
½ teaspoon kosher salt (see Kitchen Tips)
1 (7-ounce) package fresh baby kale, thinly sliced
½ cup freshly grated Gruyère cheese
¾ cup sour cream or crème fraiche
1 teaspoon truffle salt (see Kitchen Tips)
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1. In a medium saucepan set over medium heat, bring the mushroom broth to a simmer.
2. Meanwhile, in a large, deep saucepan or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add the butter and heat until it melts. Add the shallots and thyme, stir to coat, reduce the heat to medium, and cook, stirring occasionally for 2 to 3 minutes, until the shallots are translucent and the edges are just beginning to brown. Add the barley and cook, stirring to coat, for 2 minutes.
3. Increase the heat to high, add the wine, and cook for 6 to 7 minutes, until it has been fully absorbed into the barley. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the mushrooms and bay leaf, and stir well.
4. Add 1/2 cup of the warm mushroom broth and cook, stirring for 4 to 5 minutes, until the liquid is almost absorbed. Add the salt and stir. Continue adding the broth, 1/2 cup at a time, and cook, stirring continuously but gently for 2 to 3 minutes, until it is nearly absorbed into the barley. Repeat until all the mushroom broth is used.
5. Cook for about 30 minutes more, until the barley is al dente. Add the kale, stir well, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the leaves are completely soft. Reduce the heat to low, stir in the Gruyère cheese and sour cream. Remove from the heat, remove the bay leaf, sprinkle with the truffle salt and pepper, and stir well. Spoon into wide, shallow bowls and serve immediately.
1. To remove the leaves from a sprig of fresh thyme, hold the sprig (or a few) at the top with one hand, and with the other hand, grasp the stem with your thumb and forefinger and gently slide your fingers down the stem. The leaves will be pushed against the direction they grow in, and will come off easily.
2. For more information about Pinot Noir grapes and wines: http://www.pinot-noir-wines.com/
3. If you don’t have low-sodium mushroom broth, you can omit this extra salt.
4. Salt to which very small pieces of dried truffle have been added is called truffle salt. It is used to add richer flavor.
Main photo: Barley, Chanterelle Mushroom and Pinot Noir Risotto — elegant, simple, delicious. Credit: ©TheWeiserKitchen
People buy cookbooks for a variety of reasons: to inspire, impress, beautify, edify and love. For famed cookbook author and food writer, Nika (Standen) Hazelton, however, there was only one reason to purchase a cookbook: to cook from it.
The daughter of a German diplomat, Hazelton was born and grew up in Rome. In addition to international travels with her father, she attended the London School of Economics and worked as a reporter in Europe, before marrying and moving to the United States in 1940.
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It was stateside that her cookbook-writing career took off. Esteemed as a specialist of European cookery, she penned cookbooks dedicated to the cuisines of Scandinavia, Switzerland, Belgium, Italy, France, Denmark and Germany. At the time of Hazelton’s death in 1992, Molly O’Neill, food columnist for The New York Times Magazine, declared Hazelton’s “American Home Cooking” (Bobbs Merrill, 1967), “French Home Cooking” (Viking Penguin, 1979), “International Cookbook” (Harper & Row, 1967) and “The Italian Cookbook” (Henry Holt, 1979) standards. Hazelton published 30 cookbooks throughout her career and wrote countless articles for major food magazines and newspapers. No title better communicates her unwaveringly simple, straightforward and unpretentious perspective on food and cooking, however, than her 1974 cookbook, “I Cook As I Please.”
Conceding her “literal mindedness,” Hazelton laid out in a 1963 article in “The New York Times” exactly how one might judge a cookbook to determine whether it is not just delightfully escapist, politically radical or aesthetically pleasing, but well and simply good. Hazelton’s advice rings as true today as it did in the 1960s, at least if you are shopping for a cookbook that aligns with her functional, no-nonsense approach.
Accuracy and clarity
For Hazelton, “Accuracy is the first virtue when writing about cooking.” Recipes ought to list all ingredients at the beginning of the recipe and with accurate measurements. Authors who arrange ingredients “more coyly” do readers a disservice as they forsake clarity. Directions ought to be lucidly written, one step at a time, and in order. If recipes include misspellings or confusing instructions, beware, as these reflect poorly on the author.
Well-written recipes notify the reader of specific details, such as the type of pan, the size of baking dish or whether a dish should be cooked covered or not. Such specifics indicate the thoroughness of the recipe writer’s testing process. A lack of specifics, on the other hand, can reveal a writer’s laziness, an unforgivable failing according to Hazelton.
Recipes ought to turn out if followed correctly and, equally important, to work every time. Since reliability is impossible to blindly predict, Hazelton recommended purchasing cookbooks from only respected authors and publishers, remarking, “Few newcomers to cookbook writing do reliable recipes.”
Hazelton not only firmly asserted that a recipe “should be correct and the best of its kind,” but also that it ought to “promote the cause of good food and not of brand names.” Further condemning the likes of packaged-food cuisine and back-of-the-box recipes, Hazelton believed, “Commercial recipes, however splendid, belong to advertising and publicity.”
Writing in 1963, Hazelton lamented, “Really authentic and first-class foreign cookbooks are few and far between,” as recipes were often revised for American styles, tastes and measurements, losing their magic along the way. Good cookbooks of this sort require time and investment to retest the recipes, but are worth it, processes with which Hazelton had significant experience.
With these strict criteria, Hazelton recommended an elite group of reliable authors. She “saluted” Craig Claiborne, James Beard, Julia Child, Paula Peck, Helen Evans Brown, Dione Lucas, the Chamberlains, Ann Seranne, Marian Tracy, June Platt and John Gould. She also cited the editors of the McCall’s, Ladies Home Journal and Good Housekeeping cookbooks, reasoning that their quality was “reliable if not always inspired, because the editors know their business can’t afford to make their readers mad with poorly done work.”
Main photo: Julia Child, Craig Claiborne and James Beard were among Hazelton’s recommended cookbook authors. Credit: Emily Contois
Africa. What a complicated and enormous continent it is, comprising more than 50 countries, all different, all with their own culinary specialties.
In this, the first in a series of articles about the foods of Africa, I hope to encourage you to go on voyage of exploration, discovering the food of a fascinating part of the world. We begin with the peanut or groundnut, a vital ingredient in many West Africa dishes.
My own exploration with African food came during my work in Morocco with the Peace Corps as a trainer in maternal and infant health and nutrition. And in Burkina Faso, where I once managed the U.S. embassy’s commissary, I also was a consultant and trainer for the culinary staff of the American Club.
Now, I’m researching the culinary legacies of European colonialism for a book due out in 2016 — including the impact of the African Diaspora on modern Europe and elsewhere. And so I find myself in the kitchen, tasting flavors of the places I’m reading about. It stimulates me to share all that with you in a series of articles about ingredients commonly used in Africa.
EXPLORING AFRICA, ONE INGREDIENT AT A TIME This is the first in a series exploring the food of the African continent, with a focus on individual ingredients and traditional recipes to bring the African pantry to your home. Future articles will feature cassava, black-eyed peas, coconut, palm oil, corn, eggplant, okra, smoked fish, sweet potatoes, plantains, rice and millet.
EXPLORING AFRICA, ONE INGREDIENT AT A TIME
This is the first in a series exploring the food of the African continent, with a focus on individual ingredients and traditional recipes to bring the African pantry to your home.
Future articles will feature cassava, black-eyed peas, coconut, palm oil, corn, eggplant, okra, smoked fish, sweet potatoes, plantains, rice and millet.
You don’t need a plane ticket. Just a basic pantry, a few pots and your kitchen.
West Africa, where we’ll begin, is a special place when it comes to food. It’s a region where street markets bloom anywhere the fickle climate will support them. Perhaps here, more than any other place on Earth, seasonality dictates what food appears on the plate, a natural and uncontrived model of the concept of local foods.
Cooks here create vibrant, savory meals with an often limited repertoire of ingredients. Many West African dishes and techniques can still be savored in the cooking of the American South, Brazil and the Caribbean: places where Africans endured the pain of slavery.
Walk into the central market in Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso or stroll down a busy street in Dakar in Senegal, and you see how people make do, creating a vibrant cuisine from what is available. The aromas make your mouth water, and your eyes cannot get enough of the pulsating scene, as market women set out their small mounds of produce on the ground, covered with scraps of colorful cloth.
Vegetables also poke out of the tops of baskets, like so many baby birds peering cautiously from their nest. Meat sits on counter tops, the various cuts nothing at all like the standard fare found in Western butcher shops and supermarkets. You might be puzzled by some of the spices and herbs, yes. But overall, the cuisine of West Africa is highly accessible to the Western cook.
Take, for example, the following recipe for meat cooked in a peanut sauce with fresh spinach.
Resembling a native African bean known as the Bambara groundnut, the American peanut ironically rose to esteem under humble circumstances. African slaves stored Bambara groundnut stew recipes in their minds and likely dreamed of bubbling stew pots as they crossed the tossing Atlantic, confined in the holds of slave ships. Imagine their joy in finding the peanut, which reminded them of home.
At the same time, but a world away, the Portuguese introduced the peanut to West Africa and Asia. Africans invented peanut brittle and kulikuli (or fried peanut balls).
With just a few basic ingredients from your West African pantry, cooking becomes the next best thing to hopping on a flight to Senegal or the Ivory Coast.
Be sure to invite a friend to join you for the meal, for as an African proverb goes, “One who eats alone cannot discuss the taste of the food with others.”
Meat in Peanut Sauce With Spinach
Prep time: 25 to 30 minutes
Cook time: 2½ hours
Total time: 3 hours
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
You may use beef, goat or lamb, if you prefer. And if you really like mutton, that, too.
3 tablespoons peanut oil
2 pounds beef chuck roast, trimmed of excess fat, rinsed, cut into 2-inch chunks, and patted dry
1 1/2 large yellow onions, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled, sliced, and lightly crushed with the side of a cleaver or large knife
1 piece of fresh ginger the size of a large walnut, peeled and lightly crushed with the side of a cleaver or large knife
1 small hot green pepper, seeded and minced, or more to taste
8 large plum tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon salt or, to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper or, to taste
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper or, to taste
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon curry powder
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
2 cups water
1 cup natural peanut butter
16 ounces fresh spinach leaves (or frozen, in a pinch)
Fresh cilantro leaves and roasted peanuts, chopped, for garnish
1. Heat oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat.
2. Place salted meat chunks in pot and cook until well; flip pieces over and brown the other sides. Remove meat from pan and set aside on a large plate.
3. Add onions to the pan and fry until slightly translucent and golden in color; toss in the garlic, ginger and hot green pepper. Cook for another minute or so, until garlic turns slightly golden.
4. Stir in tomatoes and cook for about 3 minutes. Mash tomatoes with a potato masher or other implement.
5. Mix in the salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, paprika, curry powder and thyme leaves. Stir well. Pour in 2 cups of water.
6. Add the meat, making sure to cover pieces with the liquid. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for 10 to 15 minutes.
7. Using some of the broth from the pot, thin the peanut butter and stir well. Add half of the peanut butter mixture to the stew. (Reserve the other half of the mixture for the spinach.) Cook, covered, until meat is tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Add more water if stew looks too thick.
8. While the meat cooks, rinse the spinach, and immediately add it to a large skillet over high heat. Stirring constantly, cook the spinach until all the leaves wilt. Remove from heat instantly and drain the spinach in a colander with cold water. When cool enough to handle, squeeze out excess water from the spinach and set aside.
9. Just before the meat is done, place the spinach in a heavy-bottomed pot, gently stir in the reserved peanut sauce, and warm the mixture over medium-low heat, uncovered, making sure that the mixture stays moist. Add a few tablespoons of water if mixture gets too dry.
10. Ladle sauce over white rice, placing pieces of meat on the side. Garnish the meat and the rice with chopped cilantro leaves and peanuts. Spoon the spinach near the meat. Or, serve the meat and sauce with cornmeal mush or fufu (pounded yam or plantains).
11. Pass Fiery West African Tomato Condiment (recipe below) around the table and dribble some on the meat, if desired.
Fiery West-African Tomato Condiment
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 15 to 20 minutes
Total time: 35 minutes
Yield: 2½ to 3 cups
3 tablespoons peanut oil
5 large garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
2 to 3 red habanero peppers, seeded, and finely chopped (leave seeds in for an even hotter taste)
8 large plum tomatoes, cut into quarters
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1. Heat oil over medium-high heat in heavy-bottomed skillet.
2. Add garlic and sauté for about 30 seconds, or until garlic turns slightly golden in color. Add peppers and fry for another 30 seconds, stirring constantly.
3. Slip tomatoes carefully into the oil to avoid splattering; sprinkle with salt and pepper.
4. Cook for 2 minutes and then lower the heat. Simmer, uncovered, until oil separates from the tomatoes.
5. Store in a covered container for up to a week. Use as a condiment with any African main dish.
Main photo: Peanuts closely resemble the Bambara groundnut, a vital ingredient in many West African dishes. Credit: Cynthia D. Bertelsen
Sam Fromartz’s new book, “In Search of the Perfect Loaf, A Home Baker’s Odyssey,” is a departure. The journalist and editor began his career as a reporter at Reuters, and his previous book, “Organic, Inc.,” was a standard work of nonfiction about the evolution of the organic food industry. But as his hobby became his subject, the writer leaped into the picture of this book.
“In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey”
By Samuel Fromartz, Viking, 2014, 320 pages
» Enter here for a chance to win a free copy
» Click here to buy the book
“Baking for me was relief from my daily grind of journalism,” Fromartz said in a phone interview. “I really enjoyed the moment in the day when I would leave my keyboard and just bake, shape loaves, bake them. I really didn’t want to lose that sense of specialness, of what bread meant in my life. I thought if I mixed it up in my work too much, it would just become part of my job. I really didn’t want to do that.”
As the recession downsized his income, however, everything became a potential topic. In a single afternoon, he lost most of his steady freelancing gigs. Querying a contact at the travel magazine “Afar,” he proposed a story about going to Paris to study baguette baking.
The editor said yes, and the adventure began. Consider yourself lucky that his escape became his work, because the result is a really nice journey through baking led by a skilled reporter.
“This book was a lot more personal,” said Fromartz. “It wasn’t a journalistic investigation. But I am a reporter, so all of those tools I use in my work became tools I used in the book.”
Tools like reading, asking questions and framing the answers in good stories. There are some beautiful descriptions, like the one at Della Fattoria, a bakery in Petaluma, California.
“Everyone seemed to be working at a pace just short of a jog,” he writes, setting the stage for each reader to witness, as he did, the bread baking one morning. The baker-writer joins the action, helping shape loaves of bread. But once the actual baking begins, he stands on the sidelines and tells us plainly what he sees. We readers fall into the rhythm of the observed work.
As a small herd of bakers usher hundreds of would-be breads into the oven, Fromartz puts you right there, watching the “dance of the peels,” as loaves go into the oven, and then come out. You are just shy of smelling the bread and tasting it.
The pacing of the stories and information are spot-on. Fromartz takes you through a long baking lesson, baker by baker, describing the process and progress. Beginning with baguettes, which were a challenge for him to bake at home, you learn as much or more about the social history of this bread and its place in French culture as you do about the practical route he found to making this loaf.
Yes, there are elaborate recipes, heavy on method, at the end of chapters in case you want to bake along. But no baking is required to enjoy the research he presents as part of his journey. This odyssey is not just for serious home bakers or professionals, but also for anyone mildly curious about wheat.
Guided by his curiosities
“I wanted to understand things for myself,” he said. “A lot of baking books dealt with some of the questions I had, but there was no sort of central resource, and no book that tied together everything from the origins of grains to sourdough microbiology to how to shape a loaf.”
Writing the book really answered his curiosities. His dives into sourdough are deep; at one point he compares cultivating sourdough cultures to farming, and nurturing microlivestock. Holding all this heady material together is the importance of craft, and what he got out of learning a craft at the hands of people who really value bread, its historic framework and its future.
One of the most surprising discoveries he found on his journey was learning about flour, specifically locally grown and milled grains. As he started using local grains, and flour that came from small mills, he realized how variable bread’s main ingredient could be.
“It made me realize what’s been lost and sacrificed along the way in that quest for uniformity,” he said. Anything that threatened that uniformity got lost, like grains with different flavors, and non-standard types of gluten or proteins.
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“My sense is those guys probably knew something about flavor,” he said. “We have this real singular expectation of what bread should be. “Even whole-wheat loaves generally estimate that puffy bread ideal. “When you have such a narrow idea of what bread should be, you lose a lot of possibilities.”
Exploring those possibilities through different grains and flours engages him as a baker. It’s useful ecologically, too. Pursuing lesser-known grains is good for agricultural diversity and dietary diversity.
When I was reading, I was worried that baking might have lost some charm for the writer. But by the end of the book, he says he’s been able to protect his special connection to baking. I wanted to know how he preserved it. His answer was reassuring, if elliptical.
“I still bake a lot and baking is really a part of me,” he said. “I want to keep that sense of discovery about it. So I think will.”
Main photo: Sam Fromartz’s newest book will have you smelling and tasting the featured breads. Credit: Sam Fromartz
In artisanal bakeries from Brooklyn to Seattle, the bread counters are piled high with lovely loaves, from the hardiest Scandinavian ryes to French country sourdoughs, from spelt and buckwheat breads to baguettes. Yet this bounty of choice was pretty unusual in the roughly 20,000 years that humanity has been eating grains. While these breads are often associated with European traditions, the long-ago impetus to make a loaf a particular way — or make it into sustenance — has largely been forgotten. Choice — and here I’d include contemporary gluten-avoidance regimes — didn’t determine what was eaten. Necessity did.
“In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey”
By Samuel Fromartz, Viking, 2014, 320 pages
» Enter here for a chance to win a free copy
» Click here to buy the book
If you go back to the pre-modern era, before bread became a commodity and flour was sold in supermarkets, those who depended on grain largely ate what was grown nearby. It might have been wheat. It might have been barley. It might have been rye. Or it might have been nothing at all, if the harvest failed.
To forestall such events, farmers hedged their bets by planting diverse cereal crops. Bakers — both craftsmen and homemakers — then had to figure out how to make this variety of ingredients palatable. Grains, after all, provided up to 80% of the calories in a diet.
Scots made cakes from oats and barley, since both grains were hardy in northern Europe. Rye prevailed in Eastern Europe, because the soil and climate were hospitable. During shortages, coarse bran was mixed into bread. Bakers also added walnuts, acorns and spent grains from the brewery to stretch a loaf. In southern France, ground chickpeas were made into socca flatbread. In Cyprus, bakers fermented chickpeas for wheat and barley loaves. Much later, a New World starch, potatoes, became a buffer against famine in 18th century Europe as the population exploded. Maize or corn served this purpose as well. Corn-rye proved crucial to early American settlers, where it was known as “rye-injun bread” because wheat grew poorly in the southern New England climate.
Now, of course, the impetus for such innovation is gone. Agricultural science has done much to ensure fairly steady wheat harvests, with high-yielding varieties. Industrial millers long ago came up with the means to provide standard flour to produce a steady supply of bread products. As this new wheat took over, their ancient progenitors largely vanished from the landscape — and the palate. By the late 1990s, researchers estimated, 97% of all the spring wheat grown in the developing world came from closely related modern varieties. “Landraces,” those seed populations saved and passed down by farmers, became a rarity.
As for the wheat kernel, about 30% to 40% was siphoned off in the milling of white flour. We often hear about the fiber, minerals, lipids and vitamins in wheat bran and germ that are lost. What is less appreciated is that these nutrient-dense grain fractions also contain a lot of calories. Wheat bran, for instance, represents about 12% to 16% of the wheat kernel. With every kilo of bran removed in the milling of white flour, 2,160 calories are squandered, including 160 grams of protein. “Everyone understood that the whiter the flour, the smaller the number of people who could be fed by a given amount of grain,” historian Steven Kaplan has written of 18th century France. Wheat still provides the second-highest source of calories and is the top source of humanity’s protein, yet we’re content to waste such a significant amount of its nutrition.
Loss of craft baking knowledge
Also jettisoned along the path to modernity was the baker, who came up with the methods to make such whole grains palatable. In the age of industrial bakeries, we may cheer that freedom from drudgery. But I realized, in baking my own loaves for more than a decade, that we lost something else as well. It wasn’t simply the old world loaves that were largely left behind, or the grains that went into them, or the farms that grew diverse cereal crops. We also lost the craft knowledge that came from turning grains into food. This kind of knowledge could only be learned with practice, attention and tactile sensation.
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To make really great bread, I found I had to put away my cognitive mind and learn the essential lessons of touch itself. I had to forget about following routine steps, since different grains — and different batches of them — often required adjustments. My sense of touch told me what tweaks to make, turning passable loaves into desirable ones. My hands were learning. At that moment I realized, if we really want to understand what sustained our species for millennium, spurred numerous innovations, and ultimately increased the supply of food in scarce times, our hands and craftwork are going to be at the center of that process. Our thinking minds will follow.
Main photo: Samuel Fromartz, editor of Food and Environment Reporting Network and author of “In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey.” Credit: Susan Biddle
Perugia is the more important of the two provinces of Umbria and in culinary terms is most famous for its chocolates. Perugina, the chocolate firm founded in 1907, makes chocolate kisses (baci) famous throughout Italy and even in the United States. It’s also the historic home of a novel Christmas cake.
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A variety of sweets are made around Christmas such as pinoccate, little diamond-shaped sweets made of sugar and pine nuts, hence their name. They usually are made “black” with chocolate or “white” with vanilla. Locals say that the small cakes were made by Benedictine monks as early as the 14th century and are served to end lavish Christmas feasts.
A simple syrup is made until rather dense and then the same weight of pine nuts as the sugar is added and poured onto a marble slab to be shaped as one makes peanut brittle. The diamonds are cut and cooled, with half of each piece being chocolate and half vanilla. They are then wrapped in black and white pairs in festive and colorful Christmas paper.
Another Christmas delight from Perugia that is a bit easier to make is the symbolic eel or snake-shaped torciglione (twisted spiral) Christmas cake. The Perugina say it is shaped like an eel to represent the eels of nearby Lake Trasimeno, while others attribute a more symbolic meaning rooted in pagan times. The Greeks saw snakes as sacred and used them in healing rituals; the snake’s skin shedding was a symbol of rebirth and renewal, an appropriate symbol at the time of the birth of Christ.
Torciglione (Holiday Almond Meringue Snake)
In most of Umbria, but in particular around Lake Trasimeno in the province of Perugia, torciglione is a Christmas and New Year’s Eve sweet. It is also sometimes called a serpentone or biscione and it’s made as a symbol of luck. It is claimed that this sweet was developed in the 19th century by a master pastry cook, Romualdo Nazzani, who opened a cake shop in Reggio Emilia and created some magnificent sweets, such as biscione, which means “snake.”
This Christmas cake is made with an almond base and meringue topping decorated with candied peel to represent the eyes of the snake. In Christian iconography, the snake can represent temptation as it was in the Garden of Eden. Eating the snake is thought to bring luck.
Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes
Baking time: 40 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
1 pound whole blanched almonds, toasted and chopped
3/4 pound (about 1 1/2 cups) sugar
2 tablespoons rum
Zest from 1 lemon
3 large egg whites, beaten until stiff
3 tablespoons pine nuts
2 coffee beans
1 candied cherry
1. Heat the oven to 325 F.
2. In a bowl, mix the almonds, sugar, rum, lemon zest and egg whites until a dense consistency.
3. On a buttered parchment paper-lined baking tray form the mixture into the shape of a snake. Place the pine nuts over its surface. Put the coffee beans in as eyes and the cherry as a tongue. Bake until golden brown, about 40 minutes.
Main photo: Torciglione (Holiday Almond Meringue Snake). Credit: Clifford A. Wright
It’s that time of year again. Wherever I turn, I see beautiful and seductive images of food. When I’m tempted — and fortunate enough — to eat too much, I needn’t worry, for there’s plenty of dietary advice waiting for me. Somehow, though, in these short, dark days of our winter, the recipe suggestions accompanying that advice never seem quite so tantalizing as those lovely dishes I’d been tempted by. So what can I do? I can turn for help to those wise thinkers of Greek antiquity.
Mezes are often described as small plates of food made for sharing, and they are. But it’s not the whole picture. The origins of mezes can be traced to travelers in the ancient world, who relied for sustenance on the goodwill of the people they met on their journeys. Refreshments offered were simple — from the garden or hillsides, store-cupboard or pot — and no one was turned away from the table.
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As these ancient societies developed political and social systems, and became wealthier, intellectual and cultural life developed, too. Since the days of classical Greece (5th century BC to 3rd century AD), the Western tradition has had the words to describe and give shape to many of the sciences – zoology, archaeology, anthropology, biology — including the art and science of good eating and drinking, or gastronomy.
What’s in a word?
Today, the word gastronomy can sometimes have disagreeable associations — of gluttony, waste and ostentatious wealth. But in its original meaning, it described a way of eating and drinking that led to health and enjoyment, a balance of science and art. For the ancients, this meant not only feeding our five senses — sight, sound, smell, taste, touch — but also the sense they considered most important of all, the spirit of connectedness with the food on the table and with each other. It was this feeling, they believed, that led to good digestion and thus to good health.
Those ancient thinkers had another word, too, whose meaning has changed over the centuries — diaita, or diet. The Oxford Dictionary tells us that diet means “a prescribed course of food” or to “restrict oneself to special food, especially to control weight.” But to the ancient Greeks, diaita meant “way of life.” And the meze table was right at the center of their way of life.
The meze table
Mezes, when enjoyed as a diaita, provide fulfillment in a whole, human, sense — they feed our senses as well as our stomachs. The meze table is a colorful place, full of enticing aromas and often surrounded by loud chatter. With bowls of olives, salates (dips), piles of small pies, stuffed leaves, crunchy nuts, bright vegetables, tangy cheeses and yogurt, meat tidbits or well-flavored fish, the six senses are well looked-after. Dishes are put together with thought and to complement each other: Little salt is needed when there are olives on the table; chewy currants add sweetness to stuffings; capers “lift” pulse dishes; crunchy, fresh cucumber and radishes lighten preserved foods; octopus, razor shells and sea urchins intrigue; herbs and olive oil aromatize and dazzle.
A meze table can be very simple — a few olives, fresh vegetables, cheese, something “left over” — or can comprise more complex dishes. It can be for one or two, or for many, and its few gastronomic principles make pleasurable work for the cook: Flavorings are used to supplement and enhance, not to overwhelm; fresh ingredients are seasonal, garnishes edible; and fine local foods are the most preferred. The meze table is a place where our modern understanding of the word diet is turned upside down. Instead of restricting ourselves to what we think we shouldn’t eat — full-fat, calorie-laden olive oil, cheese, nuts — we free ourselves to enjoy the beauty of good food, to wasting nothing and to experimenting with the wild (greens, game), fermented (homemade yogurt, pickles) and often-ignored foods we have nearby.
Preparing attractive mezes doesn’t mean hours in the kitchen working on fussy preparations and mastering complicated cooking techniques. Just find the best suppliers you can, choose food in prime condition, and have a few staples at hand — good-quality olive oil and wine vinegar, olives, almonds, honey, rigani (dried Greek oregano), capers, sea salt, preserved fish, spices, dried fruits.
Now, you’re ready to compose many quick and simple dishes to serve as part of a meze table, such as these small plates of preserved fish:
- Drain canned sardines and sprinkle with coarse sea salt, freshly ground pepper, a few drops of red wine vinegar, chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley and extra virgin olive oil.
- Drain canned tuna, separate into chunks and cover with thinly sliced red onion; sprinkle with sumac, extra virgin olive oil and coarse sea salt.
- Sprinkle sun-dried mackerel with red wine vinegar, extra virgin olive oil and rigani, and serve with kalamata olives and slices of pickled or fresh cucumber.
White Fish With Vinegar and Herbs
Any fresh fish can be cooked this way — small sea bass fillets are a favorite, but the preparation suits more coarsely fleshed, and cheaper, whole white fish or fillets, too. A light dusting of flour keeps the fish from splitting and flaking during cooking and cuts down fish odors in the kitchen.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes fillets, 20 minutes whole fish
Total time: 15 to 25 minutes
Yield: 6 meze servings
1 pound fish fillets or 6 small white fish, heads discarded, gutted and scaled
1 teaspoon coarse-grain sea salt, or to taste
1/2 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper, or to taste
3 tablespoons garbanzo bean flour and 1 tablespoon plain flour or 4 tablespoons plain flour
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, or to taste
3 tablespoons good-quality wine vinegar
2 tablespoons hot water
2 tablespoons rigani (dried Greek oregano) or fresh rosemary
3 bay leaves
Small sprigs of rigani or fresh rosemary
Small black olives such as Greek Elitses or Niçoise
1. Wipe both sides of the fillets with a damp cloth or rinse whole fish and pat dry. Dust with half the salt and pepper and 2 tablespoons of the flour, cover, and set aside for 30 minutes.
2. Place a large heavy sauté pan over medium-low heat and add half the olive oil. Dust the fish again with half the remaining flour and shake off any excess. When the olive oil is hot but not smoking, gently fry the fish on both sides until pale golden, about 10 minutes for fillets, 15 to 20 minutes for whole fish. The fish is cooked if it flakes easily when you insert a thin knife blade into the thickest part of it; it should be an even white all the way through. Drain between layers of kitchen paper. Strain the frying oil through 2 layers of muslin to remove any residue and set aside.
3. Wipe the pan with kitchen paper and return to low heat. Sprinkle the remaining flour over the bottom of the pan and stir a minute or two with a wooden spoon, until deep golden brown. Stir in the reserved frying oil and the remaining olive oil. The flour and oil will not blend together, but the flour will flavor and color the oil. Add the vinegar, water, rigani, bay leaves and remaining salt and pepper. Stir to mix, and simmer for 2 minutes.
4. Return the fish to the sauté pan, cover and heat through. Transfer to a warm dish, pour over the pan juices and surround with the rigani sprigs. Serve warm or at room temperature, with olives.
Note: To serve later, transfer the fish and sauce to a shallow glass or china dish, add olive oil, tightly cover the dish and refrigerate overnight or for up to 2 days. Turn the fish in the marinade once or twice. Bring to room temperature for serving.
Main photo: Aromatic fish meze. Credit: Cordell Barron