The Culture of Food and Drink


Home / Baking w/recipe  / Ask The Priest: Understanding Acadian Flatbread

Ask The Priest: Understanding Acadian Flatbread

Father Paul Dumais. Credit: Christine B. Rudalevige

Father Paul Dumais. Credit: Christine B. Rudalevige

The Rev. Paul Dumais has spent much of his free time in the past year sorting truth from rumor concerning the science behind a traditional comfort food in his home state of Maine.

Dumais, a Catholic priest who lives in Lewiston, has been studying the chemical composition of ployes (rhymes with toys). He’s attempting to discern the scientific facts about the batter for these traditional French Acadian buckwheat pancakes or flatbreads from the theatrical stories passed down by generations of Acadian people living in northern Maine.

For example, his grandmother would use only Rumford baking powder in her ployes. “The rumor was that if you didn’t use Rumford’s, your ployes would turn green,” said Dumais, adding that he can’t scientifically support that claim.

He can, though, methodically corroborate his grandmother’s “feel” for when there is enough water in the mix because he’s calculated that a hydration rate of 170% (170 grams of water to 100 grams of flour) makes the best ployes. If the batter is too thick, they don’t cook evenly. If it’s too thin, the finished product is not hearty enough to do its job of providing a simple carbohydrate filler food for the local population. One serving of ployes has 100 calories, 21 grams of carbs and 2 grams of protein.

Dumais says “flatbread” is a more accurate term than “pancake” for ployes because they are not traditionally eaten for breakfast and traditionally not served with maple syrup. They are buttered, rolled and served at lunch or dinner with savory dishes like creton, a pork spread containing onions and spices; baked beans; and an Acadian chicken stew called fricot.

Never flip a ploye

Ployes are never, ever flipped like a flapjack. The batter, which must not be over mixed, is portioned on a dry, hot griddle; swished once into a 4- or 5-inch circle; and cooked face up so you can see the heat “fait les yeux” or “make the eyes.” Those “eyes” are the air bubbles that dot the surface of perfectly cooked ployes.

Dumais is a Mainer in the true sense of the word. He serves as Catholic chaplain to Central Maine Medical Center and Bates College and is a founding member of the Fraternity of St. Philip Neri. He was born and raised in the small town of Madawaska, which sits in the middle of a place called “the Valley” in Aroostook County. “The Valley” forms part of the international border with Canada along the St. John River. Madawaska, which now has a population of 4,000, was founded by French-speaking agrarian settlers in 1785 after they were forcefully dispersed by the English from the region of Acadie, a part of New France that included sections of what we now recognize as Eastern Quebec and the Maritime Provinces.

Ployes mixes from Bouchard Family Farms. Credit: Christine B. Rudalevige

Ployes mixes from Bouchard Family Farms. Credit: Christine B. Rudalevige

Dumais is armed with both taste memory and newfangled kitchen gadgets (like his  infrared thermometer, a highly accurate kitchen scale and his preferred Danish dough whisk) and is enthusiastically fond of mixing experimentation with deep-set culinary tradition. His end game — spurred on by his Great Aunt Prescille’s faint memory — is to produce a ploye batter much like his great-great-grandmother made from local grains and natural, ambient yeast.

Dumais recently evangelized the scientific wonders of ployes at the annual Kneading Conference in Skowhegan. The starting point in his public demonstration involves ready-made ployes mixes from two sources: his cousins’ garage in Frenchville, and the more commercially available mix sold by Bouchard Family Farms. The measurements — 1 cup of ployes mix to 1⅓ cups of cold water — are spelled out on the side of the stand-up paper sacks. So are instructions for letting the batter rest for 5 minutes, the proper amount for each ploye (3 ounces), recommended thickness (⅛ inch) and expected cooking time (60 to 90 seconds). Dumais does advise users of these mixes to play with the amount of water added as he believes the viscosity should be a bit thinner than the labels’ recipe prescribes.

The ingredients for these mixes comprise a simple list and look much like his mother’s “from scratch” recipe (below), which serves as his second data point. Here he likes to demonstrate his hydration discoveries, making dramatic pouring gestures of too-slow ploye dough that has only 100 percent hydration and requires the cook to work too hard to spread it on the hot griddle. He also shows how too-fast batter quickly seeps across the boundaries of its allotted griddle real estate.

Sharing tips for success

But Dumais gets most animated when he presents his progress on developing a recipe for the naturally leavened ployes he suspects his ancestors made, even though he has been unable to find historical documentation of this process in the University of Maine Acadian Archives. He relays the story of when he tasted a savory pancake made by a Somali immigrant named Angela at a potluck dinner celebrating an urban farming program run by St. Mary’s Nutrition Center in Lewiston last winter. They did not have a spoken language in common, but it didn’t matter. With bread as a cultural currency they both understood, Angela could convey that the secret to her bread was a yogurt-based starter that she kept in a jar and from that jar she began each new batch of pancakes.

A vertical stack. Credit: Christine B. Rudalevige

A vertical stack. Credit: Christine B. Rudalevige

It clicked for Dumais at that moment and he ran with the fermented flour starter idea, playing with flour amounts and types, feeding times, temperatures and hydration ratios. “Then one day, I made a batch. Watched and tasted. And finally thought, ‘Why, I think I’ve got it!’ ” Dumais said.

As he poured, swished once to form the right-sized circumference for the flatbread and watched for the heat to fait les yeux, Dumais said, “Now that is a ploye my mémé could be proud of.” These ployes looked much like the others, but had a bit of a sourdough finish.

In honor of the 2014 Acadian World Congress held in multiple locations along the U.S.-Canadian border over two weeks in August, Dumais hosted a continual feast near an ancestral homestead.

“My personal little quest was to reintroduce the naturally leavened ployes in honor of the event,” Dumais said. One evening he cooked alongside his mother to create some chicken stew and his new recipe for old-fashioned ployes for family.

Just as his mother had done every other time she’d eaten Acadian chicken stew, Dumais said for this meal “she buttered a ploye, rolled it up and dunked the end in her stew and remarked to another family member: ‘These are made without baking powder. They are very good.’

“Part of what might be difficult to appreciate is that people eat ployes all the time. … My mother was able to appreciate the moment largely because I had been in conversation with her all along,” he said.

People enjoyed Dumais’ ployes, but it “was an understated return of the traditional Acadian flatbread,” he said. The fact that they were made with family, for family, in an open-air kitchen on the banks of the St. John River near a cedar cabin built by his grandfather was satisfaction enough for him.

Ployes from scratch

This is Father Paul Dumais’  formula to replicate his mother’s ployes, traditional French Acadian buckwheat savory flatbreads. A scientifically enthusiastic baker, he highly recommends weighing the dry ingredients to yield the most authentic ployes.

Prep time: 1 minute

Cook time: 9 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes (including rest time of about 5 minutes for the batter)

Yield: 10 ployes

Ingredients

100 grams (½ cup plus 1 tablespoon) buckwheat flour

100 grams (a scant ¾ cup) all-purpose flour (Dumais uses King Arthur)

4 grams (½ teaspoon) salt

6 grams (2 teaspoons) baking powder (Dumais uses Rumford)

340 grams (1¾ cup) cold water (possibly more)

Directions

1. Preheat a griddle to 400 F.

2. Stir together buckwheat and all-purpose flours, salt and baking powder in a large bowl. Using a wire whisk, beat in the cold water until all the lumps are dissolved.

3. Let the batter sit for approximately 5 to 10 minutes.

4. In a circular motion, use back of spoon to spread 3 ounces of batter to ⅛ inch thick circles that are 5 inches in diameter. Cook ployes for 1½ minutes until the tops are bubbly and dry. Remove from griddle and serve warm, slathered with butter, with savory soups and stews.

Main photo: Father Paul Dumais. Credit: Christine B. Rudalevige



Zester Daily contributor Christine Burns Rudalevige, based in Brunswick, Maine, is an independent journalist and classically trained home cook working to spread reliable information about the state of food consumption. She writes copy and develops and tests recipes for many media, including Cooking Light, NPR.org's The Salt, Food52, WholeFoodsMarketCooking.com, Portland (Me.) Press-Herald, Philadelphia Inquirer and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In 2013, Rudalevige co-founded with Mollie Sanders, the Family Fish Project, a blog (www.familyfish.net), recipe site and cookbook project designed to help busy families cook and eat more seafood at home. As a chef instructor at Stonewall Kitchen in York, Maine, Rudalevige develops and teaches recreational cooking classes.

11 COMMENTS
  • michlhw 10·30·14

    I don’t understand.. in the article Dumais says “why, I think I got it!” to a recipe using a fermented starter. His mother corroborates this by saying “Thse are made without baking powder. They are very good”. Why then is the recipe here the one that uses baking powder and not the fermented yoghurt starter?

    Makes me sad. I would have loved to see the “improved” recipe.

  • Christine Rudalevige 10·31·14

    Included this one as it’s more accessible. I can certainly ask Fr. Dumais for his recipe for the ambient yeast recipe for you, though.

  • Fr. Paul 11·3·14

    Oh, don’t be sad. Be adventuresome. I let my starter get away from me and it is ployes season now so let’s try to restart the naturally leavened ployes. I am grateful you are interested because as with most natural leavens they require a lot of love. The way forward is not so much a recipe at the moment but a method to generate a starter that will be potent enough to leaven a batter some days from now. You may follow your own favorite advice for creating a liquid starter but let’s try this: mix equal weights of all-purpose wheat flour and buckwheat flour and water that equals the total weight of the flour. In other words, fifty grams of all-purpose wheat flour and fifty grams of buckwheat flour and a hundred grams of water. (Note: you may only be able to find the dark buckwheat flour from a health food store. What we use is a unique variety sometimes called ‘silverskin’ and is quite pale but try it with what you can find. Otherwise I could send you a sample from my uncle’s farm.) Stir the contents to a uniform consistency and let stand at room temperature for twelve hours. Repeat the process every twelve hours each day for several days until you seen gas bubbles on the surface as your approach the twelfth hour. Bear in mind you can use any quantity as long as you use the same proportion 1:1:2. Also note that you will be discarding some each time you refresh the starter so I like to retain 100 grams and add 25 grams of all-purpose flour and buckwheat flour and 50 grams of water. I will go begin a new starter now and let’s talk again in a few days to see what progress we have made. Besides if that fails for some reason I have a shortcut but that would not be as adventurous.

  • Fr. Paul 11·5·14

    Day One: The combined weights of buckwheat flour (25 grams), all-purpose (25 grams) and water (50 grams) are mixed to smooth consistency. The mixture is kind of pasty and smells like bean flour. The mixture is refreshed at twelve hour intervals and I decide not to throw any out to build up the volume a bit.

    Day Two: The flour is well hydrated. The aroma is slightly musty. Some bubbles appear on the surface. It appears the mixture of flours and water has at some point in the day expanded then collapsed judging by the residue along the sides of the container. I mix in more flour and water according to the previous proportions.

  • Fr. Paul 11·8·14

    Day Five: I am seeing an eighth of an inch of water separating to the top which is easy reincorporated when refreshing the starter. On day four I discarded some of the mixture retaining 100g and continued refresh on a twelve hour cycle with 25g of each flour and 50g of water. The color is a dull yellowish hue. The odor is more complex though mild. In the course of the day I observe some bubbles surfacing consequently the starter culture has a texture that is batter-like and slightly frothy. All this time the container has remained covered on the counter top at room temperature.

  • Fr. Paul 11·11·14

    Day Seven: The routine of refreshing has continued twice a day on a twelve hour cycle once in the morning and once in the evening. Incidentally the container has remained on the counter. The air temperature is 70 degrees, the starter temperature is the same as well as the filtered water temperature. The surface of the starter culture has bubbles evenly distributed throughout. The odor has a faint legume/bean smell though slightly sweet accompanied by a mildly pungent smell. The texture is somewhat gelatinous similar too an overnight poolish. The starter is frothy with a light creamy batter-like consistency. I think it is ready to make ployes so I will refresh 400g of the culture with 25g of buckwheat flour, 25g of all-purpose flour and 50g of water. The proportion of culture to flour seems to admit some degree of latitude. I will allow the culture to sit on the counter as usual and tonight try to make ployes for the first time. Wish me success!

  • Fr. Paul 11·12·14

    Day Eight: So after refreshing the starter in the morning in the usual way the starter remains on the counter until evening. For demonstration purposes I pour 100g of refreshed starter into a separate container. Because the starter is hydrated at 100% I know the weight of the flour equals the weight of the water so I can easily calculate the addition of salt and additional water. The rule of thumb for salt is 2% of the total weight of the flour which in this case is 50g which in turn calls for 1g of salt. When it comes to the water we are aiming for a viscosity that does well on a 350 degree well seasoned though dry cast iron skillet. Alternatively an electric griddle works well also. I tried the starter culture just as it was and it was a bit heavy so the “eyes” or holes in the ploye did not form quickly. I added an additional 35g of water and that resulted in a batter that was too watery so their were not enough holes. I settled on 120% hydration which meant adding 20 additional grams of water to the refreshed culture along with the 1g of salt to form the ploye batter. The ployes cook through in 60-90 seconds without flipping them, of course. I did find that the taste was off as they were too sour. The remedy for this may be to use the refreshed starter earlier. I have yet to determine when is the earliest you could make ployes after refreshing the starter. The other solution would be to refresh the starter on a shorter cycle; for example, every eight hours instead of every twelve. I will keep tweaking things a bit and let you know what I find in the next few days.

  • Fr. Paul 11·17·14

    Day Thirteen: I confess I became occupied with other things so I refreshed the starter and waited an hour before putting it away in the refrigerator which slows the fermentation process so that you can take break. The starter can remain in the refrigerator a week before being refreshed in the usual way. This evening I removed the container and allowed it to warm to room temperature. I added 50g of both buckwheat and all-purpose flour and incorporated 100g of water mixing until smooth. I will refresh the starter again in the morning and it should be ready to use in the evening to make a ploye batter while retaining some starter to continue the process of refreshing or setting it aside for awhile in the refrigerator. Be well et mangez des ployes!

  • Jackie 11·28·14

    Way to go my Son!!

    Keep up the wonderful tradition; and, you are moving if forward by going back in time!

  • Fr. Paul 12·4·14

    Alright, so I tried again after some time of maintaining the starter in the usual way. And voila they were fine. The raw batter was very sharp tasting but seemed to mellow considerably once the ployes were cooked. Of course the butter and maple syrup also helped. The griddle was 400 degrees plus and well seasoned. The bottoms were crisp and the crumb was airy and the color was pale yellow. The texture had some pleasant chew to it. Presumably to the chagrin of my grandmothers I have been experimenting with common (Japanese) buckwheat obtainable from a health food store and I have been quite pleased with the result. The basic approach has been the same with the exception of a much higher percentage of all-purpose flour to the buckwheat flour which has a strong color and flavor. I have lost track of the percentages as I am adjusting it my sight to create a creamy brown starter and batter. The taste is complex and hearty. [NB the comment box doesn’t allow pictures so see the ubiquitous FB.

    I picked up some good advice from the King Arthur Flour: When using a liquid starter hydrated at 100% the refreshment can be as high as 1:.5:.5:1 so this would translate to one part (by weight) of refreshed starter, half that weight in all-purpose flour and another half weight of buckwheat flour and the proportionate weight in water. For example, 100g starter, 50g all-purpose flour, 50g buckwheat flour and 100g water. At this proportion a person may only need to refresh the starter culture every twenty-four hours at room temperature. Separation is typical and can be reincorporated into the starter. Also, when planning to refrigerate the starter culture allow it to remain at room temperature for four hours before retiring it to the refrigerator for a week or maybe even two or more.

  • Hillary Blanchard 10·21·15

    Whoo hoo! Found the recipe and secured a reliable scale from Mardens. No more mix for me! “Baking Powder Free” recipe will have to be for later as my kids were screaming for ployes an hour ago. Little heathens. 🙂

POST A COMMENT