Industrial Harvest

What happened to the flour, Part 8: grandma’s cooking by sarah kavage

There is something about being a grandmother – once you have fed a couple of generations, you are generally considered to be the font of knowledge in culinary matters.  This email from L made me think of my own grandma, also named Sarah. She was a generous, compassionate person who worked as a supervising nurse at the local hospital back before it was common for women to have jobs outside the home.  She could also play cards, tend a garden, sew a little girl a pink princess dress and COOK, all with an inordinate amount of style.  What I remember best is the homemade pasta – beef ravioli, and on Thanksgiving, egg noodles served with “just a little” butter.  Her spirit has been with me throughout this project.

Whatever the dish, there is something special about a grandma’s cooking that is tough to replicate, as L attests to here.  Not being grandmas, we can only speculate about what that is.  Maybe it’s decades of practice, thrown into sharper relief by a culture obsessed with instant results.  I also suspect there’s some secret magic at work, unknown to us ordinary citizens.

From: L
To: sarah
Sent: Wed, January 5, 2011 5:30:40 PM
Subject: flour project
Hi Sarah,
This has been a long time coming, but better late than never, I hope! Here’s my description and photos of what I baked with the flour.

A summer memory: I baked my baba’s famous pie. She’s always made apple or cherry pies, but since harvest season was upon us, I made an apple and a pear pie with fruit I bought at the farmers market. I shared the apple pie with my community garden at our weekly workday. The pear I served at a barbecue I hosted with my old neighbors gathered in the backyard. (Yes, we heated the pie on the grill!)

pies a la baba

pies a la baba

the finished pie (and at least one finished beer)

the finished pie (and at least one finished beer)

My baba’s baked goods have been a family tradition since before I was even born. That side of the family lives about 600 miles from where I grew up, so it was a special thing to have her nowhere-else-to-be-found pastries once or twice a year. She’s 88 now and still baking the same sweets I remember from my childhood. I think her baking is even more special to me now, and I haven’t found a pie that tastes better than the kind she bakes from scratch.

I knew I wanted to share my baba’s pie recipe as soon as I read about the Industrial Harvest project. My crust turned out inferior to hers, probably because she’s been baking for decades and bakes by intuition –  she just adds a little of whatever ingredient is needed if the texture isn’t right – but I’ll keep attempting to maintain the baking tradition. Coincidentally, the day I got my flour was also her birthday.

On Thu, Jan 6, 2011 at 2:26 PM, sarah wrote:
that’s a really beautiful story. I have so many fond memories of my Grandma in the kitchen (and the garden) too, and am still trying to live up to her culinary legacy.  I would love to share this on the project blog. Is that OK?
Happy new year!

From: L
To: sarah
Date: Fri, January 7, 2011 10:59:52 AM
Subject: Re: flour project
Thank you! That would be great to have the story posted on the blog. Yes, my baba was also an avid gardener in her more energetic days (that’s another trait I inherited from her). There really is something to a grandma’s baking – I think one actually has to be a grandma in order to achieve that level of skill with combining ingredients. There’s a real comfort in those foods.

Happy new year to you, too. I’m so glad that I was a part of this project!


Milling About, Observing and Routine by sarah kavage
One of the things that came with me to Chicago from Seattle was a couple pounds of hard winter wheat berries grown in Eastern Washington.  That seems just a little bit silly since I was going to the heartland and all, but there it was in the bulk foods section, begging to come along and weigh down my luggage.  

This project requires understanding every link in the cycle of growing, refining and making all sorts of things with wheat.  Now that I’m feeling a little more comfortable with the baking, I can take things up a notch – what about actually making the flour?  Back in Seattle, I ground some of the wheat up in a coffee grinder just to see how that would work.  It took a long time and almost burned out the motor, but I did end up with something flour-like.  I thought I might be able to find someone who had a home-use flour mill in Chicago and try it, but it turns out I’ve been a little busy trying to find things like commodities traders and farmers and cannot even bring myself to think about running around this huge city trying to track down a flour mill.  Somewhere, somehow I heard something about using a blender to do the job.  And InCUBATE happens to have a really nice heavy-duty blender.  So this is what happens when you put wheat in a blender and make some bread with it.  

It took 5 or 6 rounds of running the blender, sifting out the flour, and putting the rest back in the blender till I was good and sick of the noise, and there were still a bunch of cracked wheat berries left over.  

Here’s the side by side comparison.  The blender flour (left) was more uniform in size and texture, while with the milled flour it’s quite easy to differentiate the flour (made up of the endosperm, the starchy interior part of the wheat) from the bran (its brown, papery exterior).  The texture of the blended flour was also coarser – comparable to hruba mouka, the coarse-ground flour used by the Czechs to make bread and dumplings.  

I decided to repeat the bomb-proof no-knead recipe from the other day, and used 1 cup of milled whole grain flour, 1 cup of fine whole wheat flour (the whole grain flour sifted) and 1 up of the blender flour.  To that I added a healthy dose of pure wheat gluten that a friend gave me.  Made from the protein part of the wheat, pure (or vital) wheat gluten added to bread is supposed to help it rise – another trick home bakers use to get bakery-quality results, especially for whole wheat breads.  

At the end of the milling, sifting and measuring stage, here’s what was on the counter.  The photo deliberately misrepresents my organization / neatness level. 

Wheat, Deconstructed

Wheat, Deconstructed

From left to right in the bowls, we have the sifted and unsifted milled flour, the blended flour, and the cracked wheat.  The cracked wheat won’t go into the bread but can be made into some sort of porridge (ugh) or as a substitute for couscous or bulgur in a pilaf (not so bad), or even into bulgur wheat itself, which sounds delicious but labor-intensive.  In the center we have the gluten on the left and the bran on the right.  The excess bran is used to keep the dough from sticking and to put a little crunchy crisp on the top, but there will still be some leftover.  I’ve been using it in shakes for breakfast and gave the rest to the person who gave me the gluten. 

The result:  delicious!  I was a little bit amazed at how quickly this bread baking stuff has become somewhat routine.  The motions, the textures and the timing are already starting to feel more intuitive.  No doubt my learning curve has been flattened (steepened? anyway, it’s getting easier) due to the advice of many friends and visitors (pros and hobbyists) to the InCUBATE ‘test kitchen.’  The all-powerful internet helps too, but the internet can’t stand in the kitchen with me and tell me  “that’s a good crumb” or “those little strands are what you’re looking for” or “it’s probably time for it to go in the oven now.”  These people are teaching me what to look for and how to observe the process, and it’s making this project a whole lot more satisfying and delicious. 

As a postscript, I thought of Heike a lot making this latest loaf and this post – read her observations, and her observations about observation here (I liked them so much I put them on my other blog).  She’s also the proud owner of a new flour mill!

Wanda’s tasty southern dinner rolls by sarah kavage

Must be something in the stars – on the same day as the delicious whole wheat bread, I also managed to rock a super tasty batch of dinner rolls.  I spent 11 summers of my life (5 as a camper, then 6 as a counselor) at Camp Appalachia, a summer camp for girls up in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia.  It was sort of a family tradition – my mom and aunt went there as kids/young women, and when my mom got a job as head counselor in the 80s, my sister and I got to go for free.  Mom’s Camp Appy career spanned 26 summers.  My dad thought it was some sort of cult. 

Anyway…..Wanda Bartley, our cook, was a delightful local woman who drove 60+ girls and young women into a starch frenzy every Thursday and Sunday with her fresh dinner rolls.  Wanda would patiently put one industrial-sized tray of rolls after another into the oven until supplies ran out.  Sophisticated distribution systems were devised within (“who’s had 4 rolls already?”) and between (“you guys have any rolls left?”) tables.  At the end of the meal we’d be practically dozing off at the table; fortunately rest hour took place shortly afterwards.  I ate one right after they came out of the oven.  It took me right back to those camp days (triggering an inexplicable longing for canned green beans), and promptly made me want to take a nap. 

Mix together 2 pkgs fast acting yeast & 2 1/2 cups water
Add 3/4 cup sugar and 2 1/2 tsp salt (although I have read that this kills the yeast, I was faithful to Wanda’s tried and true method)
Add 3/4 cup melted butter or margarine, and 2 eggs
Add 8 – 8 1/2 cups flour to make a sticky dough.  I was not sure if Wanda meant sticky in the same way that the “real” bakers define it, but 8 cups was a little too many for my dough & I ended up adding more water to it.  For this to be real southern cooking, the flour absolutely has to be white flour. 

Put in airtight container and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.  Shape into balls 1/2 the size of roll and let rise 1 – 1 1/2 hours before baking.  Bake at 400 degrees for 25 minutes or until golden brown.  Makes about 45 rolls.  Dough will keep in refrigerator for 3 weeks. 

Yes, I made this whole recipe although I ended up with about 35 huge rolls as opposed to 45 more moderately sized ones.  The occasion?  My friend Anne Elizabeth Moore is going to Cambodia to do this awesome independent publishing project with young women, and a group is having an “Old World Bake Sale” fundraiser on her behalf (good old Southern cooking is not technically old world, but more old school, and I’m all about following the spirit of the law).  Anne leaves town in about 10 days and still needs to raise a couple thou to cover her expenses.  Her project is completely community funded, so if you haven’t already donated, you should seriously consider doing so!

Wanda's Southern Style Dinner Rolls

Wanda's Southern Style Dinner Rolls

A bit more practice before going “live” with the bake sale thing would have been better.  Wanda’s rolls always came out perfectly shaped and smooth, and I really meant to underbake them so that the buyer could put them in the oven for the final stretch.  Oh, I really hope they sell…the thought of them sitting on the bake sale table at the end of the night triggers all kinds of insecurities and anxiety (and also seems a little sad, cuz they taste so good).

success! by sarah kavage

A huge shout out to Bryce, InCUBATE co-founder, who suggested this revolutionary recipe for bread.  You make a really wet dough, let it rise for 12-18 hours and cook it in a covered pot.  Every single person I talked to who had tried this method affirmed that it’s amazing – what, a recipe with no letdown?? 

This method was developed by Jim Lahey at Sullivan St. Bakery in NYC.  The science geek in me was drawn to his ability to work with the science behind bread baking to put the home baker on equal (well, better) footing with the pros.  The home baker is at a real disadvantage in terms of equipment when it comes to producing a bakery-quality loaf, and Lahey’s approach requires no baking stones or steam injected ovens, just your standard ingredients and a pot with a lid. 

I made an organic whole wheat dough with organic flour – 2/3 whole grain and 1/3 sifted so that it was more of an all purpose flour.  The dough did not seem as wet as it should have been at first – probably b/c of the whole wheat flour – so I added a little extra water.  I also ended up putting it in the fridge overnight after the first rise and then taking it out again in the morning; it’s probably better to start this one at night rather than first thing in the AM.  The dough made charming little fizzy musical notes as it rose, was perfectly cooperative and the final result was good looking AND delicious.  I’m eating it now! 

Bryce was also kind enough to lend me his camera so that I can take a few better-then-cell-phone quality pictures; appropriately enough the first pictures are of this picturesque loaf of bread. 

Tacky and Sticky come to dinner by sarah kavage

This past weekend, Anne and I spent our afternoons trekking around the city visiting different farmers’ markets.  At the cute little downtown farmstand I picked up some locally grown organic flour from Ackerman farms in Chenoa, Illinois – located about 100 miles away, they also grow organic edamame soybeans, corn and other produce.  I also scored some cinnamon-infused honey from another market the following day.  The honey whole wheat bread featured on the Fresh Loaf therefore seemed to be the logical, easy and delicious choice.  Measured by weight, my ingredients would make a bread that is over 75% local and organic. 

I tried to be a little more anal with this recipe, but there was still some improvisation required.  The recipe calls for some a mix of whole wheat and all-purpose flour, which is made by sifting the bran out of the whole grain flour.  There is no sifter at InCUBATE, and I had to pick up window screen from the hardware store across the street to make an improvised version which totally did the trick.  The little kitchen scale at InCUBATE made it possible to actually follow the baking tips on the Fresh Loaf website, which strongly advocate measuring by weight as opposed to volume. 

Whole wheat dough needs to be more moist in order to get a good rise, but I had no idea what the difference was between a “sticky” (not good) and a “tacky” (good) dough.  I thought tacky was bad (smoking / eating while walking, loud gum chewing,  handbags that don’t match).  

Speaking of tacky, the dough rose in the bathroom right next to the heating vent – the warmest available spot.  The delicious smell was the best air freshener ever, permeating the bathroom and then the entire space.  The second rise got cut short due to time constraints, as I was taking the bread up to Mess Hall for Anne’s final Art Institute class presentations.  My loaf was therefore a little small and the crust a little thick, but tasty – especially paired with butter that we made ourselves; the act of doing so was part of one of the presentations.  The class was about creative resistance of corporate culture, and was, appropriately, a potluck (and damn, those kids can cook!). 

 As a footnote, a new acquaintance who is a baker from Floriole bakery (conveniently, their kitchen is located almost right next door to InCUBATE) told me that “tacky” means that there is no spackle-like dough coming off on your hands when you handle it.  Now we all know.  She also said it’s tough to screw up whole wheat bread – “it always tastes good.”  Music to my ears.

Early adventures in baking at InCUBATE by sarah kavage
December 7, 2009, 6:25 am
Filed under: baking | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Dec. 2-5, 2009.  While at InCUBATE, I want to get familiar with what can be done with wheat.  I am starting to think about it like one would any other art medium, and it’s a medium I have very limited experience with. 

Baking is the obvious place to begin.  I’m a pretty good cook, but baking, not so much.  I can make a few things (pie crust, biscuits, pita bread, foccacia, pizza dough) – but actual loaves of leavened bread are a little intimidating.  In retrospect, it seems a bit foolish to begin this adventure using a bag of flour that was left behind by the previous InCUBATE resident.  But it would have gone to waste otherwise, and being unfamiliar with the neighborhood and not having a lot of time, I decided to just go for it. 

The recipe was one for “daily bread” from the King Arthur Flour website that seemed pretty simple.  I made up the dough and let it rise overnight (the InCUBATE kitchen is pretty cold, so it was taking a long time to rise) and gave it a second rising in the morning.  The dough tasted salty as all get-out, and I may have made it too dry and despite the cold kitchen let it rise too long.  The final result was a rather lumpy, oversized softball that nonetheless had good color and texture.  Sadly, it was so salty that it was not really edible.  I am what you would call a salt lover, and it’s hard to believe that food could be too salty for my taste. 

Thinking I had mis-read the recipe or somehow mistakenly quintupled the amount of salt called for, I started another batch with 1/3 the salt the recipe called for.  Got a good rise out of the dough, but it was still way salty.  So midway through the first loaf I started a third loaf with no salt which was only slightly better.  As the first loaf went into the oven, I happened to notice that I was using self-rising flour with baking powder and salt.  It’s actually biscuit flour.  Neither loaf tasted any better when cooked (I kept hoping that something would magically change in the oven to make the bread less salty) and went into the trash.  There are few things more frustrating to me than wasting food.  Arrgh.    

The upside of the whole debacle was that I now had an excuse to make biscuits and coincidentally, had a breakfast date with Anne E. Moore, who is an appreciative biscuit consumer.  I was a bit nervous, as Anne is a bit of a connoisseur of baked goods.  If nothing else, I am confident in my ability to make a mean biscuit, even vegan ones, but the issue with the flour threw me. 

I put my worries aside and fired up the ole InCUBATE oven once again.  The biscuit recipe came from my sister when I visited her in West Virginia over 10 years ago.  The piece of notebook paper it was written on is now so beat up and the ink has run so badly that it’s not at all legible, and I’ve modified the recipe and never written down any of the modifications – but I still get out this piece of paper to make biscuits.  It’s some sort of weird pneumonic that stimulates the biscuit part of my brain.  Interestingly, the paper got lost recently so I’ve been flying without a net and doing just fine. 

Here’s the recipe:

  • 2 c. flour, plus a bit for rolling / cutting the dough
  • 1/3 – ½ c. butter or margarine (I usually use vegan “butter” and other folks like to do a 50/50 split with shortening & butter but I like a more buttery flavor). 
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 TB sugar (this is optional – I usually skip it)
  • 1 c. buttermilk.  Or you can 3/4 c. regular milk with the juice of 1 lemon squeezed in to give it some sour flavor.  Not a problem if it curdles.  For vegan biscuits, soymilk works too – this is what I usually do.  Recently I made real buttermilk biscuits and they were so incredibly delicious that I can’t honestly say the vegan version is just as good.  The vegan version is great.  But real buttermilk is over the top. 

Preheat oven to 425 deg. Fahrenheit.  I have also experimented with even higher temperatures – some folks recommend 450 – 475 deg. for crisp exterior / moist interior (if you do this, shorten the baking time). 

  1. Mix dry ingredients together (flour, baking powder, salt)
  2. Cut the butter into the flour till it resembles tiny crumbs.  If you don’t have a biscuit cutter you can cut it into cubes with a knife, then work it into the flour with your hands. 
  3. Add milk and mix just until the flour is all moistened and it will hold a shape.  DO NOT OVERWORK THE DOUGH!  You want the butter to stay in little bits so that it melts during the baking and makes little air pockets.  Too much mixing or kneading will melt the butter.  Overworking will also create long “strings” of starches that are great for regular bread, but make chewy biscuits. 
  4. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, flatten till it’s about ½ – ¾ in. thick. 
  5. To cut the biscuits, you can use a knife and just slice the dough into squares or use a cookie cutter / biscuit cutter.  My mom used to use a red plastic drinking glass, and glasses do work if you don’t have a cutter, but strive for something with a thin edge – the finest crystal will do.  Make sure the cutter is well-floured and sharp.  Dull, sticky cutters will smash down the edges of the biscuit and prevent rising.  It’s fun to experiment with different sizes and even simple shapes (hearts, diamonds) – my star-shaped cookie cutter makes the best biscuits, hands down.  I have no idea why. 
  6. If you have a looser (wetter) dough, you can drop biscuits onto the tray with a spoon.  Some of my favorite biscuit batches have been from very wet doughs; my friend Jed still talks about a late night batch that I’d thought was going to be a mushy mess. 
  7. The biscuits should be placed on the tray close together but not touching; this will help the sides from cooking too quickly, which stops them from rising.  Biscuits are all about facilitating the fluffiness.  That’s right, your job is to be the biscuit fluffer.   
  8. Baking time will vary depending on oven temp, but 12-18 minutes is about the norm.  They should rise a little bit and be slightly brown on top. 

If I can indulge myself in a little self-congratulatory pat on the back for just a moment here, that entire recipe was written down from memory.  No internet research required! 

Of course, this batch of biscuits did not have any salt or baking powder because of this crazy flour.  They contained soymilk and real butter and were perfectly fine, especially paired with Anne’s mushroom gravy and coffee with eggnog.

Calling all Chicago area bakers, cooks and eaters by sarah kavage
December 3, 2009, 5:57 am
Filed under: baking | Tags: , , ,

Since this is a project that is in part a celebration of wheat in all its permutations, and also about cooking, eating and nourishment, my plan is to spend a lot of my time at InCUBATE getting really good at making things out of wheat.  Those things could include but are not limited to…Bread!  Pie!  Biscuits!  Rolls!  Crackers!  Pita Bread!  Wheatgrass smoothies!  Pasta!

This is to put all parties reading this blog officially on notice that I will be gratefully accepting ideas, recipes and advice – as well as guest chefs and guest eaters.  Comment, get in touch, send links to your favorites and perhaps you will be rewarded with delicious-ness!