Wheat is not usually thought of as a seasonal ingredient. It’s not like dark red cherries, perfect peaches or truly vine-ripened tomatoes that, especially here in Western Washington, have a very short window of exquisite flavor, of texture, of color, of all the things. The wheat I use, most of it milled for me, but some I mill myself, does have limited life. Only so much of any one varietal is grown each year. Therefore, there is only so much available to be shipped to the mill or to me. When the organic Edison berries are used up, we all have to make do until the next harvest is on the books.
Most commodity flour is an assortment of commodity wheat, varieties grown for ease of harvest, ease of milling, ease of baking. These varietals are blended together so flour companies can sell the same product year after year. Grain is collected from around the globe and gathered at enormous mills then flattened, sifted and mixed into bags for consumers. The silos are never empty of grain to mill, specific varieties not a concern, just that similarities are such that the blending will go on unimpeded.
Using varietal grains, using grains grown for flavor, grown for their specific baking qualities, are missed when the supply is used up for the season. Last year, Cairnspring had to adjust its Trailblazer flour to Trailblazer Select, bringing in Skagit Red, a variety they found to mix with the dwindling supply of Yecora Rojo grain, that would provide the same great bread flour and the quality flavor. It has preformed beautifully. The increased demand for these beautiful flours has created a bit of a bind: there is only so much to go around.
I imagine it won’t be long until the big mills try to get on board the varietal flour train that’s been gaining momentum across the Country. They’ll give precious names to commodity wheat blends, trying to lure in some of this market segment willing to pay optimal prices for something so humble as flour. The truth will out in the products though. Just like the word “artisan” lost all meaning when companies using sourdough flavoring slapped that label on their bread bags, varietal wheat will go the same way. Bread made with actual wheat varietals, though, wheat grown by farmers whom I can actually name, will always be amazing.
The flavor, the texture, the real-ness of this food can’t be faked. It will be more expensive since farmers are getting a better price then what commodity markets will bear. That should be lauded. Next time you’re at your favorite bakery, ask what flours they use. I make bread and sweets supporting these regional growers. Know that when you buy our products, or those from any of the many bakers now using regional varietal wheat flour, you are helping out a farm family. Here’s to wheat!
When Marie-Antoinette [supposedly] stated that the starving people of France should eat cake rather than bread, she was not the first to use such a phrase. Qu’ils mangent de la brioche has been found in writings before the doomed-queen’s time (McNamee). The word brioche is often translated as cake, but seems a far more insidious word choice.
We all know cake: light, sweet, often beautifully decorated, a luxury food, especially if made for royalty. Brioche, also light, just ever so sweet, but still bread, would be much more heartless for the queen to recommend to the starving populace. A people demanding bread. The King’s wife advising they eat enriched white bread, bread full of eggs and milk and sugar. A people with no bread, no eggs, no milk, told to eat bread made rich with those ingredients. It’s no wonder she lost her head.
Brioche is delicious food. Traditionally made from white flour, kneaded for a long time, even by machine, to develop the gluten to handle the softened butter added slowly at the end of mixing. Softened butter, not melty or greasy, fed into the whirling dough, more added only after each bit incorporated. That dough then let to rise at warm room temperature, refrigerated over night to develop flavor then shaped and eventually baked the next morning.
My brioche uses the high extraction Sequoia and Edison flours, creating even more flavor, flavor inherit in the wheat varietals themselves. While not fully fermented, I do use sourdough starter as part of the enrichment, giving the finished products a tinge of tang and longer shelf life. Moving baked goods away from pure white flour gives them more nutrition, more flavor. Taking that brioche dough and adding a bit more butter, along with some brown sugar and cinnamon, makes a cinnamon roll worthy of royalty but full of real-food flavor for the people. To me, brioche is a special occasion food, not daily bread. However, knowing there is a pan of cinnamon rolls in the freezer, means that a soon-to-be Sunday will indeed become a special occasion.
McNamee, Gregory Lewis and Blake, Susannah. “brioche”. Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/brioche. Accessed 20 January 2023.
I had hoped and planned for plenty of down time once Christmas arrived, really, once Solstice hit, but plans easily go awry. I had some extra baking I did for friends, so my last bake day was 12/22/22. What a great looking date! Little did I know that all of the errands I had left for Friday the 23rd would be thwarted by sheets of sheer ice. That ice pushed all the days, adding a Tuesday to the lineup of Holiday gatherings. I had also, for reasons that only baffled as the time grew closer, said yes to a custom PCC Cooks birthday party class at the Burien store. I live in Bothell. The birthday was for two soon-to-be 5-year old friends and 10 of their closest. So, Tuesday was getting ready for the final holiday party, Wednesday was recover from party and prep for class, and Thursday was an early start for a commute to Burien, to lead 12 young energetic humans in making cupcakes and pizza. Friday, yesterday, my first true down day, was spent with a few hours on accounting, then the rest of the day, including a nice lunch out, with Spouse, recapping the year: successes, challenges, things learned, changes to make for this next year, and even looking out three to five years from now. What a luxury to have the time and brain space to hash out all the things! We even created a 5-foot long calendar for the year, highlighting markets, class dates and kids’ camps, vacations and days off, complete with multi-color markers and post-its, and a short list of action items. Phew.
I will now have a few weeks to think about other things outside of business and bread. I’ll get a few days of different scenery, I will celebrate my sister with sweet remembrance, I will tackle the Rofco oven now in place, all electrical competed. After this, I will, again, begin to teach and offer bread. I don’t think, at least for me, there is really much down time. There is usually a task at hand, and completing that task often renews me. I am happy when the house is tidied, the laundry put away, when I’ve been in the garden. For me, these things must be done so when I do have time to sit with coffee or tea, I can relax and enjoy. Down time from my business means time for the myriad of other. So, for 2023, I will remember that, while lovely, Christmas is not relaxing, I don’t need any commitments the week after Christmas, but I do need to schedule enough time in early January to reset, rebuild, and enjoy all that other.
Happy New Year!
It’s cheesy anymore to start a post with a definition, but to distill is to “increase the concentration of, to separate, or purify” something else. I can do cheesy. I also feel distilled. I and my crew spent four and a half days cruising the San Juan Islands in a 29-foot Ranger Tug called Serendipity. Our plan was to hit the outer islands: Matia, Sucia and Patos, then Friday Harbor, moving physically closer to our eventual last night’s mooring, before motoring back to Anacortes.
Spouse piloted the boat, while Jr and I handled the mooring lines, bumpers, mooring buoys, docks and slips. We figured it out quickly, you had to, and worked well as a team. Matia and Patos don’t have docks that could handle our boat, only one or two mooring buoys, and given the bottom of these coves, exposure to currents, and general lack of experience, we didn’t want to chance anchoring. Both coves had their fill of boats, and as such, we entered, photographed, and exited the coves of these two little islands without disembarking. Though somewhat disappointing, we were closer than we ever had been, and were given insight into how to make moorage possible next time. The small, personal favorite, Fossil Bay on Sucia kept us safe through the night. We were able to explore the island’s trails, coves, bays and view points to our hearts’ content. Our next night was spent in the larger Stuart Island’s Prevost Harbor. Spouse and I once thought we’d move to the mostly-privately-owned Stuart, with its dreamy one-room school, two air strips and romantic light house. Visiting it over the years has fed that dream, while, simultaneously, providing gentle reality checks. Hiking around Stuart easily made up for not staying on Matia or Patos. I could write more about the Friday Harbor marina or the Dept of Natural Resource buoys at Cypress, but instead, this feeling of distillation.
At the start of this trip, I was set with my journal, waiting for epic entries of all that would be revealed as I sat at the back of the boat, on a deck chair while we motored at a modest speed, through gentle swells, the wakes of other boats, the water rippled by currents and wind. I just wrote about what had taken place, log book or diary style. No big whoop. I just wrote. It was the same each time I sat to journal and I was fine with this. It was just another thing in the succession of motor, moor, row to shore, hike around, return, make dinner, eat, laugh, play a game, try to sleep with the bow knocking into the mooring buoy. Repeat. All while surrounded by striking beauty: grey then blue skies, island trails and trees, the water sparkling, giving way to our bow, knowing it was ultimately far more powerful then anything to do with us. Engine moving big boat, arms moving dinghy, legs moving us everywhere else. No profound thought, just distillation.
When boating, I am completely at the mercy of the boat, of the tides, of the weather. Our boat was happiest traveling at 8 knots. We couldn’t hurry, we couldn’t worry. We could only leave earlier, be vigilant, give room to the other boats and ships, moving to another bay or harbor if no room to moor at our first choice. There were no phone calls, no work texts, no meetings, no deadlines. The meals were simple, with few dishes to clean. Nothing overwhelmed. All that other stuff was gone. There became this purity of purpose, life on a smaller boat, with nature stealing all of the attention, all of the time. I’m still enveloped today. I have loved baking for the markets this season, but I was frazzled, tired, scattered. Thinking of bobbing on the, relatively, vast water, the moveable island of life that held us, with nowhere we had to be, has settled me, for what I hope is a while. I was looking for a change of scenery, but I feel a reset. As I ease back into the prep/bake routine, I can honestly say I’m excited to make bread again. Cheers!
Shopping a Farmer’s Market is something I’ve been doing since I started caring about where my food came from. Reading books such as Silent Spring, The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved, Grub: Ideas for an Organic Urban Kitchen, Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal and others, planted seeds into the soil of my heart, soil that had been there since picking veggies from my own family’s big garden each summer. I was raised planting seeds, picking rocks, pulling fresh carrots and routing ruby raspberries straight from the cane in the garden tended, during their off-work hours, by my parents, whose own beginnings were very much tied to the soil. We were lucky to have five acres in what would soon become heavily-housed suburbia. I miss this mecca now four years gone, but my memories are deep.
Learning the hard truths of our food system would often leave me frustrated and distraught. Helpless to fix the big problems, I knew I could head out early Saturday morning and vote with my dollars. I, sometimes with Spouse and Jr, sometimes with my sister and nieces, sometimes all of us would pile into the car and drive the fifteen minutes to Seattle’s University District Farmer’s Market. What a jewel. Meat from cared-for animals who only knew “one bad day” as Michael Pollan put it, tables of asparagus, lettuces, tomatoes, the berries and peppers and potatoes, the stone fruits at perfect ripeness, all just a reasonable truck-ride away from their homes, sold by smiling folks, happy to talk about their processes, their fields or orchards, making a living, a hard living, bringing beautiful, real, food to me. These were truly some of the happiest days.
When I began teaching more weekend classes, my schedule didn’t allow for weekend markets. I was able to frequent some of those on weekdays, but life kept shifting. School and work and my sister’s cancer had me drifting away from any regular routine. The co-op took the Market’s place, though only a poor second. Don’t misunderstand, I love co-ops as much as Farmer’s Markets, I belong to four of them, but the connection isn’t the same.
Now I am a Farmer’s Market vendor. I take this practice to heart. I want to bake the best that I can, using the best ingredients I can swing, harvesting wild yeasts, supporting the farmer’s who grow the fantastic grain, grain turned to flour by a revolutionary mill, all for bread and scones and other sweets. The ingredients, the time, the energy, yes, the muscle I submit to my product might seem frivolous on the world’s stage, but I know I am supplying something unique, something real, something that really shouldn’t be microwaved. I get to aid in the direct support of 2 other humans. I get to interact with so many people, people like M who “paid it forward” last week when a customer’s card wouldn’t complete processing due to faulty T-Mobile connections in the rain-soaked Market parking lot. People who are gems, people I probably would have no other reason to chat with. People like Brooke and Vivian and Liz and Alexis and Aditi and Hannah, Matt and Sundee, and so many more whose names I’ve yet to learn. Even when I’ve pulled my fortieth cast iron Dutchoven, my arms tired, my back whispering threats, even when unloading and packing back up in the rain, I am lucky. Blessed and lucky.
My sister would have loved coming and visiting me while she shopped the other stalls. She would have loved meeting those I’m getting to know. Next time you’re at a market, talk to the vendors about their product, their produce, their practice. Find out their names. Support these unsung heroes bringing you locally grown, locally produced goods, however you can. We thank you!
Where wheat comes from is important to me. I have based my business around the specific wheat varietals grown in Washington and milled by Bluebird Grain Farms and Cairnspring Mills. These varieties are: Emmer, Einkorn, Sequoia, Edison, Yecora Rojo and Expresso. A variety not grown in our region is Turkey Red.
Here in the United States, the heirloom wheat Turkey Red is widely grown in the Great Plains region. This hard red winter wheat has been feeding people in the U.S. since immigrants from the Crimea brought it to Kansas in the late 1870s. The grains carefully chosen for the long journey did well in their new home and “established Kansas as a wheat-growing region.” (Kansas Historical Society) This grain was some of the first I heard about in conversations regarding heirloom wheat. I received some berries when I purchased my Mockmill countertop flour mill, but since I had other whole grains to grind, I’ve left this one till now.
To date, Ukraine and Russia are responsible for one-quarter of the world’s grain production. Trade of this wheat has all but stopped with the invasion of Russia into Ukraine. This breadbasket to the world is, for all intents and purposes, empty. The wheat planted last fall is being destroyed by troops. We will see what this crisis does to food availability around the world, but, in the immediate now, civilians in Ukraine are leaving in droves, trying to get their families to safety. Many relief organizations are on the ground providing food and shelter for these war-torn folks. In honor of the Turkey Red from Ukraine, I want to also help.
For the Month of March, at least, I’ll be selling just-milled Turkey Red shortbread hearts with 100% of sales going to World Central Kitchen, an organization of chefs providing meals to those fleeing Ukraine as well as for those who remain in country. In doing so, I am able to introduce you to this unique wheat varietal and provide some meals for a ravaged people. These are available in the Square Store and also for onsite sales at my 21 Acres popup booth. I hope you can join me in sending a bit of relief to Ukraine.
If you bake a lot, if your friends and family are inundated with cookies, cakes, pies and bread, you’re probably a pretty good baker. You might be an outstanding baker. You might already do all the things I’m going to mention here. That is awesome!
Being a better baker, besides just a nice alliteration, can happen with practice and consistency. Everyone who’s good at something got there by doing that something a lot! Along with practice, there are a few other items to think about.
Julia Child said to never apologize for something you serve your guests. Own what you make. You’ve given an item your particular spin, and you’re free to change that item any time you choose. Recipients don’t need to know the dish or baked good didn’t come close to your goals! That being said, there have been plenty of personal fails that fed my chickens or the compost over the years.
Aside from this list + practice, never stop learning. There is always more to know, another technique, another flour, another recipe to try. Find sources that connect with you, be they websites, books, conferences, classes or people who will simply answer your questions. Finally, perhaps, pay attention. Are you consistent with technique? Is the butter warmer than last time? Is your starter super happy? Keeping a baking journal can help answer these questions. If you’re like me, you won’t remember!
Deep satisfaction comes with doing something well. Be and bake well, Friends!
Shepherd’s Grain started a movement years ago with a campaign enabling consumers to find the farmer who contributed to a particular bag of flour. The collective of Columbia Plateau Farmer-Owners, Shepherd’s Grain was early giving consumers a link to the folks who grow their food. Fast forward to 2022. Rather than call a number on a bag of flour, I can follow farmers, millers and bakers on Instagram. I can subscribe to farmer newsletters, order flour or grain directly or have great phone conversations about where to find their products. One such farm is Moon Family Farm in eastern Washington.
I first learned of the Moon’s when they contributed grain to our burgeoning Northwest Bread Baker’s group founded by the inimitable Katherine Kehrli. We were having a workshop with Mockmill Grain Mills and the Moon’s sent several pounds of both their Hollis and Sequoia grain for us to try. It wasn’t long before I placed my own order for 25lb of each. Since then, Cairnspring Mills has been milling the Moon’s Sequoia, finishing it partially sifted, which I use to make my scones and pie pastry. I mill the Hollis berries myself for use in my Whole Grain sourdough loaf. Having lovely flour to work with comes at a price. I’m happy to pay whatever is charged, but behind the bag of flour is a much deeper story, a much higher cost that’s paid each season. The following is a post from the Moon’s on Instagram @a_place_they_call_heaven. I don’t have the pictures referenced, but see for yourself on IG.
Even in the short days of winter there are always lessons to be learned by watching fields & crops.a_place_they_call_heaven Moon Family Farm
One driven home repeatedly in our open & dry country is that we must protect our soil from wind – our most powerful and destructive force.The bones of that protection are made by the wheat itself – the stubble left post harvest, strong & resilient enough to last through a fallow year, until the next crop takes its place. But only if we let it.
That forest of little straw is an amazing microclimate. It might only reach your boot tops, yet in that space is lower wind velocity, higher humidity, shade & protection for tender seedlings.
It’s quite sturdy enough to bear the brunt of blizzards, screeching winds, burning sun. It will shrug them all off, standing defiant to shelter its offspring. But it has to be nurtured in its own right to do so. What sets our farm apart from others is the effort we spend doing that – treating stubble as our zero-water desert cover crop.
We begin at harvest, using a special header to maximize height. I drill tractor & truck drivers relentlessly about where & how to drive in a field – to reuse existing tracks, to never enter a field unnecessarily. We reuse GPS lines, practice 100% no-till, hand hoe weeds. The goal is to touch a field as little as necessary, and to leave straw as untouched as possible.
The results of all that can be seen most readily following wind & snow. The first field is ours, qnd among the stubble is even, clean, protective blanket of snow. One that will melt slowly and soak uniformly into the soil.
The second field – not ours – has been worked & chopped excessively. There’s nothing left to protect it. The wind whisks the snow off, eroding topsoil, leaving swirled drifts of snirt. There’s nothing to shelter seedlings. There’s no shade against rapid snowmelt, or resistance to runoff & soil loss.
This is one of many posts highlighting the pains taken to protect the soil from erosion. This family farm, run by those who grew up on it, with young families to support, is held up with the desire to make things better. Yet, that desire doesn’t protect from a harsh summer, smaller harvest yields, aching hands and feet. I, as consumer, need to be part of a buffer created for them. Every time I grind that grain or make those scones, I’m playing a small part in this farm family’s life. Maybe someday I’ll be able to visit or meet them in person. To me, they are heroes-my kind of celebrity.
My dad was the ninth of ten children. His dad was a clear-eyed, strong, wirey farmer/rancher and his mom a kind, hard-working, straight up woman, whose laugh shook her whole body and whose hugs I can still feel. My dad was an uncle at age 2 and was cared for often by his older sisters with their young families. His older siblings married and/or moved on, he was part of the 3-pack, Joe-Edgar-Jim, a trio he played football, finished high school, worked the farm with. Grandma was a wizard creating meals, but that many mouths during the depression, followed by the War Years, coupled with a strong metabolism, created in my dad a love of food and an appreciation of a full plate. Family legend has one snarky older brother demanding his mother “I want a pancake and I want it right now!”, to which my sassy grandma filled his plate with pancake batter. Touche.
Fast forward to our family of college-educated, professional parents with three daughters. My mom has always enjoyed cooking and brought my sisters and I into the kitchen with her. When she returned to nursing during our secondary school years, we took the mantle of meal prep seriously. Consulting the best Betty Crocker cookbooks on the shelf, as well a boxed mix for pizza dough or that which helped hamburger, we made dinner one then four nights a week. My dad was gracious and always cleaned his plate. I remember one Thanksgiving where we had eaten a traditional midday meal, but a few hours later my dad was asking for a roll with turkey or some such. My mom couldn’t believe he could be hungry. He countered her protests with “I only eat when the buzzards start circling.” I loved that!
Throughout our years of growing, my parents, especially my dad, took snaps then slides of our life, including the occasional plate of food. Having slide shows years later, we would always try to guess at which special day the plate of food on screen was commemorating: Father’s Day? Easter? Birthday? Christmas? I remember those moments, where when his food was plated, he would pause in amazement, taking in the beauty of that plate to him, he’d stand, rush to get the camera and voila. Another slide for the carousel.
Yesterday, Spouse, Junior and I had a small Thanksgiving meal to ourselves. It’s been a busy few months and I just wanted simple, quiet, with delicious food. Looking at my plate I thought of my dad. Long before Instagram had foodies posting pics of this or that meal, my dad was journaling his love of the plate, his appreciation for “the hands that prepared it”. I took a snap of my dinner, knowing how lucky I was to have such a plate of food, to have such a kitchen to prepare it in, to have such lovely companions to dine with. In this time of food insecurity for many, I am lucky. I am posting a link to King County Hopelink. This organization is fantastic and works tirelessly to provide food to people who aren’t as lucky as me. And don’t get me wrong: for many it is just luck or the lack thereof. Help out a family, a mom, her kids by donating today. Let them have a chance at a beautiful plate of food to behold. xo
Remember New Year’s Eve 2020, imagining 2021 would easily be a better year than its predecessor? Like most of life, this year has been up and down, frustrating (maybe infuriating), rife with heartbreak and the mundane, but the sun continued to rise, those moonlit nights were perfect, and we learned, again, that western Washington is not meant to live in extreme heat. I’ve experienced deep grief, unexplainable joy, physical pain, subsequent healing, and, among many other things, the pleasure of meeting the amazing people who come to my bakery popup. Not quite a year in, I am honored to cross paths with folks transplanted from Brooklyn, farmers forging their first year of growing food, an apple specialist who identifies unknown varieties, the chef who designs tastings for wine flights, an individual who wanted to know if I used the “good flour” in my products, many who listened to my stories of wheat, and those who wanted to talk bread-making with me. I am grateful to, and for, you all.
On Saturday December 4, 21 Acres will be hosting a Holiday Market in and around their Farm Market space. I’ll be there from 10A to 3P with the usual breads and goodies, as well as some holiday treats. For any of you who stop by and mention this post, I’ll have a Pepparkakor waiting for you! Come see me and the other vendors with their local gifty wares. Browse the Farm Market to pick up some late Fall produce or one of the many other local products they champion. Most of all, use this time to embrace the end of another calendar year. I wish for you beauty, connection, healing, and, somehow, joy. Cheers to you!