The Slim Fir Seeds
The nimble ovenbird, the dignity of pears,
The simplicity of oars, the imperishable
Engines inside slim fir seeds, all of these
Make clear how much we want the impermanent
To be permanent. We want the hermit wren
To keep her eggs even during the storm;
But that’s impossible. We are perishable;
Friends, we are salty, impermanent kingdoms.-Robert Bly
Pears have always been my favorite fall fruit, the best coming from a box directly from someone’s orchard. This year my pears came from Smallwood Farms in Okanogan, Washington. Pears directly from the farmer are real pears, with diversity in size and ripening times. Grocery store pears have to meet certain standards, standards of sameness. That’s not real.
I’ll be eating these pears fresh, relishing the fleeting moment of each fruit’s perfection. I’ll also pack them into cardamom scones, fill tender hand pies, blend into smoothies, and use as a topping for waffles.
Farming is hard work. Tough, physical labor tied, enduringly, to the whims and changes of nature. Supporting those who bring beautiful food to my kitchen bestows a richness, a dignity to that food which a grocery store could never provide. As for pears, I love what Robert Bly saw in this fruit. Only a poet would see the dignity of a pear, opening the rest of our eyes to the same.
The bread I make is about the flours I use. That, and the absence of baker’s yeast, also known as commercial yeast. I maintain a sourdough, or wild yeast starter, using this to leaven the bread. This elixer of flour, water, lactic acid and wild yeast, gives each loaf rise, flavor and a longer shelf life than many store-bought breads. I maintain a starter and use this starter to create a levain, which I add to the dough. Using this levain gives my loaves a very mild sourdough flavor. Many customers don’t even realize these breads are indeed sourdough! I use flour milled by Cairnspring Mills in Burlington, Washington, from grain grown with care by Washington farmers. Every loaf is mixed from nothing but flour, water, starter and salt.
My primary loaf is the PNW Country Loaf. Country loaves are typically made from 90% white bread flour + 10% whole grain flour. Rather than typical white flour, I use partially sifted Yecora Rojo wheat flour, one where the mills sifts off most of the bran but leaves the germ, with all of its vitamins and minerals intact. This flour, that the mill has named Trailblazer, is roughly halfway between white and whole wheat flour. For the 10% whole grain portion, I use Expresso wheat flour, an amazingly tasty wheat. I can’t say this loaf is whole wheat or whole grain, but I can use the hashtag #nowhiteflour! This loaf is about 80% hydrated and contains just over 2% sea salt. These percentages are a ratio based on the amount of flour used. This bread has a simple flavor, great as a conveyance for many spreads from Cherry Valley Dairy Butter to homemade strawberry jam, or as the base of any sandwich you might imagine. I sell this as 1.5 and 1.0 pound round loaves.
My Expresso Spring Loaf features 50% whole grain Expresso wheat flour and 50% partially sifted Trailblazer. This little loaf is made with about 85% hydration, just over 2% sea salt, and is loaded with flavor: deep, nutty, with a subtle sweetness from the grain. Right now, I’m only selling this as a 1.0 pound round loaf.
To some markets, I also bring my Yecora Rojo + Skagit 1109 loaf. Both of the flours here have been partially sifted, this being as close to a white bread as I will get. Skagit 1109 is a very exciting grain. Developed by the Bread Lab, this hard red winter wheat was first bred for the maritime climate of the coastal PNW. It was bulk bred, which allows for natural selection to determine which elements of the seed will thrive in the areas it is grown. Skagit Valley 1109 will be different than that grown in the Willamette Valley or that grown on the Washington penninsula to that grown in my backyard. It was never developed to be a white flour first. This flour has a “rich, pronounced wheat flavor; robust and mildly sweet, with a warm, buttery aroma.” (Cairnspring Mills) It is a lower protein/gluten flour, so pairs well with higher protein flours like Yecora Rojo aka Trailblazer. I sell this loaf as a 1.5 pound oval loaf.
Finally, I’m working on a tangier version of the PNW Country. Mixing very early one morning, I added too much water to my usual PNW mix. Panicking, I grabbed a fistful of the Expresso Spring mix and threw it into the bowl. Stopping myself, I rationally started another batch of correctly measured PNW. I did, however, have a large bowl of flour and water staring at me from the counter. I figured there was no harm in finishing this batch, though I didn’t have any levain prepared for such an event. In my fridge, I did have enough sourdough starter discard, still vibrant from recent additions, of which I eyeballed quantity, scooping it into my bowl of potential disaster. I took this dough from mix to loaf and was VERY happy with the result. If every accident turned out like this, the world would be a happier place! This bread was so good, I became tasked with recreating the accident and recording measurements and movements. Hopefully I’ll have it nailed in a few weeks.
Eventually, I’ll offer a more whole grain loaf for preorders, one at least 80% whole grain for those who want most of the bran.
My bread is naturally yeasted, wild yeasted, naturally fermented, sourdough bread. The time these flours spend mingling with the lactic acid renders the loaves more nutritious for many people. I have eaters who enjoy this bread without spiking their blood sugar, those who can eat smaller amounts without encountering effects they usually experience with other forms of gluten. These experiences are anecdotal and may not be the same for all. Mostly, the bread is made by hand, each loaf unique and undeniably delicious!
With all bread making, but especially when using wild yeast, time and temperature are everything. The time between starter feedings, the temperature it ferments at; the amount of time the dough is mixed; the temperature of the water, the room and the flour; the time the dough bulk ferments and its temperature while doing so; the time the dough rests before shaping, after shaping before heading to the fridge, all work together to make a great, or not-so-great loaf of bread.
Moving home to bake, with the varying microclimates of prep room and kitchen, coupled with the distraction of being home, have proved to be a challenge I didn’t foresee. The commute is great, early or late hours aren’t a problem, I’m never without an ingredient or piece of equipment, and you can’t beat the rent, but there has still been a learning curve to producing bread in this little Cottage Bakery of mine. I have been baking bread for thirty-plus years, most of that at home. When I wasn’t baking at work, I baked here. I’ve made loaves upon loaves but usually not more than four at a time, and always in my usual kitchen, with usual house temperatures, and with distractions that didn’t matter since there was no self-imposed pressure that this bread be perfect.
I am a firm believer that learning happens all the time, that it is never too late to learn, that opportunities to learn should be greeted with open arms. Routine is good and helpful to cope with the many moving parts of life. Routine gets the house tidied, the work surfaces cleaned and sanitized, gets the ingredients measured. Sometimes, however, routine can lull a person into thinking things are fine, when actually they forgot to set the timer, they guessed on the water temperature, they didn’t take notes during a bake-something they always tell their students to do! This auto-pilot state of routine landed a spate of inconsistent bakes. These less-than-my-ideal loaves sent me back to my textbooks, back to my note-taking and flow chart creation, back to the scrutiny of time and temperature. This also means baking more bread, with or without orders, getting repeatable results. The photo above is from today’s bake. Now to repeat this tomorrow.
Baking naturally-fermented bread is a life choice. Baking it well brings me back to the place of noticing, of taking time to know the dough, each batch unique to itself.
(and not much more)
If I haven’t met you in person, then you haven’t been given the opportunity to hear my flour spiel. You haven’t been able to start out interested, only to have that interest slowly shift to bewilderment (“She’s still talking!”) then edge its way to wanting to break my gaze but there’s only the two of us and you know I’d notice. I do eventually stop talking. In fairness to me, asking about the flour I use is a loaded question. One whose answer includes some western Washington wheat-growing history, a little information about the Breadlab, finally to the flour itself, flour that comes from thoughtfully-grown wheat on both sides of the Cascades and carefully-milled next door to the Breadlab in Burlington. Most of the flour I use comes from this mill.
To save of us all some time, I bring to you the words of Cairnspring Mills regarding their process in producing such beautiful products. Read away!
From Field to Flour
Bakers made nutritious and delicious flours for thousands of years prior to the invention of the industrial flour mill. We are going back to the old ways of milling, but with a modern twist. Cairnspring Mills has reimagined the supply chain that turns wheat into flour: the land, the farmer and the customer. Here’s how we make that happen:
Select only the best varietals.
We test every varietal of wheat used in our products for flavor and suitability to our soils, not just for yield or protein—the primary measure of quality in commodity grains. For example, our Organic Expresso flour is known to have terrific disease resistance, which is especially important in wetter climates such as ours. It also produces a dark, rich crust and a rustic, earthy crumb that is so useful in hearth loaves—it’s become our standard bearer for Organic Bread Flour. Another varietal with tremendous flavor, color and resilience is our Skagit 1109 flour, bred naturally by our neighboring Skagit County-based WSU Bread Lab to thrive in local soils.Text
Buy directly from farmers committed to soil health.
Most of our farmers come out of our personal network; so personal they even casually swing by the mill for coffee and a piece of toast. These are friends we trust—we know their reputation as people. Our farmers are contractually prohibited from using glyphosate as a harvest aid, and from using neonicotinoid-coated seeds due to their documented harmful effects on humans, pollinators, and wildlife. We also pay our farmers a premium over the prices they get in the commodity markets because we want to ensure they are more than fairly compensated for the superior product they grow for us.
Commit to completely-traceable, identity-preserved grains.
We store our wheat locally in small-scale grain silos. Each varietal is stored separately, and our wheat is never blended with commodity wheat or any other wheat we didn’t buy directly from the grower. This commitment to identity preservation and traceability does come with tradeoffs. Whatever we take off the fields at harvest time needs to sustain our customers until the following harvest. If we get a spike in demand, we can’t call a commodity grain broker to replenish our silos. But we believe this is a worthwhile tradeoff because it is core to the unique flavors and quality baked goods, we are able to generate with our flours.
Utilize stone-milling technology.
We use stone mills, rather than just relying on technology that is standard for industrial flour mills. Stone-milling requires more attention and craft and our customers tell us it creates a flour with superior texture. In addition, all our flours preserve more of the bran and the germ. The germ is particularly important, because it is where many of the nutrients, antioxidants, oils and flavors are stored. Industrial mills remove this germ in order to create a shelf-stable product. Although it reduces shelf life, we preserve this germ to retain its nutritional advantages.
Create clean flour, without treatments, added enrichment or stabilizers
Our flours are not artificially enriched or treated. We don’t add dough stabilizers or conditioners such as enzymes, ascorbic acid, mononitrate, or malted barley. None of our flours are bromated or bleached.
From Carinspring Mills
February 12, 2021 marks my first bread delivery point outside the 21 Acres Farm Market. I am baking in my WSDA Cottage Food Licensed space and will begin taking orders for Valentine’s weekend. Orders will open on Sunday of each week and will close Tuesday evenings at 5:00PM for Friday pickup and Wednesday evenings at 5:00PM for Saturday pickup. All sales will be online through my Square Store. The Square Store that I set up. I won’t be surprised at hiccups in the system, but hope that you all will pardon me when it does. The end goal is to get bread into the hands of those who want it. I’m keeping it simple this first weekend with just one kind of loaf and one kind of cookie. I plan to include two to three breads, bagels and more. Something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, using the beautiful flours of the PNW in breads, pastries and sweets, not just in teaching, but in a commercial enterprise. So, here’s to new beginnings! Hope to see you in Woodinville!
Ancient, unencumbered and untamed, are the wild yeast spores that attach to stalks of wheat, float about my kitchen, are found on my baker hands. The energy to convert flour and water into a crackling-crusted, creamy-crumbed loaf of bread is a thing of wonder and pure joy. This energy lives in a jar on my counter.
Sourdough starter is a mixture of wild yeast and lactic bacteria, enabling the rise and flavor of naturally-fermented breads, bagels and biscuits. This yeast is ancient, with unique terroir characteristics. It works slowly, manipulated with temperature and types of flour. A baker knows her starter like a parent knows a child; knows when it’s happy, hungry or just seeming off. I think of my starter more like a beloved pet rather than a child, caring for it with food, attention and exercise. Anyone can nurture a sourdough starter of their own, starting with only flour and water.
Over the course of seven to fourteen days, a mixture of flour and water will gradually ferment, becoming a new little powerhouse. Once a starter is ready to work, I give it a name. Bob is my longtime companion, a starter I grew almost twenty years ago. I chose the name Bob to give homage to the Bill Murray classic What About Bob? and because a test of a starter’s virility is the float test: taking a small amount of starter and seeing if it will float in water…float in water like a little fishing bob? Yeah, I know. I do have a second starter as well. Since I teach classes on sourdough bread making, I may choose to develop a new starter for the class as show-and-tell. I did this in April 2020, my first Zoom sourdough class. I named the starter Agnes. So while Agnes and Bob are, for all intents and purposes, the same, I maintain them individually, choosing whichever looks the most active for any given project.
There are many thoughts and opinions on the best way to create a starter. The simplest, letting flour and water ferment together over a period of days, is outlined below. You will need to choose a time of day to routinely check up on your project: either to observe or feed. Just a little commitment. The instructions may seem daunting at first glance but just do one-day-at-a-time, good advice for all of life. On Day 3, you will begin discarding some of the developing starter. Do this or you will exponentially end up with a bathtub full of the stuff! When the starter has matured, the discard can be saved in the fridge and used for waffles or pancakes, or as an added ingredient to biscuits or muffins or cookies or more. For the flour mix mentioned, I use approximately 75% all-purpose flour plus 25% whole grain rye. You can use just all-purpose or combine with whole wheat flour. See my previous post on Baker’s Math.
Day 1: Place clean jar on scale and measure 100 grams of flour mix (about ¾ cup + 1½ tablespoons, spooned into cup and gently leveled). Add 115 grams (about ½ cup) lukewarm water. If your kitchen is very cold, use warmer water but not hot. Mix thoroughly. Your mix will be like thick pancake batter. It will taste like wheaty paste. Cover loosely with the lid.
Day 2: At the same time of day, come back to your starter and stir. Taste the mix and see if you notice any flavors developing. Has the consistency or texture changed at all?
Day 3: Return to your jar at the appointed time. Hopefully, you will detect signs of early fermentation: little bubbles, slight acidic smell. Even if not much seems to be happening, we will start feeding the starter. Feeding your starter around the same time each day will help train it to ferment in a predictable way. Feeding: Remove 75 grams of starter to a new jar. Add 100 grams of flour mix and 115 grams of water. Mix thoroughly. Compost the leftover.
Day 4: Repeat Day 3.
Day 5: On this day we will start feeding twice a day. At your usual time of feeding, remove 75 grams of starter to a clean jar. Add 100 grams flour mix, plus 115 grams of water. Mix thoroughly, loosely lid and let rest for 12 hours. Compost leftover. 12 hours later, repeat the feeding using another clean jar.
Day 6: Repeat Day 5
Day 7 to 14: If your starter doesn’t seem super active at this point, continue the feeding schedule for another day or two. Not all flours or kitchens are the same so results will vary. If your starter seems lively, begin this altered feeding. Remove 50 grams of starter to a clean jar and add 100 grams of flour mix plus 100 grams of water. Stir well, cover loosely and rest. Repeat after 12 hours. At this point in the process your starter will be lively enough to begin saving discard if you want to. I keep a quart jar in my fridge and after feeding, scrape the remaining “old” starter into it. I return to the fridge and save to use in all manner of recipes.
Day 15 & Beyond: At this point your starter should be ready to bake bread. Maintaining your starter can feel like a chore but things can be done to simplify your process. Since I bake a lot and want my starter to be strong, ready and not too sour, I maintain a liquid starter, feeding twice daily.
Maintenance: At each feeding, I spoon10-12 grams of starter into a clean jar and add 3-4 times that amount of water and flour. If the room is warm I’ll use more flour/water to give the yeast more to eat. Yeast eat faster in warm conditions. If I miss my usual feeding time in the morning, I’ll feed the starter less flour/water since it doesn’t have to wait as long for the evening feed. I put a rubberband around my jar at the topmost point of the newly fed starter. This allows me to see at a quick glance how the starter is rising or falling. If your starter is peaking before the 12 or 24 hour mark, use more flour or less water and adjust the ambient temperature if you. On very warm days, use cold water when feeding. After you feed your starter for a while, you’ll get to know the quantities that work for you and may choose not to weigh but just eye-ball the ingredients.
Occasional Baker: If you don’t bake often, you can keep your happy starter in the fridge. Feed your starter at the normal time, then let sit at room temperature until you see activity begin: bubbles, increasing in size, nice smell etc. At this point, place your starter in the fridge until you need to use it, feeding it every week. You’ll get the most consistent bread results if you take starter from fridge 2 days before baking and feed it twice a day to get it up and running. There are folks who bake directly from the fridge starter and are happy with their results. You can always try that method for yourself.
If you’ve always wanted to try your hand at sourdough, now’s your chance! Grow a little countertop pet of your own and let me know how it goes and what you’ve named your little one. Cheers!
At least I didn’t title this: Baker’s Chemistry! Yes, there is math in baking. However, rather than flat images on paper of pies or pizzas, bakers can practice math concepts like fractions with actual, delicious baked goods. For bread making, math is essential, and delicious math is the easiest to comprehend.
Baking recipes are called formulas and are ratios of the ingredients to each other. I’m not a mathematician, so I can’t with confidence say all, but much, if not most, of math is about ratios between things. Bakers need to understand the percentages of the ingredients in a formula. With Baker’s Math, the flour in a formula is always the 100%, with the remaining ingredient percentages based on the total weight of the flour. Feeling dizzy yet? Has dry mouth set in? Here’s an example using the Country Loaf I’ve included in past PCC Classes:
Ingredient Weight in grams Baker’s percentage
High extraction Yecora Rojo flour 800 grams 80%
Whole grain Expresso wheat flour 200 grams 20%
Water (ºF?) 750 grams 75%
Levain 200 grams 20%
Sea salt 20 grams 2%
The total flour here is 1000 grams, making 2 nice sized loaves. The amount of Yecora Rojo flour is 80% of the total flour being used. The amount of whole grain flour is 20% of the total flour being used. This applies to the amounts of water, levain and salt as well. If I wanted to make just one loaf, I would halve the ingredient weights but those percentages would remain the same. These same percentages will apply to a bakery making 100s of loaves. You can, by all means, bake bread with just one type of flour which would eliminate the pesky adding together of the high extraction + whole grain flours. I usually always bake with combinations of flour for flavor and performance. I also use Baker’s Math in the care and feeding of my sourdough starter. Baker’s Math is essential when recipe testing, tweaking percentages of liquid in a formula. I always measure by weight using grams. Grams give me nice whole numbers which halve or increase quantities easily.
While there are several factors involved in successful bread baking, using weights and baker’s percentages will get you very close to making the same loaves of bread each time you bake. If you don’t have a scale, I encourage you to get one. Then armed with scale, paper and pencil, you can create your own delicious bread formulas!
2020. I have nothing new to add to the fray of articles, news stories, blog posts, Facebook entries or Instagram feeds concerning this current year. How quickly life can change. How quickly what was normal can vanish. How creative and resilient we can be when faced with unseen challenges.
As a cooking & baking instructor, usually working in close proximity with students of all ages, my work life came to an abrupt halt, even before the State mandated shutdown. As with so many of us, I had hours of free time, piles of papers to process, projects waiting for attention, but with the unknowns and stress brought by the virus, I found I had little attention span, little initiative to start or finish anything.
The Civil Rights events sparked in May, brought study and focus away from Covid19. I immersed myself in reading, sifting, learning, something I knew would be ongoing. My always homeschooled son began online highschool in July, something I thought would be easier on me (I hear the collective “Hah!” from all you Zoom-school parents), and though I’m very involved at this point, there is a desired and reachable goal that I’m happy to help him achieve. Finally, I went from no work to all work. July and August were full of kids camps: in person at Whisk and via Zoom with PCC. Getting up & presentable to leave the house or be on camera didn’t mattter-I had to get up & be presentable!
September’s arrival is another restart. We know more of what to expect from school; the garden is on autopilot, only needing water and for produce to be picked; I have a few classes coming up; and I’m applying for my Cottage Food License Permit, using my homespace as a tiny bakery! I have a few more labels to produce, need to finish the floor plan, dot a few i’s then the application is done. I’ll be inspected and hopefully will pass. I’ll keep you updated for sure!
I think this year qualifies as catastrophic, but even so, I don’t want to wish it over as fast as possible. I want to treasure this time with my son; I want to soak up the last days of late summer; I want to keep making beautiful bread, continue feeling awe when I lift the lids off those 475ºF dutch ovens; connect as much as I can with my sisters & parents. I hope things improve. I hope you can recover. I hope our country can heal. I hope I can be a part of it.
2018 has been and gone but The Tiny Kitchen had a great time! A year full of new connections with students, colleagues, venues and food. Here are some of my favorites: