Friday, July 29, 2011

Growing wheat in Alaska -- the Little Red Hen

    Turns out that you can indeed grow wheat in Alaska. Some estimate that by 2050, the climate will be warm enough to make a commercial success of it -- although Alaskans with long memories recall the Delta barley fields and are understandably skeptical. For now, though, you can grow wheat on a small scale, and there are survivalists and locavores who are interested in doing just that. 

     The Little Red Hen is the child's story about the virtues of sharing and hard work, but it's also an excellent vehicle to tell a tale of how to turn some wheat grains into a loaf of bread from your own backyard. As you may recall, the Little Red Hen is scratching about in her (free-range) barn yard, one day, and finds a grain of wheat. "Who will help me plant this wheat?" she clucks, and the other barnyard animals say, "Not me," one by one. So the Little Red Hen goes off and plants it herself.

     Actually, she would need more than a single grain if she wanted a loaf of bread. According to this site, she needs about 31 square feet of land planted in wheat for a one pound loaf of bread. A pound of wheat yields about .85 pounds of flour (the rest is husks and inedible parts of the grain), and it takes about .8 of a pound of flour to make a one-pound loaf. The remaining .2 pound is water.

     A University of Alaska Fairbanks website provides great detail about how to grow the grains suited to Alaska's different climates on a small scale in your garden. They start by saying that "Wheat is of limited importance as a grain crop for Alaska due to its long growing season requirement." Compared to barley or oats, it takes about ten days longer -- but those few days can be hard to squeeze out of the brief summer. And they have to be warm, dry days, which as the summer moves on become fewer and fewer. Even light frosts can stop the grain from developing. 

     "Early maturing hard red spring wheat varieties are the best adapted for Alaska’s growing conditions but are considered somewhat marginal. From the little red hen's standpoint, hard red spring wheat is one of the better types for bread baking. UAF says that "The seedheads of hard red spring wheat can be awnless, tip awned, or fully awned depending on the variety. All other things being equal, kernels of awned varieties photosynthesize more than varieties without awns, resulting in higher levels of carbohydrates, higher test weights, and quicker drying during ripening."

     That's enough for today. Above is a photo of a Little Red Alaskan Hen (she's actually a Buff Orpington) with friends.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Breaking Bread

     To break bread in the company of another is an ancient tradition. The word "companion" comes from the Latin "com" (=with) and "panis" (=bread). A companion is one with whom you break bread.


Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Betsy's Raisin Cinnamon Bread

      Here's a recipe for sister Betsy's famous cinnamon bread. She makes six dozen loaves at a time to send to friends and family at Christmas, and can be prevailed upon to make it for other occasions if offered enough chocolate. 

      The recipe for plain cinnamon bread is first; followed by the changes to the recipe needed if you want to make the raisin cinnamon bread.

Cinnamon Loaf

                                                                     Dough recipe from Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Cookery
1 package active dry yeast or 1 cake compressed yeast
2 tablespoons water*
2/3 cup milk, scalded
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
      Butter or margarine
2 eggs
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons melted butter or margarine

*Use very warm water (105 -115 degrees) for dry yeast; use lukewarm (80-90
degrees) for compressed. 

       Sprinkle dry yeast or crumble cake into water. Let stand for a few minutes; then stir until dissolved. 

       Pour hot milk over 1/4 cup sugar, salt and 1/4 cup butter; cool to lukewarm.

        Add eggs, yeast, and half of the flour. Beat with rotary beater
or electric beater until smooth. Beat in remaining flour with spoon. 

      Cover and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour. Punch down and knead lightly. 

       Roll out on floured pastry cloth or board to a rectangle 18 x 9 inches. Spread with 2 tablespoons butter. Mix the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar with the 1 1/2 teaspoons of sugar, and sprinkle evenly over the rolled out and buttered dough. the cinnamon.

      Roll up tightly from narrow end and put in a greased loaf pan (9 x 5 x 3 inches). Brush with melted butter and let rise until doubled, about 45 minutes. 

      Bake in preheated moderate over (350 degrees) for about 30 minutes.

      Remove from pan and cool. 

Raisin Cinnamon Bread 

     The raisin cinnamon bread requires changes in the amounts of some of the ingredients, plus the addition of raisins. Instead of 3 cups of all-purpose flour, Betsy uses 1 1/2 cups of all purpose flour and 1 1/2 cups of whole wheat flour. She increases the milk from 2/3 of a cup to 3/4 of a cup. For one loaf of bread, she uses 1 1/4 cup of raisins (if you double the recipe, a one-pound box of raisins equals 2 1/2 cups).

      Here are her notes for preparing  the bread: "I melt the butter in the milk while I am heating it. Add part of the sugar to the water for the yeast. The yeast will rise well (it feeds off of the sugar). Yeast is ready to use when it is foamy. You can beat the sugar/water/yeast mixture with one half of the flour for several minutes if you want, it can help develop the gluten. 

     Mix in the raisins before adding the second half of the flour. The batter will be moist, not a typical bread batter. When kneading, keep it short. Too much kneading, and the bread will be dry and crumbly. I use clarified butter as I have it handy and the butter separates anyway when melted. Do not apply the butter heavily, just barely there. I do not bother to measure the sugar or cinnamon, just apply thickly enough so the brushed on butter doesn’t soak through. 

     After rolling up, you can use a little cold water to pinch the dough together to keep it in place. Place the loaf seam side down in the loaf pan. Cover with aluminum foil for the first 30 minutes, but remove the foil for last 10-15 minutes of rising in the pan.

      Bake until golden brown. It will take longer because of the raisins and whole-
wheat flour. 

     Be sure to toast and Julia says put on lots of butter."

     More notes from Betsy (May 27, 2011)

     Now that I have a good scale, I have begun to weigh the loaves before rolling them out for the
cinnamon. Each loaf should weigh about one pound, ten ounces. With the more even
weight of the loaves, they seem to bake more evenly.


Well-Bread Manners

July 18, 2011

The point of manners is to make other people feel comfortable. Every culture has rules about how to eat food when in the company of others, and bread has its own large share of them. My husband’s brothers, who made masks from slices of Wonder Bread were not following any of them, but then – they were not doing this at dinner parties.

My favorite bread rule is set out by Emily Post (the 1943 version), who says that for formal dinners “the parlor maid or a footman brings the basket to each table.” Each diner take a piece of bread and lays it on the tablecloth. No plate. No butter knife. No butter. Butter is never served at a formal dinner because it is assumed that the rest of the meal will have so much of it that the unadorned bread will be a welcome texture all on its own.

Perhaps the best-known (if not the best followed) rule is to break off a bite-size piece of bread, butter it, and eat it before breaking off another small piece and repeating the drill.  This suggests that you aren’t worried that your butter will disappear, and shows that you aren’t greedy or desperately hungry. A cultural note - many cultures, including Hindus and Muslims, consider it sacrilegious to cut bread. Jennie Reekie in her 1991 London Ritz Book of Etiquette says, “Bread is traditionally broken before it is buttered, and is not cut with a knife. The origin of the custom can be traced back to the last supper when Christ broke (emphasis in the original) the bread, and cutting bread is considered unlucky by some people.”

George Washington wrote a book on etiquette with several rules about bread. “If you soak bread in the sauce, let it be no more than what you put in your Mouth at a time.” “Feed not with greediness; cut your Bread with a Knife” – and also, [do not] “. . . cut Bread with your knife greasy.” Ms. Reekie also mentions buttering bread using one’s thumb. A commander of German forces, Wilhelm von Knyphausen, who fought with the British during the Revolutionary War was known for this habit; he apparently acquired it on the battlefields where silverware was scarce.

Civil War Era Etiquette: Martine’s Handbook and Vulgarisms in Conversation, re-published by R.L. Shep in 1988 quoted instructions from1864: “Do not put butter on your bread at dinner, and avoid biting or cutting your bread from the slice, or roll; rather break off small pieces and put these in your mouth with your fingers.” And, “It is considered vulgar to dip a piece of bread into the preserves or gravy upon your plate and then bite it. If you desire to eat them together, it is much better to break the bread in small pieces and convey these to your mouth with your fork.”

Another well-known rule is that you don’t use your bread to push food onto your fork. This one, alas, is not so clear-cut. Ms. Reekie noted that it was fashionable in pre-Victorian days to eat fish holding the silver fork in the left hand and a crust of bread in the right, pushing the fish onto the fork with the bread. In 1943, Emily Post’s Etiquette approved of the practice. But these days, Miss Manners disagrees, and so do most other guides to proper behavior, including more recent versions of Emily Post’s prescriptions. Europeans, however, still consider it mannerly to use bread as “pushers.

A poem attributed to Rumi

This version of the poem is from Silk Road Cooking: A Vegetarian Journey, by Najmieh Batmanglij.


If wheat springs from my dust when I am dead
And from the grain that grows there you bake bread,
What drunkenness will rise and overthrow
With frenzied love the baker and his dough --
It is a tipsy song his ovens sing!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Too much butter chocolate shortbread

     In need of a quick chocolate dessert to go with a friend's fresh fruit offering at dinner recently I Googled chocolate shortbread. The recipes didn't move me, so I searched for "chocolate shortbread too much butter," and got a hit immediately. The writer gave her recipe which she said came from Martha Stewart, but she added, "It seemed like it had too much butter." So I made it, and it had just the right amount. I've altered the proportions a bit, and to increase the chocolateness, added chocolate nibs.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.

1/2 cup softened butter
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup white sugar (the original recipe called for powdered sugar. The woman with the recipe used regular sugar, and I tried bakers' sugar. They all seem to work equally well. 1/4 cup each of packed brown sugar and white sugar also works.)
4 tablespoons unsweeetened cocoa powder
1/4 cup chocolate nibs

Cream the butter and sugar together until they are light and airy.
Sift the flour and cocoa together over the butter and sugar, then mix until even in color.
Stir in chocolate nibs.

Pat evenly into an 8" x 8" x 2" baking pan.

Bake about 25 to 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. 

Cool in pan, then cut into small squares. Serve with fresh fruit and Greek yogurt, raspberry sorbet, or vanilla ice cream.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Cast Party Noodles

July 10, 2011

Dick Reichman, one of Anchorage’s most esteemed playwrights and directors, provided this recipe for Cast Party Noodles a few years ago.  He acquired it at one of the Last Frontier Theater Conferences held yearly in Valdez, Alaska, and sent it along with a note saying, “Makes a great cast-party dish because it finishes while you are at the play and is ready to eat when you come home.” 

It’s ideal for many other situations for that same reason, and it’s also versatile. It serves as a base for your own variations. It’s vegan.  It can be gluten-free, if you substitute rice or other grain noodles and Bragg’s Amino Acids or other seasoning for the soy sauce. It might be peanut-free if you found that other nut butters worked as well.

Dick’s directions for the recipe gave approximate amounts, measured as “a generous dash of vinegar, and “a chopped up bunch of cilantro.” After making this a few dozen times, I’ve arrived at a set of actual measurements for a large batch – enough to serve twelve to fifteen people. 

Cook one and one half pounds of angel hair pasta, following the package directions. Drain, and run cold water over it to cool it. 

Mix until smooth (a blender helps):
3/4 cup of peanut butter (I use creamy; haven’t tried chunky. Tahini was too bland for my taste.)
1/4 cup of honey (Dick’s recipe calls for ½ cup; I prefer the less sweet version)
½ cup of soy sauce
1/8 cup of white vinegar
1/8 cup of vegetable oil (canola or mild-flavored)

At this point you can add chopped green onions (three or four), chopped cilantro or parsley (about 1/4 cup chopped), and hot sesame oil, cayenne or red pepper flakes to taste. A friend adds cooked shredded pork, and it might be tasty with other meats or fish as well (I’m vegetarian so can’t testify from experience). With a batch this size you can freeze individual portions for quick meals. The add-ins don’t survive the freezing well, so save them until it’s time to actually eat the noodles. 

Toss sauce and add-ins with pasta. Let sit at room temperature for an hour or two so that it absorbs the sauce and the flavors meld.

This has become a staple in our kitchen. It has all of the tastes -- sweet (honey), sour (vinegar), salt (soy), bitterness (in the peanut butter) and umami (the fat and oil). It has enough protein and carbs to be sustaining for a long time, and you could throw in some broccoli on the side for vegetables. Many thanks to Dick for theater to sustain the soul and cast party noodles to sustain the body.

Image from

Friday, July 8, 2011

Wheat Traditions

                                                       July 7, 2011

A few traditions related to bread and wheat:

The French hung a sheaf of wheat on the kitchen ceiling until the next harvest. Sometimes they braided the sheaf into a cross, and offered it at the church on August 15, the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin into heaven.

In Central Europe, the first wheat sheaf of the harvest was used in a wedding bouquet, and the last sheaf was attached to the barn door to protect the wheat spirit.

Around the Mediterranean, wheat shaped into horns of plenty or triangles – representing fertility and to protect against adversity – was hung in houses after the harvest. The grains from the sheaves were mixed in with the seed sowed the next spring.

Lammas Day, August 1, signaled the beginning of the wheat harvest. The word means “Loaf Mass” in Old English; on that day the first ripe grain was taken to the church to be blessed at a special Mass. In Scotland, men and women made trial marriages on Lammas Day; after a year they could end the marriage with no strings attached.

In Iran, eating noodles on New Years Day symbolizes unraveling the difficulties of the year to come. On the third day after friends or family have gone on a trip, eating noodles at home will send them luck.

In old Slavic traditions, people threw Dvoroi, a yard spirit, a slice of bread to keep him from playing tricks. On the harvest holiday, Zaziuki, August 7, people thanked Volos and Mokosh for the harvest, then carried the first sheaf of wheat into the house and threshed it.

In Uzbekistan if a family member travels or joins the army he takes a bite out of a fresh bread. Then the family hangs it on a hook and leaves it untouched until his safe return, when he celebrates by sharing the bread with friends.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Preparing Wheat for food: The early days

                                                   July 1, 2011

It was one thing to realize that the seeds of grasses were nourishing. It turned out to be quite another to get the seeds out of their husks and into an edible form. People came up with different ways of threshing the wheat – getting the outer husk or chaff off, and winnowing –  separating the edible kernels from the leftover chaff. 

One of the most intriguing methods was Celtic, called “graddaning.” In Food in History (page 24), Reay Tannahill quotes a Scottish traveler from the 1600s describing the process. “ ‘A woman, sitting down, takes a handful of corn [the word is used in England to mean any sort of grain, not specifically maize], holding it by the stalks in her left hand, and then sets fire to the ears which are presently in a flame; she has a stick in her right hand . . . beating off the grain at the very instant when the husk is quite burnt. . . . The corn may be so dressed, winnowed, ground and baked within an hour after reaping from the ground.’”

Tannahill goes on to say that “toasting of the grain . . . would make it instantly digestible, bypass the whole problem of containers . . .  The grain would simply be rubbed clean in the usual way and then pounded into coarse flour . . .  The addition of a little water would convert [this] into a doughy substance that could be baked in a flat cake on the hearthstone, or eaten just as it was. . . [like a porridge].” 

Later posts will talk more about the different sorts of ovens and hearths, pots and pans and implements for cooking wheat. See the post about Flatbreads for some discussion of how baking in an oven instead of using a griddle can make the same dough turn into a very different bread. Tannahill suggests that porridge was an early way to prepare wheat, and others suggest that beer was one of the very early uses. More on all of these topics in the next few weeks.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Bread and Butter

                                               June 30, 2011

This post is all about indulgence. Please do not read it if you might be offended by descriptions of scandalous quantities of butter and sugar.

In my childhood eyes the main reason for bread to exist was that it was a convenient way to eat butter. Toast was preferred because it could absorb much more butter than plain bread. The bread and butter could then be covered with cheese, peanut butter, sugar, honey, or homemade jam – or just eaten as it was, dripping butter.

I came by my taste for butter honestly, by inheriting it. As a child on a Central Illinois corn farm, my mother used to sneak into the dairy room and eat butter straight from the dish. She rarely allowed her children sodas, and kept a watchful eye on the candy intake, but never seemed to mind how much butter we ate.

A grilled cheese sandwich was one way to maximize the butter quotient. Very early in our marriage, my husband Jim and I discovered that we both used the same simple recipe:

2 slices of bread
1 medium thick slice of cheese (cheddar, preferably)
As much butter as will conveniently stick to the bread

Preheat a heavy skillet to medium hot.

The secret to a great grilled cheese sandwich is to butter each slice on both sides. Butter the first slice on one side, place the buttered side onto the skillet, butter the other side, lay the cheese onto the buttered bread, butter one side of the top, lay the buttered side onto the cheese, and finally, butter the top side. Cover, and check after about two minutes and then more frequently to see when the bottom side is nicely browned. Then flip the sandwich over and brown the other side, which will take much less time. If it’s on the blackened side, give it to my husband Jim, who prefers his sandwich a bit charred. This is not in any way approved for people who want to watch cholesterol intake, but little can match it for indulgence a few times a year. 

I thought everyone buttered both sides of the bread when making grilled cheese sandwiches, and so did Jim. It was one of the few things that he cooked, and he thought he learned the double-butter technique from his mother. But when he asked her some years ago how she made them, she told him that she only buttered one side. Of such mistakes, ambrosia is born.

Jim and I also, as it happened, had similar recipes for toast with cinnamon sugar:

Toast a couple of slices of bread. Spread on the butter until it has pooled on top of the toast. Pour on cinnamon sugar until the butter will no longer soak up any more. You should have a crust of sugar and butter about one-quarter of an inch thick. If there’s no cinnamon around, plain sugar is perfectly acceptable.

It’s entirely possible to eat bread and sugar without toasting the bread first – just layer on the butter and pour on the sugar until it starts falling off the bread. But the crispy bread and the melted butter mean that you can add more sugar. In my family, bread or toast and honey was equally desirable. If you put the honey on the bread first, it would soak in, and then you could add butter without the honey sliding off.

Toast with jam was also good, and because jam was mostly fruit, my mother allowed more of it. We spent our southwest Michigan summers picking and preserving fruits – strawberries, raspberries, cherries, peaches, plums, tomatoes, and grapes. The fruit went into a big pot, along with the sugar and the pectin; we stirred until it had boiled long enough; then skimmed the foam off the top, poured the preserves into jars, and topped them with a layer of paraffin.  The light sweet foam could be eaten right away with bread and butter, and the jams were stored on wooden shelves in the basement for winter morning breakfasts. Luckily, we didn’t follow the White Queen’s rule, of “jam tomorrow and jam yesterday but never jam today;” we had jam every day until the supplies ran out and then we went back to toast and sugar until summer came around again.