Thursday, October 29, 2015

Knik Valley Wheat: Haibun

                                   Wheat flowering, Ben VanderWeele's farm, July 21, 2015.


bread in hand                                                 
farmer resting from sowing
wheat for next year’s loaf                                                      
            Knik Valley wheat fields – they are harvested by farmers from the Midwest, from the Netherlands, from temperate climates, who brought their seeds to plant in the subarctic shadow of Pioneer Peak. The Denaina Athabascan/Ahtna Indians who came a thousand years ago after the Yupik/Chupik people called the area Benteh (many lakes). They fished and hunted around Eklutna, Niteh, and their other villages for eight hundred years before the Russian Orthodox missionaries came looking for souls in 1840, and the American and European adventurers came seeking gold thirty years later. The Indians knew nothing of grains or bread until the Russians brought them Holy Communion and the Sourdoughs brought them fry-bread.

            The soil into which the Knik Valley wheat sinks its shallow roots is eolian – wind-blown, loess – dust particles from the rocks ground away by the glaciers. Two hundred and fifty million years ago the Mesozoic Era began, bringing dinosaurs, ferns, forests, the grassy ancestors of wheat, and the first mammals. Pangaea was breaking up. Late in the Mesozoic the tectonic plates were carrying the continents to their present places on the earth, pushing ocean floors up against the continental plates to build the Rockies, the Himalayas, the Alaska Range, and the Chugach mountains that frame the Knik River Valley. The earth is still restless today, pushing the mountains higher and reshaping the valleys.

            In those hundreds of millions of years, seas rose and fell, covering much of North America. The sea creatures died, settled into the dirt and detritus that collected underwater, and slowly packed together into rocks. When the ocean floor began crunching against the continental plates, the beds of bodies and sediments pushed up and shaped the mountains, mixed in with rocks spewed out from the hearts of volcanoes. In science-speak, “The Mesozoic lithologies, primarily marine sediments and volcanics, have been intensely metamorphosed, folded, and faulted and have been intruded by small to moderate-size igneous [rocks from the volcanoes] bodies.”  

                                          Knik Glacier.
            Then the glaciers arrived, covering and uncovering, and re-covering the river valleys, wearing the rocks into soils made of silt and sand. Shallow-rooted white spruce, large cottonwood trees, and balsam poplar forested the flat lands in the river valleys, with shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses on the slopes. The farmers who came in the early 1900s stripped the land of its trees, and sowed wheat into long straight rows stretching from their roads to the feet of the mountains. 

Ben VanderWeele's wheat, August 2, 2015, Knik Valley with Chugach Mountains in the distance. 

            Today winds blow off the Knik and Matanuska glaciers, lifting the soil made of ancient ocean lives from the bare fields in late winter and laying it down on forests to the south and west. The farmers must fertilize what’s left, and irrigate in the spring and summer to make up for the sparse rain. Sixteen inches in a good year, it falls in August and September when the grain should be drying for harvest. Even the nineteen hours of sunlight in June and July doesn’t warm the air enough to make up for the cooling winds off the glaciers and the nearby ocean. It’s not ideal for wheat, but the stubborn farmers grow it nonetheless.

BenVanderWeele's wheat -- the rows in the middle ground (wild grasses in the foreground). Snow on the Chugach Range. September 5, 2015.

heavy brown wheat heads
too wet to harvest this week
snow on the Chugach

today’s Communion
wheat rows in slanting light
of September dusk

                                        Ben VanderWeele in his wheat fields, July 21, 2015.

Ben VanderWeele photos by TW Carns.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Alaska State Fair, Saturday afternoon


crowds running to cars
Ferris wheel turning beyond
gold wheat bent by rain

            The Ferris wheel is halfway to the top when the rain starts. I’m strapped into one of the chairs by myself, dangling, swinging, sulking as the wheel halts, listening to my stomach growl. I was too busy arguing with Dad about something dumb to eat lunch. Down below the carnies are letting people out, but we are just getting started. We’ll be here a long time. I’ll shrivel and float away from starvation probably.

            My hair is dripping down into my eyes, and I’m trying to keep my phone dry beneath my blue jacket. Some girls were screaming, but they must have worn out. The tinny organ carnival music rises up against the rain, up from the bright lights of the corndog vendors and ice cream stands. On the paths, people run to the exhibit halls and to their cars to get dry. Wimps. I am loving the rain. Not, but I can pretend I’m tough until the smell of fried dough drifts up all around me.
            The chair lingers at the top and I look out at our wheat fields on the other side of the road. The ripe golden heads bend beneath the wind’s strokes, beneath its voice, swaying in the lashings of rain. I watch them bowing in the afternoon gloom, wondering if we can finish the harvest. Dad sold most of it to a distillery and it would be cool to have some of the vodka.
            Dozens of quilts hang in the exhibit halls below. My mom’s is there, my aunt’s, Jannie who cuts my hair. Everyone around here quilts. They like the ones with a thousand little pieces that fit together like puzzles, like lives on a farm never fit together. I like the quilts with stories in them, the ones with the Knik River and Pioneer Peak, with the ravens and auroras. People are sentimental about their quilt patterns. Right now I’m thinking about the one with appliques of salmon on it that won the big purple Grand Champion ribbon.

            I can see the barn where the farmers and 4-H kids take their giant pumpkins and cabbages to be admired. My pet zucchini grew fat this year – twenty-five pounds, but all crookedy. No reason to even enter it. The summer was too hot for zukes, but perfect for the wheat. If it doesn’t go all soft, I’ll carve a vampire zucchini for Halloween.
            The rain lessens as the wheel lurches to the bottom. The Saturday afternoon crowd drifts back into the Midway, and the carnies beg them to toss the ball, throw the dart, bet on the racing rats (they’re really gerbils). The sun breaks through the clouds. Dad will be happy when he can run the combine through the wheat, happy when it’s already vodka, happy when he can worry about what kind to plant next year. Then he’ll forget about me.

            I head straight for the fried butter stand, already tasting that crispy brown batter, and feeling the hot butter running down my chin. Then I’ll head over to the big barn to watch the 4-H turkeys being auctioned off.     

too hot for huge squash
and no prize wheat at this Fair           
but fine crop of quilts

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Creating Croissants at Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop

Sammy's birthday present was a class on making croissants and Danish pastries at Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop, He's just finished adding the blackberries and raspberries to a pan of cream-filled Danish pastries. 

The Danish pastries, hot from the oven. Note the ways in which they are ideal -- rich brown tones, a slight shine from the whole-egg glaze, lots and lots of flaky layers visible because they were layered and cut correctly, berries still whole and plump.

What's a delicious way to spend a Monday evening? Baking croissants and Danish pastries at Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop comes right at the top of the list. Ten people assembled on October 19 to learn the secrets of Anchorage's best croissants. Rachel Saul taught the class, with April and Lisa assisting. The pay-off, after three hours on our feet, was boxes full of croissants that we'd shaped and baked -- traditional, chocolate-filled, ham and cheese -- and Danish pastries with cream cheese or frangipane and berries.

A perfect chocolate croissant, with crisp egg-glazed crust, too many layers to count, and plenty of chocolate.

There are many magical treats wrapped in wheat flour. One of the most mysterious is the combination of a yeast dough and pure butter, layered together in a "laminated" pastry. It's also called Viennoiserie dough, and is rich with eggs and sugar.Croissants, Danish pastries (which in Denmark are called Viennese bread), and brioches are examples. All are made from a thin slab of butter, wrapped in dough, then folded and rolled, again and again, to make dozens of fine layers. When the pastries are baked, the water in the butter turns to steam and keeps the layers separate. The proteins in the flour and butter, and the egg glaze all combine to create the crisp brown crust.

April pouring drinks for us before class starts.

As we came into the warm bakery, April and Lisa handed us Fire Island aprons, and offered us foccacia, coffee, and drinks. Rachel gave us each a sheaf of recipes and notes, and led us into the back kitchen. We did every step needed for making croissants, from measuring the ingredients to mixing the dough, rolling it and laminating it with the butter, filling and shaping the pastries, baking them, and of course, eating them at the end. 

Rolling a croissant into the classic shape.

The most important thing to know about making croissants is that you are learning a technique for making layers of dough and butter. Butter melts at room temperature (and bakeries tend to be much warmer than most rooms), so the trick to keeping it layered with the dough rather than melting into it is to keep everything cold.

Mixing the dough with the industrial-strength machine.

  • The dough gets mixed in two stages, beginning with egg yolks, flour (Fire Island uses a mix of organic all-purpose white flour and some whole wheat), water, and pre-ferment (a chunk of yeasted dough that has been rising for at least a day), and let this rest for twenty minutes. The resting (technical name, "autolyse," which means to take up water by itself) lets the flour soak up some of the water. 

  • Add the yeast and salt, and mix thoroughly. Then add the sugar and butter, gradually. Continue mixing until the dough all looks the same.
Window pane test -- this dough has enough gluten development that it can be stretched thin to let the light through without tearing. It's ready to start working with.
  • Continue mixing until you can take a piece of dough and stretch it very thin -- called the window pane test. That shows that the gluten is beginning to "develop," that is, to make the chains of gluten proteins that make wheat-based doughs so stretchy. The gluten chains will capture the carbon dioxide bubbles that the yeast is making as it eats the starches in the flours and turns them into sugars.
  • Separate the dough (depending on how much you are making) into "pillows" -- somewhat rounded but flat pieces of dough. Cover them tightly with saran wrap or other flexible plastic and put into the freezer for about an hour. The essential steps that make the croissants so flaky mostly have to do with keeping the dough and the butter chilled. Take the pieces of dough out of the freezer and roll out into flat sheets about 4 millimeters (three-eighths of an inch) thick. Wrap and freeze again until solid. 

Slicing the  Plugra butter (very high in butter fat) for the butter layers in the croissants.
  • Next, flatten the butter.

Rachel pointing out the thickness of the partially rolled butter. She sliced the butter thin, put it between two sheets of silicone, and used the "sheeter" machine to roll it out to 1/4 inch thick.

A rolling pin works too, and the workout saves you a trip to the gym.

 The 1/4 inch sheet of butter laid onto the dough.

Folding the dough over the butter for the first time.
  • Put the layer of butter onto the sheet of dough, and fold it (instructions are here at   -- she has excellent photos and descriptions of the layering, folding, and rolling processes).
Rachel covering the dough with plastic to keep it from drying out, before putting it in the freezer.
  • Once the first set of folding and layering is done, the dough goes into the freezer for an hour or so. 
Folding and running the dough through the sheeter -- we did this several times.
  • When it comes out, it gets folded and turned and folded again. Then it goes back into the freezer for at least twenty minutes. When it comes out, it's ready to be rolled out, cut and shaped into croissants.   

Class members shaping classic croissants.
  • At this point, it's time to pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees. A website ( shows one way to cut and shape the croissants; the photos below show the Fire Island way. Rachel emphasized using a very sharp knife or pizza cutter, and taking care to keep the cut edges safe from being crimped or mushed together so that as the dough rises the layers stay separate and can puff up during proofing and baking. 

Partially trimmed dough, with the box of chocolate bars. The trimmings from the pastries, like the piece in front, get tossed with cinnamon and sugar and baked into monkey bread.

 Rachel measures and trims the sheet of dough before using a five-bladed cutter for the chocolate and ham and cheese croissants. Consistency is critical -- the customer (you and me) wants the same wonderful chocolate croissant every time.

The properly rolled chocolate croissant, with two chocolate bars in each one. The seam of the croissant goes flat against the tray (which is lined with parchment paper).
  • Set the shaped croissants on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper leaving a couple of inches on all sides. Cover them with a sheet of plastic or plastic wrap, and set them to "proof" in a warm place for twenty to thirty minutes (that is, to rise -- they should get to be about twice the size they were when you first shaped them).
 Danish pastries filled, decorated, and ready to bake. The back two have a cream cheese filling topped with blackberries; the front two are filled with frangipane, a sweet almond mixture.

Into the oven -- note how far apart they are on the baking sheet, to make sure that they have maximum space to rise and brown.
  • When you're ready to bake them brush the tops lightly with a pastry brush dipped into a beaten whole egg. Be sure to only brush the tops. If the egg gets onto the cut edges, it will seal them so that they don't spread apart to make the flaky high-puffed desirable croissant.
Finished croissants, ready to savor.
  • Bake them for about nine minutes, then turn the pan around to make sure that they are baking evenly, and bake another nine minutes or until dark golden brown. 

Rachel showing the many-layered interiors, and the exteriors that flake onto the pan because the top layers baked just right.

For hours or to contact Fire Island, click here. They have the same hours (7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.) at both their South Addition location (1441 G Street) and their brand new Airport Heights location (16th and Logan, just off Lake Otis).

The new Fire Island on a rainy opening day.