Grain Therapy

 

After months and months where stress levels were running high and I was without an adequate oven, I needed to get back to my bread baking habit.  I needed the aroma of fresh-baked sourdough wafting through the premises.  I needed to taste the wonderful flavours of slowly fermented and deeply baked organic grains again.  I needed some grain therapy.

The first two loaves that came out of the oven were a couple of 25% whole wheat loaves.  They were just what the doctor ordered, and they looked something like this.

 fig. a:  whole wheat loaf

fig. a:  whole wheat loaf

You see, there are few things as gratifying as baking fresh bread.  Like so many of the types of food and the types of cooking experiences that I love the most, you begin with the most basic, most humble of ingredients, and you wind up with something that, ideally, is completely transcendent.  With a little bit of practice, and a few simple tricks, you can produce bread that surpasses the quality of the vast majority of the bread that you can find in North America.  And you can see the entire process through within a relatively short period.  

There’s also something that can be calming—even meditative—about baking one’s own bread.  Given the right space, it slows things down.  It teaches one to observe, to feel, to smell.  It teaches one to be patient.  It encourages mastery, but it can also be a rather forgiving process (thank god!).

And, finally, there’s nothing quite like the satisfaction that comes from the lovely aroma of bread baking in the oven, from the feel of the heat radiating from a freshly baked loaf, and from the deep sound that comes when one drums the bottom of a loaf straight from the oven.  Most of all though, there’s the sheer pleasure that comes from the taste of that first slice of bread when you can no longer take the temptation, and even though you know the loaf will keep longer if you hold off, you also know that that loaf smells much too good to last too long anyway, so you take your bread knife to it and savour the moment.

Trust me, I’m not the only one who gets this thrill.  If you don’t believe me, just check out Michael Pollan in the recent Netflix series Cooked, based on his best-seller of the same name. 

 fig. b:  Air Pollan

fig. b:  Air Pollan

Check out the episode called “Air,” in particular, which is devoted to wheat, to bread, and to baking.  And check out how Pollan waxes poetic and philosophic about baking naturally leavened bread at home.  

What quickly becomes apparent is that although Pollan’s interest in food cultures and in cuisine is vast, there is nothing he is more fascinated by and no process that he finds more rewarding than baking bread.  The steps that took humanity beyond the cultivation of grains and their preparation as porridge, to baking bread, and eventually baking leavened bread, were pivotal.  Not only were grains transformed into tastier preparations, they were literally made more nutritious in the process.  The result was the staff of life.

As Pollan explains, “air” was of the essence.  Early cooks noticed the beneficial effects of fermentation on grains, they figured out that yeasts traveled through the air to make this process possible, and they learned how to control this process to naturally leaven their loaves.  When they did, something magical occurred to their bread:  it became lighter, airier, easier to digest, more nutritious, and more flavourful.

After decades and decades where the emphasis was placed on modernization, on speed, and on efficiency, and heavily industrial processes reigned, there’s been a much-needed return to tradition, and quite specifically to hand-worked, slowly fermented, naturally leavened (“sourdough”) bread baking, both at the professional level, as well as at home.  And although these concepts might seem commonplace in parts of North America, where artisanal, wood-fired bakeries and their ilk have flourished in recent years, it’s important to recognize just how far things had gone in the opposite direction, and how much work still needs to be done to right the course.  It’s important to recognize that even countries with proud baking traditions, like Germany, almost completely lost their traditions in recent years, and that an artisanal countertrend there has only just begun.  It’s important to recognize that the vast majority of people in the developed world have never actually tasted naturally leavened bread produced by hand.  

More recently leading bakers have become increasingly concerned with the flours and grains they use.  As with so many aspects of our food culture, they’ve become much more adamant when it comes to sourcing their ingredients, they’ve begun to experiment with a greater variety of grains and helped to foster an interest in reviving heirloom strains, and they’ve put more attention on not only the quality of their ingredients, but also the freshness of these ingredients.  The new frontier of baking encompasses not only the farming of grain, it’s also very much about the milling of these grains.

 fig. c:  Elmore Mountain's oven*

fig. c:  Elmore Mountain's oven*

Just a few weeks ago we had the pleasure of visiting the good people at Elmore Mountain Bread in Elmore, VT, just across the valley from the majestic Elmore Mountain.  One of the leading naturally leavened, wood-fired bakeries in Vermont for well over a decade now, Blair Marvin and Andrew Heyn, the husband-and-wife team behind Elmore Mountain, have in recent years pushed their operation deep into the new frontier. 

Frustrated by the variations in the quality and the freshness of the milled grain they were working with, they decided to take things into their own hands and begin milling their own flour themselves.  In order to do so, they had to learn how to make their own mill, starting with their very own milling stone.  In order to do that, they had to dig up 19th-century texts on milling.  If this seems like an absurd amount of work, it was.  But the payoff has been enormous.  Not only has it given them complete control over the fineness of their flour, but it’s also allowed them to craft bread with the absolute freshest flour possible. 

These days, Elmore Mountain Bakery sources only the finest grains, they mill them to their exact specifications, and every single loaf they bake is made with flour that’s less than 24 hours old (!).  Having this level of control over one’s baking operation is completely unheard of, and it’s resulted in truly extraordinary loaves of bread, with a range of flavours just from their flour alone that neither of us have ever encountered.  The very best bakers in North America are all working very closely with their producers and their millers to gain optimum results.  Elmore Mountain Bread is the only bakery that I’ve encountered that handles two-thirds of this production chain in-house.

 fig. d:  freshly milled Elmore Mountain Bread flour

fig. d:  freshly milled Elmore Mountain Bread flour

We left Elmore Mountain that day with a freshly milled bag of Magog flour from Maine Seed Company in Mapleton, ME, one of a handful of producers Blair and Andrew work with closely.  Two days later, after I’d made sure that my leaven was properly fed, I baked a couple of country sourdough loaves using my Elmore Mountain flour.  This means less than 72 hours had elapsed between the time the grain was milled and the time I pulled my loaves from the oven.  This may not sound all that special, but most home bakers are working with flour that’s been sitting on a shelf for at least months, and often years. 

 fig. e:  Magog country loaf proofing

fig. e:  Magog country loaf proofing

 fig. f:  Magog country loaf finished

fig. f:  Magog country loaf finished

Not only did my loaves turn out beautifully, but they were extraordinarily flavourful—quite likely the tastiest country loaves I’d ever made.  Thank you, Elmore Mountain Bread!

 fig. g:  Magog country loaf with butter

fig. g:  Magog country loaf with butter

And that's saying something, because that Tartine country loaf recipe is perfect and I always try to source the best flour I can find.  

In case you need a quick refresher, here's the breakdown for Tartine's Basic Country Loaf:

Tartine Basic Country Sourdough

700 g water (70%)

200 g leaven (20%)

900 g white flour (90%)

100 g whole wheat flour (10%)

+

20 g salt

50 g water

total hydration:  75%

While baking country sourdoughs remains unbelievably satisfying (especially when I have a brand-new type of flour to work with), it can be especially rewarding to improvise something new.  Not long ago I picked up some phenomenal rolled oats from Rogers Farmstead in Berlin, VT.  

 fig. h:  raw oats

fig. h:  raw oats

Those oats made the best porridge ever, but as soon as I tasted them I was eager to bake with them, too.  I didn't know it at the time that I bought my oats, but it turns out that Rogers Farmstead is one of the producers Elmore Mountain Bread works with the closest.  They've been using their wheat and other grains for years.

Anyway, this is the recipe I devised to take advantage of the deep flavour of those oats:

AEB Honey-Oat Sourdough

600 g water (60%)

200 g leaven (20%)

100 g honey (10%)

750 g white flour (75%)

250 g whole wheat flour (25%)

1 cup rolled oats, par-cooked (roughly 250 g)

+

22 g salt

50 g water

total hydration:  65%

It took about 10-15 minutes to par-cook the oats.

 fig. i:  cooked oats

fig. i:  cooked oats

When I first formed my loaves after the bulk fermentation, they looked like this:

 fig. j:  first shaping

fig. j:  first shaping

Then they got tucked in for 30 minutes.

 fig. k:  two peas in a pod

fig. k:  two peas in a pod

And a few hours later, when those loaves emerged from the oven, they looked like this:

 fig. l:  honey-oat loaf

fig. l:  honey-oat loaf

About an hour later, I couldn't take the torture any longer, so I cut off a slice and slathered it with butter.  

 fig. m:  honey-oat loaf with butter

fig. m:  honey-oat loaf with butter

Are you picking up on a pattern?

Long live real bread!  Long live grain therapy!

aj

* photo courtesy Blair Marvin