Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Churning thoughts of restless mind

This is what goes through my head as I try to fall asleep…

Hmmm it’s a conundrum. If I see a person in terrible pain, I experience anguish which inspires compassion. Intellectually, though, I know that this suffering occurs around me all the time. Since I know this, why shouldn’t I be constantly plagued with such anguish? Maybe I am. I kinda feel that way right now...
Maybe we're programmed to be able to “deny” this suffering as a defense mechanism that lets us focus on the logistics of survival. Absent the gift of denial, we would all dissolve into useless puddles of despair in recognition of the pain inflicted on our innocent fellow creatures. While this justifies the denial from an evolutionary perspective, it hardly provides comfort. Instead it suggests we live our lives as comfortably numb zombies unaware that we walk in nightmarish world of pain. Only now I am aware, which makes me not so comfortable... yikes!

But here is another take. This entire discussion assumes that minimizing human suffering is the “Right Thing To Do.” Presumably we can all agree that we are all humans and that experiencing a sort of constant anguish because of an awareness of suffering in the world is itself a form of human suffering. Pretty clever, huh? Thus, perhaps the ability to insulate ourselves from this despair is something we ought to celebrate as a tool that has the happy result of minimizing net human suffering. It is hard to feel good about this line of thinking so long as you are thinking in terms of insulating yourself from feeling anguish about the pain others experience, but turn the tables for a minute. Assume that you’re the one experiencing some unjustifiable terrible pain. Most of would consider it a blessing if we could find a way to protect, say, our children from witnessing and despairing because of our own pain.

But it seems hard to celebrate this gift of denial because one tends to think that if humans do not despair at their fellow creatures' suffering they are not apt to do a damn thing about it -- heck I do despair and I barely do a damn thing about it. As mentioned above, what little compassion I can muster seems to emanate from a sense of distress generated from others' suffering. But here’s the thing: perhaps one should be able to cultivate that compassion on its own for its own sake without having it be the product of your own anguish, despair etc. Aha! (Maybe everyone else can already do this and its just me...)

I am not sure but I think all of this leads me to the simple conclusion that we would all be best off if we could cultivate the ability to not despair at others' suffering (i.e. what I was calling the ability to “deny” above) and at the same time nurture the instinct to be compassionate to our fellow creatures nevertheless. This would seem to have the positive effect of minimizing net human suffering (allowing ourselves not dissolve into puddles of despair) without stripping us of the motivation to ameliorate the suffering of our fellow creatures.

I’ve always wondered about reconciling the Buddhist notion of nonattachment with its celebration of compassion. They seem in conflict but I think the exercise above gets me a little closer to understanding. In other words, there is no value in being so attached to this world that your awareness of the world causes you distress. Indeed, shunning attachment fosters a net reduction of suffering in the world so long as – and this is the big one – so long as you nurture compassion for your fellow creatures. The compassion component is really important to balance out the nonattachment. Huh, I've never really seen it this way! I'll probably forget about it in the morning, though. Maybe I've forgotten it a bunch times... Nah...

Now I can sleep, anyway. I bet you're already there....

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

For The Love of Spoilage

This is a pretty nice loaf, eh? The color is dark, it has a clever design from the proofing basket and the shape suggests a vigorous oven spring. You can't tell from looking at it, but its interior was nothing to scoff at either. And, so long as we are not being modest, the flavor was first class -- complex and sour with an aftertaste that lingered for at least of quarter of an hour (I'm not kidding about the after taste -- its a curious thing about real sour dough.) While the key to the loaf's appearance is probably the adobe oven, the key to the flavor is the living beast pictured below -- my starter -- a frothing colony of hungry bacteria and yeast that thrives until it can't tolerate its own excreta any more.
Its an interesting observation, I think, that many of the foods about which we obsess the most involve a culture or a fermentation -- think wine, spirits, cheese (and sourdough). Part of it is the complexity of the resulting taste, but part of it also, I think, is primal. There is something darkly appealing about a delicious flavor that flirts with the taste of spoilage. How else can one account for the beloved french cheeses such as morbier, which have distinct overtones of toenail clippings and dead animals.

My well-researched and scientifically-supported theory suggests this results from natural selection. The BackBou and his team of dedicated research assistants postulate that a preference for the spoiled-food-that-won't-kill-you is evolutionarily selected for. Back in the day, pretty much everything was spoiled (this is fact). If it wasn't spoiled when you found it, it sure as heck was spoiled shortly thereafter. Finicky humans who couldn't stomach the taste of spoiled stuff died out -- except for the people who settled Iowa. Most of the folks whose palates couldn't distinguish between the deadly vs. edible spoiled food also pretty much died out, though enough of those unrefined palates lived on to support, for example, the deadly American fast food industry. That left the rest of us. Now, not everyone has awakened his or her inner love for the benevolent spoiled foods, but rest assured it lingers somewhere in all of us.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Homage to 'Cakes

Honestly, now, consider the pancake. Humble but proud, the pancake was born of rustic griddles and coarse-milled grains but passes effortlessly into the uptight company of creme fraiche, fancy berries and bad coffee in silver service. When I was child, my mother made fine buttery pancakes on most weekend morns. So dedicated was my family, that when we were unable to acquire even imitation maple syrup in our home of central Africa, we made do with homemade sugar syrup flavored with maple extract. The 'cakes were still good.

The virtues of the pancake are so many they defy listing. Inexpensive and easy to make, they taste rich and complicated. They can be made healthy and nutritious or decadent and fattening. My rule of thumb is two cups of flour (plus salt, baking powder, sugar) to two cups of wet stuff. The wet stuff can be comprised of a great variety of things including but not limited to eggs, milk, butter, oil, apple sauce, apple butter, soy milk, buttermilk, goat milk, cream, or yogurt. I literally take my Pyrex 2 cup measure and start filling it up with what I have around. The results vary but are usually quite good.

Many people believe that buying a pancake mix is a good idea. It is not. They are very mistaken. Pancakes from mixes are not easier to make, they are not as tasty, are more expensive and probably less healthy. So lets see .... They are fun to make, fun to eat, cheap, healthy (or not), oh yeah and generally good for the family. Children love to assist in all aspects of the pancake ritual which, of course, translates into a "teaching moment." What is not eaten at breakfast, becomes the kids' afternoon snack to be gobbled down amidst inquiring glances and raised eyebrows at the park.

Thus, when ZenCamel delivered to us one bag of stone-ground organic wheat flour (with germ) from the Littleton, NH Grist Mill, it was not long before my family turned to making pancakes. The results were superb -- a delicate 'cake with a hearty whole-wheat flavor punctuated by nutty bits of wheat germ.

Thank you Mr. Camel.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Taste of the Valley

Our trip to Vermont's Mad River Valley happened to coincide with the regional Taste of the Valley event, during which over fifty local culinary businesses set up stands at the Inn at the Round the Barn. The sheer number of establishments in this relatively rural valley that are doing remarkably interesting things with food is almost enough to restore one's faith in future of American food. There were locally made cheeses, micro brewed soft drinks, artisan bakers, fine patisserie's, Ben & Jerry's (from right up the road), and of course -- our personal favorite -- the American Flatbread "festival oven" set up. Every time I go up there I am surprised to learn that some local culinary establishment makes a product I recognize from shelves of Elwood Thompson, our local natural foods store hundreds of miles away. The product that got me this time was Liz Lovely's Vegan Cookies.

Anyway, back to the pizza ... this festival oven is, I think, a semi-permanent fixture at the Round Barn because American Flatbread caters so many weddings and other events at the Inn. But George and his crew can also set one of these ovens up in an afternoon. They arrive with rough hewn wooden logs to build a sort of lincoln-log platform on top of which, as I recall, they create something like a big sandbox. They lay fire bricks in the sand for a floor and then they stack bricks in diminishing concentric circles, which they plaster with cob (mud and straw). Typically, they use the festival ovens just to finish par-baked pizzas on site. It may sound like cheating, but keep in mind that the pizza is par-baked in an earth and stone Quebec style oven. Trust me, the product is good. I recall a pizza topped with a basil and sunflower seed pesto. It was good enough that I made a mental note to experiment with it, though I haven't yet. There was also a very memorable Vermont sausage pizza.

It was a nice event, though the limitations of my stomach capacity were frustrating. There was plenty more good eating to be had that night...

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Curious Incident of the Backpack

So last week I arrive at work, park my car and proceed towards my building when I see this guy standing in the middle of parking lot staring with a look of utter disbelief at a backpack lying about five feet in front of him in a traffic lane. It's early but this registers as odd. I proceed with caution envisioning corporate security squealing onto the scene in an armored golf cart to unleash a barrage of automatic weapon fire at the suspicious bag. But it's not that early and I recognize this as highly unlikely. I approach the man. Nearby a car in a different lane slows down for a look. The man looks at me, shakes his fist in the air and in a deep voice with a thick Russian accent proclaims loudly, "eez thurd day een row ... bee has landed on bakpak!."

"Oh how very curious," I say, thinking to myself that the curious part had little to with the bee.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Pizza Pilgrimage

Last week we made our annual pizza pilgrimage. Every pizza I make aspires to the perfection of George Schenck's "American Flatbread." Not the frozen ones at supermarket in his signature black and white boxes -- though those are good too -- but ones like I sampled last week (pictured above) fresh from his modified Quebec style oven (pictured below) in the Mad River Valley of Vermont.

On our visit last week, we sampled the veggie special:

Look at that thing! You can almost taste the smoky overtones of the wood grilled ratatouille "sauce" mingling at the back of your mouth with the clean flavor of the fennel -- interrupted for a second by a soft creaminess that is the ricotta salata. Sometimes, all is right with the world -- even if just for a fleeting moment.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Thing About Naked People

I am told that most Native American men of the Pacific Northwest nations went naked whenever they could. Apparently, given their hardy demeanor and the temperate climate, this was often. Surprisingly, however, such was not the custom for women. Despite their best efforts over the generations, the men simply could not convince the women to shed their garb and prance about naked collecting salmon berries in the temperate rainforests. This particular problem, I found out, is virtually unknown to the modern-day menfolk at Doe Bay Resort and Retreat on Orcas Island.

The resort is primitive but splurges on the creature comforts. A sort of crunchy fine dining restaurant - "haute-hippie," if you will -- occupies a rustic wooden lodge perched above the bay. Nestled on a steep hill overlooking the bay are three slate-tiled hot tubs which look like something constructed by that civilization of furry forest creatures in Star Wars. The area is designated as clothing optional and the designation seems to work (if only we had known in college that it was as simple as "designating" an area ...)

I don't know about you, but when I think clothing optional, I assume that the only people apt to exercise the option are those who -- at least according to our dubious cultural body ideals -- should not. Not so on our visit. Our stay coincided with a yoga retreat attended exclusively by very attractive and fit alternative professional types who, after a day of feeling great about themselves and their yoga practices, simply could not get their clothes off fast enough.

The thing about naked people is they are remarkably engaging conversationalists and fascinating to be around on a great many levels. Honestly -- and this will come as surprise to my readership -- I really don't see a great variety of naked women (or men, for that matter) on a regular basis. So in a way, it was not unlike a good birdwatching trip (you gotta admit its better than the zoo analogy). "Say ... look there... did you know that the Purple Billed Tanager had such a prominent tail feather ... make an entry on the life list honey ..."

A naked person, you see, takes a grave social risk when he exposes himself. When the anxious naked person is received by another in a socially appropriate manner (tip: eye contact only) an immediate bond of trust is formed. In the company naked people, the conversationalist wants desperately to avoid the most obvious conversation starters because, for example, "ouch sister! I bet that piercing HURT like the dickens" just doesn't seem appropriate. And so the conversations gravitate towards the abstract. It was thus that I found myself deep in conversation with two very naked European RNA scientists. I can tell you that my attention to the development of new computational tools in the field of bioinformatics was laser sharp -- it had to be -- for the alternative was to dwell on the more obvious matter at hand: "how in the world do shave in that spot -- seems a tough angle!" Truthfully, the conversation did degenerate once when someone from the resort approached the area and, pointing at a small boat adrift in the bay inquired: "Has anyone left their dinghy out?" Several gentlemen allowed that they had, indeed. In retrospect, I almost think this was intentional -- a sort of service the resort provides to entertain the guests. You can imagine the staff mixes it up from time to time: "excuse me people, but does anyone here have a small dinghy? No? A nice lady in a yacht in the bay called and she is very troubled by it ... "

Anyway, I've always found cocktail parties just a tad awkward but now I'm thinking if everyone would just take their clothes off it would be so much easier -- don't ya think? Probably a line the Pacific Northwest menfolk already tried, though.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Elmer's Jicama

I have been thinking some about why people like particular foods and I am struck by the extent to which food affinities are cultural constructs. Consider, if you will, the jicama.

I toiled in restaurants for a handful of years after college for which I was provided just enough income to support the debauched lifestyle that it promoted -- a happy circumstance that capitalism seems especially well-suited to foster. Among my misfit compatriots was Elmer, a teenage El Salvadoran dishwasher. It was a subject of some debate whether Elmer expressed any emotion at all. If he did, it could only be characterized as disinterested depression.

One afternoon, on a whim, I ordered a jicama, sometimes referred to as a Mexican radish or yam bean root. The jicama is an unsightly beige colored fibrous tuber often described as an overgrown water chestnut. There is nothing sexy about the jicama, except perhaps that it apparently hails from the morning glory family, which, depending on your intimacy with the morning glory seed and some of its lesser known properties, may or may not rise to the level of sexy. Nor is there anything inherently comforting or reassuring about the jicama. It belongs to that class of food that is never described by its own qualities but rather as conglomeration of attributes drawn from other foods. "The skin of a Cuban potato," "the shade of ginger," "the flesh of a water chestnut," one would hardly be surprised to hear that it tastes like chicken, though it most certainly does not.

Elmer was putting away the produce order that afternoon and came upon the jicama. An unfamiliar intensity of movement flashed in his corner of the kitchen. At first he was startled. Then he was determined. He reached out to the jicama like a world cup goalkeeper bringing a soccer ball securely to his chest. He arched his back and lifted his chin towards the ceiling. Waitresses stood silently clutching hot plates as they looked on in utter astonishment. "Heee ... caaa ... maaaa!" exulted Elmer. With homesick watery eyes he set to work. Within minutes he had butchered the homely tuber and seasoned it with salt and lime juice. His eyes closed. His body shuddered. He swallowed. A look of peace overcame him. Then with solemn pride he offered his treasure to each of us. We took our jicama communion with respect, but it did not speak to us. The angels did not sing.

For Elmer, it seems the jicama was more than a vegetable. It was a symbol. He tasted things we did not. The jicama sang his national anthem while performing shiatsu on his tongue.

My "jicama," I suppose, is a fresh baguette with a rich aroma and strong chew. I don't know what my children's "jicama" will be. I only pray it will not be branded by Frito Lay, Hostess or Nabisco.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The BackBou Knits!

Now that team BackBou has returned, we've run the numbers and discovered that we are not hitting the growth targets we set first quarter of FY '06. Unfortunately, these metrics have not been lost on the "street" and -- well -- its time for drastic measures.

Apparently references to nudity are insufficient to attract readership (Liz excepted) and so we are going to try something truly base. We shall fake some "knit-speak" -- the number one siren song for the masses. Here we go:

So ... Then I knit three and purled 4 and repeated that, decreasing on each row until I turned the heal with my nimbus 2000 gingko/bamboo hybrid 5 pointers (which by the way I picked up for a steal at the the Knit Witt Stitch Bitch Galleria of Stix for Chix (dot com)). The sock turned out great mostly I think because Arnakua'gsak and Tekkeitsertok's Magnificent Mammoth Wool -- you know the stuff handwoven by Inuit elders out of wooly mammoth fleece remains discovered on a remote island off Greenland.

Sure it costs $75,000 a skein (that just covers the cost of the transport choppers) but my stash was looking so puny, I just couldn't help myself. Also, I heard with the ice caps melting and all, the price might go down because Tekkeitsertok's little sister Torngasoak keeps finding more Mammoth remains -- so whatever-- I mean, all due respect to Al Gore and everything but a little less ice and little more stash can't be all bad, right? I mean, I bet if Tipper knit him a little something cozy out of mammoth wool he'd relax a little, know what I mean?

Anyway, I'd post a picture of the sock but the pattern is proprietary so getta outta here! I mean it, quit looking over my shoulder. Like it says in the upper right hand corner up there, "Get your own blog!"

I can feel the hits rolling in.... And hang in there Liz, we'll get to the naked people next post.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The BackBou Returns

The BackBou has returned from a mostly very enjoyable trip to the Pacific Northwest which included a great many colorful culinary experiences, virtually none of which involved pizza or bread and only one of which involved an episode of food poisoning wherein the BackBou mysteriously passed out making his way to the campground toilets. Awaking on a carpet of dewy grass, clutching one's roiling stomach in the wee hours of the morning on a remote island in Puget Sound is a once in a lifetime experience which I cannot recommend.

On happier note, my starter weathered my absence well and last weekend produced four nice crusty loafs with a fine oven spring (see above). Perhaps she needed the vacation as well.

My chief culinary observation from the trip was, in a word, gooseberries. I don't know if I'm just that far removed from the culinary scene these days or if its a Pacific Northwest thing, but this was new to me. Three very different establishments served gooseberry garnishes on both sweet and savory dishes. For those of you less well-versed in the gooseberry it looks just like a yellow tomatillo -- which is in fact a type of gooseberry. For those of you not familiar with the tomatillo, well ... go on out an' git you one, fools! At the Fairmont Empress in Victoria, BC, high tea began with strawberries and clotted cream topped with a single gooseberry, its papery husk delicately peeled back -- as much a pleasure to eat as to look at. At Doe Bay Resort on Orcas Island, the very refined hippie establishment (a genre unknown in these parts) a chocolate truffle cake was adorned with a gooseberry. Lastly, at the Tin Wis Best Western in Tofino, BC, which is entirely owned on operated by the First Nations People, we were served a peanut soup accompanied by a gooseberry. When we expressed an interest in the gooseberry, the waiter presented us with a whole bowl. By the way, its the best Best Western you will ever stay at, should you get the chance.

Another culinary takeaway from the trip came from our Israeli hosts in Seattle who turned me on to a tea combination worthy of sharing. Add a teaspoon or two sweetened condensed milk to a cup of smoked tea -- I drink a Numi smoked Lapsang Souchong. Our friend explained that he came upon the combination in effort to duplicate some of the teas he had traveling in the Himalayas. I was immediately reminded of the teas I had in East Africa -- very sweet and slightly smoky because the kettles, heated over open fires, were permanently infused with a strong smoke flavor. In any event, I highly recommend it.

Next time, more on all the very fit naked people in hot tubs (see if that doesn't get a few hits).

Monday, April 24, 2006

Abe, the Pizzaiolo

So the weather never cleared on Saturday and I forewent firing the adobe oven up despite having four loaves-worth of dough ready for baking and four neo-neopolitan pizza doughs ready as well. I let the dough rise on sheet trays free form instead of using my plastic proofing baskets, and baked it off in my conventional gas oven with plenty of water added at various intervals for steam. Aside from foregoing the proofing baskets, I prepared the dough in exactly my normal fashion. I created a sponge the night before with my starter and finished the dough off the next day, leaving it to rise for the bulk of the day. Thus, the only difference was in the oven. The end result, however, was incredibly different. The gas oven does not give me anywhere near the same "oven spring." As a result, the crumb is much denser, more cakey and less chewy and translucent. Very interesting.

The gas oven is a lot more forgiving with the pizza, however. As Abraham Lincoln, who learned to cook pizza on the back of an old shovel used to say, "Really great pizza is really hard to make, but really good pizza is really easy to make."

Thursday, April 13, 2006


I am forever indebted to Anon for pointing out the glaring typo in my subtitle. The correction has been made -- though I hadn't really looked at the subtitle in a while (obviously) and am now considering changing it all together. Something like, the "Wistful Musings of a Flamboyant Ballet Dancer." Thoughts? Reactions? Proposed edits?

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Thank You Mr. Science

The BackBou would like to take this opportunity to thank Mr. Science (or is it "Bigfoot"?) for his very illuminating comment on Jewish bread traditions. Challah french toast sounds like a fine idea as does anything with icing and sprinkles. Matzo with chicken schmaltz, I'm guessing, is better than it sounds. I picture a dry cracker with frypan grease spread on the top. Rendered duck fat I can handle, but chicken fat makes me raise a questioning eyebrow. One day -- I am sure -- someone will disabuse me of this bias, but for now, I'm sticking to it.

The combination of your post, which referenced "bubbe's challah," and my recent viewing of Waiting for Guffman has got me singing "Myyyyyy Bubbe made a kishka, she made it big and fat, my father took one look at it and said 'I can't eat that!'" It streams from my mouth at the most inopportune times -- in whispered but audible tones at the urinal, before meetings as we stare at our laptops waiting to come to order. I am getting looks.

Myyyyyy bubbe made a kishka ........

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Mon Nom

A lot you have been asking questions about my nickname, "BB." I hope I won't offend you by trying address all your concerns in this one post. What most of you seem to want to know is this: how do I pronounce it? When I am lounging about Chateau BB pondering my next baking pursuit, does the staff here call out for me in an anglicanized "Bee-Bee" or the more chic francophone "Bae-Bae." It's as good question as has ever been posed by my readership and one whose answer -- truth be told -- is a tad upsetting. You see I suffer the insult of inconsistency not only among the media but even here in my own backyard.

Thus it is that, on the (expensive) advice of my PR team, we are rolling out a new nickname. Hence forth, I shall be called The BackBou -- not be confused with the BackBoil or the BackHair --they have their own blogs.

Monday, April 10, 2006


I made a batch of whole wheat chapati, which confirmed my suspicion that brick/adobe ovens really are very well-suited to this type of unleavened flatbread. Coincidence? I think not.

I have battled in conventional ovens to make these little buggers work out. You end up opening and closing the oven door every ten seconds to see how they are doing and its hard to get the bread to get that nice mottled browning that comes from the intense retained heat and adds to the flavor. In an adobe oven its a piece of cake (though that seems a strange idiom).

These recipes are as simple as can be. (Here is another) Mine was something like 3 cups whole wheat flour (I used King Arthur) to a cup of water and some salt per 6 breads. You mix the stuff up, let it sit for an hour or more, divide into balls, roll 'em thin (8 inches, or so) and then throw them into a hot oven with tame fire burning in the back. Within a minute they puff up. You turn them once, pull 'em out and brush 'em with clarified butter.

Eaten shortly after baking they are incredible. I can honestly say that for some reason, I never really enjoy the flavor of whole wheat in any other bread the way I do in a hot chapati. You can reheat them the next day, but they are never quite the same.

The BB buys a BMW

Totally unrelated to baking and out of character in all respects, the BB has acquired a 1996 BMW 318ti (with only 39k miles). Fortunately, this is the red-headed step child of the BMW family, which means that the BB can retain his street creds and still enjoy the product of uptight German engineering. It may come as something of a shock to my readership of two that the BB has street creds at all but, well, we can't reveal all the juicy stuff in one post now can we?

And now, back to the bread. I made more of it last weekend. Pizza too.

Oh! This is of note ... two weeks ago the BB's spouse fired up the oven on her own for the first time. The oven was prepared for baking when the BB returned from work, which was very exciting for all.

It has a sunroof too!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The BB visits NY

Well I had another successful bake with the Wheat Montana product. I backed off the hydration of the dough and did not proof it for as long and the end result was better. The crumb was a little tighter (which it really needed) and the exterior a little darker (which it did not need).

Anyway... I spent Monday and Tuesday in NY and had the good fortune to be taken to Nobu Fifty Seven, which is the product of innovative Japanese Chef Nobu Matsuhisa's partnership with Drew Nieporent and Robert De Niro. After some nice Edamame and some brightly flavored green tea we opted for the hundred-dollar-a-person tasting menu (which is the less expensive option -- the other is $150). Probably the combination of the fact that I wasn't paying and the truly awe-inspiring fare made this a stand out culinary experience for me. We must have had about seven courses, the majority of which seemed to include bizarre Asian fruits or exotic wild species of fish. Some of the combinations were unique and yet so perfect that although I would never have dreamt of them, they seemed almost obvious as soon as I tasted them (e.g. wild yellow tail (kampachi) with raw jalapeno and thinly sliced garlic).

The next day we hit the Carnegie Deli for some much less sophisticated but nevertheless time-honored fare. I have to say, the pastrami is incredible but why does the bread have to be such an after thought? Wouldn't real bread and not some bagged rye be that much better. Is there a Jewish deli tradition that builds on good bread? Can my readership of two address this question please.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

New Flour

I've begun to experiment with a new flour called Wheat Montana, which is available mail order and also at a local grocery store near my home. I purchased a 10 pound bag of Natural White Premium Flour, which is a high protein flour designed for "superior" bread baking. One thing that interests me about this flour is the additionn of a small amount of malted barley. This is something recommended by the inestimable Peter Reinhart in Crust & Crumb. According to Simon Quellen Field's web page on ingredients:
Malted barley flour is often added to bread because it gives the yeast more nutrients (primarily sugars), and gives the bread a different taste. Malting a grain is the process of letting the grain soak in water until it starts to sprout. The young sprouting barley plant converts some of the starch in the barley endosperm into sugars. The barley is then cooked or ground into flour, which stops the sprout from eating the sugars, leaving them available to the yeast.

I paid about $6.00 for ten pounds but it sells for $3.97 by mail. The shipping cost might kill the discount, although I expect the 50 pound bag at $17.50 -- even with shipping -- would result in some savings. Of course, this all assumes that the product warrants it.

To date, I have been a pretty strict advocate of King Arthur unbleached bread flour. It runs around $2.70 for 5 pounds locally and is consistently excellent to work with. I am not exactly eager to abandon King Arthur but would like to experiment some to see how other flours effect texture and taste. If I can get a cheaper product that is equal to or better than King Arthur, I'll probably make the substitution permanent.

I made a batch of Peter Reinhart's neo-neopolitain pizza dough, my standard, out of the Wheat Montana. It turned out very nicely. Of course, its hard to know how much is attributable to the flour and how much might be attributable to the stars aligning -- i.e. just the right mix of retained heat and refractive heat from the fire. I also made a batch of sour dough bread using my starter. It was a wet dough -- high hydration -- and the end result was a little curious. Very large air bubbles and a somewhat translucent chewy crumb. Very tasty but a little on the eccentric side as far as texture goes. Still too early to say whether the malted barley did anything.

Experimentation to continue.

Monday, March 06, 2006


Two summers ago, I built an adobe wood-fired oven in my very suburban Virginia backyard. The oven is the fruit of a seed planted a long, long time ago in a far away place, before bar exams, grey suits and ankle biters. There, in that seemingly distant world, I toiled in the sweaty kitchens of Charlottesville's short lived eateries. Under the tutelage of one Laura Brennan, now chef owner of Cafe Umbria, and a string of surly chefs that came and went thereafter, I got my first taste of coaxing food from a wood-fired oven. After a handful of years, I tossed my last soiled chef coat into the restaurant laundry bin, cleaned up a bit and wandered off to law school, whereupon the seed -- among other things -- promptly went dormant.

Then, I got married.

George Schenk of American Flatbread in Waitsfield Vermont, catered my rehearsal dinner. I watched in somewhat distracted amazement, as George and his crew constructed what he calls a "festival oven" in the meadow in front of my folk's house. Watching the process and sampling the end-product provided enough inspiration for the seed to germinate.

American Flatbread

But the germination was slow and years went by. Finally, I stumbled across a yahoo group dedicated to brick ovens. There, I was introduced to Kiko Denzer and his book Build Your Own Earth Oven. That year, Santa brought me Kiko's Book and Alan Scott's Ovencrafter's book, and that was it. Well ... almost. I am incapable of initiating any project without months of agonizing and this was no different. Anyway, I finally built the thing.

The purpose of this blog is largely selfish (as if that distinguishes this blog from most). I hope to keep a record of my baking pursuits for my own benefit and for any others that are interested.