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...