Are You Blackberry or Salal? Wild Ruminations on Wild Berries

Now is the season of sweet, dark berries gathered by the handful at the sunny edge of the woods.

Also, it’s blackberry season.

But for those of you not from Cascadia (the Pacific Northwest), I’m talking about salal berries.

These guys

They’re native, humble, not well known, to my surprise, even to many Washingtonians. They are completely edible–just ask Lewis & Clark. Also delicious–although don’t expect that opinion from Lewis & Clark. They got pretty sick of salal that winter of (I think) 1804. Maybe because they were eating them dried and mixed with smoked salmon and bear grease, a protein-packed pemmican the Coastal nations were kind enough to share with them.

Granted, you wouldn’t want to bake a pie with salals–at least I wouldn’t. Their skin is rough and a bit furry, like a peach, and their “meat” is seedy.

I usually chew a sweet mouthful, then spit out the pulp. Hard to do that with pie.

But they’re sweet! And free! And best of all, to me, unlike those giant, juicy blackberries that stop me on my bike rides–they BELONG here.

I was thinking about salals and blackberries the other day after reading my morning poem by Mary Oliver. (She has defaulted to my poet of choice since I took up the daily poem habit as inoculation against the day’s national news, after the election.) Mary had a childhood full of suffering, which she managed to transcend through her writing–and probably lots of other activity I don’t know about, since she hasn’t written an autobiography. But my point is: she suffered, she survived, she wrote, and her writing is both vehicle (to her) and Promised Land (to the rest of us and also, I devoutly wish, to her).

I’m a writer. I have to this point in my life suffered almost nothing. 50-some years of good fortune. I know my time will come, so I’m neither boasting nor tempting Fate–just wondering: could this be the reason I have yet to write something that brings people screeching to a halt at the side of the road?

Easy to ride past.

Is my writing sweet, nourishing, but not very tempting? When someone takes a bite, do they savor, but still spit out a portion of pulp?

Is suffering the sunshine and rain that causes art to plump and swell? Or does the real difference lie in the species themselves: some of us are born with certain DNA, then planted and raised in such a way to create more beauty or truth than others?

I take comfort in the fact that this is, really, a pretty silly parallel. Also that I love blackberries, and great writers, so much that I’ll never waste time feeling envious. 

But in salal season, I still wonder.

Why Work Parties Make The Best Reunions

I haven’t attended a college reunion since my 10th, way back in…never mind…but the main memory I have of that time is of painting a house in Dorchester, Mass. No drama, just good, wholesome fun—and a wonderful chance to reconnect with folks while doing something more constructive than drinking.

Back when the Mate and I lived in North Carolina in the 1980s, we were building a New Hampshire-style timber-frame barn together in our spare time. Well, he was project manager; I was definitely unskilled labor at the time. But boy, could I organize a work party! They were always potlucks, always featuring a cookie we came to call “barn bars,” and always well attended by folks who didn’t have enough manual labor in their lives…or maybe did, but doing someone else’s, in a festive atmosphere, was a whole different, fun animal.

We grew so fond of “barn bars” that I made them into our wedding cake. Here’s the 25th Anniversary version.

Last summer our cousins in Vermont, who are young parents, were struggling a bit to run their farm, take care of their kiddos, and make some headway on the little house they were trying to restore in order to move out of the family-owned (and often occupied) farmhouse. The Mate proposed a work party to get their home at least roofed in for the winter. Sons One and Two were in the neighborhood, and they joined in, with other cousins and friends. They worked for a week and had a BLAST.

The Mate in his element

Since this was in August, I couldn’t get away from the bakery, but I pouted and plotted from afar…

…so this year? Vermont Family Work Party II is NOW. Which is why I won’t be blogging for a little while. But don’t worry; that cyber-silence you hear will be punctuated with ringing hammers.

(Who am I kidding? With my skill set, I’ll most likely end up as Crew Chef.) 

What do work parties need at the end of a long day? PIE! (And maybe some barn bars too.)

But I’m still bringing my work gloves just in case.

Work parties. Have you been to one? Have you held one? If so, please share. If not–what are you waiting for?

Bread School Post-script: Staycations Are Cool

Don’t worry, I’m done talking about bread for now. Bun there, doughn that.

What I did want to mention is, how cool it was to spend five days in Mt. Vernon, a town barely 17 miles from our ferry terminal. I’ve never had a “staycation”; now I want more.

To avoid going back and forth on the ferry each day, the Mate proposed renting an Air B ‘n’ B place so we could do our own cooking. He planned to spend the days exploring via foot and bike while I baked. So we got this cute lil’ ol’ bungalow on a street of cute lil’ ol’ bungalows.

See what I mean?

Mt. Vernon is famous for its bulb fields: daffodils, iris, and especially tulips. 

Can you tell?

Every morning I rode to class, crossing the Skagit River on a bridge (with a scary-narrow sidewalk). The weather was pretty grey and windy each day, but that’s just April here.

Who needs sunshine when you have tulips?

In the name of exploration, I took different routes to the Bread Lab each day, but of course one of them took me past the tulip fields. Since they weren’t open for visitors yet and I didn’t want to trespass, I settled for this shot of alpacas with a tulip backdrop.

Just another day in Paradise…

Not pictured: the coyote I saw

Each evening we dined on Things You Can Eat With Bread, brought from home or purchased at the wonderful Skagit Valley Food Co-op. One staycationy thing we did NOT do: dine out at restaurants. (Did I mention all that BREAD?)

So this isn’t a travelogue post about the delightful town of Mt. Vernon–though we did find it delightful. I didn’t visit stores, poke my nose into quaint corners, or even take very many pictures.

What I did: appreciated how simpatico it felt to be in, essentially, the next town over. Like being invited over to the home of a neighbor you don’t know well, and finding out you have the same taste in food, decor, and books. 

Happy spring, neighbor.

This is simply an ode to the Staycation. For those of you who’ve already discovered that delight–good on ya! Care to share? 

 

Pupils of the King: King Arthur Bread School, Part II

What I learned in a week of bread school:

I LOVE bread! But I knew that already…

  1. The things you think will be easy turn out to be hard.

RIDICULOUSLY hard to score baguettes just right!

2. The things you think will be hard turn out to be easy.

You don’t scare me, challah.

(Except when they actually do turn out to be hard.)

Turns out I’m a little scared of the pizza oven.

3. Baker’s Math is a THING, people. Now that I’ve seen how easy it is to convert recipes using metric weight instead of cups and tablespoons, I will never sniff at weighing out ingredients again.

What if you only wanted to make two big brioches? Can you math that?

4. Technology is your friend…

Oven loader? Yes please!

5. …but so is good ol’ muscle power.

Can you imagine mixing this giant batch of pre-ferment by hand? It’s been done.

(OK, I knew this already, but dealing with the volumes at Bread School–in comparison with my wee bakery–really hit that home.)

6. Dough is alive. Again, I knew that too–in theory. But until spending a solid work week studying and manipulating those four basic, precious ingredients–flour, water, yeast, salt–I never appreciated the truth of that statement. Handling those great lumps of dough, patting and pulling and prodding to determine readiness, I came to think of them as powerful animals, like horses, which need careful attention and reining in if you don’t want them to gallop away.

7. Gluten has become such a scapegoat, I really feel sorry for the lil’ protein. I realize this is a controversial topic, but if you want a scientific assessment of the issue, please check out this article by Michael Specter of the New Yorker. 

8. The folks involved in bringing good grain, good flour, and good bread back to local communities are MY KIND OF PEOPLE. Like Stephen Jones, founder of the Washington State University Bread Lab. He starts his sentences with words like “chromosomes” and “endosperm,” and ends them with words like “cookies” and “love.”

Steve Jones in the Bread Lab.

Here’s what his work has sown:

Our Mission: The programs of the Bread Lab work to breed and develop publicly available varieties of grains and other crops that will benefit farmers, processors, and end-users while enhancing access to affordable and nutritious food for all members of our communities.

Our Vision: Through innovation and discovery, and an appreciation of the culture and traditions that define what we eat, the Bread Lab plays a major role in moving food systems in more meaningful and just directions.

Or Kevin Morse of Cairnspring Mills, which we toured. Here’s what they’re all about:

Local grain, local flour, local flavor

Cairnspring Mills works directly with farmers who share their commitment to sustainable agricultural practices and mills their grain with care to maintain a transparent supply chain. Each batch of grain is milled separately to preserve its unique identity and flavor; each batch of flour can be traced back to the origin farm.

Touring Cairnspring

And probably the most important lesson I learned: how much I still have to learn. Ain’t that always the way?

Just look at all these local wheat varieties, waiting to be baked into beautiful loaves!

Any bread lovers out there care to chime in at this point? How ’bout some bread puns–I loave ’em!

 

Pupils of the King: a Week of King Arthur Bread School, Part I

“YOU’RE going to bread school?!”

said almost everyone I told I was going to bread school. The usual next response: “Oh, lucky!!!”

They were right about my good fortune, but wrong to be surprised at my need. Before I started getting paid to bake, I was always a pie/cake/sweets gal–bread, not so much. And though I’m now entering my 8th season of professional baking, I spent the first two seasons as Assistant Baker, i.e., managing neither bread nor oven. When I trained to be a Head Baker, the people who trained me had received no professional training. Now, “We do this because it works” works just fine most days, but it leaves two questions unanswered:

  1. What do you do if it doesn’t work?
  2. What if something else worked even better?

Therefore I was THRILLED when my current boss, who bought Holly B’s Bakery from Holly B, decided to make the investment to send me to an intensive, 5-day, 38-hour course in Bread Fundamentals. I knew I had a LOT to learn. Like, everything.

But the answer to “What did you learn in Bread School?” is so big and complex, I’m going to turn this into two posts. Or maybe more! That knowledge might just ferment and grow, like a certain little yeasty-beast I’ve been hearing about all week.

I should also say off the bat, in case you’re a sourdough enthusiast, that this class covered pretty much everything BUT sourdough. Those breads require a class of their own. Hopefully, someday…

But back to Bread Fundamentals. Long story short, King Arthur Flour Baking School is the brainchild of King Arthur Chef Jeffrey Hamelman (world’s mellowest rock star chef) and Washington State University Bread Lab’s Stephen Jones. They teamed up several years to begin offering intensive baking classes (mostly bread) out here in the Northwest. King Arthur, of course, has been offering classes forever, all over the country but especially on their Vermont home ground. Lucky, LUCKY me–this workshop was under 20 miles from our ferry terminal!

I started on Monday, wide-eyed. So much of this was new to me, starting with the uniform. At Holly B’s we wear aprons, but I’ve never worn Chef Whites!

Gretchen’s first-ever work uniform!

Then there was the equipment in the teaching room.

4-deck steam oven with a moveable loader. At my bakery, the only loader is me.

Best of all, however, was the combination of Chef Jeffrey’s short lectures followed by immediate demonstrations and hands-on guided practice. Here he demonstrates a Challah braid:

He makes it look so easy. Well, ok…braiding isn’t actually very hard. Ask most long-haired women.

Now here’s my own careful step-by-steps (different braid on this one):

…with four strands…

A three and a four

Both finished challahs, with a few friends…a good Wednesday!

Chef Jeffrey also wowed us with possibilities. Here’s an amazing 3-tiered Challah he built

Whoa.

I thought it looked like a ferry boat. 🙂

The teaching was always firm and immediate, but gentle. (As a teacher, I sure appreciated that; I think from TV chefs I expected to be snapped at.)

Checking the “heads” of our petites brioches…

OK, maybe I could have used a little more guidance on my Epis de blé…

By the end of Day 3, we had made baguettes with three different doughs; whole wheat batards, oat loaves, challah, brioche, sunflower seed rounds, and…I’m sure I’m forgetting something. Day 4 we got FANCY:

Auvergnats. Trés chic.

Coronnes Bordelaise. Wouldn’t that be a cool addition to Thanksgiving?

One more picture of my new, freshly-baked confidence:

Ahhhhh…

Next post: So what DID I learn in Bread School?

 

Family Pranking: Fun New Resolution for 2018?

Meet Ali the Gator:

“Could someone lick me clean, please?

Oh, why’s he covered in whipped cream and jam? Therein lies a tale. Allow me.

Ali joined our family a couple of years ago when the Mate was out doing yardwork. Spotting a lizard near the compost bin, he decided to catch it, in honor of Wing Son One, who does such things. So he stalked it, for several minutes, before realizing…

a) it was plastic

b) it was an alligator, not a common lizard,

c) it was missing two of its feet (likely a lawn-mower accident)

So he brought it inside. Of course I decided to place it under Son One’s pillow the next time he visited. (Gratifying yell of surprise.) Ali then showed up successively in…

a) the soap dish in the shower

b) my tin of Earl Grey

c) the Mate’s tin of coffee beans

d) my hiking boot

The hiking boot prank was especially good, because I was putting on that boot at the visitor center of Haleakala on Maui, last winter. So I sent Son One this photo of “Ali in Paradise”:

Later, he took a hula class and attended a luau.

From Maui we continued our Epic Journey to New Zealand, so there I took another photo of “Ali with Kiwi Mate”:

“Hey, it’s OK–I can’t fly either, mate.”

This past summer, both sons + Mate gathered in Vermont for a construction blitz on our cousins’ “new” old house. Ali flew there in a care package of cookies, to make a legendary appearance inside an ear of corn the Mate was shucking. (Sadly, no picture of that.)

Don’t know how Ali made it back to the Wet Coast, but he reappeared this past month, folded inside the ferry commuter ticket in our glove box. I decided Ali must have a special Christmas. So I stuffed him inside the yule log cake (Buche de Noel) I was creating.

In you go, lil’ guy!

Don’t eat too much whipped cream in there!

Of course I made sure that one of our sons got the “special” piece of cake. (Son One got the honor.)

Alligator? What alligator? Have a slice of Yule Log! Merry Christmas!

We actually borrowed this idea of family pranking from our Vermont cousins. They did the same thing with an evil-looking doll they called “Malice.” The idea of finding a creepy doll inside, say, one’s freezer, veers too close to heart-attack-land for my taste.

But a cute little alligator? All he does is make us laugh, and think of how much we enoy each other. 

Anyone else out there have an ongoing family prank to share? Anyone want to start 2018 with a new tradition? Be sure to take pictures!

Granola For Christmas: You’re Welcome

Would you like me to solve all your holiday gifting issues in two words? 

Homemade granola.

THIS stuff.

Okay, the average child or teen might not thrill to that. But I guarantee you anyone from college-age on up will say one of the following to you:

“This is great! I get so overwhelmed with sweet stuff over the holidays, it’s nice to have something healthy.”

“I grab a handful on my way out the door to work.”

“I keep it in my desk at work. I have to hide it from my co-workers.”

“I keep it in my freezer. I have to hide it from my housemates.”

“We eat it on everything. I don’t have time to make it, and the good stuff is so expensive.”

“What do you put in yours? Can I have the recipe?”

“What a great idea. I’m doing this next year.”

That last one? Maybe by the time you’re done reading, you’ll be saying that yourself. But why wait? There’s still time THIS year. 

The VERY best thing about granola (and face it, there are no bad things, unless you burn it…oh, and I hate getting sesame seeds stuck between my teeth) is that it is ridiculously flexible. There are very, VERY few rules to granola. So think of this as less of a “recipe” and more of a guideline.

I start with 8 cups of plain rolled oats (NOT instant) and 6 cups of assorted nuts & seeds. Usually I opt for equal amounts of pecans and almonds (whole), walnuts (rough-chopped), pumpkin seeds (pepitos) and sunflower seeds. I’ve also used unsweetened coconut, cashews (the Mate doesn’t like ’em), and hazelnuts (sometimes hard to come by), and sesame seeds. (Got real tired of those little boogers.)

“There’s too many nuts in my granola”….said NO ONE EVER.

Mix all that dry stuff in a giant bowl. If you’re on a budget or don’t adore nuts, use less! Or fewer. Or both.

You also have choices in your oil & your sweetener. You want one cup of each, but which kind? Honey’s the classic; it makes a stickier, clumpier granola. Maple syrup has that wonderful maple flavor & aroma, plus it’s easier to clean the pan afterward, but if you like clumps, don’t use maple. (Also, it’s pricier.) Sometimes I’ll go half-and-half, depending on what I have.

If you like a bit of salt flavor in your granola, I’d recommend one full cup of olive oil–it gives it that nice, savory nuttiness. If you don’t care, and want to go a little cheaper, use a cup of canola. Often, again, I’ll go half-and-half. (I was once gifted granola made with butter, and it was delicious…but I don’t know how long it would keep.)

Heat your cup of oil & cup of sweet stuff in the microwave for a minute or so, enough to make it nice & liquidy. Then add a couple of Tablespoons of vanilla. (Mmm…your house will smell like cookies.)

Mix your wet thoroughly into your dry. Then add whatever spices you like. These days I’ve been using about a tablespoon each of cardamom and cinnamon. Salt? Totally depends on taste. I think I probably add about a Tablespoon. Maybe more. I like salt.

Mix thoroughly & spread EVENLY into two large pans. Notice mine are two different materials, so they bake differently. (Try not to have your layer of granola thicker than one inch if possible.) I usually start one on the lower rack of the oven, then switch.

All tucked in & ready to bake!

What temperature? How long? That TOTALLY depends on your oven and the size of your pans.  But I go 375 degrees for 10 minutes, stir, switch racks, another 10, stir, and then…bake till done!

Getting toasty on the bottom–time to stir. But I do like a little variegation in mine.

Wait, though–what about the raisins? Hmph. Me, I don’t care for raisins. I respect their longevity in Anglo cooking (“plum pudding” = raisins, people). I thank them for their long service. And…I don’t put ’em in my granola. Instead I use 2-3 cups mixed sultanas (GOLDEN raisins–whole different beast!), cranberries (YUM) and/or whatever signature flavor I think the person I’m gifting will enjoy. Candied ginger. Dried cherries or blueberries. Chopped dried apricots. Etc. (I wish my favorite, dried mango, worked, but I’ve found it too dry.)

Sultanas, yes. Raisins, no. But that’s just me.

Let the granola cool before mixing in the fruit. If you’ve used honey, stir the granola a bit as it’s cooling so it won’t stick as much. And–duh–let the granola cool thoroughly before bagging it. This recipe makes two huge bags, or three less-huge.Well-sealed, it keeps for weeks, or longer in the freezer.

Play around with your own varieties and let me know, okay? You’re welcome, and (as all your giftees will say) thank you!

 

 

This Is Your Brain On Proofs: Why Proofreading Is–Or Isn’t–Like Making Bread

Ever wonder what someone’s brain sounds like after ten straight hours of proofreading proofs?

 

Exactly what it says.

“Proof. Poof. Why do they sound so similar?”

“‘The proof is in the pudding!’ Shouldn’t that be, ‘The proof is in taking a BITE of the pudding?’ I mean, plenty of pudding LOOKS great, but don’t judge a pudding by its looks, right? That would be like judging a book by its cover. Which people shouldn’t do. Which is why I’m currently proofreading these proofs.”

No cover-judging!

“And you know when they say ‘pudding,’ they mean dessert, right? Those ol’ British Commonwealth types, they actually ask their mums, ‘What’s for pudding, then?'”

“Hope they get their just desserts. I mean puddings.”

“You know what else proofs? Bread. Or anything with yeast in it. That’s what we bakers call the rising part: proofing. Isn’t that the OPPOSITE of what I’m doing now? I’m poking holes in my own prose, deflating its presumptions of quality.”

Proof of bread proofing.

“Or am I? I mean, proofing my proofs IS helping their overall quality rise in the long run, right? Well, yeah…but only after I make all those corrections. So the proofs have to flatten themselves in humiliation before they can rise. What’s the bread equivalent of proofreading?”

All THESE corrections.

“Did you know that the German word for ‘test’ is ‘PRÜFUNG’? So guess where ‘proofing’ comes from? And, yup…’proving.’ All these words have to pass their test. Just like the bread does.”

Proof of croissants proofing.

“If I quit proofing these proofs too soon, will they go ‘poof’ and prove me a fool?”

“And don’t even start me on loafing puns.”

Happy Whatever of July

“Does Canada have a July Fourth?” goes the riddle. The answer still makes me chuckle. (I’m not writing it here; if you don’t know it already, think about it.)

My own personal riddle goes more like, “When does July Fourth end?” Answer: “Are we there yet?”

OK, maybe that doesn’t qualify as a riddle; pretty sure riddles are funny. My point is, for people who work in the tourism/food industries, Independence Day is one killer holiday. And when it falls on a Tuesday (which is generally the best day for small food businesses to close), what should be a three or four-day weekend suddenly becomes a week-long tunnel. (In the case of Holly B’s Bakery, where I work, it’s a tunnel of Love & Butter.)

20 to a pan. On July 4 we baked 19 pans…and still ran out.

Not complaining! It’s great work. I’m just throwing this out there to remind everyone to be kind to their servers this week–they are probably exhausted.

(And to explain why I’ve been AWOL for a week. I’m back…and might even have something intelligent to share by the next post!)

Till then–Happy Birthday, America! Now I’m going back to bed.

Reuse, Recycle, Renew Your Appetite: “Upcycling” Cooking Boo-Boos

If you’re like me, you HATE throwing away good food. The more you need to toss, the more you hate it. So imagine the loathing that accompanies needing to compost an entire 20×30″ pan of overbaked brownies, for example. This tragedy plays out all too commonly in commercial kitchens.

But it doesn’t have to!

At Holly B’s Bakery, we are becoming (we modestly think) the masters of up-cycling “useless” food. Let me give you three scrumptious examples.

Example #1: those overbaked brownies. We tossed them in the Cuisinart with a little butter to glue them back together, then pressed them into a buttered pan as a pre-baked crust…which we then proceeded to top with dulce de leche cheesecake filling. Sprinkle with sea salt…bake…heaven.

Honestly, it’s more like cheesecake frosting on a brownie. Only more so.

Example #2: over-toasted Cappucino Bars (our name for espresso shortbread with tiny chocolate chips and a cinnamon-espresso glaze). Once more into the “Cuize” with…wait for it…a glob of ganache (a.k.a. the essence of a truffle: dark chocolate melted with whipping cream). And a healthy dash of Kahlua. Form into balls, dip into more (much more!) ganache with toothpicks, and voila…Kahlua Truffle Balls.

Even better than they look. Seriously.

Example #3 isn’t due to an overbake, but rather a scraps problem. When you cut croissants from dough, you end up with bits. Lots of bits. What to do with them? After only a couple of weeks of croissant-making, we were drowning in bits.

Too…many…bits!

So…we baked them. Note: please force yourself past this part of the process. If you stop here and just start eating warm croissant bits, all is lost. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Mmmm…the bits…the bits are calling me. DON’T GIVE IN.

Once baked and cooled, we bag them and freeze them until it’s time to make strata. Guess what? It’s always time to make strata.

Strata before…

Strata = croissant bits (Most people just use stale bread–I recommend this! Much healthier. A little less delicious.) + beaten eggs + a little milk or cream + tomatoes (fresh, canned or dried) + cooked greens of any kind + sauteed onions and mushrooms + mozzarella. Topped with Parmesan. Baked till brown and bubbly.

Strata after. Yes please.

And the best part is feeling so good about avoiding waste! No, I’m lying–the best part is eating your creation. But that no-waste thing is pretty cool.

So…what do you think? Pretty droolly, right? Got any delightful/delicious food-upcycles of your own to share?