Friday, December 13, 2013

milling about...a little bit scarry

I like to make bread.  And I like to eat it.

Not too long ago, I began a campaign for the perfect bread.  And to make a long story short...I will skip over the years of a terrible oven that burned the outside and left the inside raw of every loaf I baked.  Of my switch from a bread maker to complete allegiance to my professional stand mixer (I call her the Silver Lady and, though I will save my children and our animals first, I will run back in for the mixer).  And of my failed attempts with whole wheat added into white flour recipes, and sandwich rolls that were too fat for the reusable sandwich containers my children take to school.  And the day that Julia came home from school and asked me quietly if maybe we could try a different kind of bread because the pile of crumbs that she was leaving behind on the table for the poor unfortunately assigned table wipe down child was getting a bit embarrassing.  And on and on and on.

I found it.  The perfect recipe.

It is Peter Reinhart's Ciabatta Recipe.  And his pizza dough recipe.  And his bagels.  And.  Well, buy this book.  You won't regret it.

This ciabatta.  It is so good.  It makes everyone here happy.  And it takes two days to make.  It is a commitment.  And it is a labor of love.  His bread recipes have you up to the elbows in sticky well hydrated bread dough, flour hand prints on your backside at school pickup, fingertips constantly slightly tender due to burns while tapping the baked bread for doneness.  A full body immersion.  In a TED talk, Reinhart talks about his love of this craft, of making bread, a transformational food, in every sense.

Here's a teaser for his TED talk, to entice you to listen to it.  He makes bread using yeast burps, yeast sweats, and starch guts.  Enjoy.

Over Thanksgiving, we gathered together several families connected by marriage.  My mother is famous for her baking and specifically for her rolls.  She used to make them for just about every party and function we attended, and they are a staple at Thanksgiving and Christmas.  They are so good that if she is going to be there, none of us even bother to ask her if she would like us to make them, because she just does it better.

But this year, traveling a long distance with two large stuffed turkeys as her responsibility, she allowed as how I might be able to take a whack at her rolls.

Late Thanksgiving eve found me mixing, rolling, shaping, rising and baking said rolls.  And I was struck by just how different the dough felt in my hands as compared to my bread dough.  It had much the same ingredients.  But, with butter and eggs included in hers and not mine, there was something that responded just so differently as it was worked.  It was less elastic.  And with too much fussing?  It became tense, hard, and unresponsive.

I fashioned a tray of rolls.  But they were clearly not my mothers.  People were kind.  But I had dough on the brain now, what makes it different, what ingredients and proteins and fermenting and such does to its consistency and texture.

* * *

My sister in law's parents were among the families joining us for Thanksgiving.  I knew her father had been working on a documentary about Grove's Mill, an old water powered gristmill that mills grains in the Buffalo Valley of western Pennsylvania, where they live.

While there, we celebrated a bunch of November birthdays, as many of us seem to have clustered our births in that lovely month.  There were some sacks in the kitchen I noticed.  And then my brother was gifted one sack, full of birdseed, from Grove's Mill.  And then I was giddy with excitement when my brother and sister, with a bit of help from her parents, gifted me a paper sack of pastry flour and a sack of chicken feed.  All from Grove's Mill.

Pastry Flour.  Ok.  I did a bit of research, because I was curious.  It turns out pastry flour is more processed, finer, less proteinaceous.  It is best used in non-yeast based baking.  So...muffins.  And cookies.  And scones.  Oh my.

Do you remember the long winter?  When there were no trains into De Smet.  And provisions were running low.  And the Ingalls family and most other families in town were starving and freezing?

I was fascinated when Ma Ingalls, clever little genius that she was, figured out that she could mill the seed wheat from Almanzo in her coffee grinder, and make a course but edible brown bread from it.  

Nowadays, there is something called a family grain mill that one can attach to their kitchen mixer.

Yes, I am looking at you, Craigslisted Silver Lady.  Get ready.

Later that Thanksgiving evening, we all sat and watched Tom's documentary about Grove's Mill, and about the man who keeps the mill's legacy, and his family's legacy going.  It is a beautiful story.  I wish I could show you bits of it.  I was moved by the history of milling grains, their structures, many now lost, and the art of milling.  The mill owner spoke of his family, his purpose, his care for this old building.

In lieu of those images.  I will show you the next best thing.  Grain mill, Richard Scarry style:

And I have to say, having watched the documentary. It's not all that different.  Well, minus the animal workers and all.

The first thing I did when we got home was that I refilled the chickens' feeder with my newly acquired feed.  And as I poured it, I could have whacked myself on the forehead in a duh moment.  I never thought about different consistencies of chicken feed.  As I poured this ground feed, a mash I believe it is called, into the feeder, it landed atop the organic pellet feed I typically purchase for my flock at our local farm store.

So, it turns out, this is mash, crumble, and pellets, from left to right below.  And most mills that mix their own feed create a mash, because they do not have the equipment they would need to turn it into pellets.  

Image from

I must say, our flock seemed to love the mash.  It is gone now.  When we first got it, they were still free ranging in the garden and I laid it out in a low dish for them and they were very pleased.  Much clucking and shifting between feet.  Calling to each other to come try this delicious brew.

When I am using the feeder that is hung in the coop area for them however, the mash does not drop as well as the pellets since the pellets are bigger and heavier, and smoother for sliding past each other.  But I was able to handle that with a daily jiggling of the feeder.

But really!  So interesting to think about feed, its components, its very texture and how this affects the bodies and health of our flock, all based on its source.  And its milling.

* * *

All this got me to thinking about -- as I have done a bit in the past -- how we might be able to have access to local organic feed that originates here in Maine.  With a bit of research, I found that there is a new mill, yes, mill again, nearby, in Auburn.  It happens to be on the road we travel to get to my mother's family camp.

It is Maine Organic Milling, a feed cooperative that has been supported by twelve organic dairy farmers.  They have taken over a building that was previously a Blue Seal facility.  We gave MOM a call, and they were lovely and helpful.  But currently are only selling feed by the ton.  That seems a bit much.  But I am considering my options here, and whether I want to go into the distribution business.

Does anyone want to go in with me?  Bring your own sack.

Ok, so all this research into my chicken feed was swirling about in my head one morning when I came upon this display in Whole Foods.

I have been scooping and double bagging my flour of late, bread flour from King Arthur Flour, based in Vermont.  It was as local and cost effective as I could get.  But this.

Alright.  So there is a mill.  Maine Grains at the Somerset Grist Mill. Which produces local organic stone ground grains.  They make the oats which I was already buying in the bulk section.  But their flours, both whole wheat and sifted wheat are now being carried by Whole Foods.  

I am having a bit of sticker shock.  And lets face it, 5 pound bags are not going to work for me with my bread making frenzy here.  But perhaps...

I am talking to you, Whole Foods Bulk Section Buying Person.

So for now, I purchased a sack of the sifted wheat.  The bigger pieces of bran are sifted out.  Oh, if Ma Ingalls had only thought to light that button lantern and had torn a piece off her petticoat and sifted that seed wheat, imagine the bread they could have had.  

I have been trying different combinations of King Arthur bread flour and Maine Grains sifted wheat flour, and fiddling a bit with the hydration levels of the dough.

It feels great between my fingers during the stretching part of the process, and I like the richer color that the dough and baked bread have.

I asked Julia after school yesterday how she had liked the new version of ciabatta.  Too crummy?  No.  It was really good!  It's kind of a weird color.  But it tastes great!


And that's a wrap on my milling grains far.

Yes, I admit it.  I did just interlibrary loan Peter Reinhart's Whole Grain Breads.

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