If Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000-Hour” rule (that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field) was applied to the art of bread baking
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there’s little doubt he’d have an incredibly delicious case study in Chad Robertson, who along with his wife, Liz Prueitt, own the famous Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. There’s only one way to gain such titles as “bread genius” .. “one of the most admired bakers in the US” .. or “the cult prince of American bread making” .. and that’s by consistently putting forth that level of extraordinary time and effort.
Not only have they perfected all things bread and pastry, but over the past eight years, three wonderfully perfect cookbooks have been produced as well. There’s a certain irony when I reach for one, as my cooking and baking style has fundamentally changed and evolved over the years, almost in parallel to the cookbooks (although on a scale not even close to theirs)
The year was 2006 when the first Tartine cookbook found a home my kitchen. A culinary season in which I was ready to expand my horizons, searching for ways to develop flavor, project recipes for lazy Sunday afternoons, interesting ingredient combinations. What better way than with a book that began with homemade croissants & ended with candied fruit and zest?
Not to mention a recipe for Brioche Bread Pudding(!) (my all-time favorite)
As the years ticked by, the way I fed myself began to change, and my dog-eared, chocolate-smeared friend began to rest on the bookshelf more often than not. Desserts were now sweetened naturally with ingredients such as honey or dates; white flour was being phased out as I experimented instead with those made from quinoa, Kamut, spelt, and rice.
Eventually, I took up the study in holistic nutrition, and it’s against this backdrop that I strolled through Williams Sonoma on a lazy afternoon, stopping for a brief minute to glance at the cookbooks. “Ahh .. yes, the latest from Tartine. I’ll gawk at the pastries.”
A glance, wait, these are breads made, not just from whole grains flours, but also those of ancient grains (to name a few: Kamut, quinoa, teff, emmer, einkorn, semolina, as well as the more familiar rye and barley). I flipped a bit faster. It got better. A treasure trove of recipes for sprouted grain breads, porridge breads, crisp flatbreads, and even some pastries
It was then that I started to read. This wasn’t simply a cookbook, but instead a narrative of the San Francisco Bread Maestro’s two-year-long, world-wide quest. In search of ways to add flavor and texture to breads through different methods and by changing the grains used.
“Maybe I’ll find a chair and sit for just a minute.”
I was surprised to read he wasn’t driven by better nutrition, although it certainly was a by-product. Instead, his primary motive was what these heirloom grains could offer in terms of flavors, textures, and creative possibilities. All of these great stories and insights are beautifully woven amongst 85 recipes for the whole-grain versions of Tartine’s favorites, having been reformulated to include whole grains, nut milks, and alternative sweeteners
Can you imagine all of the wonderful stories he and his wife get to talk about over a glass of wine and a campfire in the backyard?
To read Chad Robertson’s words, one can’t help but wonder, how do we as a society find our way back? To a time when whole grains were whole? To a time when they were bred for flavor and optimal nutrients with careful and sustainable farming practices? Practices that began with the maintenance of the fertile soil structures that are known to contribute the most flavor and nutrients to the grains growing in them.
To an era before the age of industrialization, when the US made the shift from diversified to mono-crop farming. A time when the emphasis became growing only a few high-yield varieties, to feed a rising population most efficiently. The results being one-size-fits-all sugars and generic wheat flours that severely restrict the range of flavors & textures in the foods we bake.
There is a parallel movement happening in the US, the Whole Grain Movement, with many small-scale farmers testing plots of heirloom wheat varietals to rediscover flavors that haven’t been tasted for generations. In a lot of ways, this revival mirrors the resurgence of heirloom fruits and veggies and heritage breeds of poultry, pigs, cows, and begins to mark a shift back toward breeding for flavor and nutrients.
It will be interesting to watch as it develops.
(More to come)
Father’s Day 2014, in celebration of a man I love dearly, a masterpiece from Tartine Book No 3 couldn’t have been more fitting. A family heritage that includes an Iowa farm dating from the early 1900s, and deeply ingrained beliefs of caring for the land, and raising the best crops.
The cake was a project. A labor of love with flavors that are nothing short of incredible. An excerpt from the cookbook says it best
“This moist home-style layer cake contains a handful of my favorite autumn ingredients. The cake is made with Kamut flour; sweetened with prunes and raisins; spiced with cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg; and layered with apple butter and prune compote. The whole is finished with a frosting made of cider reduced with rye whiskey.”
~ Recipe printed with permission: Chad Robertson, Tartine Book No. 3: Modern Ancient Classic Whole, Chronicle Books (2013)
Bohemian Apple Layer Cake
- Apple Cake
- 2 ¾ cups whole-grain Kamut flour
- 2 Tbsp + 2 tsp unsweetened cocoa powder
- ¾ tsp baking soda
- ¾ tsp sea salt
- ¾ tsp ground cinnamon
- ¾ tsp cloves
- ¾ tsp ground nutmeg
- ¾ tsp allspice
- ⅔ cup unsalted butter, at room temp
- 1 ½ cups natural sugar (Sugar in the Raw or Turbinado)
- 3 large eggs, at room temp
- 2 cups applesauce
- 1 ½ cups finely chopped pitted prunes
- 1 cup golden raisins
- 1 cup finely chopped walnuts
- 3 cups firm tart apples, peeled, cored, and diced into large chunks
- Prune Compote
- 3 ⅓ cups pitted prunes
- 1 cup light-bodied red wine
- ⅓ cup brandy
- 3 Tbsp natural sugar (Sugar in the Raw or Turbinado)
- 1 vanilla bean, halved and seed scraped
- 1 cinnamon stick
- peel of 1 orange
- 3 cups apple butter
- Cider Frosting
- 2 cups apple cider
- ½ cup rye whiskey
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 clove
- ¼ cup coconut sugar
- 1 cup unsalted butter, at room temp
- ⅔ cup chopped white chocolate, melted and cooled
- 1 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped
- Preheat the oven to 350° F
- Grease a 10" round cake pan and dust with flour.
- Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice in a medium bowl.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar on medium speed until well combined (~ 2 minutes). Add the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the bowl after each addition.
- Reduce the mixer speed to medium-low and add the flour mixture in three additions, alternating with the applesauce and scraping down the bowl after each addition. With a rubber spatula, fold in the prunes, raisins, walnuts, and apples
- Transfer the batter to the prepared pan, smoothing the top, and bake for 1 hour, until the cake springs back when touched and a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool for 1 hour, then run a thin knife around the edge of the pan and unfold the cake onto a wire rack.
- To make the compote: In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the prunes, wine, brandy, sugar, vanilla bean, and seeds, cinnamon stick, and orange peel and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture boils.
- Reduce to a simmer and cook until the prunes are soft and the liquid is reduced by half (~ 30 minutes). Let cool, then transfer to a food processor and process into a thick paste (The compote can be stored in the refrigerator up to 2 weeks)
- With a long serrated knife, cut the cake lengthwise into four equal layers. Place one layer on a plate or cake stand. With an offset spatula, spread ⅓ of the prune compote over the cake, then top with 1 cup apple butter, spreading evenly
- Top with a second cake layer and spread with ½ the remaining compote and 1 cup apple butter. Add a third layer, topping with the remaining compote and apple butter. Top with the final cake layer and refrigerate for 1 hour.
- In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the cider, whiskey, cinnamon stick, and clove. When the liquid is hot, whisk in the sugar until dissolved, then lower the heat to medium and continue simmering until the liquid has reduced to 1/4 cup; it will be thick and syrupy.
- Remove the clove and cinnamon stick and let cool to room temperature (The syrup can be tired in the refrigerator for up to 1 week)
- In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium-high speed until soft and creamy. Beat in the white chocolate. Add the cider syrup and beat until combined.
- With an offset spatula, frost the cake with a very thin layer of frosting. Return the cake to the refrigerator and let chill for 30 minutes. Finish the cake with the remaining frosting and pat the sides of the cake with the chopped walnuts, pressing to adhere.
- Remove the cake from the refrigerator 2 hours before serving to bring to room temperature. The cake will keep, refrigerated, for up to 4 days