From Seed to Loaf: Growing Your Own Wheat 

Now in her second season of growing wheat on her farm, Leslie Mackie shares the challenges and joys of her experience. 

Baking was my first love, but gardening is not far behind. To me, they go hand in hand. So when someone suggested I put the two together and grow wheat on my Vashon Island farm, I thought, why not? I dreamed of making wholegrain bread from wheat I grew myself. Last year, I planted my first crop. Regular readers of this blog will recount my post on just how hard I worked to yield a mere twelve pounds of wheat. So, you ask, why go through that again? 

Well, Im nothing if not persistent. In fact, baking teaches you persistence. Great bread and pastries are the result of recipes developed by failing better with each new version until you finally sink your teeth into a loaf that tastes just like you dreamed it would. 

Armed with the long list of lessons learned with my first crop, I cleaned up the two-acres I had tilled for wheat. When you hear about the wheat farms in Eastern Washington that measure in the thousands of acres, two doesnt sound like much. But when youre doing much of the work by hand, it looks pretty intimidating. 

Id been monitoring the weather all April, waiting for a period of rain. Last year, Id gotten my seeds in the ground too late. This year I was on it early. But the weather has its way with farmers, as theyll readily tell you. On this side of the mountains, one thing you can usually count on in April is rain. Not this year! Wed been having a historically dry month. Fortunately, near the end of April, still in my optimal planting window, a storm system was rolling in from the Pacific. 

I had bags of Bow Edison wheat seeds, a hybrid heritage grain developed by Dr. Stephen Jones at the Bread Lab in Mount Vernon that grows well in this climate. I hauled them out to the field and began casting. You cannot imagine the tranquility of casting the wheat seeds over the freshly tilled earth. Even the birds seemed to celebrate, carrying on with their song. Then the mild wind picked up, the warm sunlight faded, and sprinkles of rain pocked the dry soil. 

After spreading the seed, I still had to rake them into the soil. Even though I was soon tired, I kept at it for three hours in ever heavier rain. Finally, I clomped my way back to my mudroom. Safe to say, it earned its name. I looked out at the field, exhausted but utterly satisfied knowing the seeds will germinate properly with the three days of rain ahead. After that, a dry spell. The sun would warm the soil and begin the growth. 

With this years crop in the soil, I drove up to the Bread Lab with the wheat Id harvested last year. Steve Lyon, a senior scientific assistant at the Bread Lab, had promised to help me process it. With the help of an intern from Italy, Steve ran my wheat through an old combine of theirs. Separating the kernels by hand is a prolonged process. Doing it, you understand very quickly how threshing came to be synonymous with spending lots of energy to produce very little. But with the aid of the combine, it didnt take long for Steve and his assistant to turn my bags of wheat stalks into 10 pounds of clean kernels. To me, it looked like a bag of gold! 

Finally, I made my first loaves with wheat Id grown myself. As it goes with baking, the first loaf wasnt perfect. Id milled the wheat too coarsely. A finer grind and the second loaf turned out much better—but still not perfect. The flavor was amazing, but the texture wasnt quite right. So, on to the third loaf, with further refinements. 

If it was easy, I might get bored. Passion projects like this, and continuing to learn about this amazing grain and what you can do with it, are what make me thrilled to still be baking bread more than 25 years after opening Macrina. 

Leslie 

Spring Gardening

Planning my next garden begins almost as soon as I’m pulling the last of the late fall produce. What would I like more of? Are there new vegetables to introduce? More dahlias? As I’m ordering seeds, I imagine the dinner parties my garden will help supply. What I never imagined in all the planning is that I’d be planting the seeds in a time of such uncertainty and fear, at a time when I can’t even invite friends over.

From the age of 22, I have always tended some type of garden. It started with multiple herb pots on window ledges. Eventually, I graduated to amending soil along parking strips, eking the most out any sunny area, often removing grass or overgrown scrubs to create a garden bed. No matter how small the garden, it’s always given me a sense of security. I’ve also found, that amid all the busyness and stress of starting and operating a busy bakery, gardening forced me to slow down. Even if only for part of an hour, the time in the garden steadied me with its stillness.

This year, with all the swirling anxiety, I need that stillness more than ever. With my hands in the dirt—planting seeds, weeding, or harvesting—I’m literally connected to the earth. It takes my overstimulated mind away from the media and gives me a reprieve from wanting to solve all the world’s problems. While I garden I dream of dinner parties I don’t yet know I’ll be able to have, but it helps to think of my friends gathered on a summer evening on my garden patio. Hopefully, it will happen.

One of the first crops I always get in is my sugar snap peas. Then I lay out the summer mix. I don’t rush to get everything in—even now that I live on six acres on Vashon and have had to start thinking more like a farmer than an urban gardener. Pacing things and considering what I’m likely to eat in abundance, mainly so I don’t get overwhelmed by all the work. I also plant crops like lettuce and kale in stages by seeding new crops once a month to keep the supply going all summer.

To keep things manageable, I fenced off my property to concentrate most of my garden and “garden life” to just under two acres. That’s still a lot, compared to my city apartments, but I enjoy it. My dogs and chickens roam the fenced area. Bushes of berries and a grape arbor help form a kind of outdoor architecture. Roses and Dahlia’s for cutting provide beauty and a long patio for entertaining extends from my house into the garden.

I use my raised garden beds for a rotation of summer vegetables, herbs, and fruit. I intermingle flowers throughout. Not only does it add beauty to a leafy garden, but they can help provide shade to plants like arugula that will bolt in full sun. They also help with pollination, attracting those ever-important bees.

Despite all my planning, when the summer abundance arrives, I build dinners from what’s available. If I’ve planted well, I always have a steady supply of herbs and varieties of lettuce ready for picking.

To make watering more manageable, I added a simple irrigation system and a timer to help water the raised beds. On hot days, I’m often inclined to give them a bit more water, but it helps take the anxiety out of letting the garden get too dry.

When things begin to grow, it’s important to visit your gardens often. Not only does it leave me with that inner-stillness I mentioned, but it’s important to remember that the more you harvest, the more new growth you get. This goes for flowers as well.

Every year there comes a time when I wish I’d planted something differently, but I’m always grateful for what I have. More importantly, the slow, quiet work and the planning for lovely meals and gatherings, and the promise of growth and beauty fills me with hope and serenity. This year, I need that more than ever.

If you’ve got the space, even just a balcony, get a few pots going. Planting a seed in good soil and carefully tending it shows us the natural power of transformation. And when the time comes, nothing tastes better than homegrown herbs and vegetables. Your long-awaited dinner party will have a meal full of vibrant, just-picked flavor and your quiet satisfaction at the journey you and your seeds have made from a time of anxiety to one of renewal.

Seeds of Hope: Garden with Future Gatherings in Mind

Leslie Mackie finds a measure of tranquility in these uncertain times by planting her garden with visions of friends feasting at her table.

Planning my next garden begins almost as soon as I’m pulling the last of the late fall produce. What would I like more of? Are there new vegetables to introduce? More dahlias? As I’m ordering seeds, I imagine the dinner parties my garden will help supply. What I never imagined in all the planning is that I’d be planting the seeds in a time of such uncertainty and fear, at a time when I can’t even invite friends over.

From the age of 22, I have always tended some type of garden. It started with multiple herb pots on window ledges. Eventually, I graduated to amending soil along parking strips, eking the most out any sunny area, often removing grass or overgrown scrubs to create a garden bed. No matter how small the garden, it’s always given me a sense of security. I’ve also found, that amid all the busyness and stress of starting and operating a busy bakery, gardening forced me to slow down. Even if only for part of an hour, the time in the garden steadied me with its stillness.

This year, with all the swirling anxiety, I need that stillness more than ever. With my hands in the dirt—planting seeds, weeding, or harvesting—I’m literally connected to the earth. It takes my overstimulated mind away from the media and gives me a reprieve from wanting to solve all the world’s problems. While I garden I dream of dinner parties I don’t yet know I’ll be able to have, but it helps to think of my friends gathered on a summer evening on my garden patio. Hopefully, it will happen.

One of the first crops I always get in is my sugar snap peas. Then I lay out the summer mix. I don’t rush to get everything in—even now that I live on six acres on Vashon and have had to start thinking more like a farmer than an urban gardener. Pacing things and considering what I’m likely to eat in abundance, mainly so I don’t get overwhelmed by all the work. I also plant crops like lettuce and kale in stages by seeding new crops once a month to keep the supply going all summer.

To keep things manageable, I fenced off my property to concentrate most of my garden and “garden life” to just under two acres. That’s still a lot, compared to my city apartments, but I enjoy it. My dogs and chickens roam the fenced area. Bushes of berries and a grape arbor help form a kind of outdoor architecture. Roses and Dahlia’s for cutting provide beauty and a long patio for entertaining extends from my house into the garden.

I use my raised garden beds for a rotation of summer vegetables, herbs, and fruit. I intermingle flowers throughout. Not only does it add beauty to a leafy garden, but they can help provide shade to plants like arugula that will bolt in full sun. They also help with pollination, attracting those ever-important bees.

Despite all my planning, when the summer abundance arrives, I build dinners from what’s available. If I’ve planted well, I always have a steady supply of herbs and varieties of lettuce ready for picking.

To make watering more manageable, I added a simple irrigation system and a timer to help water the raised beds. On hot days, I’m often inclined to give them a bit more water, but it helps take the anxiety out of letting the garden get too dry.

When things begin to grow, it’s important to visit your gardens often. Not only does it leave me with that inner-stillness I mentioned, but it’s important to remember that the more you harvest, the more new growth you get. This goes for flowers as well.

Every year there comes a time when I wish I’d planted something differently, but I’m always grateful for what I have. More importantly, the slow, quiet work and the planning for lovely meals and gatherings, and the promise of growth and beauty fills me with hope and serenity. This year, I need that more than ever.

If you’ve got the space, even just a balcony, get a few pots going. Planting a seed in good soil and carefully tending it shows us the natural power of transformation. And when the time comes, nothing tastes better than homegrown herbs and vegetables. Your long-awaited dinner party will have a meal full of vibrant, just-picked flavor and your quiet satisfaction at the journey you and your seeds have made from a time of anxiety to one of renewal.

The (Tasty) Benefits of Heritage Grains

Does “great taste” come to mind when you think of heritage grains?

Many Americans consider heritage grains a health food—something they should eat, not something they want to eat. Fortunately, that appears to be on the cusp of change. Top chefs and bakers have been cooking with new heritage grain hybrids to thrilling results.

One of my favorite events of the year is Grain Gathering, an annual three-day event held every July at the Bread Lab (the event started in 2011). Expert bakers, millers, grain scientists, farmers, and industry representatives gather in the Skagit Valley. Their goal is to break the dominance of commodity wheat and to find a way to sell America on the benefits of heritage grains. Flavor is the number one selling point. Nutrition is another along with environmental sustainability. Virtually every community in America used to grow wheat. More robust heritage wheat hybrids could again make this economically feasible, benefitting local economies.

At a Grain Gathering a few years ago, I was introduced to two hybrids developed by Bread Lab. One is called Skagit Magic, which is grown in the Skagit Valley and milled at nearby Cairn Springs Mill. The other is called Expresso Wheat (or, in the lab, T-85). It is grown in Walla Walla and also milled at Cairn Springs Mill. When I started Macrina, flours like these just weren’t available.

For Macrina’s twenty-fifth anniversary this year, I developed two new breads that utilized these new organic flours. I spent many hours playing around with various techniques and found the heritage flours work best with a slow fermentation. This helps develop subtle, bright flavors and hydrates the bran. I made our Skagit Sourdough with the Skagit Magic. This is one of our most grain-forward and flavorful loaves. The Whole Grain Baguette is our other new loaf, which we make with the Expr results. At Macrina, our two latest breads feature heritage wheats—the primary reason being the astonishing flavor they add. Edouardo Jordan, the star chef and creator of JuneBaby, named America’s best new restaurant by the James Beard Foundation, opened Lucinda Grain Bar, a concept focused on ancient grains. “As Americans, we eat some of the most flavorless, unhealthy grain-based products in the world,” Jordan said. “Commercialization has stripped down all the nutritional value in our grain product. We are excited to explore the flavor and potential of ancient grains.” Jordan noted that some of the best grains in the world are grown in the Skagit Valley.

The Bread Lab, located in the Skagit Valley, deserves no small amount of credit for this. Part science lab, part high-end bakery, this extension of Washington State University occupies a 12,000 square feet space in Mount Vernon that includes a research and baking kitchen, a cytology lab, the King Arthur Flour Baking School, a milling laboratory and a professional kitchen. The director of the Bread Lab, Dr. Stephen Jones, is currently one of the most influential voices in the food world. Jones is determined to bring diversity to the range of flours widely available. Currently, the bland, chalky white flour born of industrial agriculture is found in almost all the bread sold in America. You won’t find much else at your local supermarket either. By breeding heritage grains that have both taste and nutritional benefits, but that also have the robustness that farmers need to produce high yield crops, Jones hopes to make regional grain farming viable again.

The standard flour available at grocery stores today comes from wheat that has been bred to be optimal for a fast-food hamburger bun. A hundred years ago that wasn’t the case. Diverse wheats grew and were milled in communities across America. Between 1890 and 1930 America went from over 22,000 flour mills to less than 200. The State of Washington had 160. Now there are two. The widespread use of new roller mills that could efficiently strip the grain of both the bran and the germ creating a flour that had an almost indefinite shelf life ushered in this change. This coincided with the rise of the industrial production of food. We got sliced bread in plastic bags and the phrase, “The greatest thing since sliced bread.” However, we lost a wide range of regional flours milled from an incredible range of wheats, many of which had much better flavor than what worked best for industrial bakeries. Not to mention nutrition. Jones writes, “By using only the white portion of the seed, wheat is reduced from a nutrient-dense food to one that lacks basic nutrition.”

When I started Macrina in 1993, it was thrilling to be part of the artisan bread movement that brought French and Italian-style breads to many cities in America. I’m even more excited about the heritage grain movement—so much so that I’m growing heritage wheat on my Vashon Island farm this year!  Seeing grain scientists, farmers and bakers unite around the idea of building a better tasting and healthier bread may just be the greatest thing since sliced bread.

 

Macrina Bakery’s New Cookbook: Seasons

With two beloved cookbooks covering many of our most popular breads and pastries, why did we produce a third? Well, after 25 years of creating impassioned dishes—savory and sweet—for customers at our five Seattle area cafés, we kept hearing, Can I get the recipe for that?

This compilation of customers’ favorite new dishes and desserts from the Macrina kitchen is organized around the many seasonal delicacies of the Puget Sound. The easy-to-follow recipes feature big flavors and beautiful food. Local photographer Jim Henkens spent many days at Leslie Mackie’s farm on Vashon Island capturing the spirit and flair of these well-tested recipes and the rural beauty that serves as Leslie’s inspiration.

Leslie Mackie opened Macrina Bakery in 1993 to share her joy of artisan baking. Her passion shined through the hand-formed breads and pastries, and when she opened the cafe shortly after that, it shined in the soups, sandwiches and other savories.

A decade later, when she moved to a rustic farm on Vashon Island, a short ferry ride away from Seattle, her connection to sustainable farming and seasonal produce deepened. Vashon is a lightly populated island of hills, twisty backwoods roads, forests and sprawling meadows. Free-range eggs, berries and freshly picked produce beckon passersby from roadside self-serve farm stands. Payment is frequently on the honor system. During the growing season, a bustling farmers market in the small town overflows with some of the best food grown in the Pacific Northwest.

Leslie enthusiastically gathers friends around great food. Most of the cookbook recipes first debuted at meals with the farmers, chefs, bakers, teachers and food lovers who make up Leslie’s community. When one of the new dishes hit a particularly high note, Leslie added the recipe to her notebook. After they were refined and tested, they were shared through Macrina’s recipe-of-the-month newsletter.

Macrina Bakery’s Seasons is a compilation of the best. Each recipe is rooted in the distinctive foods of spring, summer, fall and winter in the Pacific Northwest. Leslie designed the recipes for the home cook. Most use easy-to-find ingredients, and for rarer items, she has provided suggestions for substitutions. Except for a few, you should be able to prepare the recipes in less than an hour so that you can spend time with your guests enjoying a taste of the good life.

Summer Supper: Chez Leslie

When Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley on August 28, 1971, no one would have predicted how much she’d change our understanding of natural ingredients, how we grow them, and how we cook them. The proliferation of America’s local-seasonal-organic foods and the farm-to-table movement grew out of this new approach to eating.  

Flash forward to summer 2019. There is no better place to experience ultra-local cuisine than the smallfarm-filled epicurean paradise of Vashon Island. This is a big part of the reason Leslie chose to host Les Dames D’Escoffier’s 7th annual Summer Supper and Farm Tour at her Vashon Island Farm.  

Thirty guests were treated to an exclusive tour of local farms, followed by a four-course al fresco meal on the patio surrounded by hazelnut trees and roaming chickens. Naturally, the dinner featured Vashon Island ingredients. Each course was paired with wines from Palouse Winery and Maury Island Winery 

The farm tour started at Nashi Orchards, a premium producer of handcrafted perry and hard cider. They grow Asian and European pears and heirloom apples on 27 beautiful acres, using sustainable practices. Cheryl and Jim Gerlach, the owners and cider masters, talked the group through a history of the industry. “We work very hard to manage our soil and the condition of our trees to ensure the flavor from our fruit is in every bottle,” Jim said. They helped guests distinguish the subtle differences in the varieties of fruit and took guests on a tour of their new tasting room in the town of Vashon.  

The next stop was to Old Chaser Farm, where Matt Dillon, the award-winning chef behind Sitka & SpruceBar Ferdinand and The London Plane, led tours of the 20-acre organic farm where he raises vegetables and meat, including cows, sheep, goats, pigs, and chickens. While walking through the fields of ripe vegetables, Matt talked about Seattle’s current restaurant scene and the importance of sustainability in farming.  

Back at Leslie’s for a cocktail hour, guests snacked on appetizers, including a favorite made with local figs and mascarpone, and enjoyed a signature cocktail made from a local red currant syrup, ginger beer, BSB bourbon, apricot puree and soda water. A naturalist, Greg Rabourn, led guests around Leslie’s farm pointing out wild edible plants we might not recognize.  

Before the meal, everyone gathered for a few words about Green Table Grants. Then guests took their seats, and several long-time Les Dames members began serving food that would have made Alice Waters proud. 

Fresh Fruit Crostata

Fresh Fruit CrostataImagine you’re three years into owning and operating your dream bakery. Then imagine getting a call that Julia Child, the legend herself, wants you to appear on her show Baking with Julia. Back then, before Iron Chef, Anthony Bourdain and the Food Network, Baking with Julia was THE cooking show. It won both an Emmy and a James Beard Award.  

That was Leslie in 1996. After the thrill and shock wore off came the inevitable question, What will I cook? It had to both look and taste great, for Julia Child didn’t mince words.  

The Fresh Fruit Crostata, of course. 

The lattice topped crostata is a rustic Italian fruit tart. It can be made with any fruit but is best with at least two kinds, one firm and one juicy. In the kitchen of Julia Child’s imposing Cambridge clapboard house (where the show was shot) Leslie used raspberries and figs. The crostata came out perfectly, and Julia Child loved it.  

“That experience is one of the greatest memories of my life,” Leslie says. “All of the humor and wit and personal connection that you see from Julia Child on the show came across even more between takes. It was unbelievably stimulating and thrilling to be there.” 

This summer, we will be showcasing the crostata in our cafes with nectarines and berries depending on what is fresh or in season. Look for Leslie’s favorite, the nectarine blueberry, or the runner up, nectarine raspberry, to make frequent appearances.  

We make the buttery crust with a sesame almond dough. Hints of lemon zest and cinnamon add complexity to the fruit, and it gets a long, slow bake, which caramelizes the fruit sugars making it luscious and jammy at the edges.  

In classic Macrina style, the crostata isn’t overly sweet. Serve it at room temperature, or even slightly warmed, with lightly sweetened whipped cream or ice cream.  

Stop by a Macrina café this summer to try the crostata that Julia Child raved about. 

Roly Poly: Leslie’s Favorite Pastry

Leslie’s favorite pastry is Macrina’s Roly Poly. “The smell of Roly Polys warming in the oven brings me back to childhood memories of being in my Grandmother Bakke’s kitchen. We would wait by the oven for the cinnamon rolls that we had just made together to finish baking,” Leslie says.

Time spent baking with her grandmother and mother inspired Leslie to attend the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. From there, she went on to apprenticeships with award-winning chefs and bakers and finally opened Macrina in 1993. “When we were creating breakfast treats in the early days, the treasured memory of my grandmother’s rolls came to mind,” Leslie says. “There were no measurements, just about this much and then that much. At some later point, I’d documented approximate amounts for our family recipes and carried them with me wherever I went.”

Leslie will never forget the memories that became the basis for Macrina’s Roly Poly recipe. “The best part of my grandmother’s rolls was the filling of cinnamon, sugar, raisins, coconut, and walnuts. No one ingredient overpowered the others,” Leslie says. “At Macrina, I had the wonderful advantage of already having the laminated dough we used for croissants. It had many thin layers of unsalted butter ready at my disposal.”

The combination of Grandmother Bakke’s filling and the laminated dough was just about perfect. Leslie added a dollop of cream cheese frosting and the Roly Poly was born.

“The Roly Poly is my all-time favorite breakfast pastry,” Leslie says.

October Recipe of the Month

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Toasted Sesame Semifreddo with Mini Ginger Molasses Cookies

A semifreddo is an Italian, rich gelato-like dessert that is frozen overnight in a loaf pan, sliced and presented like the best ice cream cake you’ve ever had! This recipe is a fun fall dessert inspired by Gina DePalma’s cookbook, Dolce Italiano. The late fruit harvest of figs plays well with the toasted sesame flavors in the semifreddo. To top it off, enjoy with our new Mini Ginger Molasses Cookies. – Leslie Mackie

Ingredients:

Serves 6
1/4 cup sesame seeds
1-1/2 cups heavy cream
4 eggs yolks
1/2 cup tahini
Pinch of salt
6 tablespoons sugar, divided
3 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons water
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
5 ripe figs, thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon fresh ginger, finely diced
1 tablespoon amaretto, port or brandy
1 package of Macrina’s Mini Ginger Molasses Cookies

Directions

Preheat oven to 350°F and line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

Place the sesame seeds on the prepared baking sheet and toast in the oven until golden brown, approximately 15 minutes. Let cool and set aside.

Line a 9″x 5″ loaf pan with plastic wrap extending 5″ on each end to cover the top after it is filled.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whip attachment, whip the heavy cream to medium stiff peaks. Transfer to another bowl and refrigerate until needed.

Add the egg yolks, tahini and salt to the bowl of the stand mixer. Using the whisk attachment, mix for 3-5 minutes.

Add 5 tablespoons of sugar, the honey and water to a shallow saucepan. Mix well and bring to a boil for 1 minute.

With the mixer on low, slowly add the hot sugar mixture, aiming to directly hit the egg mixture (as opposed to the whisk or sides of the bowl). When all the sugar is incorporated, increase speed to high and mix for 2 minutes to aerate and cool. Add the toasted sesame seeds and vanilla extract.

Remove from mixer and gently fold in the whipped cream. When well incorporated, spoon into the lined loaf pan. Cover top of container with the extended plastic wrap to seal the semifreddo. Freeze for 6-8 hours.

Place figs in a medium bowl and add 1 tablespoon sugar, the ginger and amaretto. Toss gently and let steep for at least 2 hours at room temperature.

Unwrap semifreddo and cut into 6 slices. Transfer each slice to a chilled plate, spoon on the spiced figs and serve with a Mini Ginger Molasses Cookie. Enjoy!

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25th Anniversary Loaf: The Gathering Process

Macrina turns 25 on August 27th, and I can hardly believe it. I never imagined baking as many loaves as we do now, not to mention the pastries, cakes, and so much more. Our values have always been tied to supporting the community, so creating products made with local ingredients has always been a priority. We know where we get our food matters, so for years and years, the origin of our vegetables and meats has been a focus. In bread, however, we weren’t asking the important question: who grew the wheat? We’ve been working hard to close this gap and making the effort to learn about the farmers who grow the wheat we use. In turn, they can tell us which wheat varieties they’re growing. This makes all the difference when making artisanal, hand-formed bread. To celebrate our milestone, I’ve been creating a Macrina Anniversary Loaf, made only with grains grown and milled locally.

Local Grains

Since Macrina started in 1993, our local grain ecosystem has also come leaps and bounds. Washington is one of the largest producers of wheat in the country, and the current number of grain varietals grown in Washington State is staggering. This abundance has paved the way for specialized local mills to spring up, meeting the growing demand for freshly-milled, whole-grain flours.

At the heart of this change, just north of Seattle in the Skagit Valley, is the Bread Lab. Chief wheat breeder, Dr. Stephen Jones, runs the lab, which is an extension of Washington State University. Jones approaches the subject of locally grown wheat from every angle: with a farmer’s knowledge of the fields, a scientist’s discipline and a chef’s passion for food.

Over seven years ago, the Bread Lab invited me to be on their advisory board. Back then I had no idea how impactful it would be. For many of us on the front lines of baking, Jones has been a leading advocate for the benefits of local wheat.  It has been remarkable having a front row seat to observe what they do.


Bread Lab’s Grain Gathering

Every year, the Bread Lab hosts an annual conference called Grain Gathering. Professional bakers, bread enthusiasts, brewers, farmers, and chefs from around the country gather in the Skagit Valley to talk all things bread. A few years back, Dr. Jones had a group of six of us taste a bunch of loaves mixed up by resident baker, John Bethony. Until then, I hadn’t tried a bread made entirely from whole grain milled wheat. Whole grain milled flour is usually blended with conventional flour to enhance baking, otherwise the bread tends to bake inconsistently. That wasn’t the case for the Bread Lab, where they had come up with wonderfully flavorful and beautiful loaves. It was an introduction into a whole new world.

We contrasted each loaf for taste, texture and appearance. The natural flavor of the grain blew me away. The range of flavors matched the range of wheats and each distinctive loaf tasted of the type and terroir of the wheat used. From that point forward I’ve incorporated more native wheats and whole grain flours into Macrina’s breads. It was that tasting that lit the fire for the soon to come anniversary loaf.

Anniversary Loaf: Leslie’s Gathering Process

I always have several bags of different flours open in the kitchen. They have names like T-85, Yecora Rojo, Expresso Hard Red Spring Wheat, and Skagit Magic. This is how my gathering process works. My notebooks are full of new techniques I’ve been learning. I also have bags of various locally-produced malts, oats and barley.

Baking is a mix of science, rigorous precision, intuition and feel. I’ve experimented with many variables: adding diastolic malt powder (produced locally, of course), oats and emmer, blending native wheats in varying ratios, baking earlier with longer ferments. Of course I’m using the Macrina Casera starter, the starter I created 25 years ago from champagne grapes planted in my backyard. Many of the loaves I’ve tested have had a wonderful crumb and great flavor, but they’re flatter and denser than I want. My goal is to make a voluptuous whole grain bread, one with a stunning presence as well as a stunning flavor profile.
For me, so much of baking is tactile, so it takes time. I need to feel the dough in my hands when I mix it for the first time, or after a long rise. I’m inching closer and closer, and will keep working until it is just right.

Stay tuned…