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.

 

Winter Pear Crown

Looking for something with delicious flavor to add to your holiday table? Or a showy appetizer? Our Winter Pear Crown will make a gorgeous addition to any meal. Or serve it as an appetizer with Cambozola or your favorite blue cheese.

Made with ripe Washington State pears and spiked with a dash of black pepper, the bread has a natural sweetness and the moist texture of a classic French loaf.

Leslie began making this beautiful hand-formed crown during the holiday season in Macrina’s early days, and it has earned a devoted following. Utilizing the excellent late-season pears—Washington State is the top grower of pears in the country—we dice the plumpest, tender Bartlett pears available and gently mix them into the dough with just enough black pepper to casually announce itself. Phuong Bui, our head baker, and his team then hand-shape each loaf into a crown.

Any leftovers make a luxurious breakfast treat. Warm it and serve slices with butter, or up your game and present it with a ramekin of olive tapenade. The bread is versatile, makes a stunning table centerpiece, and goes with almost anything. Get one while you can. We only make them during the holiday season.

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. 

Metropolitan Market’s Ode to Peaches

Hurry to Peach-O-Rama to savor a Sweet Peach Brioche made by Macrina with Metropolitan Market’s sweet, just-picked peaches.  

Macrina Sweet Peach Brioche

Each Summer Metropolitan Market holds its annual Peach-O-Rama, and the aisles fill with lovers of sweet, juice-filled peaches. The many varieties of peaches have one thing in common: Each is picked at the peak of ripeness, packed carefully to prevent bruising, and trucked straight to the store.

Pence Orchards in the lower Yakima Valley is one of Metropolitan Market’s primary suppliers. A fourth-generation family farm run by Sharon and Bert Pence, Pence Orchards only picks the peaches when they have tree-ripened and have reached an ideal sweetness. The peaches don’t go into cold storage. Instead, they are carefully nested into single-layer packing. They arrive the next day in the produce section at Metropolitan Market just as succulent and perfect as they were when they dangled from the branch.

Peach-O-Rama started over 20 years ago and was inspired by the founder and chairman of Metropolitan Market, Terry Halverson. He says, “My family lived in Yakima when I was young, and we picked peaches for eating, jam, and canning. Mom made pies and we ate peaches for dessert often. They were as good as you could get. There was nothing like making a mess eating the fully loaded, juicy, aromatic peaches.”

That childhood love fueled the desire to find a way to get the best fresh-from-the-farm peaches into the store. The result is an ode to the peach, those juicy nectar laden gems. Of course, the celebration isn’t limited to the produce aisle. Wander over to the bakery and you’ll find Macrina’s ode to the peach: the Sweet Peach Brioche. Our collaboration with Metropolitan Market features slices of their juicy peaches with cinnamon sugar and sweetened fromage blanc in a lightly textured brioche bun, finished with a dusting of fine sugar. You’ll have a hard time stopping at one!

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.

Becoming Certified: Four of Macrina Bakery’s Breads Are Officially Organic

PCC Whole Grain Baguette

For years we’ve been using more and more locally milled whole grain and whole wheat flours in our breads, all of which are organic. They just taste better. Until our recent collaboration with PCC Community Markets on our organic Whole Grain Baguette, we hadn’t considered going through the official certification process. Sharing PCC’s dedication to local organic farms, we decided it was time to make it official for our breads that already feature 100% organic ingredients: Whole Grain Baguette, Skagit Sourdough, Sour White, and Sour White Ficelle 

Organic Cairnspring Mills Flour

Becoming certified is no small feat. The USDA’s National Organic Program sets the standards. Foods that are certified organic are based on farming methods that don’t rely on toxic pesticides, and that maintain soil fertility and replenish it with only natural fertilizers. Independent third-party officials routinely inspect organic farms and processing facilities to ensure they are meeting all USDA organic standards. Not only is it good for the local ecosystem, but it often produces the best tasting food. 

Organic Cairnspring Mills Flour

We worked with Quality Assurance International (QAI) to obtain our certification. First, we had to ensure that every ingredient, from farm to supplier, is organic and handled in strict accordance with all USDA organic standards. We also had to be sure that all of our internal processes met the same USDA qualifications. There can be no risk of cross-contamination with non-organic ingredients, which meant designing an organic-only section of our bakery, a dedicated organic-only mixer, strict tracking procedures for all ingredients, and an exhaustive cleaning process for our ovens before baking our organic loaves.  

We received our official organic certification on December 26, 2018, it took about six months to make it official. Blake Gehringer, Macrina’s Food Safety General Manager, oversaw the intensive process. The application alone was 30 pages. Then a great deal of thought had to go into everything from color-coded storage containers to new baker’s couches and intensive training for all of our bakers. 

Skagit Sourdough

I’m proud of our decision to certify these breads as organic. Walking through the wheat fields at the Williams Hudson Bay Farm, one of the largest Certified Organic and Salmon-Safe farms in the region located near Walla Walla, it’s hard not to be humbled by their dedication to organic farming. It’s not the easiest way to do things, but it ensures a healthy and sustainably grown product and promotes soil and water conservation. We’re also fortunate that we have local mills, such as Cairnsprings Mill and Fairhaven Organic Flour Mill, that can produce small-batch organic flours for us. And most of all, I’m excited our customers and partners are interested in quality artisan organic products.  

Leslie 

A Valentine’s Day Treat: Chocolate Cherry Almond Heart Bread

Chocolate Cherry Almond Heart Bread

One of my favorite things about Valentine’s Day is that we get to make our Chocolate Cherry Almond Heart Bread. This bread is inspired by a Greek Christmas bread I began baking in Macrina’s early days. It has evolved into one of my favorite Valentine’s Day gifts. The aroma coming from our ovens while it is baking is irresistible— sweet and buttery mixed with the scent of cherries and bittersweet chocolate, and that hint of brandy is the kicker. We bake the golden-brown bread in the shape of a heart. I warm it up slightly before serving and have difficulty restraining myself from eating the whole loaf.

For those who don’t eat the entire thing in one sitting, or are looking for how best to use this bread, I have a few suggestions:

Chocolate Cherry Almond French Bread

1. This loaf makes incredible French toast served with fresh raspberries, maple syrup or a drizzle of chocolate ganache and slightly sweetened whipped cream.

2. Sauté one-inch slices with butter until caramelized to a golden brown. Serve warm drizzled with chocolate ganache and slightly sweetened whipped cream.

3. For a decadent dessert, toast one-inch slices and serve them with rich chocolate or vanilla ice cream and top with plumped dried cherries and drizzle of chocolate sauce

4. For a savory treat, cut half-inch slices and sauté in butter to golden brown and top with a slice of brie. The heat of the bread will warm the brie.

Our Cherry Almond Heart Bread is available at our cafés through Valentine’s Day.

Enjoy!

Leslie

From Field to Table, Our New Whole Grain Baguette

Macrina’s Whole Grain Baguette

Our newest loaf is the result of an inspiring partnership with PCC Community Markets. Using organic wheat grown on PCC Farmland Trust land, we collaborated with PCC to develop a field-to-table baguette that takes advantage of the fantastic food resources that Washington State offers.

Scott Owen, the Grocery Merchandiser for PCC Community Markets, was the creative force behind the partnership. “I’m trying to knit together all of these great local partners, but really put the farmer at the center,” says Scott.

The result is an airy, crusty whole grain baguette with a tender, moist interior and open crumb. The natural sweetness and the rich, complex flavor of whole grain flour shine through, complemented by just a hint of sour from the natural leaven. Not only is it one of our best-tasting breads, but it’s nutritious and supports sustainable local farming.

The Farm

We think of bread as coming from the bakery, but it would be just as natural to talk about the field from which it comes. The Williams Hudson Bay Farm, located near Walla Walla in what may be the best wheat-growing land in the world, is one of the largest Certified Organic and Salmon-Safe farms in the region. It is also a beneficiary of the PCC Farmland Trust, which supports farmland preservation, organic production, and sustainable practices.

Tom and Ray Williams, the third generation to work their family farm, grow the two types of wheat—Edison and Expresso—we blend for our whole wheat baguette. “We’re fortunate that the Walla Walla Valley is an excellent place to grow food,” Tom says. “We have great soil, water, all of the resources that it takes to grow organic crops.”

The Wheat

Organic Edison wheat is a dark northern spring flour developed by a professor in Bellingham and improved by the internationally renowned Bread Lab, located in Mount Vernon. Edison wheat is sweet and buttery with a lovely golden color, and it gives our baguette a robust whole wheat flavor.

Organic Expresso wheat is a hard red type 85 that gives the chewy crust of our baguette its dark, caramel color, lends suppleness to our dough and adds loft and tenderness to the interior of the baked loaf. The slow ferment of our dough helps bring out the rich, earthy flavor of the mildly sweet grain.

“Freshly milled whole grain flours provide the best flavor,” Leslie says. “When I started Macrina in 1993, flours like these weren’t commercially available. What is happening now in the heritage grain movement is one of the most exciting developments in baking in a long time.”

The Grain Mill

A hundred years ago there were thousands of wheat farms across America supplying thousands of local mills. Now, most of those mills have closed. Milling is centralized and flour has become an international commodity. Fortunately, in Washington State we have Cairnspring Mills. Located in the scenic Skagit Valley, the mill is a technologically modern flour mill with the throwback philosophy that the local flour mill is an essential part of a vibrant food economy. They work with local farmers committed to sustainable farming. Every batch of grain is milled separately to preserve the integrity of the grain and the unique flavor of each field.

“Cairnspring works directly with the baker to customize the milling process to their needs,” Leslie says. “Unlike most millers who process whole grain, Cairnspring removes some of the bran, while still keeping the integrity of the flour. They provide a steady supply of the high-grade flours we need and the consistency is remarkable.”

The Dough

Freshly-milled whole grain flours work best with a slow fermentation, which helps develop subtle, bright flavors and hydrates the bran. We use our Casera starter, which is the original Macrina starter Leslie created from Champagne grapes planted in her backyard. A slow rise is a critical part of developing the grain-forward flavor and airy crumb of the loaf. Then, as with all our breads, we hand form each baguette and bake it until the crust is dark and caramelized.

The Bread

“I am as excited to be baking today as I was when I opened Macrina 25 years ago,” Leslie says. “Developing our Whole Wheat Baguette was a fun challenge. I visited the Williams Hudson Bay Farm to meet Tom and Ray. Standing in the wheat field gives you a whole new appreciation for what it takes to create a delicious product. We are privileged to be able to use some of the incredible wheat grown there and to have Cairnspring Mills to mill it freshly for us. Through PCC Community Markets, our Whole Grain Baguette will be widely available and bread lovers will taste just how good freshly-milled whole grain flour tastes.”

Holiday Entertaining: From Simple to Spectacular

Sometimes when I’m entertaining, I’ve got the time and energy to spend all day in the kitchen making something wicked good. Other times, I need something great that I can whip out in almost no time at all. Macrina has all kinds of things that will help with your holiday entertaining, from grab-and-go treats to key elements of more elaborate creations. By keeping a few essentials like crostini and flatbread in your pantry and savory spreads and tapenades in your fridge, you’ll be ready with many possibilities for snacks and appetizers when friends drop by or you need to bring a dish to a gathering.

Here are a few of my favorite combos for the holidays:

• Macrina’s Holiday Quiche with side salads from our case (a great impromptu lunch).

• Macrina’s Cranberry Apricot Nut Crostini (or Wheat Herb Walnut Crostini, if you prefer) with Macrina’s warmed Holiday Brie.

• French toast made with your favorite Macrina Brioche: plain, cinnamon swirl, or raisin (our Panettone will also take your French toast up a notch – check out December’s recipe of the month).

 

• Macrina’s Grilled Winter Pear Crown with Cambozola Black Label cheese and our Fig & Olive tapenade.

• Macrina’s Seeded Baguette warmed and sliced thinly, brushed with melted butter and topped with our Smoked Trout Spread and sautéed capers

• Macrina’s Skagit Sourdough sliced, brushed with olive oil and toasted, topped with prosciutto or serrano ham, goat cheese and our Fig & Olive Tapenade.

• Macrina’s Greek Olive Crostini with burrata cheese, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and flaky salt.

• Macrina’s Warmed Dill Scones with goat cheese, scrambled eggs and smoked salmon

• Macrina’s Sardinian Flatbread with truffle salt and roasted artichoke spread (recipe in More from Macrina cookbook) that is topped with fresh crab meat.

• Macrina’s Rye Crostini with our Smoked Trout Spread and chopped preserved lemons (Jerusalem: A Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi has an excellent recipe for them).

• Strata made with Macrina’s Holiday Porcini Stuffing Mix, caramelized onions, grated gruyere and kale.

• Macrina’s Brioche Slider Buns with curried chicken salad.

• Sliders made with pulled pork and coleslaw on Macrina’s Sodo Rolls.

• Rare roast beef and tarragon aioli on Macrina’s Cheesy Garlic Pull-Apart Rolls.

If you find yourself in a pinch for brunch, a box of Macrina pastries can save the day. Leftovers also reheat the next day wonderfully. Call us to place an order or visit one of our cafes where our crew can help you find what you need and let us help you with your holiday festivities. Also check out PCC, Town & Country Market, Whole Foods, Metropolitan Market or one of the many retailers who carry our products. You won’t be disappointed!

Happy Holidays!

Leslie