‘Consider flour as flavour’: Bakers turn to whole grains to give their baked goods a boost

Many bakers are hoping to challenge the idea that whole-grain products don’t taste as good as ones made with white, refined flour

Simon A. Thibault

Special to The Globe and Mail

Published April 10, 2018 Updated April 10, 2018

The word often heard around Dawn Woodward’s table of baked goods at the farmers market is “Oh!” followed by some variation on, “I didn’t know whole grains could taste like that.”

What started as a simple and ecologically sound idea – to produce crackers and baked goods made from locally grown and milled whole flours, as opposed to the more prevalent refined kind – has become a point of gustatory pride seasoned with education. “Consider flour as flavour”: This idea is Woodward’s modus operandi.

But Woodward, who co-owns Evelyn’s Crackers with her husband Edmund Rek, is perhaps best known for her breads and baked goods found at Toronto’s Artscape Wychwood Barns and Evergreen Brickworks markets on Saturday mornings. There you can find what at first glance seems like classic market wares: loaves of sourdough and rye, along with sweets. Instead of classic white or brown sugars, her butter tarts are loaded with maple syrup, and instead of refined flour, they’re made with 100-per-cent red fife flour – a nuttier, more flavoursome flour that pairs well with the maple. The brownies are made of buckwheat and seasoned with cardamom, and the chocolate cookies are made of rye. Here, flour is the star, not the stage on which to play.

Bakers like Woodward are looking to re-introduce consumers to the real flavour of whole-grain baked goods. Many of them hope to challenge the idea that these products don’t taste as good as ones made with white, refined flour.In fact, they say, they’re much better:If the idea of white bread is synonymous with processed, bland and homogeneous, whole-grain goods are the antithesis – distinct in flavour, with plenty of texture.

“Flour is not a base for your spices and your nuts,” Woodward says. ”Instead of adding cinnamon, or nutmeg to your baked goods, you say, ‘I am gonna add buckwheat, corn or rye. This will give me toasty sweet and nutty.’“ This is where the “Ohs” heard around her market stands come into play. “People are tasting something they haven’t tasted before, in a context they have eaten almost every day.”

One preconceived notion about these products is that they’re “hippie skippy” as Woodward says. These are the two words she uses to describe the whole-grain breads she bought from a health food store in her native Connecticut in the 80s. It’s a notion Jonathan Kauffman knows all too well. The author grew up on these foodstuffs, and recently wrote an entire book on the subject, Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-landers, Longhairs and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat. “Folks in the 60s and 70s didn’t know how to work with whole grains, and were getting super gritty and dense baked goods,” says Kaufmann. For many in the counterculture, eating these brick-like baked goods was an anti-authority act unto itself. “You were committed to the idealism behind baking whole wheat bread, even if that meant retraining your palate to enjoy it.”

Outside of politics, part of the problem was in the milling and storing of whole grain flours. The outside hull of grains – where the nutritious bran and endosperm are located – is full of oils which can turn rancid quickly. That meant that the time spent between the mill and the baker was an unpredictable variable. “People were using whole wheat flours that had been sitting in bags and bulk bins and become rancid,” says Kauffman. “People think that is the flavour of whole grain breads and it’s not.”

Christine Fancy, who runs Yesteryear Baking, a stand at the Wolfville Farmers Market in Nova Scotia, also says whole grains are “misunderstood.” Fancy likes playing with the idea of whole grains as healthy, while liberally using them in arguably indulgent baked goods: rich banana bread made from whole grain red wheat flour, or cakes flavoured with molasses and ginger. She notes that people often confuse whole grain with whole wheat, so she gently corrects her customers by giving them samples of her goods, made with everything from spelt to buckwheat. She says, “People see it everywhere as a buzzword to get people on the healthy eating train, when there is so much more to it.”

When it comes to educating her audience, Fancy can simply point out the farmer who grew her grain to her customers, as he stands at his own stall across the market from her. “To be able to make that connection, it lends to a layer of transparency and quality that customers may not be able to get from grocery store flour,” she says.

Those kind of connections are what motivates Marc-André Cyr. He is one of the founders of Le Goût du Grain/A Taste for Grain, a conference for grain heads getting ready for its third year.

Cyr believed that “there was something missing in bread. Bakers don’t often talk to farmers or millers, and I wanted to see all the trades interacting with each other.” What started as an event with an expected audience of a dozen people at a friend’s restaurant ended up with sixty attendees. This year, the now not-for-profit organization is expecting a few hundred writers, bakers, farmers, and millers from across North America, all to talk about grain. What Cyr wants to see happen is a raising of the bar when it comes to quality. “Call your farmer, miller, give them feedback about their flour,” he says. “I think bakers could stand to behave a bit more like cooks: if the tomatoes are acidic, they talk to their farmer. But bakers don’t always work like that.”

A baker by trade, this Montrealer-by-way-of-Moncton fell in love with whole grain flours when he found out about the aforementioned red fife. He became hooked on learning everything he could about flour and grains in all shapes, sizes, and flavours. He and Woodward recently worked together at a pop-up event at the Drake Commissary where they presented whole grain madeleines made of red fife, something Woodward has been doing for years. “People are surprised at how yummy it is, like it wasn’t supposed to be,” he says.

Despite the issues around whole grains – growing, milling, understanding the character of each flour – bakers are optimistic about the benefits: local economies, local agriculture, but most of all, flavour. After years of eating anemic white bread, Woodward notes that her customers soon come to understand that “bread is food, and flour has flavour. Grain is an essential ingredient, and not just a platform for your sandwich.”

A guide to a better experience when using whole grain flours

Shelf-life: Whole grain flours lose flavour and freshness over time, so they should be used within six months of milling. Most reputable flour mills will have a date of milling somewhere on the packaging.

Storing: “Place it in plastic bins away from potential contaminants,” says Yesteryear Baking’s Christine Fancy. “If you’re not using it often, store it in the freezer in a well-sealed container.”

Flavour and texture: Whole grains are often a source of unfamiliar flavours and textures, and Fancy says we should embrace that. “I make a banana cream pie with 50 per cent buckwheat,” Fancy says. “It doesn’t have the crispness, but the chewiness is nice with the pie.”

Perspective: “Be patient” says Cyr. “Your bake might not work the first time if you’re used to white flour. Have fun!”

TABLE TALK: Dawn and Ed Rek

April 26, 2015

Dawn and Ed Rek, a former bread baker and chef respectively, are in their 8th year as local artisanal cracker makers at Evelyn’s Crackers where they bake, package, label and deliver to vendors around Toronto as well as having a rooted presence at several local farmer’s markets since 2008.

But not only do they sell local, they buy local as well, often directly from farmers.

As we snacked on some crackers (my favourite was Slightly Seedy), I asked Ed what got them into crackers: “we wanted to do something different. While there were many artisanal bread-makers and cheese makers, most markets didn’t have locally made crackers.”

Dawn added that a friend had introduced them to red fife — a local heritage grain that was once endangered when farmers “modernized” to wheats that would harvest 2 weeks faster than red fife in order to render higher yields.

Red fife’s sweet and nutty taste became the muse for their crackers. Unlike other white flours which are akin to white sugar, red fife is a whole grain with the germ and bran, contributing to higher fiber as well as being comparatively lower in gluten. Even the Federal Government has touted the benefits of red fife because of it’s history and how well it grows in our cold climate.

Perhaps it’s this combination of a unique offering and supporting local producers* and the rehabilitation of local heritage grains like sifted spelt, rye, buckwheat, barley and ancient durham that won them the Premier’s award for Agri-food Innovation and Excellence in 2014.

Dawn and Ed are now transitioning to baked goods using heritage grains. They brought along a generous offering of Chocolate Chip Miso and Whole Grain Chocolate cookies, a corn meal spelt biscotti, pop tarts, scones and muffins.

My favourite was the Whole Grain Chocolate for it’s ground nibs. Of all of their young daughter Evelyn’s eponymous cracker offerings, her favourite was the pop tart. When I asked her if anyone in her school knew she had her own crackers, she shyly said, “well not everyone knows, like Jeremy”. Maybe by the time Jeremy catches on, the Rek’s will have their own small store front.

*Almost all their ingredients can be sourced from local certified organic producers (e.g. Acropolis Organic Olive Oil, Sterling Creamery Butter, Chocosol Chocolate…)

Going with the grain


Special to The Globe and Mail

Published January 17, 2009

By rights, the Green Barn farmers’ market in the Wychwood area should have been a disaster. It opened in late November, just as Ontario farmers were pulling the last of the carrots and beets out of the ground. Even worse, it opened just as everybody was tightening their belts, buying up Hamburger Helper and getting ready to settle into a long, cold recession.

With people spending much less on their groceries, you would expect them to stop shopping at farmers’ markets, which are notoriously hard on the wallet, no matter how good they might be for your carbon footprint.

And yet. That first Saturday at the Green Barns was packed with vendors, who offered a surprising number of foods, from artisanal breads and pastured meats, to root vegetables and some of the nicest mushrooms. There were so many shoppers you could barely see the floor. People had to go wherever the mob carried them – more luck to you if you landed in front of Dawn Woodward’s cracker table to sample her handmade baked goods.

While most crackers are simply a vehicle for salt or cheese, Ms. Woodward’s crackers taste of the sweet, nutty grains themselves. Partly that’s a testament to her craftsmanship, and partly it’s a testament to the quality of Ontario’s artisanal flours, which offer far more flavour and texture (and nutrition) than a sack of all-purpose from the grocery store.

Ms. Woodward, an award-winning American breadmaker, first came to Toronto as a consultant for Ace Bakery in the late 1990s. Ten years later, she decided to move here with her husband, Edmund Rek, and their young daughter, Evelyn. “We wanted to be part of a thriving local food scene,” she explains. She chooses to work with organic, non-genetically modified grains for environmental and political reasons as much as for the taste.

Hers is a true family business: Ms. Woodward does the baking; her husband does packaging and sales (the crackers are sold at many gourmet shops around the city) and their two-year-old gave her name to the enterprise: Evelyn’s Crackers.

As you nibble on samples of sweet pecan crackers – or maybe a spiced barley crisp or a hot-sweet dal-and-coconut stick inspired by Ms. Woodward’s many years of travelling – you might find yourself asking about the sacks of Red Fife flour for sale at the edge of the table, just one of the many local artisanal flours she uses in her cracker recipes.

“It’s my favourite flour,” Ms. Woodward says. Milled into whole-wheat flour, Red Fife is sweet and doesn’t have the aftertaste of many whole wheats. One of the original wheats that fed Canada (and an ancestor to many hybrids planted today), Red Fife is an heirloom variety that nearly disappeared from commercial production in the 1980s. Jamie Kennedy, who bakes many of his café breads with the flour, had to travel all the way to Italy to discover it at a slow-food symposium, even though its birthplace was less than 160 kilometres from his farm in Prince Edward County.

Ms. Woodward’s enthusiasm might inspire you to start making your own bread. Even my five-year-old daughter notices the difference that Red Fife flour makes in our baking, and asks if we can use “the special flour” when we’re making one of her favourite foods, focaccia. And although it costs more than the sacks at No Frills, I’m saving money by actually making my own bread.

I would like to think that’s one reason the farmers’ markets continue to be popular as we head into a recession. Instead of reaching for cheaper processed foods (no-name crackers, airy “accordion” bread), it’s a chance for us to try making our own foods from scratch.

Baking bread was one of the ways my mother used to help make ends meet in the 1970s. I used to think she was crazy to do it, but now I’m not so sure: When it costs $8 or even more for a truly artisanal loaf, making your own bread no longer seems quite so Pollyanna-ish. It’s just good sense, if you want to save money. And there’s a reason people bake bread when they are trying to sell houses (or groceries): Fresh homemade bread is irresistibly good.

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