A history major and bread aficionado, Ellen King became intrigued by the abundance of grains once available and commonly grown in the United States that had, since World War II, completely disappeared from the marketplace and which often didn’t seem to exist anymore.
“I spent some time in Norway and bread was about all I could afford to eat,” says King, who earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in history and then attended the Seattle Culinary Academy and worked in several Seattle restaurants before she moved to Evanston, Illinois. Shocked at finding that Chicago didn’t have the types of breads she yearned for, she began a search for heirloom grains and began making bread the old fashioned way—using natural wild yeasts as an ingredient, mixing and turning the dough by hand for several hours and then injecting steam for a crisp crust while it bakes in an imported European oven.
But that wasn’t enough for King, who in 2013 opened Hewn Bakerywith partner Julie Matthei in Evanston, Illinois and is the author of Heritage Baking: Recipes for Rustic Breads and Pastries Baked with Artisanal Flour with Amelia Levin (Chronicle Books). For her hand foraged breads she wanted to harken back to the grains of a century or so ago instead of using the homogenous flour currently turned out by big corporate mills.
What good was opening a bakery if I couldn’t find good ingredients, King remembers thinking. Partnering with farmer Andrea Hazard who was interested in growing heirloom grains, the two finally connected with Stephen Jones, a wheat breeder and the Director of The Bread Lab at Washington state University. Jones, who earned a PhD in Genetics from the University of California at Davis, suggested she and, a farmer who was interesting in growing heritage wheat, read old farming journals to find out what varieties that were grown at the turn of the last century.
“There are literally over 10,000 varieties of wheat,” King says. “One person told me 100,000.”
The names are romantic–Rouge de Bordeaux, Turkey Red and Marquis. But the seeds seemed ephemeral. Take Marquis, a hard red spring wheat first introduced in Canada in 1895. It was among the most widely grown wheat in the United States between the 1910s through the 1930s. During the 1920s, Marquis accounted for 59% of the wheat produced in Wisconsin. By the time King went looking for it, Marquis was no longer grown and she couldn’t find the seeds.
But her years during historical research paid off. Countless queries led to a college professor who had 2.2 pounds of Marquis wheat. Planting the seeds King and Hazard were able to produce 30 pounds the first year. Now they hope to have 3000 seeds which will yield enough to both make bread and save seeds.
“That way we can grow more and share with other farmers,” she says.
Selecting a loaf of bread from Hewn is like taking a step back into history. The menu of hand-forged breads made from organic, locally sourced re-discovered wheat varieties include those made with Turkey Red, a heritage variety of wheat grown in Wisconsin and Kansas Lower in gluten the bread has a nutty flavor and Red Fife–a heritage variety of wheat grown and milled in Wisconsin.
Why did these varieties disappear, I ask King.
“After World War II the cherished varieties fell out of favor,” she says. “And when we did that we lost the uniqueness of each region where the wheat grew and we lost the flavor. Along with the homogenization of our wheat, we added fertilizers and products like Round-Up and made bread less healthy.”
It was all about efficiency and mass production.
“General Mills flour is always exactly the same and large scale baking needs that consistency,” she says. “At Hewn, I invest in people, not machinery. For us, it’s about training the baker in how to treat and understand the flour.”
Just as wine connoisseurs can recognize the terroir of grapes, King can do the same with wheat. And though heirloom produce like tomatoes, squash and peppers has become a major player in farming, she says wheat varieties are still lagging.
But she enjoys the challenge of finding farmers who are growing them.
“There are more and more people doing it,” she says. “I met this guy who is growing Pedigree Number 2. At first I couldn’t find any one growing Red Kharkoff anywhere, but now I’m connecting with a farmer in Washington state who is growing it and all sorts of grains. It takes time, but it’s worth it—it’s better for the soil, for the environment and for our health. It tastes great. And also, it’s history.”
Heritage Corn and Berry Muffins
Excerpted with permission from Heritage Baker by Ellen King
Note: Most of the recipes in Heritage Baker require preparing a starter which is a process that takes several days. King recommended that beginners start with one of her muffin recipes as they are the simplest to make. She also notes that the flavor of flint corn is rich and pronounced but if you can’t find Floriani, any flint corn variety from your region will work well for this recipe. You can also, more easily, substitute regular or coarsely ground cornmeal which is found in supermarkets. Be sure to avoid finely ground cornmeal. Brands available in grocery stores like Bob’s Red Mill offer coarse ground coarse meal and a variety of flours. There are several places in Michigan where you can order specialty heirloom flours.
Country Life Natural Foods in Pullman, Michigan is a wholesaler but also sells in small amounts. They offer mail order and delivery. 641 52nd St., Pullman, MI 800-456-7694.
Ingredients for some of the grains in King’s book such as flint corn can be found online, at specialty stores or at farm markets.
Janie’s Mill in Askum, Illinois offers a wide variety of flours including Organic Black Emmer, Organic Einkorn, and Organic Red Fife Heirloom Flour as well as other products such as Whole Organic Spelt Berries, Organic Bloody Butcher Cornmeal, and Organic Turkey Red Flour among many others.
- 2/3 cup granulated sugar
- 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1/3 cup sour cream
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
- 13/4 cups sifted heritage flour, such as White Sonora or Richland
- 1/2 cup fine-milled Floriani Flint or other heritage cornmeal
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt
- 1 cup strawberries, quartered, or blueberries
- 1/4 cup lightly packed brown sugar
- 1/2 cup stone rolled heritage oats
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, at room temperature
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter a 12-cup muffin pan.
To make the batter, stir together the granulated sugar and eggs in a large bowl until combined. Stir in the heavy cream, sour cream, and vanilla, followed by the melted butter. In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add the flour mixture to the egg mixture and stir just until combined.
Using a wooden spoon, very gently fold in the berries. Do not overmix. Using an ice cream scoop, spoon the batter evenly among the prepared muffin cups; the cups should be three-quarters full.
To make the streusel topping, combine the brown sugar, oats, and butter in a small bowl. Using a spoon or your hands, stir until the mixture becomes crumbly. Sprinkle about 1 tablespoon of the topping over each muffin.
Bake for 25 minutes, or until a metal skewer or toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Let cool in the pan for 5 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature, or freeze in a resealable plastic bag for up to 3 months. To reheat, set on the counter until thawed and warm in a 325°F oven for 10 minutes.
Hewn in the News: Food & Wine magazine featured Hewn as one of the Best Bakeries in America and in the article The Best Bread in Every State. Hewn was listed among the Best Bread Bakeries at the Food Network, and as one of the Best Bakeries in Chicago by Thrillist. Click here to listen to their recent interview on the WBBM Noon Business Hour. Click here to read Midwest Living Magazine’s “Best of the Midwest.” Click here to watch Steve Dolinsky’s recent segment on the bakery on NBC5 Chicago. To learn more about their expansion to Libertyville, click here.