Ancient Carbs

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“Who wants to take a guess? How long have people been eating bread?”

Hands shot up.

“A million years!”

“A thousand years?”

“Ummm, hmm…”

The random, hastily shouted guesses were quickly followed by more thoughtful inquiries.

“They ate bread during Roman times, right?”  

“Are we talking prehistory?” 

“As long as people have been alive?”

The kids were surprised when I told them that humans have been eating bread for at least 30,000 years.

“But how do we know that?”

Several more guesses, then finally, “Is it the tools?”

Evidence of the processing of grain has been found in archaeological excavations of ancient sites.

“These stones, called querns, were used as grinding tools. Scientists have been able to obtain microscopic amounts of grain flour from the querns and carbon date them to 30,000 BP.”

The kids inspected and chewed on some wheat kernels.

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We discussed the digestibility of grain in that form.

“Eaten raw, those kernels will come out pretty much looking the same as when they went in.”

Knowing looks.

“Grinding might have made the grain easier to eat, but raw flour still won’t sustain a body for very long. But take that same flour and water and make bread. Now that will keep a person alive.”

I mentioned the cooking theory. Kind of science heavy for the youngest of our group, but still good food for thought.

“So these nomadic people, roaming around gathering wild grasses and grains–they start settling in an area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Why would they want to be near the water?”

“Plants!”

“Animals that eat the plants!”

“Animals that eat the animals that eat the plants!”

Ancient history is a new topic for a couple of the kids, so we took a little time here to review the Fertile Crescent and all of its offerings.

“Eventually, people started cultivating the plants for food–grains like barley and wheat.”

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I explained that the first breads were flat and unleavened. Leavened bread was discovered later and most likely by accident.

“Perhaps someone mixed some bread dough using the same bowl that had been used for a previous batch. If so, it probably contained wild yeast. Maybe they realized that this practice of incorporating old dough into a new batch of bread made their loaves lighter.”

While we don’t know for sure how it happened, we do know that the first leavened breads appeared around 6,000 years ago.

“Again, how do we know this?”

Most of the kids recognized cuneiform.

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We made some jokes about this very first collection of recipes.

“Since they were written on clay tablets, you wouldn’t be carrying them around your kitchen like The Joy of Cooking.”

No, these recipes weren’t meant as a “how-to” as the majority of the people couldn’t read anyway; Mesopotamian scribes were recording a culinary ritual.

“And the list of foods they recorded is pretty impressive: 20 different kinds of cheese, hundreds of kinds of soup, and 300 kinds of bread, many of which were leavened by wild yeast, also known as sourdough.”

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Wild yeast, saccharomyces exiguus, is a single-celled microorganism and the smallest member of the mushroom family.

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“It’s a fun guy! Eh, eh?” My son never gets sick of this joke.

The wild yeast is especially plentiful on the skins of fruit and grains. Grind some grain, add a little warmth and water and you create an environment in which naturally occurring lactobacilli bacteria break down the carbohydrates in the grain and allow the sugar-eating fungus to thrive.

“And just like us after we eat a big meal, the yeast will do what?”

“Burp!”

“Fart!”

Yeah, expel gas. Carbon dioxide actually. 

“But why doesn’t the gas just bubble out of the dough?”

And this is where gluten comes in.

“Gluten is a protein that is formed when wheat flour is combined with water. It gives elasticity to the dough, allowing the dough to trap the carbon dioxide and expand like a balloon. But not all wheat flours have the same gluten capabilities.”

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I measured two tablespoons of several different flours into labeled bowls: unbleached cake, bread, whole grain from hard red wheat, and two all-purpose grinds made from the ancient wheat varieties of einkorn and emmer.

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Then we added one tablespoon of water to each.

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I instructed the kids to mush and knead together the mixtures in their bowls.

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The differences were immediately obvious.

“Hey, I think mine needs more water. It’s a lot drier than hers.”

“Mine is really sticky.”

“The dark ones are stiffer.”

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We compared the resulting doughs. Some were soft and stretchy while some were crumbly.

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Each kid washed their ball of dough in a bowl of water. The range of gluten in the different flours became more visible once the starch was rinsed away.

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“You can see that some flours produce doughs that are really elastic while some flours produce doughs that stretch and break or don’t stretch much at all. This is why bread bakers usually mix their weaker flours with stronger flours, and why you would use a weak flour for cakes and pastries.”

“So, bread made with weak flour would be really flat and crumbly?”

“Exactly!”

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They compared and investigated and explored until stomachs started rumbling.

After seeing that both emmer and einkorn were weaker flours, they understood when I explained how I chose to mix each of those flours with bread flour to make the sourdough loaves we were about to eat.

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The emmer loaf was a bit darker and had a slightly grassier aroma. This wasn’t surprising since the flour had smelled really green when we opened the bag.

“It smells like hay.”

The einkorn loaf was warmer in color.

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Lacking gazelle and pigeon, I chose to offer more accessible items taken from the list of foods common in ancient Mesopotamia: yogurt cheese, honey, figs, grapes, and yes, sourdough bread.

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Overall, the kids slightly preferred the somewhat lighter einkorn loaf to the emmer. This however, did not stop anyone from devouring every scrap of bread on the table.

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Personally, I couldn’t tell much difference in the actual flavor of the loaves. It wasn’t until later, when when I ate my third snack that I could detect that slightly grassier flavor in the emmer. Maybe it had needed a chance to develop. Or maybe I was just not shoveling it in eating slower.

Whatever it was, it was delicious.

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I have not included a sourdough bread recipe in this post because, well, it’s a process. But! There are many sources online for getting a starter going and baking some bread. Here are two I would recommend:

King Arthur Flour

The Perfect Loaf

I would encourage anyone who is interested in the world of sourdough to make a starter.  Watch it. Feed it. Make some stuff with it. You don’t even need to bake bread right away–you can make pancakes or waffles. Just get used to having it around and taking care of it. Like a pet. A pet that will feed you for a change!

 

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The Redemption of a Sad Paste

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“We’re baking an Indian pound cake today. Anybody want to guess where the name comes from?”

I love that all four of the kids raise their hands.

“Because the Indians baked it?”

“Because Americans baked it for the Indians?”

“Is it in honor of the Indians?”

There were several more guesses — all good.

“Remember our last session, when I told you that the cookbooks of that time were British? Well, fast forward a bit and we’ve got recipes that are still traditionally British, but now we’ll start to see those same recipes incorporate ingredients native to North America, like maize.”

I explained that while there are now several varieties of corn, they all descend from one kind of grass, called teosinte, that is indigenous to Central and South America.

The kids were interested to learn that corn is grown exclusively by man, that is, no present form is capable of self-propagation.

“Scientists have determined that humans domesticated teosinte approximately 6,000 – 10,000 years ago in southern Mexico.”

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We compared the physical characteristics of both and discussed how artificial selection gave us the corn we eat now.

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Still, it seemed unbelievable to us that anyone would find that hard-shelled plant worthy of replanting for food.

I shared a story detailing how scientists wondering the same, were able to test a theory that made the early farmers’ choices much more understandable.

“After that, maize made its way up to North America where Native Americans continued to cultivate it.”

They all remembered learning about the Spanish colonization of the Americas, so it was easy for them to understand how corn could travel to Spain via Columbus, and from there to the rest of Europe, Africa, Middle East, India, and China.

“So while corn wasn’t completely new to the European settlers, they had never seen it used the way the American Indians were using it. The new Americans referred to it as Indian Corn.”

The colonists and subsequent immigrants from Europe were used to wheat flour.

“You guys know what bread made with wheat flour is like — lofty and chewy due to the development of gluten and its ability to stretch and capture gases released by whatever leavening agent you’re using.”

Cornmeal, which does not form gluten, stubbornly refused to rise for the unknowing bakers.

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I read a quote from a woman named Rebecca Burlend, who emigrated to Pike County, Illinois, in 1848:

As our money was growing scarce, [my husband] bought a bushel of ground Indian corn, which was only one-third the price of wheaten flour…Its taste is not pleasant to persons unaccustomed to it; but as it is wholesome food, it is much used for making bread. We had now some meal, but no yeast, nor an oven; we were therefore obliged to make sad paste, and bake it in our frying pan on some hot ashes. 

— from The Story of Corn by Betty Fussell

But! It was cheap and plentiful and wholesome, and the ever persevering pioneers “made do.” They “made do” so well in fact, that they came to like the Indian corn.

Pray, let me, an American, inform the gentleman, who seems ignorant of the matter, that Indian corn, take it for all in all, is one of the most agreeable and wholesome grains in the world; that its green leaves roasted are a delicacy beyond expression; that samp, hominy, succotash, and nokehock, made of it, are so many pleasing varieties; and that johny or hoecake, hot from the fire, is better than a Yorkshire muffin.

— Benjamin Franklin, 1766, in response to The London Gazette writer who had argued that Americans could never give up tea because their Indian corn was so indigestible.

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As we began preparing our ingredients for the cake, I gave the kids some background on Eliza Leslie, the author of the cookbook containing the original Indian pound cake recipe that our working recipe was adapted from.

Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats was first printed in 1828, and is the earliest American baking book. Eliza Leslie had wanted to be a fiction writer, but her mother sent her to Mrs. Elizabeth Goodfellow’s Philadelphia cooking school so that she could help with the family boarding house.”

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The kids continued with the recipe — they had made pound cake before.

Reading Miss Leslie’s book reminds one of just how much effort it took to bake a cake. While cast iron ovens had been introduced, they were expensive, so most people were still cooking their food in brick fireplaces.

Very few ingredients were purchased ready-made: butter needed to be churned, sugar was grated from loaves or cones, flour required drying to remove the excess moisture that would make baked goods heavy, leavenings were homemade, even cornstarch was do-it-yourself.

“If the butter and sugar are to be stirred together, always do that before the eggs are beaten…For stirring them, nothing is so convenient as a round hickory stick about a foot and a half long, and somewhat flattened at one end.”

— from Preliminary Remarks in Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry,  Cakes, and Sweetmeats

We skipped the hickory stick and went straight for the electric mixer.

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We divided the batter between two pans and used a knife to make sure that they were equally full.

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Close enough.

We popped them into our non-wood-burning oven.

“Mom got the cornmeal from an island!”

It took me a second to understand what my son was talking about.

“Oh, no honey, I think you mean Rhode Island!”

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I had ordered cornmeal from Gray’s Grist Mill, the oldest continually operating mill in the United States. They mill Narragansett Indian Flint Corn, which is the only true strain of native corn left in New England; only 40 – 60 acres of Rhode Island are planted in white cap corn, while thousands of acres are planted in other types.

While the kids were interested to learn about the workings of the mill and its long history, they were more interested in eating the Indian pound cake.

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I sliced it up while it was still warm, and they devoured it. Then they asked for seconds.

“So, it’s not a sad paste?”

“No!”

It was unanimous. It wasn’t sad, and neither were any of us.

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Eliza Leslie’s Indian Pound Cake, adapted slightly from Richard Sax’s version in Classic Home Desserts

Makes two 9 x 5 inch loaves; each serves 8 to 10

1 1/2 cups sifted cornmeal, fine stoneground is preferable

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp baking powder

2 tsp ground cinnamon

3/4 tsp fresh-grated nutmeg

3/4 tsp fine sea salt

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at cool room temperature

1 cup packed light brown sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

grated zest of 1 lemon

8 large eggs at room temperature

1/2 cup whole milk at room temperature

3 T brandy

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour, or butter and line with parchment, two loaf pans. Mix the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, spices and salt together and set aside.

Beat the butter until light. Add the sugars and the lemon zest and continue beating until very light. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well. Add one-third of the dry ingredients and combine on low until just mixed. Add the brandy to the milk and add half of the mixture to the batter. Alternately add the remaining dry ingredients and milk, scraping the bowl and mixing gently after each addition.

When all the ingredients are just combined, divide the batter between the prepared pans. Bake until the cakes are golden and toothpick inserted near the center emerges clean, about 45-50 minutes.

Cool the cakes in the pans on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Unmold and turn right side up; cool. Serve at room temperature.

 

For more on this historical cake series:

Cake As A Lens

I Vote For Cake

Chocolate and Elbow Grease

Best Laid Plans

Fit For Angels

Chocolate Cake For a Devil, Hold the Sauerkraut

A Cup is a Cup is a Cup

The Food of the Gods

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(Another activity I meant to write about back in, oh, May.  I never claimed to be efficient.)

We are Story of the World users.  Sometimes we do the suggested activities, sometimes not.  Sometimes we come up with our own.

In Chapter 32 of Volume 2: The Middle Ages, we covered the Mayan, Aztec, and Incan Empires.  The kids were particularly interested in the importance of cocoa to the people of pre-Columbian Meso-America, which lead, of course, to a discussion on chocolate.

We enjoyed this video, where the boy demonstrates how cocoa pods are harvested, and how to roast and grind the dried cocoa beans to make hot chocolate.  My kids thought this would be fun to do themselves.

I envisioned a chocolate tasting session.  I do it for the kids.

One shopping trip and three bars of Mast Brothers Chocolate later, we gathered around the table to examine a small bowl of cocoa nibs, which are pieces of fermented, dried and roasted cocoa bean.

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The kids checked out the craggy cocoa nibs, rolling them around in their hands.  The deeply aromatic, dark brown bits smelled just like chocolate. They popped the nibs in their mouths.

“Um…oh, that doesn’t taste like chocolate!”

I wish I could have gotten a picture of their collective faces.  If you’ve ever eaten unsweetened chocolate when you were expecting it to be sweet, you’ll understand.

“They’re kinda crunchy.”

“Like nuts.”

They went back for more.

“They taste a little like chocolate…but a little sour.”

Personally, I like the taste of cocoa nibs.  They are crunchy yet tender, and seem buttery in the way that nuts are, (from the cocoa butter). The chocolate flavor is intense, yet not sweet.  The flavor just takes some getting used to.

Apparently they had gotten used to the flavor, as they kept slipping nibs into their mouths throughout the rest of the session.

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We talked a bit about the cocoa tree, (genus Theobroma, which is Greek for food of the gods), the parts of its pod, and how the Aztec and Mayan people used it to make a cocoa drink, called xocolātl, which means “bitter water”.

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The kids took turns with the mortar and pestle, grinding up the nibs to steep in hot water.

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We strained our cocoa water and added a little honey, remembering that the people did not have access to sugar at that time.   We had read earlier about the different flavorings and spices the Mayans and Aztecs may have added to their cocoa and debated which ones might taste best.

“Vanilla!”

“Chili pepper?”

At least one kid liked the cocoa water.  Everybody else was underwhelmed.

We all knew that the chocolate we drink or eat in today’s world was different from what we had just tried.  We discussed how the Spaniards brought cocoa back to Spain and added sugar; eventually it made its way to the rest of Europe, where the process of making our contemporary chocolate was born.

“Let’s try some chocolate!”  Big whoops all around.

We opened up the different bars and tried a little of each.  I had chosen Mast because they are single-origin chocolate bars, meaning cocoa that has been harvested from one variety from one region, with the sole addition of a small amount of sugar.   I wanted the kids to taste just how different the chocolates could be.

We started with Belize since that was from the area we had been studying. The responses were mostly “yum.”

On to Dominican Republic.

“Oooh that tastes different!”

And Madagascar.

“Fruity!”

Of course we went round again because now they could taste the differences and better compare the three.

Everyone offered up their favorites.  I don’t even think there was a clear winner.

We looked up the different growing regions on a map.  I pointed out that they were all fairly close to the equator.

“The trees must grow better in warmer weather.”

“And with rain.”

“Where else do you think they might grow cocoa trees?”

“Hawaii?”

“What about Canada?”

“Noooo!”

Not quite ready to end our sweet session, we whipped up a batch of hot chocolate.  Rich, slightly milky, barely sweet.

We all enjoyed it very much.  Although one of us kept hold of a mug of cocoa water.  She was sticking with both.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Math and science and history, oh my!

I had envisioned adding to the last post, some thoughts on Learning Stuff Other Than “How To Bake” In A Baking Lesson, but then that post would have been annoyingly long.  So, perhaps from now on I’ll just do a follow-up post with any ideas.  I’d love it if people could chime in with their suggestions too.

What can you learn besides baking fundamentals from these sessions?

Language arts skills.  Reading and following a recipe.  Pretty straightforward, right?  For my youngest who is just learning how to read, simply identifying and understanding the difference in what T and t means in a recipe is pretty important. For kids working on grammar, looking for the adjectives, nouns, verbs, etc. in a recipe could be a new activity.  Putting together a grocery list for a baking project, or even using that recipe as a guide in writing out the steps for how to prepare a favorite snack could be another.

What else?

Math.  You cannot bake without using math. Whether you are measuring ingredients by weight or by volume you are working with numbers.  The decimal system, fractions, equivalent fractions, time.  For instance, in the last recipe we needed 2 oz. of butter and we had a 4 oz. stick.  I asked the kids for advice.  Or we had to divide the dough into eight equal portions.  Again, the kids helped figure that out.  At 12:15 we had to let the dough rise for 50 minutes.  When will it be done?  See? Math. The younger kids benefit from simply exploring with measuring cups.  For older kids you could have them halve or double a recipe. Just make sure you have freezer space for all the extras!

Science.  So many opportunities for further investigation! Can I predict what might happen if I mix the yeast with cold water instead of warm, or without the sugar?  What difference would it make if I split my pretzel dough into two bowls and leave one in a warm spot and the other in a cooler spot? If I don’t boil some of the pretzels before baking will they taste the same?

History.  Food history is pretty fascinating if you ask me.  We are studying the Middle Ages in Story of the World right now, so the kids were interested to learn that pretzels may have been invented by monks sometime in the 5th century. Ok, they weren’t quite as excited as I was about the connection, but still. Wikipedia is always helpful, but foodtimeline.org is a great resource for answering those “who thought this up?” kind of questions.

I almost forgot home economics! Do they even teach this in school anymore? In my home ec class I think I learned how to make chocolate chip cookies and sew on a button.  I also have a vague memory of parker house rolls.  In this age of grab and go food, I think it’s more important than ever for kids to be comfortable in the kitchen, to know that armed with some basic cooking skills and research they can take any packaged food they find in a grocery store and make it at home cheaper, healthier and tastier.  It’s not magic.  It’s food.

What are your thoughts on extending the learning?