Ancient Carbs, Part 2: The Year of the Dog

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The Yellow River Breaches Its Course ~ Ma Yuan

 

“The last time we were together we talked about first civilizations and Mesopotamia. Do you guys remember how people settled near the rivers there and started cultivating plants for food?”

“The Tigris and the Euphrates! They grew wheat there!”

“Right! Now we are moving east, to China, where people also settled near rivers. Anyone know which rivers those are?”

“The Yellow River!”

While they had a hard time identifying the Yangtze, they did remember that the people of the ancient civilization in the Yellow River Valley grew rice in the fertile soil near the perpetually flooding river.

Growing rice requires a lot of water, but millet, a naturally prolific crop in China, does not. The fast-growing, small-seeded grass thrives in warm, dry conditions, and is therefore especially well-suited for the more arid climate of northern China. In fact, scientific studies suggest that people there cultivated millet even before rice.

Some of the kids knew what millet was.

“It’s bird seed!”

I told them all about the exciting 2005 archaeological find at Lajia, an excavation of a Bronze Age site on the banks of the Yellow River in central China.

“So, the noodles they found in an upturned bowl were about 4,000 years old!”

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From BBC News (Image: Nature/KBK Teo/E Minoux et al)

 

“Ewww. I don’t think I want to eat noodles anymore.”

My son is sensitive when it comes to food imagery.

I explained how the airless conditions in the bowl had prevented the noodles from decaying. Scientific analysis proved that they were the same age as the excavation site and were made from both foxtail and broomcorn millet.

“So, this provided some evidence in settling a long running argument about the origin of noodles. The earliest record of noodles in China was written sometime between AD25 and 220. Up until the find at Lajia, the question of whether noodles were first invented by the Italians, the Arabs, or the Chinese, had still been up for debate.”

There seems to be an endless variety of Chinese noodles: cut, extruded, flicked, pulled or kneaded, and even shaved. Yet the most basic are made from a simple combination of starch flour, water, and sometimes salt.

We checked out a video of a cook making shaved noodles, and then another fascinating video about the art of making 9-foot long noodles by hand.

“The Lajia noodles were thought to be similar to a pulled type called la mian — la means to stretch, and mian means noodle.”

I showed them yet another impressive video of a la mian noodle master.

La mian noodles are made with flour derived from wheat; the gluten in wheat provides the plasticity and elasticity required for the repeated twisting and folding of the dough. I like to compare the process of kneading dough to straightening out a messy pile of yarn — the goal is to align the gluten strands just like one would line up the separate pieces of yarn.

“Ok, so we’re not making those. Nor are we doing a noodle dance.”

I told them they could go home and do the noodle dance in their own kitchens.

Instead, we would be making an easy pulled noodle based on this recipe.

I had mixed and kneaded the dough in advance because the gluten has to rest and sufficiently relax before it can be pulled.

I filled two pots with water, and while those came to a boil, I cut the noodle dough into strips.

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I showed the kids how to take a strip of dough, one end in each hand, and simultaneously stretch and pull it, bouncing it a little as it lengthened. Then, I took hold of one end and stretched it even more, pulling the noodle through my hands as if I were measuring out a length of ribbon.

“Long noodles are supposed to signify a long life. It’s ok if you break your noodle, but you’re never supposed to cut them.”

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The kids were a bit cautious at first, but they soon got into a groove.

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And then they started cranking out noodles like experts.

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I had them stand away from the stove while they pulled the noodles, moving in only to take turns gently lowering their long strips of dough into the pots of water.

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While we stretched and cooked, we talked about the importance of noodles in Chinese culture and the upcoming Chinese New Year.

“Hey, how can it be the New Year when it’s already February?”

Ah, but they already knew all about it, and informed me that the date of Chinese New Year is dictated by the lunar calendar. (I knew this)

Specifically, the first day of the new year falls on the new moon between January 21 and February 20.

“So it can be a different day every year?”

“Yep! Anyone know which animal is represented this year?”

“The dog!”

We continued chatting, noodling, and cooking.

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I fished the noodles out of the water as they finished cooking and placed them in a nearby colander set over a bowl. They stayed fairly warm until all of the rest were done, but a short dousing of hot water refreshed and reheated them enough to toss with some ginger-scallion sauce and quickly sautéed veggies.

The moment before we ate was a flurry of activity — the kids were absolutely dyyyying to eat the noodles they had so proudly stretched. I felt a little like Kung Fu Panda slinging noodle bowls onto the table in front of eager diners.

The kids further dressed their noodles with hoisin, tofu, and other assorted items.

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The noodles got a hearty thumbs up from all involved. My son requested that we make them again immediately. I guess the ancient noodles hadn’t put him off his lunch after all.

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Hand-Pulled Noodles

Maggie Zhu over at Omnivore’s Cookbook gives excellent and detailed instructions on making this type of pulled noodle. I followed her recipe, mixing the dough in my stand mixer for 15 minutes.

(I highly recommend making the dough the day before you plan on pulling the noodles. I did a practice run, cooking the dough the same day I mixed it, but the noodles made from the overnight dough turned out much nicer and thinner.)

Mix the dough, cover it and let it rest for two hours, then divide it into eight pieces. Lightly coat each piece with oil, cover tightly, and refrigerate overnight. Let the pieces come to room temperature, then pat each piece into a rectangle and place on a lightly oiled sheet pan. Keep pieces covered until ready to pull.

When you are ready to cook the noodles, cut each rectangle into strips on a lightly floured board — remember that they will get thinner as you pull them! Cook them in boiling water for 1-2 minutes. They are pretty much ready when they float. Drain and keep warm.

Maggie advises bringing the water to a “roaring boil” for the most authentic chewy texture. I didn’t do this for the kids’ batch because we had so many arms and hands about, but the noodles turned out just fine. They were a bit softer than my test batch, but nobody seemed to care!

I made a double recipe of Ginger Scallion Sauce that we tossed the finished noodles in. I also quickly sautéed some shredded cabbage and carrots with some chopped garlic and added those to the bowl. We placed extra sauce, some sliced red pepper, hoisin, tofu, soy sauce, and Sriracha on the table and let each kid dress their own noodles.

This was a hit with the kids, and super fun for all involved. Give it a go and make sure you share pictures with me if you do!

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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!

 

Back to homeschool pizza baking party, and the 411 on wheat

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Summer break has officially ended and we are back in “school mode”.  Right. This would require a celebration.

For my kids, this meant pizza with their friends. And lemonade.

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Looks like we may need to brush up on spelling.

But first things first…pizza!

The kids took up their regular “baking class” spots around the table, and we talked about how pizza dough was a simple mixture of water, flour, salt and oil, leavened with yeast.

“Anyone remember what yeast is?”

A little nudge from me: “Is it a living thing?”

“Yes!”, “It’s a fungi.”

Me again, shaking the little packet of yeast: “Anyone want to guess what we need to do first when we make any yeasted dough?”

“Wake it up!”,  “Put it in water!”

“And what does it do when we put it in our dough?”

“It eats and burps gas bubbles!”

Exactly.

We checked the temperature of our water.  I explained that yeast, like humans, need warmth, but not too much.  The temperature of the water should be about 100 degrees or so, definitely no more than 140.  They should be able to hold their fingers in the water without wanting to pull them out.

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“Ow!”  They thought it was too hot.

I added a little cool water  and checked the temperature with an instant read thermometer so they could get a clearer idea of what it should feel like.  They all agreed that, at 107 degrees, it was “much, much better.”

We stirred the yeast and some of the water together in a bowl and let it sit for a few minutes .

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Then we added the rest of our water, some olive oil, and salt.

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Next, we started adding flour, about a cup at a time.  I shared my thoughts on measuring and adding flour to pizza and lean bread doughs, as in, I don’t measure exactly, but prefer to go by the feel of the dough.  Sure, it is good to have an idea of how much flour you need to have on hand, but depending on your flour, you may use less or more in the end product, and it is a good idea to learn to gauge its quality by touch.

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We continued to add flour until the mixture became too stiff to stir with a spoon.

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I encouraged the kids to put their hands in the bowl to feel the sticky, elastic dough.

“Does anyone remember what makes the dough so stretchy?”

I reminded them of the composite protein, called gluten, that forms when water and glutenin and gliadin, the two proteins present in dry wheat flour, mix.  The action of kneading actually realigns the gluten molecules so that they run roughly in the same direction.  I like to think of a messy pile of yarn, and the kneading is the motion of straightening all the strands into a nice, neat bundle.  The resulting network of protein gives bread its structure by creating an expandable barrier that will trap the carbon dioxide gas given off by the feeding yeast, much like a balloon filling with air.

I think they get the balloon part.

Next, we scraped the resulting shaggy mass of dough out onto the generously floured table.

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We would be kneading more flour into the dough at this point, precisely why we didn’t want to add all of our flour in the very beginning.  Dough that is too dry and floury is harder to stretch into pizzas and bakes up bready.  Slightly wetter doughs bake up lighter with bigger bubbles in the crust.

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The kids took turns kneading, adding only enough flour to keep the dough from sticking to their hands.

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We could feel the dough becoming more uniform, and stopped after a few minutes when it was smooth and still slightly tacky.  It was placed in a lightly oiled, covered bowl where it would rise for an hour.

While the yeast worked their magic, we turned our attention to wheat, the grain our flour was made from.

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A member of the grass family, wheat produces a dry one-seeded fruit called a kernel.

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The kids enthusiastically examined the wheat, pulling apart the head and harvesting the wheat berries.  As they gathered the kernels, “This takes a long time!”, we talked about the traditional ways the edible part of the wheat was separated from the chaff before winnowing, and the ancient and modern ways of milling it into flour. We looked at a diagram of a wheat kernel and discussed how different wheat flours are made not only from different kinds of wheat, but from different parts of, or, in the case of whole grain, the entire wheat berry.

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They examined and compared various kinds of flour: all purpose, whole wheat, whole wheat pastry, bread, cake, and buckwheat, and drew tables where they could record their observations.

“This one feels soft…

…gritty

…rough”

or “This one smells good…

…sweet

…like grass”

One of the girls pushed some whole wheat flour through a fine mesh strainer and discovered what she had left was the extracted bran.  Another attempted, unsuccessfully,  to grind the sturdy wheat berries into flour with a mortar and pestle, “These are hard! It would have taken forever!”

Next, we added water to each bowl and observed what happened.

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“This one sucks up a lot of water!” (whole grain absorbs more than white)

“This is stretchy.” (Indicating the presence of gluten and its level of strength)

“This turned out kinda runny.” (Lower protein cake flour)

“This one doesn’t stretch at all!” (The only gluten-free one we had, buckwheat, isn’t wheat, but a plant used for it’s edible seeds)

They poked, prodded and tasted the resulting mixtures and shared their various opinions.

“This one tastes like dirt.” Fair enough.

“This one tastes like peanut butter.” Okay…

And, “this one tastes like mouth-blood.” Huh?

It’s a good thing our pizza dough was ready because I was beyond hungry.

We could see that the dough had doubled in size.

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And that the yeast had indeed eaten and burped.

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It was time for stretching!

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They enjoyed deflating the dough.

I divided it into 8, 4 oz. pieces and rounded those into balls.  Ideally we would let the dough rest for a bit to let the gluten relax after the trauma of being man kid-handled and divided, but my empty tummies called.

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I showed them how to press the balls into rounds and then stretch them on the backs of their fists, letting gravity do its work.

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I advised that if the dough wasn’t stretching much, or was fighting back, they should just leave it alone for a minute to let the gluten relax.  Easier said than done.

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They also tried to stretch the dough by holding the discs up by the edges and quickly rotating it to keep the circular shape.

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Some were rounder than others.

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A little sauce…

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toppings…

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then (a late) lunch!

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And they were all very pleased with their creations.

 

Pizza Dough (makes enough for about 8 individual pizzas, or 2 – 3 large rounds, depending on the thickness of crusts)

A note about this recipe:  I use this dough when I’m making it for dinner during the week and I haven’t planned very far ahead.  It happens.  More often than not.  Having said that, when I can think more than a day in advance, I really like this recipe, (with a bit more salt), for its more developed flavor and good chew.  Obviously, explaining to the kiddos that they’ll have to wait 3 days to bake the pizzas might be a tough sell.  This one is definitely kid friendly.

1 1/2 cups warm water

2 t active dry yeast

2 t fine sea salt

2 T olive oil

About 4 cups unbleached all purpose flour, bread flour, or a combination of whole wheat and one of the others

Place 1/2 cup of the water in a large bowl and stir in the yeast.  Set aside for a few minutes to rehydrate. Add the rest of the water, salt and the oil.  Add the flour about a cup at a time, stirring with a wooden spoon after each addition. Stop adding when it becomes too difficult to stir.  Remove the shaggy mass of dough to a floured surface.  With floured hands, knead until fairly smooth and stretchy, using only enough flour to keep the dough from sticking.  Tacky is fine.  Place dough into a lightly oiled bowl and cover.  Set aside for 1 hr.  When the dough has risen to about double, remove to a lightly floured surface. Divide dough and form into balls.  Let sit for 10 minutes.  Stretch dough into rounds, letting dough rest longer if it is hard to stretch or springs back.  Top pizzas and bake in a very hot oven, (I heat mine, including a baking stone, for at least 30 minutes in advance to 500 degrees.)