(This article appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
Heirloom grains that have traversed bio-adversity and lasted throughout antiquity to be lost and then found again
Holiday traditions, a crisp chill in the air, the soft glow of festive lights, the aroma of peppermint and chocolate, cinnamon and baked pumpkin, hot oil, strawberry jam and powdered sugar. The hustle and bustle of shoppers, the smiles of loved ones, hugs, and clinking glasses. How we all come together in our own way and rejoice in our culture, heritage and family, by blood or by choice, is essential. It is an innate human quality to reach into our past to celebrate the future, and so every year when the holidays roll around, I get a nostalgic feeling. This feeling is not only reminiscent of times spent with my parents and grandparents when I was a child, but also of a time before I was born, a feeling engraved into the primers of DNA. It is the story of the ancestral struggle to preserve culture and family in the face of adversity.
In turn I try to cultivate what has been preserved for me, for my children and for my patrons, who come to my shop to enrich their holiday tables. It is the food we share, as well as an ornament or menorah passed down from ancient ancestors, glistening from years past, reflecting the stories and memories of generations long ago.
There are many foods that can be experienced through our senses to channel these memories and delights. For me it is pies or tarts. A perfect crust for me is flaky and buttery, with a toasted-maltiness imparted by good quality grain. Yes, the grain you use in a pie dough makes all the difference. Heritage or ‘heirloom’ grain has been a part of this world’s narrative throughout history. A single kernel holds a story of farmers, millers, bakers and civilizations working together to create real food that has sustained us. It is now our mission to preserve this relationship, and in doing so preserve these heritage grains. Grains that have traversed bio-adversity and lasted throughout antiquity to be lost and then found again. An heirloom seed is defined as one whose heritage is documented from passing the seed down from generation to generation within a family, tribe or community. Our heritage to be safeguarded and celebrated for future generations to come.
A perfect example of our enduring legacy is found in the amber waves of Sonora grain. Sonora is a soft white heritage wheat varietal brought to the Southwest in the 16th century by Spanish missionaries. It is one of the oldest surviving wheat varieties in North America. The Sonora grain that I use is nothing like the Landrace version. Landrace grains are ancient pre-hybridized varieties of wheat, barley, oats and rye. Our Sonora is grown by Tehachapi Grain Project and milled in-house on our Meadows stone mill. It has a nutty, buttery flavor that goes well in breads, pastries and pie crusts. Sonora wheat was originally used to make tortillas in Southern California, Arizona and Mexico. It has a light golden colored bran and with its paper-thin husk, the grain is soft enough to be ground into a flour by hand. Sonora is so silky and airy it is almost like a pastry flour, yet nutrient rich with the full flavor of a whole-grain flour. I like to use Sonora in a pate sucrée recipe. The sweet, buttery texture of this dough is very special and will uplift a perfect custard filled fruit tart or lemon meringue pie. One tip for working with Sonora is to not overwork the dough to retain its delicate structure. Sonora is naturally sweet and needs less sugar than an average pastry flour.
Just as we take the family traditions we like from a certain relative or adapt another custom from a close friend, Yecora Rojo is a hybrid wheat varietal that was selected from other heritage grains. These grains are from the Bluebird family of cultivars, Ciano, Sonora and Klein Rendidor. Chosen for its light red color and superiority in baking and milling. Yecora Rojo is a semi-hard red spring wheat and was introduced to California in the 1970s. It is known for its richness and robust depth of flavor. The Yecora I use is grown and stone milled in California by Central Milling. This grain is very thirsty and can be used in higher hydration breads. I love using it in a classic pâte brisée recipe. The beautiful red hue is warm and inviting in a savory quiche or pumpkin pie. The toasty, malty flavors balance well with a huge helping of extra butter packed into the recipe to give the crust a luscious and supple crumb. It helps to give this dough a longer rest than usual, to really let the grain soak up any liquid in the recipe.
Abruzzi Rye is a heritage grain that was developed in Georgia in the early 1900s for distilling, and later became a favorite in baking. This delicious grain has a nutty, toasty maltiness with a slight spice. Its reliable high performance and nutritional benefits captured the hearts of the southern states of America. We use the varietal grown by the Tehachapi Grain Project. We mill our rye in our Meadows stone mill. Rye is lower in gluten than wheat, but it is NOT gluten free. It is more nutritious and has a dark rich color, which makes a dense and flavorful product. The rich flavor of rye pairs well with molasses or dark brown sugar. The fragrant spice and hint of sweetness will also balance creamy onions and stinky cheese pies. Some quick folds in this dough will make the pie stand tall with a myriad of flaky layers.
Using heritage grain in my pie crusts and tart shells has not only enhanced the holiday tables of my family and my patrons, but it has also strengthened my connection with those who have come before me. Our ancestors who have taken risks to ensure that these grains are accessible today, monumenting our heritage and sustaining us in this holiday season.
- 375 g unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
- 100 g confectioners’ sugar, sifted
- 5 g salt
- 5 g vanilla bean paste
- 200 g whole eggs
- 500 g Sonora flour
- 65 g yellow corn meal
- Cream the butter, powdered sugar, salt, and vanilla bean paste for about 5 minutes, or until light and fluffy. Add the whole eggs one at a time until incorporated. Mix the flour and corn meal together and add to the butter-egg mixture. Mix only until incorporated, being careful not to over-mix.
- Turn the dough out onto the table and shape into a block. Wrap in plastic and let the dough rest and chill in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour.
- Roll out and cut to the desired shape and size needed.
- 500 g Yecora Rojo flour
- 5 g salt
- 454 g unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
- 150 g water, cold
- Mix the flour and salt together. Cut in the butter until the butter forms shards. Add the water until the dough starts to come together. It should be shaggy, not smooth. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and shape into a block. Give the dough two double folds, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
- Give the dough another two double folds and wrap in plastic. Let it chill in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour.
- Roll out and shape to the desired shape and size needed.
- 450 g Abruzzi rye flour
- 8 g salt
- 5 g ground cinnamon
- 10 g brown sugar
- 454 g unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
- 180 g water, cold
1. Mix the flour, salt, cinnamon, and brown sugar together. Cut in the butter until it forms pea-sized pieces. Add the water until the flour comes together. Turn the dough out onto the table and form into a block. Wrap in plastic and let it rest in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours.
2. Roll out and shape to the desired shape and size needed.
Photo of Harmony Sage by Amanda Holzhauer, Mirage and Light Photography
About Harmony Sage
Harmony Sage is the Pastry Chef and co-owner of the Long Beach Bread, Beer and Spirits Lab in Long Beach, CA.
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