All grains contain peptides that mimic morphine or endogenous opioid substances. This is where I deal with my latest loaf craving. Get your bread-based exorphin fix here.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Boiled Wheat in Bread

Migrations and DNA Memory
This week, my wife, walking the dog at dusk, listened as 20 Tundra Swans flew overhead, their pure-white meter-long bodies, tipped with black bills and feet, now a grey silhouette in the fading light.  Once called whistling swans for the sound their wings make, Tundra Swans prefer to fly at night, guided perhaps by some innate survival instinct that has served them well for millennia.

They are returning from Chesapeake Bay, en route now for the Arctic, a journey of 6000 miles or so, a trip which they will accomplish in stages, almost leisurely, following the warming of the earth, the brightening of the days, as winter gives way to spring.  One of the staging areas, where upwards of 8000 swans will gather to gain their strength and their bearings, is somewhat north of where we live.  It is a forgotten shallow ghost-lake, long ago drained by humans who came to this land to settle here.  Before there was ever a concept of ecological studies, they counted the marshy lowlands as worthless, and reclaimed the area as farmland, to grow root vegetables and cabbages in the dark rich soil.  Now the swans sit on the retreating snow, where long ago their ancestors swam between the previous year's brittle bull rushes on the briefly swollen lake, once fed by a spring river overflowing its banks .  

All of that is gone now: the river has been diverted, channelled, shored up, dredged, a new route that bypasses these fields, cut to the Great Lake.  But the swans retain a memory of the place.  They know what once was here.  Their way was shown them by their ancestors, who had it from still earlier birds, more and more distant in time, flying a long forgotten airway.  Though the lake is gone, the way still works: they will nibble a bit of ungleaned grain or some early sprouted greens, where once they dove to nourish on grassroots.  Within a week, or maybe two, they will be turning again to the sky, remembering the way north, teaching it, passing it on.

This morning I am reminded of these birds, as I read a poem called Man, Part One, by Ronald Duncan
In his introduction to the epic, Duncan describes an "emotional crisis" he experienced in 1961.  Without truly understanding why, he covered his walls with paper and painted from some innate need to assuage his loneliness.  Only later did he look at the walls to discover that "they were covered in cave-paintings.  At that time I had not seen the cave-paintings at Lascaux and elsewhere, nor had I seen reproductions of them; yet I had sketched a bison and drawn several prehistoric animals, among which stood match-stick figures holding spears.  I wondered where these images had come from.  Had I drawn them from memory?  If so, whose memory?" He began to realize that "some parts of me were possibly 20,000 years old.  I sat in this room for days in a sort of reverie, possessed by memories which were not my own."

Another memory: I read once, perhaps it was in the book Supernature, about monarch butterflies who return from the far north yearly to overwinter in Mexico.  Perhaps this now falls into the category of personal, or urban myth; but I learned they fly very high, north of Lake Superior, for no apparent reason.  One theory is that they once had to clear the mountains there.  But those mountains are all but gone now, utterly eroded by time.  Once higher than the Himalayas, they are old now, perhaps the oldest range on earth.  All that remains now is the exposed plate we call the Canadian Shield, wiped smooth by epochs of glaciation.  It no longer makes sense to climb miles high to go around crags that have long since turned to dust.  But how could the memory of those long forgotten mountains remain within the DNA of a butterfly?  It makes as much sense to say that the wind still follows the path of the canyons and valleys that once funnelled the sky there and gave the butterflies a way to travel outrageous distance.  What survival advantage does it impart now to remember things that even the earth itself has forgotten?

Untold ages ago there was an evolutionary leap from objects now studied by physics to objects now studied by biology, when molecules banded together to form life; then seventy billion years ago, grasses formed atop soil, exploiting what was at hand: sunlight, and the detritus of exploded stars, and long dead single-celled life; then, when tectonic plates moved, the grasses also divided and followed their niches; and then other life forms arose after millennia to exploit the grasses.  

And late in the game, humans appeared.  

We took the grains of certain grasses and learned how to make bread.  The memory of it is in our hands.  The scent of it in our nose.  The taste of it in our mouths.  We remember, even if we have never baked bread before in our lives.

Like the monarch soaring over peaks that no longer exist, like the swan alighting on lakes that have long disappeared, I make my bread: I bake bread, even though it costs so much more, in time and effort and money, even though it makes no sense to do so now, when bread is so cheap and widely available.  I bake all my own bread, I insist upon it, because I remember.  Something deep inside me remembers.  The memory of grain, of grass, the innate longing for Gondwanaland, the hints of a billion years of change in our DNA that has changed nothing.

Or maybe I'm just an exorphin junkie, looking to rationalize his fix.

More Signs of Approaching Spring

It's maple syrup time again.  We just ran out of our last jar of maple syrup that we made a couple of years ago.  Just in time to tap our backyard trees.  Now with the cold nights and brightening days, the sap is beginning to flow.  We collect it, and boil it down in our backyard on a burner.  Very small scale, it is nevertheless fun.

Again, it doesn't make sense for us to do this, in terms of economics.  It will never pay for itself.  Is it something in our DNA that makes us do this, too?

3 buckets on 1 maple tree that protrudes from our deck.
Yes, not the right kind of maple tree: but it still works!
Collect the sap in any container available.
Hard to keep up with it, some warm days.
You need 40 litres of sap for 1 litre of syrup.

Using boiled wheat in a bread

I've been using Rodale Press's book "The Good Grains" (Charles Gerras, ed., 1982) wherein cooking times for various grains are given.  We've all cooked rice for dinner, so we know what that's like: you add a cup of rice to 2-2 1/2 cups of water, and boil it for a little more than half an hour (Rodale Press says 35-40 minutes).  Some of us may have similarly cooked barley (or thrown it in a soup), or even buckwheat.  Other whole grains at the table are less familiar, but they can all be cooked pretty much the same way.

Wheat and Rye (and Triticale) take substantially longer to cook this way.  Rodale's book says you have to boil for an hour or more.  The longer the grain has been stored, the longer the boiling time.  Even after an hour of boiling, the authors of the book suggest you try it:  "they will not be quite as tender as other grains when done, but will have a nice chewy texture."

They also give a tip on how to shorten the prep time for wheat.  If brought to a boil for 10 minutes, then left to soak for 8-12 hours, they can later be cooked for 15-20 minutes and be tender enough to eat.  Another tip for all grains is to use "the thermos method."  You put some grain in the thermos, cover it with boiling water, leaving about 1 inch at the top so the grain has some room to expand.  Stir it or shake it, then leave it in the hot thermos for 8-12 hours.

There are other tips for cooking grains, but here I used the thermos method and soaked some wheat.  With 1 cup of wheat in the thermos, I had lots of partially-cooked grain the next day to play with for these breads, and for meals.  I used 100g of the cooked grain in each of these breads.

Cayenne on these wet wheat berries

Mis en place

Today's Breads
One of the 100g lots, I sprinkled with a teaspoon or more of cayenne before adding it to the loaf.  The other, I coated with a bit of sourdough starter.

1. Organic Whole Spelt and Whole Wheat with boiled wheat berries

  • 434g organic whole spelt flour
  • 566g whole wheat flour, freshly milled
  • 700g water
  • 20g salt
  • 100g wheat berries, cooked in a thermos, and fermented with 1 tbsp sourdough starter

There is nothing special about the number 434g, it is simply how much spelt flour I had on hand.

Because spelt acts differently than wheat, I backed off the hydration of this loaf, and didn't add any extra water when I added the salt, a'la Tartine methods of sourdough.   The interesting thing about the use of the wheat berries in this bread is that after they had been in the thermos a day and had cooled, I coated them with sourdough and let them sit covered on the counter even longer.  Whatever phytates were still on the bran layer, I reasoned, might be handled by the starter, and it would keep them moist until I was ready to use them.

The dough was mixed, kneaded in the bowl, then stretched and folded for about 3 hours.  Then I divided it, gave it a bench rest, shaped it, and set it in a basket to proof.  It was covered and went into the cold/cool garage overnight, and was baked in the morning.

The loaf had a nice oven spring, and the colour of the loaves was almost copper.  Very pretty.

proofing dough

finished loaves

finished loaves

2. 100% Whole Wheat Bread with boiled wheat berries covered in Cayenne

This pan integrale was enhanced by some whole grains that had been cooked using the thermos method, and when cooled they were coated with a Tablespoon or more of cayenne.  They sat covered on the counter until ready to use.

  • 1000g whole wheat flour, freshly milled
  • 800g water
  • 20g salt
  • 100g cooked wheat berries, covered with cayenne

This bread rose nicely in the baskets, but might have been slightly over-proofed, or over-wet.  It did sag a little in the oven.  There was some oven spring, but the loaves remained a trifle flat, compared to the speltish loaves they sit beside.  They look nice anyway.  My loaves are starting to be more consistently pleasing to look at.

I liked the taste of my number 2 bread, although the taste of the cayenne was merely subtle.  It complemented the old cheese I would put on the bread.  I suppose the berries were still a bit hard, despite my extra long boiling and soaking.   They required a bit of chewing, which tends to slow down the mouth-experience of the bread.

#2 Bread: with Cayenne

The number 1 bread was frozen, and we left town for a few days.  Upon return, I was fasting, so I didn't get to the bread right away.  I sliced into it here while I'm boiling down some sap for maple syrup, just to see what the bread looks like.  It feels like it might be a bit stale -- no surprise there.  The chickens can have the first couple of slices of this bread.  I'll take some with me to work, and break my fast at midnight.

#1 Bread, with Spelt

Bread beside the outdoor boiling cauldron of (soon to be) maple syrup.

Notes to Myself
  • Next time, try boiling the grain for 10-15 minutes, and THEN putting them in the thermos for 12+ hours of soak in the thermos-hot boiling water.
  • If you want a bit more peppery taste to the wheat berries, try rolling them in some cayenne batter. Not sure how this might work, though. I tried frying some of these soaked grains in some oil, but they just leaped from the pan like popcorn (although they didn't really pop their starch like popcorn, and they just became very very tough).
  • What's next, for DNA, for life to elaborate? We have, as a species, decided that we have the ability and the mandate and the knowledge to manipulate genes to build our food, our clothing. There is little doubt in my mind that we will use our knowledge to transform ourselves and our environment in ways we can barely imagine now.  Its inevitable, if we continue to learn about this stuff, that we will use what we know.

     Furthermore, it makes species-sense to send engineered lifeforms to other nearby planets to get those barren rocks ready for our future habitation. No water on the moon? Get it started. No oxygen on Mars? Get it ready. No oil on Venus? Make some.

     Meanwhile: too much plastic pollution back on earth? We'll build an organism that will break it down to harmless organic components. Too much carbon in the atmosphere? There's a genetic answer for that, too: perhaps microbiota that can eat carbon, and die, feeding our crops harmless fertilizer residue.

    OF course, I don't know enough to make predictions about this.  I'm still the sort of luddite who makes his own bread and taps his own trees in his backyard...

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