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Bakers are taking whole grains in new directions

Whole-Wheat Chocolate Chip Cookies
Whole-Wheat Chocolate Chip Cookies (James M. Thresher for The Washington Post)

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By Samuel Fromartz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 5, 2010

If you've ever baked with whole-wheat flour and ended up with something nearly inedible, take heart. That is not unusual, even for professional bakers.

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Kim Boyce, a talented Los Angeles pastry chef with a new cookbook on whole-grain baking, remembers the first time she tried making whole-grain muffins at home for her kids. "It was just dreadful. They were heavy, almost leaden," Boyce says.

When Peter Reinhart, a well-known baker, author and teacher, baked his first whole-grain bread, the effort yielded "a thick, dark, leathery crust surrounding an inedible wad of spongy, glutinous paste. It was awful," he wrote in "Peter Reinhart's Whole Grain Breads," which is devoted to rectifying such problems.

Granted, Reinhart's initial whole-grain foray was circa 1970, and the bread included no yeast. Still, for decades, bakers have been tugged between the mounting knowledge that whole grains are nutritious, even essential to good health, and the age-old notion that they taste like dull, earnest bricks.

Thankfully, he and Boyce did not give up. They attacked a common problem: How do you temper the weight of whole grains while letting the full range of flavors and textures shine through? If you can manage that, you can win over the most jaded cookie lover.

"It's a genuinely exciting palate of ingredients," says Heidi Swanson, the author of "Super Natural Cooking" and the popular blog 101 Cookbooks. Just as farmers markets have introduced consumers to a wider range of fresh ingredients, "whole grains kind of bring that ethos of the farmers market into the kitchen pantry," she says.

Mark Furstenberg, who formerly owned the BreadLine in the District, agrees. Although he loves a well-made baguette, "almost all the breads I make at home these days are with whole grains," he says. He is planning to bring that emphasis to his own new bakery and breakfast restaurant, which will offer a line of wood-fired breads made with organic whole grains.

In this shift, a relatively recent crop of cookbooks has proved to be groundbreaking. Reinhart's bread book appeared in 2007. A year earlier, Lorna Sass released "Whole Grains Every Day Every Way," a highly informative book that explored whole grains in salads and main courses as well as baked goods. That same year, King Arthur Flour delivered its "Whole Grain Baking," a 600-page tome.

Now Boyce, 35, who worked as a pastry chef at Spago and Campanile in Los Angeles, has produced "Good to the Grain: Baking With Whole-Grain Flours" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) with Amy Scattergood. The book takes waffles, scones, cookies and muffins in new directions, using a dozen grains including amaranth and teff. Among the friends, relatives and neighbors who scarfed up the goods I tested, not one mentioned the word "healthy." In short, by coaxing out the flavors of whole grains in new ways, Boyce managed to turn the stereotype on its head.

When you think about it, Boyce's approach isn't entirely new. After all, the culture of cooking with whole grains dates back thousands of years. Think of staples such as Scandinavian rye crackers, French pain de campagne loaves (white, whole-wheat and rye flours), Italian farro risotto (emmer wheat, an ancient grain), Middle Eastern tabbouleh (bulgur wheat), Japanese soba noodles (buckwheat), Indian roti (whole wheat) and Ethiopian injera (teff).

In fact, grains such as barley, with its distinctive nutty note, and spelt, another ancient relative of wheat that has a sweeter and milder taste, were once far more common than white flour. No wonder the famous French baker Lionel Poilâne described his signature dark whole-grain sourdough miche that he developed in the 1980s as a "retro-innovation" -- that is, going forward in new ways by learning from the past.

But if the past was about whole grains, they largely became a footnote as methods and tastes shifted to white flour.


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