(Listen to the radio version of this piece here.)
There are 22 different kinds of flour in my back pantry. The space itself is awkward; it’s a repurposed linen closet next to my bathroom with a latch that doesn’t click unless you body-slam the door. Whoever opens the thing wages serious battle with the hooks that double as our coat closet. But when it comes to the flours themselves, awkward is an understatement; my flours fit into that pantry more poorly than I fit in during fourth grade (which is to say, not at all).
On the top shelf, which is reserved for sparkling water, giant jugs of vinegar, coffee, extra olive oil, and assundry rarely-used Asian groceries, there is currently one bag of bread flour and an almost-full bag of whole wheat pastry flour. (I’m storing the latter on its head, because the bottom ripped open the last time it fell out of the cabinet upon opening and snowed its ingredients down the return air vent.)
On the middle shelf, where I keep savory pantry essentials—rices, pastas, beans, and grains—there’s a four-year-old bag of chestnut flour I need to throw away, some tapioca flour, and the dried chickpeas I used to grind into a flour last week.
But the bottom shelf is the actual flour shelf. The flours I can tell you I have off the top of my head, in no particular order, are quinoa, teff, almond, whole wheat, rice, sweet rice, dark rye, corn, millet, graham, and sorghum.
Then there are the flours I actually keep in my kitchen. There’s a green bucket in the corner, meant for mixing cement, that’s filled with cake flour—a remnant of the weeks spent writing a cookbook about doughnuts. Then there are two crocks of flour, my all-stars, that I keep regularly on my counter—one is all-purpose, and one is whole-wheat pastry flour. (I use the latter because it has less gluten than regular whole-wheat flour, so baked goods don’t end up heavy.)
I’m not telling you this because I think you should buy more flour. I’m telling you because what you don’t see, reading this blog or using my recipes, is the tension between the things I love about my job and the things that make me insane. What you don’t see is that there is almost more square footage in my little house devoted to flour than there is to clothing. What you don’t see is me, in my pajamas, churning out dozens of whole-grain holiday cookies in mid-June, when I should be eating strawberries. What you don’t see is me trying to populate my blog with interesting flour recipes so that when said cookie recipes come out in edibleSEATTLE in November, people will have something to do with their leftover graham flour. What you don’t see is that every time I give you a recipe for, say, buttermilk-brown sugar buckwheat muffins, I’ve tried the recipe and toyed with it, resulting in a mountain of excess I’m rather embarrassed to talk about. I own 22 different flours. Who needs 22 kinds of flour? Wouldn’t it be better if I used the same darn flour for everything?
Well, no. At least, I don’t think so. As I see it, my role as a recipe developer is to bear the burden—oh lordy, the burden—of a cabinet that looks like 1950s London. I’ll do the experimenting here, in my house, so that you can, say, buy a bag of graham flour for a lemon-spiked blueberry bread, knowing that you’ll use at least half of it, and see how straight graham flour bakes up bigger than regular whole wheat flour, and that later, I’ll come up with something that helps you use the rest. Or so you can make those muffins, and not feel like using buckwheat is just a bit of a lark. Or so you can fry a batch of doughnuts that will make your arteries curl, and bet that when that doughnut book comes out, I’ll be giving you recipes for the whole-grain baked versions I couldn’t put in the book.
I love exposing people to new foods that could make them more excited about cooking and eating and that might, in a perfect world, make them a little healthier. I like providing inspiration for celebration, and for occasional indulgence, and for gatherings where one person looks another person in the eye and learns something new about them. I like the rhythm of my day-to-day, that ever changing, syncopated dance that allows me to blend food and life together in new measures each hour, all while wearing pajamas. This is my work.
But I really hate that cabinet.
So yes, sometimes my work gets in the way of my ideal values, which include a healthy lifestyle and a dose of minimalism and a world of easy-to-close pantry doors (although you certainly wouldn’t know it to stand in my kitchen). What I do for a living gets in the way of how I want to live. But you know that little ditty about not always getting what you want? In real life, it’s true. I want to help people eat healthier, but I’ll soon be the author of a doughnut cookbook. Hypocritical? Definitely. The right business decision for me? Probably.
So I have a new mantra, because life isn’t perfect: You can’t always get what you want, but you can always try. I can’t always write recipes that make people healthier (see here), but I can write some. I can’t depend on an organized cabinet, but I can hold a little flour rodeo once a year and make a good, honest effort at wrangling those little bags. And as I move along this path, I can decide which turns to take—which, today, means fewer refined products and a little more nutrition. Which, in turn, will probably mean more little bags of flour.
And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Blueberry-Lemon Graham Bread (PDF)
Recipe by Laura Russell
Graham flour and local honey give this classic breakfast bread a modern twist. Without any white flour or refined sugar, this bread takes a step in a healthy direction in hopes of making you feel a little bit better about reaching for that inevitable second slice.
TIME: 15 minutes
MAKES: One 8-inch loaf cake
2 cups graham flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
2/3 cup local honey
2 large eggs
1/4 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Grated zest of one large lemon
1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease the bottom and sides of an 8” by 4 1/2” loaf pan.
Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. In a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, whip the butter and honey together on medium speed for 1 minute. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing between additions and scraping down the sides of the bowl if necessary, and mix on medium high speed for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the milk, vanilla, and lemon zest, and mix on medium speed until combined. Add the flour mixture, and mix on low speed until just combined. Gently fold in the blueberries by hand.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 50 to 55 minutes on the middle rack, until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean, covering the bread with foil if it begins to brown too quickly. Remove from the oven and cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Remove the bread from the pan and let cool completely.