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This morning I started some bread dough. We weren’t out of bread, and I can’t really chew because I had dental surgery Thursday (while waiting for the novacaine to kick in, my surgeon told me stories of planting rice in South Korea when he was a kid), but I wanted the comfort of baking.

While I was starting the bread, using a recipe from Richard Miscovich’s From the Wood Fired Oven, I decided to start some pizza dough, too. I used sourdough, and whole wheat Farmer Ground Flour, and some Red Fife flour I got in Canada a couple of weeks ago. Pizza is always good on a Sunday, because there are leftovers for lunches.IMG_5085


After breakfast (pancakes of course), Felix declared he wanted to cook outdoors. Initially I rejected the idea, but I didn’t have a reason other than chores that seemed more important. Plus, I did have some dough he could use for pita. So I bargained for outdoor baking with getting him to commit to helping clean up indoors.


We both had a great time with the food and the fire. The pitas puffed up irregularly, and when they ballooned, we squealed in delight, like we were watching fireworks. Although I’d begun baking as therapy this morning, how it ended, squatting at a fire and feeding sticks into a hole cut in the hill, watching flour glow orange as the heavily dusted rounds of dough heated in the pan, was better than my original plan.


We ate in the yard, dipping the bread in dal, and a cucumber yogurt sauce. Coming inside with extra bread, Felix said, “I feel so satisfied.” Indeed.


Hot Cross Buns



Syrniki made and photographed by Ellie Markovitch.


















Just before Easter, my friend Ellie made Ukrainian cheese pancakes Friday night and put this picture of them up on Facebook. I said I wanted some, and within fifteen minutes, a few of them were in my kitchen.

I didn’t even get to see the baker. She was on a quick trip past my house, and my husband went outside when she honked the horn. I ate two sweet ricotta pancakes right away, saving a stray for later. (Take a look at her blog, Story Cooking, and you’ll want her to deliver snacks to you too!)

Later happened the next night, just as I was headed to bed. Putting on my PJs, I realized I hadn’t made hot cross buns yet this year.

The first time I made hot cross buns I was a new mother. I read Frank McCourt’s memoir Angela’s Ashes, and got afraid of my son heading to purgatory, as the author feared for his unbaptized twin siblings.

I was raised Catholic, but don’t practice it. My husband was raised agnostic, so there was no chance of baptism. But I was paranoid enough to want to cover some bases, and hungry for traditions, so I made hot cross buns and invited over a bunch of our friends for brunch.

That boy turns 17 tomorrow, and many springs I make hot cross buns. I always use some portion of whole wheat flour, and lots of cardamom. Sometimes I read a few recipes, and pick and choose ingredients and methods. This time I used the recipe from King Arthur flour’s whole grain baking book as a springboard, and the habit of pre-fermenting whole-grain flour I learned from Peter Reinhart and other bakers. Reading about sourdough made me decide to add a pancake.













This was another Facebook phenom. I belong to a group called Bread History and Practice, where a thread on wasting sourdough starter got me thinking about old bread. Growing grains and making flour used to be expensive and labor intensive. Industrialization of farming and baking has made something precious into an anonymous product that’s easy to waste. Modern dumpsters and food pantries full of day-old bread and baked goods would appall people from the mid-1800s or earlier.

Using breadcrumbs and making bread pudding are practical cooking habits that reflect the former value of staple crops. At a baking class last year I met a man who had apprenticed in Germany. One of his jobs was grating day-old bread to use in new dough. A friend of mine makes rye bread from a recipe that includes saving a piece of bread from batch to batch.

These thoughts were in my head as I put together whole-wheat flour and water to pre-ferment for the hot cross buns. Using an overnight or briefer soak of flour, especially whole-grain flour, because of its bran, is common for leavened doughs. Why not add the pancake too?

The move was not just thrifty. It was symbolic. I wanted to gather people together through the buns. I had maple syrup my son Francis had made, and some flour that Andrew Heyn had milled at Elmore Mountain Bread. I was going to bring the bread to Easter dinner at my mother’s house; using ingredients from people I knew would be like drawing them to the table.

I supervise the kitchen at Unity House, where we serve 75 – 150 people lunch seven days a week. We serve breakfast too. Part of what we offer is day-old doughnuts and pastries. Because the ingredients are so cheap, it is more economical for bakeries to make extra rather than run short.

The soup kitchen and food pantry could gather an infinity of bread and baked goods. I wish that we could transform more of this salvage into nutrient dense foods. We make cheese strata sometimes, but I don’t have a herd of apprentices to shred old bread and reuse it.


At home, however, it’s a different story. The pancake Ellie made dissolved into the buns. My family loved them, even those who have no affinity for whole grains, and I have a new way of thinking about baking. Kind of like the end of the week casserole or stew that is made from everything that was dinner all week. Only not as mish-moshy, because of the magic of fermentation working the tastes together. I can try to spin straw into gold.