Real Alaska Sourdough with a James Beard Nominee

Carlye Watt, Head Baker, Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop, Anchorage, Alaska

 BreadLines, the journal of the Bread Bakers Guild of America just published (Summer 2018) my article about Carlyle Watt, head baker at Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop. You may also know Carlyle as one of the founders and chief musicians of the Anchorage group Super Saturated Sugar Strings. They’re described as “Americana-meets-chamber-ensemble,” and  a “soul-shaking, infinitely charming band.” Carlyle’s as great a baker as a musician, and the James Beard Foundation recognized this in 2017 when they nominated him for an Outstanding Baker award.

       Alaska’s Gold Rush sourdoughs never had it so good. A shiny new stone-grinding mill. Local wheat ­ in Alaska of all places. A James Beard nominee for Outstanding Baker with an alternate identity as lead guitarist in an Alt Folk Rock band. Anchorageites can find it all at Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop, a sunny bakery near downtown.

Carlyle Watt, head baker, hands me a chunk of his Alaska Sourdough bread. “I’ve been playing with different formulas, trying to push the hydration.” I approve. It’s moist, full of flavor, and with a properly crackling crust. We are standing on the sidewalk in one of Anchorage’s older neighborhoods, filled with rustic log cabins, and renovated 1950s frame houses. Wrapped in their lush summer greens, the Chugach Mountains rise in the east, and ocean fragrance drifts from the west. Geraniums overflow their hanging baskets, and tourists mingle with locals at the outdoor tables. Scents of loaves fresh from the ovens overtake even the flowers.

Carlyle checking out experimental wheat at the UAF Experimental Farm near Palmer

Carlyle has been experimenting during the past few months with wheat from Ben and Suus VanderWeele’s farm in the Matanuska Valley; with a still-new custom-built stone-wheel Meadows Mills machine; and with mixing other Alaska grains into his doughs to create an Alaska Terroir loaf. His James Beard Outstanding Baker nomination in 2017 is a rarity for the state. The judges’ decision recognizes his creativity in baking breads, and his search for local grains and produce to incorporate into the bakery’s offerings.

Carlyle draws on varied influences. His roots sink deep into his family’s South Carolina Low Country food traditions. He trained at the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone Campus in California. While in school, he learned breads by going to classes during the day and baking for the school’s Wine Spectator Restaurant until 4:00 a.m. Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop owners Jerry Lewanski, Janis Fleischman, and their daughter Rachel Pennington rely on his inventiveness with breads, his persistence, and his contributions to their expanding savory menu.

The custom-built mill is a recent acquisition. Meadows Mills in Wilkesboro, North Carolina built the mill to Fire Island’s specifications. It arrived in early March of 2017. Nine months later, Carlyle is still experimenting with settings for different grains, accounting for changes in the weather, and thinking about styles of breads. He’s trying to stop spillage from the mill, and the bakery crew are still learning how to understand the wheat’s moods each day.

With two 12-inch natural burr stones, the mill should grind 150 pounds of flour each hour. Carlyle wants the flour milled fine, especially because it’s whole wheat. “The finer you mill the wheat, the more water that it can absorb. The yeasts move more freely, eating up more of the flour’s natural sugars. Carlyle likes the fresh-milled flavors, and the health benefits of the added germ and bran. He can keep those because he grinds just enough wheat for each day’s baking. The freshness and using the whole grain means that he can do a 90% hydration. His experiments show that any more hydration and the dough loses its structure; any less and the crumb is too dry.

Fire Island works closely with the Bread Lab at Washington State University, sending the local wheats for analysis and testing. “They tell us that Alaska wheat tastes different,” says Carlyle. “It’s the clean glacial soil. Because Alaska is far from pests common to wheat in other parts of the world, and the land hasn’t been farmed until the past 80 years, we haven’t needed pesticides and herbicides.”

Ben and Suus VanderWeele, a Dutch couple who have been farming in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley for fifty years, would agree with the Bread Lab. They provide Fire Island’s local wheat; the bakery also uses organic flours from Central Milling. This year theVanderWeeles grew “Glenn,” a spring hard red wheat developed in North Dakota in 2005, and provided by Rob Carter at the Alaska Plant Materials Center. Its 12% – 14% protein make it ideal for Carlyle’s whole-wheat sourdough.

Ben VanderWeele’s wheat, to the right; potatoes on the left; Chugach mountains in the back (July 14, 2018)

VanderWeeles also grew “Ingal” in 2017. Its Alaskan ancestry stretches back more than a hundred years to George Gasser, one of the earliest wheat researchers in the state. Because Ingal is a softer grain, Carlyle is eager to try out in pastries and other breads. Right now, he’s using it in muffins. Much of this year’s crop went to Alaska breweries and distilleries that prefer lower-gluten for a clearer brew. There will be more in 2018.

Carlyle’s working on an Alaska loaf that combines the tastes of rye from VanderWeeles with barley from long-time farmer Bryce Wrigley in Delta Junction. He muses that it might include barley porridge too, or couscous made from cracked barley, or oats from local sources. Barley by itself ferments too fast, but combined with the other grains develops slowly enough to make a shapely and moist loaf.

Carlyle didn’t come to be head baker at Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop by any expected route. He arrived in Alaska as a personal chef, and met his cellist wife. They formed The Super-Saturated Sugar Strings with several other artists, and toured the Northwest for three months. Back in Alaska and broke, Carlyle went to Janis Fleischman at Fire Island and negotiated for a job that would allow him to create breads in the early part of the day and play music later on. “They accommodate my schedule. I am lucky to work for people who share a passion for quality baking and the ideals associated with getting the most ethical ingredients into our shop. Janis, Jerry, and Rachel push me to be better every day. They also give us the tools and equipment necessary to succeed,” he says. “It’s symbiotic: the music probably changes the way I bake, and baking enriches my music.”

The Super Saturated Sugar Strings, with its guitar and cello, and bass, keyboard, trumpet, and violin is one of Anchorage’s best –rated bands. It’s as much in demand as Carlyle’s sourdough breads and savory creations at Fire Island – think Lucky Wishbone scones, made with the best local deep-fried chicken. He pushes his trademark newsboy hat back as he hands me a last piece of focaccia to test. He’s not making with VanderWeele’s wheat yet, but with luck that will happen soon.

Fire Island’s Alaska Beet Sourdough

Alaska has a bit of a beet problem – too much of a good thing. Farmers struggle to get the storage crop sold before harvesting the next crop early in the fall. Diners tire of beet and goat cheese salads, so we get creative and bake beet sourdough loaves. Steam the beets before pureeing them to get the brightest ruby color in the crust. Red and brown marbling in the moist crumb, complex taste, and the standout crust color combine for a bread that people look forward to every week.

Alaska Beets (August 4, 2018).

Steam beets until tender, roughly 1.5-2 hours. Cool to room temperature. Peel and puree in a food processor until smooth.

Total Dough Weight 7.500 kg


5% of total flour

Artisan Baker’s Craft: 100% .090g

Water: 100% .090g

Starter: 10% .009g

Final Dough

Artisan Baker’s Craft: 90% 3.600k

Whole Wheat Flour: 10% .400

Salt: 2.5% .100

Water: 80% 3.200

Starter: 5% .200

Raw beets: 40% 1.600


Mixing By Hand

Length of Time Until Incorporated

Fermentation Time 6-8 hours 72-76F


Type Mixer: Spiral

Mix style: Short

Hold Back Salt and Beet Puree

1st Speed: 5 minutes

Autolyze: 20 minutes

1st Speed 20 minutes

Add Salt and beet puree 5 minutes

Dough Temperature: 76-78F


Time/Temperature: 3-4 hours at 72-78F

Number of Folds: 3

Timing of folds: 0:30


Divide: 750g

Preshape: Round

Rest: 0:20

Final Shape: Boule

Proofing Device: Banneton dusted with white flour


Time/Temperature: 1 hour at 76F

12-18 hours at 43F


Oven Type: Deck

Steam: 2 sec, 3 sec

Time/Temperature: 0:32 at 240 C (32 minutes, approximately, at  460 Fahrenheit).

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Bread for Bambinos from A Greek mother


Zoi Maroudas (red shirt) and Bambino’s customers at the South Anchorage Farmers Market, June 8, 2019. Photo, TWC, 2019.

Zoi Maroudas says that her Calugine bread tastes especially good dipped in the oil from the Maroudas olive orchard on the island of Zante (Zakynthos). I have to agree. There’s a hint of a Greek Taverna with a view of the blue Ionian sea in each bite. The fragrance of the olive orchards in the oil provides the perfect balance to the bread’s subtleties.

Calugine bread from Bambino’s, with Madouras olive oil from Zante, Greece. Photo, TWC, 2019

Zoi uses an ancient Greek technique of making the bread, using only wheat flour (that Zoi orders from an Italian farmer) and water, and developing the dough during the first two days with a vegetable that doesn’t stay in the final mixture. She says that the long natural fermentation allows the flour to “blossom,” with better access to the wheat’s natural enzymes and nutrients.  A 2018 journal article that reviewed the benefits of fermentation supports Zoi’s scientifically-based arguments for why her bread is so digestible.

Calugine (which means “down,” like goose down, in Italian — something light) comes out with a fine crumb, perfect for sandwich bread or toast. Zoi has recently started making the Calugine bread in whole wheat, as well as white.

Calugine Breads, whole wheat and white, for sampling and sale at the South Anchorage Farmers Market, June 8, 2019. Photo, TWC 2019.

Bambino’s foods are designed for babies, as well as cancer patients, people like dental patients who have temporary limits on solid foods, and others with restricted diets (gluten-free, kosher, and others). Zoi works with local farmers, and Alaska has many who grow organic veggies. Her butternut squash, carrots, potatoes, and most of the other veggies come from farms in the Matanuska Valley. Barley and other grains grow best further north. Alaskan fishers supply Bambino’s with fresh wild-caught halibut and salmon for her award-winning bisques and soups.

She says that the farmers remark on how clean the soil is here, free of viruses and pests that have infected the land in other places. They take the responsibility of treating the dirt well, so that it will continue to produce abundant crops of vegetables and grains without the need for pesticides. Not enough wheat grows in the state yet to supply her needs, so she has organic Italian flour shipped to her.

Organic Squash, Carrots, Anchorage Farmers Market. Photo TWC 2019.

Zoi seasons the foods with dried herbs, often grown or collected by her mother, Athina. The tastes appeal to children as well as adults. Many of Bambino’s customers live outside Alaska, and Zoi ships their orders frozen, with careful instructions for thawing and using. A 2017 appearance on the Today show, and feature articles in a variety of magazines and parenting blogs have helped her share Bambino’s foods with a wider market. Local grocery stores sell the foods, and one Anchorage restaurant features Bambino’s selections on its menu.

Dried herbs, used to season Bambino’s foods. Photo TWC 2019.

Another wheat-based food, created by Zoi based on her extensive medical training (she studied to be a doctor, but due to circumstances took a different path) is a cookie designed to reduce the chances that a child will have peanut allergies. She consulted with allergists and researchers to develop the “Peanut-Mani.” It’s a cookie made with organic peanuts, wheat, oranges, eggs, and clarified butter. That’s it. The amount of peanut included is that recommended to help young immune systems adjust to the peanut proteins so that the child doesn’t develop allergies. Babies as young as four months old can eat specified amounts of cookie mixed with breast milk or formula. When they can eat solid foods, the cookies are the right size for them to hold and munch.

When she has the opportunity, Zoi shares her foods and traditions through occasional baking classes. She teaches traditional methods of making pita bread, sweet breads, and pizza dough (her family owns Olympia Pizza), some without using recipes. Check the website for dates of these classes, and other events.

Unassuming, despite several awards from seafood competitions for her Alaska halibut and salmon creations, and a variety of articles about her business skills and products, Zoi ends our conversation with her belief: “Food is life.”  She added that Fridays and Saturdays we call “Family fresh Baked Good Day, for Bambino’s of all Ages and Stages.”  The website is

Calugine Breads, whole wheat and white, for sampling and sale at the South Anchorage Farmers Market, June 8, 2019

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Secrets of Fire Island Foccacia and Sourdough — a Baking Class

Carlyle Watt, chief baker at Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop, with a batch of sourdough ready to make into loaves.

Fire Island classes serve three purposes — students learn the secrets of baking delicious things; they go home with plenty of loaves or cookies to demonstrate that they have actually acquired the skill, and they appreciate much more the fact that Fire Island will do all of that baking for them. Along with seven other engaged students, I took Carlyle’s class on sourdough and foccacia on December 3. For three hours we mixed, folded, and baked loaves of sourdough bread, and cut up toppings for the trays of foccacia. We left with loaves of fresh bread, slices of foccacia, and our own sourdough starters for many generations of home-made breads.

Shaping and baking sourdough loaves, using dough that’s ready for the final stage

Weighing the dough cut from the big chunk above to make individual loaves.

Here’s where it starts — with the scales. Bread-making may be an art, but like other arts, its roots are deeply twined in the sciences. Physics, biology, chemistry, and math are all critical to creating bread that’s edible and beautiful. Sciences are precise — so bread-making starts with weighing everything. Carlyle cut pieces from the mass of dough that he started with, and showed us how to shape them into rounds.

Hands are perpendicular to the table, cup the loaf, and turn it lightly, shaping it into a round. The small pile of flour in the middle of the table is for flouring hands to make the process smoother. The huge bag of organic unbleached white flour that is used in all of Fire Island’s  creations is from Central Milling Company in Utah (available at Natural Pantry in Anchorage in more manageable quantities).

Once shaped, the loaves are set in place for their final rise. Carlyle is gently placing a round of dough into a proofing bowl that will give the loaf a classic “boule” (French for “ball”) shape with the rings of the bowl imprinted on the final loaf.  Before putting the dough in, he dusted the inside of the bowl with flour so that dough wouldn’t stick to it. We also learned how to fold a couche, a heavy piece of cloth so that it would support the rising loaves.

A stack of proofing bowls.

Boules on their final rising.

We baked the boules either in a cast iron Dutch oven, or on a pizza stone in the oven. Here’s a close to perfect boule in the Dutch oven where it was baked. The loaves baked on the pizza stone turned out a little flatter than those in the Dutch oven, but just as light and tasty.

Carlyle shows us what it looks like on the bottom when done: well-browned, crusty. When tapped lightly with fingertips, it sounds and feels hollow.

The texture of the sliced bread is open with lots of good-sized holes that have thin membranes. It smells delicious and tastes better. In theory, you would let it cool a bit before slicing, but the class had eight hungry people, eager to taste the fruits of their work.

Mixing and shaping, and raising our own dough.

Measuring water using the scales.

For the next major part of the lesson, we mixed our own dough to take home and bake later, carefully measuring the water first, then the white and whole wheat flours and the leaven (starter), and mixing thoroughly. The dough needed to sit for half an hour so that the flour could absorb water (the technical term is “autolyse”). Next we added the salt and a bit more water, and mixed again.

Mixing the dough — it’s wet and sticky.

Carlyle showed us how to make a sourdough country loaf using Chad Robertson’s method of starting with a wet dough, and then folding and resting it several times over three hours. There are many other methods of allowing gluten strands to develop and shape the bread, and the yeasts to work their magic. The yeasts need time to eat the flour and convert its sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol. The proteins that make stretchy gluten hold the carbon dioxide bubbles into place, giving the bread its texture; the alcohol burns off.

Pulling up the dough to fold it over itself eight to a dozen times substitutes for the more traditional kneading to develop the dough.

The folding is gentler, and allows the larger holes and more open texture of the sourdough loaf. If the same dough was going to be kneaded, it would start as a drier dough. After the kneading, the final loaf would have a finer, more even texture.

Making foccacia

Finally, foccacia — my main reason for taking the class was to discover the secret of this flatbread.

Carlyle made the foccacia dough in an automatic mixer. The ingredients differ in a couple of ways from the the sourdough loaf – the foccacia dough has some olive oil, a very small amount of commercial yeast to keep it more consistent in flavor and texture, and a higher percentage of whole wheat flour to white flour.

After “developing” the gluten in the dough by continuing to mix it in the machine at a higher speed for several minutes, we set it aside to rise. How to know if it’s ready? Carlyle is demonstrating the “window-pane” test — stretching a little piece of dough gently to see if it can be pulled so thin that you can see through it. When it’s reached this stage, it’s ready to rest and rise  for about an hour.

After rising, foccacia dough is spread in the baking pan, with a thin layer of olive oil beneath.

The top is dimpled from the pressure of finger tips pushing it to the edges — the idea is to work gently so that the trapped gasses don’t get pushed out.

For toppings we used caramelized onions,

sliced mushrooms, and diced sweet potatoes. Then the dough needed to rise for another half hour before baking.

The mushroom foccacia baked for about 25 minutes in a 400 degree oven. We pulled it out, spread on the caramelized onions, and added some chunks of cheese; then baked it again for about five minutes until the cheese melted.

This is the finished sweet potato foccacia, garnished with arugula leaves, already a quarter gone just a few minutes after it came out of the oven..

Students savoring the foccacia.

My home-baked loaf — not the perfect shape, but its crumb is very good, and it tastes just like Carlyle’s.

For more information about Fire Island classes, click here.

Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop has three locations now: the original shop at 1343 G Street (the entrance to the shop is around the corner on 14th Avenue), and 2530 East 16th Avenue, just south of DeBarr and east of Lake Otis. The newest Fire Island shares the parking lot, a beer, and much else with Anchorage Brewing. It’s at 160 West 91st Street (off King Street).

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Who invented bread? The Australian contribution

    Bread from Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop, Anchorage [TWC]

“Aboriginals’ foods , , ,  the land is our mother . . .”  my attention was wandering from the guide’s  talk about how indigenous peoples used the native Australian plants. His lecture on respect for mother earth became a background drone as we walked through the lush palms and pines of Melbourne’s Royal Botanical Gardens. Then he caught my attention: “This is the bunya nut, which we ground for bread in Queensland  . . .” Bread? I care about bread, even if the rest of the lecture was not so compelling.

  Bunya cone ready to harvest (Queensland).

Before Aboriginals set foot in Australia, dinosaurs ate bunya nuts. For millions of years after that, other animals feasted on them.  When the Aboriginals arrived 50,000 or so years ago, they began to grind bunya nuts  into flour, mix the flour with water, and bake the  flattened dough in hot coals.

Aboriginal clans and tribes traveled hundreds of miles to harvest and share bunya nuts, sometimes from trees that belonged to a single family and were passed from father to son. The last of the traditional festivals happened in 1902 (some sources say 1887). Much of the history may come from a colonist’s account published in 1904 of her father’s acquaintance with Aboriginals in Queensland during the middle 1800s. Families revived the traditional feasts in 2007. Today, bunya flour appears in breads, gnocchi, and pancakes, among other dishes.

The Aboriginals had bread, and I wanted to know more. I thought of bread as a Middle Eastern invention. How could it have gotten to Australia before the arrival of Dutch explorers in the early 1600s, and the first English settlement in 1788?

Recent discoveries of grindstones suggest that the Australian Aboriginal peoples made bread 50,000 years ago, and not just from bunya nuts. Most of the Aboriginal breads were made from grains (i.e., grass seeds), and from smaller seeds  or roots and tubers of other plants.

   Aboriginal grindstone image, Australian Museum (Stuart Humphries)

Some Aboriginal groups say that the creator of the bread seeds was Ngurlu, the crested pigeonwho collected them and left them for people. The Aboriginals picked up the seeds, ground them between stones,  mixed the flour with water, flattened balls of dough into disks, and baked them in hot ashes. Ngurlu is associated specifically with spinifex seeds, but also more generally with other seeds used for bread. Based on this, and the fact that grindstones elsewhere date from only about 36,000 years ago, some argue that the Aboriginals invented bread.

 Crested pigeon, Sydney, Australia [TWC]  

Or was it people in Mozambique who invented bread 100,000 years ago?  Starch grains on stone tools found in caves there suggests that their inhabitants were grinding sorghum and other grass seeds around 105,000 years ago. Skeptics contend that the other technologies needed to harvest seeds and turn them into digestible food did not yet exist, so it is unlikely that people were eating the sorghum. Our present knowledge can’t settle the question one way or the other.

Other gndstones with starch seeds (oats, and other grains) date from about 36,000 years ago. Stones  found in Italy, Russia, and the Czech Republic from 33,000 to 30,000 years ago also demonstrate that people were grinding seeds in many places, and that bread itself is much older than agriculture.

We may not have a definitive answer in our lifetimes, but we do know that grinding seeds, nuts, and roots releases much more nourishment than eating them whole. Mixing the dry flour or paste with water makes the seeds even more edible, and flattening the ball of dough to a thin disk allows it to bake all of the way through in the ashes, maximizing the usefulness and tastiness. People have done this for tens of thousands of years.

There might be connections among all of these stories. How did Ngurlu’s people get to Australia?  At the present, it looks as if modern humans, Homo sapiens, began to migrate out of Africa about 70,000 years ago. This lends more credence to the possibility that the people who were grinding seeds in Mozambique 100,000 years ago took their technologies with them when they left home. Australian Aboriginals, who are more closely related to Africans than to Asians or  Europeans, probably migrated through Asia soon after leaving Africa — perhaps discovering seeds and roots to grind for bread along the way.

The small group of people wharrived in northern Australia  moved south over the next thousand years, setting fires to burn the forests and make the land and plants more habitable for themselves. The change in landscape, and hunting by the new occupants drove giant mammals like huge wombats and marsupial lions, to extinction. The fires changed the landscape from forests that thrived in the low-water environment to desert throughout most of the interior. Some of  the remaining plants, including spinifex, millet, and kangaroo grass, provided seeds for making bread.

       “Seed Dreaming,” painting by Angela Nangala Parlinjirri

The Aboriginals were still baking  bush bread and seedcakes when Captain James Cook first set foot on their shores in 1777, and when the first prison ship dropped people off to create a colony at Botany Bay in 1788 (now part of Sydney). The story of the transition from bush bread to damper (the English name for unleavened bread baked in the ashes) is in the next post.

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Gingerbread Tales

                                                       Photo, KinderKids.

“Run, run, as fast as you can/ You can’t catch me, I’m the gingerbread man.”

The gingerbread man’s one desire was to travel. Alas, he didn’t travel far, but he saw more of the world than the average cookie.

       Large gingerbread people, London market, November 2011. [Photo, TW Carns]

Gingerbread has a distinguished history since the Greek and Roman days as a medicinal, as a shaped bread served at fairs and sold as street foods from the Middle Ages on, and as decorations, especially at Christmas. Shakespeare refers to it in  “Love’s Labor’s Lost,” when Costard, Moth, and Holofernes are trading bawdy insults at the beginning of the play: “And I had but one penny in the world, thou should’st have it to buy gingerbread: Hold, there is the very remuneration I had of thy master, thou halfpenny purse of wit . . .”

For centuries, it was enormously popular because it could be made into shapes. The gingerbread man’s ancestors were complex molds, shaped like kings and queens. “The first gingerbread man is credited to Queen Elizabeth I, who knocked the socks off visiting dignitaries by presenting them with one baked in their own likeness. Gingerbread tied with ribbon was popular at fairs and, when exchanged, became a token of love.”


      Gingerbread molds from the early 1600s. The gingerbread would be mixed, molded into these, and when dry would be taken out and painted. [Photo, Historic Food blog]

                             Drawing of Hansel and Gretel and the Witch’s Gingerbread House by Adrian Ludwig Richter (1803–1884), on Wikipedia Commons.

Building houses is another use, most famously in “Hansel and Gretel,” but many other places today, from full size houses in Texas, to gingerbread villages with dozens of buildings, populated by tiny people with muffs and skates.

Gingerbread Village created by Joe Hickel, Captain Cook Hotel, Anchorage, 2013-2014. [Photo, TW Carns]

The Greeks offered small cakes at different religious festivals, including those made of flour and honey (boun) in the spring. Funeral cakes, kollyva, are still made today in places. They were shaped from boiled wheat with honey and possibly spices, and could be tossed into the grave, or left as memorials later. Some were made in the shape of a person. Offerings to Demeter and Persephone included  wheaten cakes, also sometimes shaped like people -early versions of gingerbread men. Virgil refers to cakes that the Sibyl gave Aeneas to throw to Cerberus who guarded the entrance to Hades, made of wheat, honey, and sedative drugs (probably not ginger).

They also fed Athena’s sacred snake, with honey cakes (which may have attracted mice that the snake could then eat). If the snake refused them it was taken as a bad omen. One story had the Greeks leaving Athens because the snake turned up its nose at the cake of the month, which meant that Athena had left the city. They boarded their boats, and waited in the harbor, and were saved from the Persian invasion at the Battle of Salamis. It’s more likely that the snake didn’t find any mice, and wasn’t the least interested in the cake.

Romans followed in the Greek footsteps, offering spice cakes to the gods. They brought ginger from India, probably overland, and used it for digestion as well as for a seasoning. Marco Polo claimed to have discovered gingerbread in China, but Egyptians ate it in the days of the pharaohs. Gingerbread next shows up in 995 CE brought to England by monks, Others attribute its origin to the crusaders, suggesting that it came from the Middle East.

       In Sanskrit, ginger root was known as srigavera, which translates to “root shaped like a horn.” There is evidence that it was used in China and India 7,000 years ago, making it one of the earliest known spices. One author suggests that cultivated ginger, like a number of other domesticated foods, does not grow in the wild. It can only be “propagated by splitting the root, never from seed.”

Ginger often was medicinal, as we now like to think of chocolate. Very early recipes don’t show gingerbread as a dough, but as a mixture of bread crumbs with sweeteners and spices — hence the name, gingerbread. Sacred foods and tasty medicines have often evolved into foods that are served as desserts or for special occasions. One writer hypothesizes that it was because they were served at the end of heavy feasts to settle the stomach, and gradually came to be appreciated for their virtues of taste, not just as medicinal. Chaucer’s Sir Thopas has “royal spicery/ Of gingerbread that was full fine,/ Cumin and licorice, I opine,/And sugar so dainty.”

Here is a medieval recipe, honey mixed with bread crumbs, ginger, and other spices, using modern measures:

“1 lb. Honey – I prefer organic, or something made with a flavored flower blossom, etc., but feel free to use your favorite. Just remember that the final product is affected by the flavor of the honey you choose.

Bread Crumbs – up to a pound, maybe more, maybe less. These must be UNSEASONED bread crumbs, though either white or wheat, or a combination, is fine. Be sure that they are finely ground and not soft in any way.

ginger (optional!) – up to 1 Tbs.

cinnamon – up to 1 Tbs.

ground white pepper – up to ½ tsp.

pinch saffron, if desired, but not important here

few drops red food coloring (optional)

Bring the honey to a boil and skim off any scum. Keeping the pan over very low heat, add the spices, adjusting the quantities to suit your taste. Add the food coloring “if you will have it red.” Then begin to slowly beat in the bread crumbs. Add just enough bread to achieve a thick, stiff, well-blended mass. Remove from the heat and turn the mixture onto a lightly greased (cooking spray works fine) square or rectangular baking sheet or shallow pan, ½ to 1 inch thick. Take a rolling pin & spread the gingerbread evenly out into the pan. Turn the pan over onto wax paper or parchment paper, & tap gently until the gingerbread  falls from the pan. Turn the gingerbread over once again, then cut into small squares to serve. (A diamond shape is also very nice.) Decorate with small leaves (real or candy) attached to each piece with a clove.”

One of the most interesting methods for making gingerbread was the process used during the 19th century in England and the U.S. for fermenting a treacle and flour sponge for months. One recipe by George Read (1834) for commercial production calls for alum and potash to be mixed with the treacle and flour sponge. Frederick Vine said that it was best to start the mix in the spring, and let it ferment through the summer into September before baking the gingerbread with it. He allowed as to how a one to three month fermentation would work as well.   

Photo source:



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The world’s oldest bread (so far) in Jordan

Stands of wild einkorn wheat ( T. boeoticum ) in the Karacadag mountain range. Picture taken by H. O ̈ zkan in early July 2004 

Someone burned the toast, apparently, and that’s part of the reason that researchers found bits of it still in 14,400 year-old ovens in Shubayqa 1, a hunter-gatherer archaeological site in northeastern Jordan.  Headlines on July 16, 2018 described the study about the oldest bread known, led by Amaia Arranz-Otaegu from the University of Copenhagen. Turning most beliefs about agriculture and society on their heads,  it showed that our ancestors baked bread with einkorn, a wild wheat, thousands of years before the first cultivated fields.

Scientists already knew that people managed existing stands of einkorn (wheat) and many other plants, that they harvested and stored grains, that they ground grains, and that they made them into flat cakes that they cooked, long before they began to grow wheat in fields. Archaeologists have discovered grinding tools with grain fragments in Mozambique from 105,000 years ago; from Australia about 50,000 years ago; and from several places in Europe about 33,000 years ago. Shubayqa 1 is the first site, however, to have the burnt bread in the hearth.

Australian Aboriginal grindstone, about 30,000 years old.

Even Paleolithic hunters and gatherers had a good reason to go through the laborious process of harvesting grains and tubers, and preparing the bread. Grinding and cooking plants allows people to gain substantially more energy from them than from the raw ingredients.  Some archaeologists think that the bread discovered at Shubayqa 1, however, may have taken even more energy to make than it gave back in nutrition, in part because it was so hard to gather wild wheat seeds.

Professor Dorian Fuller at the Institute of Archaeology in London, a co-author of the report, said that the bakers might have intended the bread for religious ceremonies, which would justify the extra work. After all, the bread was in a well-made stone building with flat floors, built-in hearths, and other fragments of food from the long-ago feast. Dr. Fuller said, “This discovery . . . reveals that people . . . had begun to consume food for social, cultural, and potentially ideological reasons.”

Dr. Fuller’s hypothesis finds strands of support in other wheat-related discoveries in the Middle East. People had been cooking and eating wheat at least 23,000 years before the present, and nearly 10,000 years before the bread at Shubayqa 1. The earliest evidence so far (new discoveries are made every year) is from the Ohalo II site, about 23,000 years ago, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Charred seeds of emmer (another ancient form of wheat) were found in a settlement that contained six huts, six open air hearths, and a grave.

Three thousand years after Shubayqa 1, the first fields of cultivated grains were einkorn and emmer  discovered near the temples at Gobekli Tepe in southeast Turkey. Archaeologists there hypothesized that the hunter-gatherers who built them started planting wheat so that they could be close to their places of celebration and burials.

A modern version of Australian Aboriginal seed bread, from Gurandgi Munjie group.

Scanning electron microscopes allowed researchers to analyze 24 fragments of the several hundred pieces of bread. Most of them (75%) were made only from einkorn, further supporting the idea that the people of the area valued wheat above other grains. The gluten-rich seeds would make flatbreads that were 1/4 inch-thick, more delicate and perhaps better-tasting than those  made of oats, barley and ground tubers from sedges.

                                        Flat bread — naan (TWC, 5-19-2012)

This bread was baked near the end of the Upper Paleolithic era, which started about 50,000 years ago and ended with the beginning of agriculture around 10,000 years ago. It suggests that the Paleo diet may need some revision.  How long now, until a recipe comes out for the “real” Paleo bread, and people can return to enjoying the food of their ancestors?

               The Shubayqa 1 site, with oven where researchers discovered ancient bread.

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Wheat in space

I got to wondering about whether anyone had tried to grow wheat in space. People who are raised with wheat are often so attached to it that they will try to grow it even under the worst of conditions. And what could be worse than space, where there’s hardly any room for plants, let alone “amber waves of grain?”

Photo from, showing wheat from the space station Mir (on the left), and control plants grown on earth (to the right).

But yes, people early on in the space adventure started to hybridize wheat that would grow in space stations.  The most successful variety from the mid-1990s is called “Apogee,” and grows hydroponically or in a soilless medium that supports its roots, under artificial light, ripens fast (one source says 23 days), and thrives in the high carbon dioxide levels found in the closed quarters of space stations. Not surprisingly, given the great symbolic value that humans place on wheat, it was one of the first two crops to be grown entirely in space.

An article about growing wheat in the Russian space station, Mir, in the mid-1990s pointed out that some crop failures were due to the equipment such as the lights, breaking. The next crop, grown with functioning equipment produced plenty of seeds, but they were sterile. For eating, this isn’t a problem, but if the goal is a sustainable food system in the space station, the seeds would have to be fertile to provide for continuing series of crops. A followup study found evidence to suggest that too much ethylene in the environment kept the seeds from being fertile. And the photo above, from 2005 shows third-generation plants from the Mir station growing in a lab on earth, so the fertility question was solved in short order.


Photo of Apogee and Perigee (shorter), both from Utah State University where they were developed.

Another article about space farming from 2003 points out that farmers will have to consider the effects of gravity in plant growth — something that would never occur to most earth-bound farmers because a hundred million years of grasses growing on the planet have solved most of the problems of water transport in plants. Gravity also affects the “movement of heat, water vapor, CO2 and O2 between plant surfaces and their environment.”

All of earth’s plants grow in relationship to microbes — bacteria, yeasts, and fungi — in the environment, and depend on those relationships for health. Wheat is no exception. Creating and maintaining  those relationships in healthy balance in the artificial environment of a space station or a Moon or Mars colony is the topic of other studiesAnother factor for many plants in space is whether they need insects for pollination — wheat, like other grasses, has the advantage of being self-pollinating.

Great – it grows in space — what about on Earth? Yes, as a matter of fact, the developer of Apogee, Dr. Bruce Bugbee at Utah State University, gave a about the advantages for using the wheat here, and growing it hydroponically.

A 1996 NASA article about Apogee was enthusiastic about its usefulness in making bread — it works on earth, but baking bread in space had yet to be tried at the time of the article. The plant is a dwarf spring hard red wheat, in the family of wheats often used for bread because of their high gluten content. NASA scientist Doug Ming, quoted in the article, said that Apogee’s short height makes it hard to harvest using contemporary machinery, and also creates problems with controlling weeds. Neither of these things are issues in the space station or a lab.

NASA continues to experiment with growing Apogee in space, with control plants grown on earth in identical conditions. A July, 2016 paper found some differences in the thickness of leaves and other characteristics of the space-grown plants, but no significant differences in yield. Food quality was a different matter — tests on Apogee at Rutgers in 2002 to see how well the cookies, noodles, and bread made with it turned out found that all of the foods fell short of ideal, but were edible. Nonetheless, Apogee wheat may be the forerunner of the next Green Revolution on earth, showing ways to respond to climate change, limited water supplies, and increasing populations and still provide one of the most ancient of foods to billions of people who rely on it today.

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From Kangaroo grass to wheat: Europe arrives in Australia

                      Wild emu at the edge of the New South Wales Outback (TWC).

Gifts of bread

Aboriginal stories credit Captain James Cook with bringing bread to Australia.  The stories tell about all of things that the mythical “Cook” brought: clothes, axes, animals, and bread and flour. Even though few tribes encountered  him in person, they still have Cook tales. The Rembarrnga people of Arnhem Land, where he never ventured, tell of the “real” Captain Cook, their ancestor law-man from millions of years ago. When that Captain Cook is killed, the story teller says that people tried to make him another way, and many “Captain Cooks” (i.e., white settlers) arrived.

              Captain Cook statue in Sydney, Australia (March 4, 2018) (TWC)

Cook’s first expedition on the Endeavor in 1770 spent nearly two months in Queensland repairing the ship after it ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef.  Percy Mumbulla (an Aboriginal living in New South Wales) tells how Cook arrived at an island there in a large ship.  He gave Mumbulla’s ancestors clothes and hard biscuits. After he left, the ancestors threw the gifts into the sea.  In his journals, Cook confirmed Mumbulla’s report, saying that the Aboriginals saw the gifts as things “they had no manner of use for.”

Chloe Grant and Rosie Runaway of Queensland tell a second story of Cook’s arrival bearing bread:  “Captain Cook and his group seemed to stand up out of the sea with the white skin of ancestral spirits, returning to their descendants. Captain Cook arrived first offering a pipe and tobacco to smoke (which was dismissed as a ‘burning thing… stuck in his mouth’), then boiling a billy of tea (which was dismissed as scalding ‘dirty water’), next baking flour on the coals (which was rejected as smelling ‘stale’ and thrown away untasted), finally boiling beef  (which smelled well, and tasted okay, once the salty skin was wiped off). Captain Cook and group then left, sailing away to the north, leaving Chloe Grant and Rosie Runaway’s predecessors “beating the ground with their fists, fearfully sorry to see the spirits of their ancestors depart in this way.”

Growing wheat

The English soon returned to Australia in force. In 1788, England now bereft of American colonies to which it could ship criminals, landed a boatload of convicts at Botany Bay (Sydney).  Within a few months of their arrival, the prisoners turned farmers began to grow wheat. It took  several years of hunger while they learned how to farm, found decent soil, and tried planting new varieties of grain, but by 1799, the colony cultivated 6,000 acres of wheat.

                          A harvested field in New South Wales, February 2018 (TWC).

As was the case around the world,  wheat culture in Australia evolved significantly during the 19th century. Early Australian farmers trying to clear ground and plant wheat lacked any sort of sophisticated equipment. Until the first plows arrived in 1797, the convicts and settlers used hoes and spades. The farmable areas near the coasts of the continent were forested, and often hilly. After cutting the trees, farmers hitched teams of oxen to wooden plows. An innovative farmer by the name of Mullens drove spikes into a V-shaped log, which his horse dragged along the plowed soil. The cultivator loosened the dirt and dropped the seeds in behind it. Iron plows didn’t arrive until the 1850s.

A few years later, the Australian government paid Richard Bruyer Smith 500 pounds sterling for his invention of the “stump-jump” plow. Smith’s plow went along as usual until it came to a stump or rock, at which point a hinge mechanism allowed the share and mould board to lift over the obstacle and come down on the other side. A new Australian wheat variety, “Federation,” greatly increased production after 1903 when it was first marketed. New seeds, new machines, and the networks of railroads that were largely in place by the 1880s made wheat farming possible on a large scale.

                        Wheat sheaves, around 1884 – 1917, Sydney, Australia.

Cooking and eating wheat

     During the second half of the 1800s, English in Australia might well have turned to Eliza Acton’s The English Bread Book for their bread recipes.

The English and other settlers adapted to their new environs. Occasionally they ate indigenous foods prepared in the same ways that the Aboriginals were accustomed to use them. Far more often than not, they substituted local foods in their own recipes because they couldn’t get the ingredients that they usually ate. They cooked parrots instead of pigeons into soups, and prepared kangaroo meat as if it was beef or mutton.  Mrs. Lance Rawson’s Antipodean Cookbook from 1895 gave recipes for flying fox (tastes like pork), bandicoots, and iguanas (tastes like chicken),  preparing them all using English techniques and seasonings.

                  Flying fox, Sydney Centennial Parklands, 2/10/2018 [TWC]

The indigenous peoples also adapted. They continued to prepare their traditional foods, often using English ingredients — flour, sugar, the new meats such as mutton, beef, and pork — to make their traditional dishes. More often, they substituted English foods for their own. The English foods tasted better to them, were far easier to get, and were recommended (or at times, required) by the English who ruled over them. Some English paid indigenous people who were working for them in English foods, including flour.

That’s one part of the story.  In addition, it’s also true that the English brought domesticated animals such as sheep and cattle and sent them out to graze  on the Aboriginal lands. Some of the grazed areas had been fields of murnong (yam-daisy tubers) that the Aboriginals managed by judicious use of fire to keep down pests and fertilize the soil. The English took over the grain fields and grass lands that the Aboriginals cultivated and used them for their own crops. Because many of the Aboriginal populations were decimated by Old World diseases, or by deliberate killings, they didn’t have the ability to resist, or to continue to cultivate their own foods. English foods were all that were available in many places.


                   Classic damper, cooked in campfire ashes (which would be brushed off   before eating) [From 2012, in Yandeyarra, Wendy Wood)]

One new shared food was the flatbread called damper. People have made flatbreads with ground seeds and tubers  and water for thousands of years. They have cooked them buried in ashes or over hot coals. The English brought hard tack, a basic form of dried flatbread, to Australia. Once there, they created damper from the same ingredients that they used in hardtack, but prepared  it differently. William Bond, a baker in Sydney’s Pitt Street, gets credit for baking the bread in the oven’s ashes, “damping” them around the dough.

1946 recipe emphasized the kneading process for damper, which is strikingly different from hardtack. “Take 1 lb of flour, water and a pinch of salt. Mix it into a stiff dough and knead for at least one hour, not continuously, but the longer it is kneaded the better the damper. Press with the hands into a flat cake and cook it in at least a foot of hot ashes” (Bill Beatty, in the Sydney Morning Herald). Hard tack or ship’s biscuit is not kneaded, merely mixed until the dough holds together, then flattened very thin, and baked for a long time at a low temperature until it dries out completely.

The Aboriginals claimed damper as their own as well. Before the English arrived, they made flatbreads by grinding Spinifex seeds, miller, Kangaroo grass, Bunya nuts, cattail tubers, and other local plants. mixing them with water, and baking the dough in ashes of a campfire. Today, as is shown in the next post, ground seeds and nuts are often mixed with wheat flour to take advantage of the fact that it has gluten and thus will rise when leavened.  In a bit of reverse cultural appropriation, the English version of damper is sometimes credited to the Aboriginals, as in this snack characterized as “Damper and Dip: An Aboriginal Tradition.”

Australian damper with kangaroo (buffalo can be used instead) curry dip, Maria Rodale

The next post describes wheat in Australia’s present, from damper to ramen to Aussie pies. The first post in the series is Who Invented Bread? at this link.

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Saint Roch of France, and the dog that brought his bread

Image of Saint Roch, with the dog bringing bread

August 16 is the feast day of St. Roch (also known as St. Rocco, or St. Rollox), a patron saint of dogs. He was born into French nobility in 1295, but orphaned at 20. He gave away his money to become a pilgrim, wandering through the countryside. Arriving in towns near Rome that were afflicted by the plague, he stayed there to help the sick. After several years curing people and whole towns in the area through his prayers, he caught the plague himself, and went into the forest to die. A count’s hunting dog (assumed to be a greyhound) found him, and brought bread from his owner to St. Roch. St. Roch believed that his guardian angel brought the dog to him, and showed the dog how to heal him by licking his wounds. Paintings of the saint portray him in pilgrim’s robes with a dog by his side carrying bread in its mouth.

After St. Roch recovered, the count, who had become his friend and student, gave the dog to St. Roch. The pair traveled back to Montpelier, France. Arrested as a spy during a civil war in the area, the saint and the greyhound spent five years in jail. Some say that he was cared for by an angel in jail, and some say that he and the dog ministered to other prisoners. Both could be true, of course. He died in jail in 1327.

These dates might not be precise.  A Dominican priest and archbishop, Blessed Jacobus de Varagine, Archbishop of Genoa, wrote one of the best known saints’ books of the medieval times. He published the Golden Legend in 1295, and included a detailed account of St. Roch, who (in theory) would still have been alive at the time.

How Saint Roch’s dog also became a saint to some

Image of St. Guinefort, the holy greyhound

This is not the end of the story. The dog, named Guinefort, lived on, and became part of another noble family. One day the family went out leaving the baby, a nurse, and Guinefort. When the nurse was in another room, a serpent approached the baby, but Guinefort killed it, leaving a fair amount of gore around. When the family returned they saw the blood, thought that Guinefort had harmed the infant, and killed the dog. But then, on closer look, they saw the snake and realized their mistake.

The nobleman buried Guinefort in a well, and planted trees to mark the grave. Local women began bringing their babies to the site, praying to the dog for protection. In days past, the same peasants had made offerings to the fauns and spirits in the area; now they brought their children’s clothes and lit candles as ritual offerings. Despite numerous criticisms and attempts to quash the beliefsa historian passing through the area noted that it was still practiced after World War 1. “Saint” Guinefort even has his own day, August 22.  The Catholic Church certainly does not consider Guinefort a saint, but many people appreciate the story and sentiment and continue to tell it.

Dogs and bread

Fire Island bread cooling on rack [photo by TWC, July 29, 2018]

The association of the dog with bread might seem accidental, but in fact it is likely that we owe our friendship with dogs to the fact that they developed a love of wheat when people began to plant it 11,000 or so years ago.  One of the most important ways in which dogs differ from their ancestors, the wolves, is their ability to thrive on grains. To do this, dogs evolved genes that increased their starch-digesting enzymes. Human digestive systems also developed more of these genes and enzymes at about the same time. The Nature article that described the genetic research concluded, “The results presented here demonstrate a striking case of parallel evolution whereby the benefits of coping with an increasingly starch-rich diet during the agricultural revolution caused similar adaptive responses [i.e., new ability to digest starches from grains] in dog and humans.” So wheat may be a crucial part of the process that gave us not only the food of life, but our best friends in the animal kingdom. Although other theories about how dogs joined their fates to humans exist, evidence supports the wheat theory, and the other theories are not mutually exclusive.

The American Kennel Club advises that it’s still OK to feed your dog certain kinds of bread, in moderation. No raw bread dough, however, and no bread with raisins (raisins are toxic) or some sorts of nuts (especially macadamia), some brands of peanut butter, and no Xylitol.

Mom Oreo advises her young daughter on how to catch the tastiest dinners and invite your humans to provide some tasty bread [photo, Micki Glueckert, July 28, 2018].

My thanks to Barbara Armstrong, a dog lover who told me about St. Roch, and the dog who brought his bread.

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Nursery Rhyme Pies with surprises inside

Illustration by William Wallace Denslow.

Little Jack Horner

Little Jack Horner
Sat in a corner
Eating his Christmas pie
He put in his thumb
And pulled out a plum
And said, “What a good boy am I!”

It’s a familiar nursery rhyme that has been said to be about stealing land during the reign of Henry VIII. Whether true or not, the story goes that the Abbot of Glastonbury, one of the last abbeys to be confiscated by Henry VII in the 1530s, decided to bribe the king with a Christmas pie that contained the deeds to twelve of his properties (other than the Abbey itself) rather than the ingredients of a regular Christmas Pie.

The classic Christmas pies were large, well suited to hiding deeds, and the sort of thing that an abbot would be expected to send to the king. In Henry’s day, they were filled with mincemeat containing thirteen ingredients (one for Christ, and twelve for the apostles). They had mutton, representing the shepherds in the Nativity story, and a rectangular box shape like that of the manger  Thus, the Abbot’s pie had symbolic meanings, as well as being a gift he hoped that the king would accept.

The abbot delegated delivery of the pie to his steward, Thomas Horner (who became Jack in the nursery thyme, because the name “Jack” was often associated with someone up to no good). Thomas took the pie to the king, but before he got there (so the story goes), pulled out the deed to Mells Manor. Because he was Protestant, Thomas got to keep the manor. The King had the abbot hung anyway, took the rest of the abbey and properties, and everyone continued on. The Horner family owned Mells Manor into the twentieth century; no word about whether they kept up a tradition of Christmas pies.

Four and Twenty Blackbirds Baked in a Pie

Another familiar nursery rhyme had blackbirds instead of plums in the pie:

Four and Twenty Blackbirds

Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye,
Four and twenty blackbirds
Baked in a pie.

When the pie was opened
The birds began to sing
Now wasn’t that a dainty dish
To set before a king!

The king was in his counting house,
Counting out his money;
The queen was in the parlour,
Eating bread and honey.

The maid was in the garden,
Hanging out the clothes,
When down came a blackbird
And pecked off her nose.

In this case, the pie was an entremet, an entertainment served between courses by wealthy hosts. Birds, pigs, and frogs, even people, could be trapped inside a big pie shell, and let out by breaking the crust, to amaze the guests. One interpretation of this nursery rhyme also ties it to Henry VIII.  Henry VIII was the king in the counting house, and the singing birds were people who turned others in to save their own hides, or to get rewards (a pocket full of rye) from the king. The queen was Catherine of Aragon (note that she was eating bread and honey, not pie), and the maid in the garden was Anne Boleyn.

Both of the rhymes demonstrate one of the essential qualities of pie crust. Properly made with wheat, it is a structurally sound container. An engineering school’s experiments with building the perfect gingerbread house led to the conclusion that “Dough with a tough, springy consistency and decreased moisture content is ideal, and can be achieved by using flour with high protein content, such as bread flour. Higher-protein flours contain more glutenin and gliadin proteins, which create the springy gluten network that gives dough its elastic properties.” From the Middle Ages into the present, pie crusts have been used as free-standing structures in which food was cooked, or  as containers holding entertainments of live creatures.

A German cookbook from 1553 described how to make the crust. It advised the cook to take flour, mix it with eggs, melt some fat in boiling water (which could have been butter or lard, or other meat fats), pour that over the flour, and  “work it well.” (i.e., knead it to develop the gluten). The cook shaped the dough into whatever three-dimensional shape was needed. Then they shaped a lid and fastened it to the box with water,  crimping the edges together with their fingers. After filling the crust (or “coffin,” from a French word meaning basket), the cook baked it.

Sometimes the crust was inedible, but just as often, it could be eaten as part of the meal. If the nobility didn’t eat the crust, they often passed it on to poor people, who relished the pastry soaked with the juices of the meats and spices that had filled the pie.  Alternatively, baking food in the relatively dry and impenetrable crust could preserve food, if the top layer of crust was sealed with fat of some sort.

Blackbirds in a pie (Creative Commons, 8-5-2018)

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