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Food for Thought from Fiddler's Green

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Mickey Mouse is sweating, carrying buckets of water down the stone steps to fill the cistern. He passes by the heavy wooden table in the dimness, pausing to watch the Sorcerer's tall, forbidding frame as he works at his spells. His long slender fingers conjure flickers of light from a shadowed skull, coaxing it into a beautiful, delicately formed butterfly suffused with many colors. 

Abruptly the Sorcerer puts away his creation, dismantling it into fragments of color and light that pour back into the skull. He yawns, takes off his hat, and walks slowly up the stairs to retire for the evening. Left behind to his chores, Mickey can't resist trying on the Socerer's hat and trying his hand at some conjuring. 

Of course, we all know what happens next: Mickey summons enchants an aggressively dutiful broom to carry water for him and nods off still waving his hands. In his dreams he summons the waters of the seas and sets comets on collision courses. The storm clouds gather above him and he wakes when he falls off of his chair into the now flooded room.

Chaos ensues as unintended consequences unfold. The stubborn broom runs him over when he tries to stop it, and he ends up having to splinter it with an axe only to watch, horrified, as each splinter multiplies into a new broom carrying new buckets. Before he knows it he's floundering and swirling in the flood, clinging to the Sorcerer's spell book in panic.

Order is only restored when the Sorcerer rushes down the steps and forcefully banishes the water and the brooms. A chagrined Mickey Mouse hands the stern Sorcerer his hat, and the broom. He tiptoes past with his bucket to resume his chores, and the Sorcerer swats him on his way with the broom, ending the scene.

Baking with whole wheat flours can be akin to this specific kind of Mickey Mousing. Experienced bakers conjure intricacies of form, texture, flavor, and beauty. Meanwhile the apprentices struggle to create blunt, heavy pastries that mange to go awry in every possible unpredictable way. There is a particular alchemy to baking with whole wheat flour.

Fortunately for those of us apprentices out there, we can learn from the masters and practice our craft. I've put together a few tips I've gleaned from others (I am definitely not a baking Sorcerer!), and matched them with some recipes to practice on.

Here we go...

Lesson #1: Start slow.

The easiest way to begin is by substituting 1/4 cup of whole wheat flour for all purpose flour in what recipe you're already comfortable with. As you get comfortable, substitute up to half of your all purpose flour with whole wheat flour.

When you're ready to completely swap out your flours, remember that a little less is a little more: when you're converting your measurements, subtract two teaspoons from every cup of all purpose flour so 1 cup AP flour = 1 cup - 2 tsp WW flour.

Practice with CHICKEN POT PIE:  http://americanheritagecooking.com/2013/09/chicken...

Lesson #2: Use the right whole wheat flour.

Whole wheat bread flour and whole wheat pastry flour are completely different animals. They're often made from different grains (hard red vs soft white wheat), harvested at different times (fall vs spring), and are suited for different purposes.

Whole wheat bread flour is a muscly beast. It's got the highest protein counts (14-16%) and high gluten content. That high protein/gluten content is what gives bread its binding properties and dense, chewy structure, which is CRUCIAL to making good bread.

Whole wheat pastry flour is a softer critter. With protein counts around 9%, it has a lower gluten content, which is why it creates lighter textures even with a whole grain. Hockey puck pastries are often the result of using the wrong whole wheat flour.

Use the right flour for the right purpose and you'll already find yourself better set up for success.

Practice here with HOMEMADE BUTTERY BISCUITS: http://livesimply.me/2013/08/14/soaked-whole-wheat...

Lesson #3: Let them absorb water at their own pace.

Whole wheat flours often take longer to absorb water, which can make you doubt your recipe if you're used to all purpose or white flour baking. 'Normal' recipes may call for 1-2 hours to rest your dough, while whole wheat recipes can often call for 6-12 hours of rest, whether in the refrigerator or a warm spot.  

Some doughs will look MUCH too dry when compared to 'normal' recipes; trust the recipe, and resist the temptation to keep adjusting it while you're learning. Your dough will continue to grow and change given time. Some spells take longer to bloom.

Practice here with GINGER CHIP COOKIES:  http://www.101cookbooks.com/archives/sparkling-gin...

Lesson #4: Knead them just enough, then leave them alone.

Words to live by, eh? As applied to whole wheat baking, proper mixing can make or break the texture of your pastry. Just as we learned in Lesson #3, the dough will continue to change over time because of its absorptive properties. Of course it will look different than its all purpose brethren! It's a special flour, and behave that way. Avoid over-mixing and trust that it will turn out. It'll take some practice to develop the whole wheat eye.

Practice here with SHORTBREAD COOKIES: http://www.frugallivingnw.com/whole-wheat-shortbre...

Lesson #5: Keep your fats cool.

Pastry texture in particular flourishes when their fats are kept solid. Whether you use butter, margarine, shortening, lard, or coconut oil, keep your fats chilled before mixing. Stick your mixed dough back in the fridge between steps until you put it in the oven.

This is key step to creating buoyant, light textures. The pockets of irregularly sized solids keep it from flattening into a dense, monotone mess. If you avoid over-mixing like we talked about in Lesson #4, you should see a marked difference in the lightness of your pastries.

Practice here with PIE CRUSTS:  http://housefulofhandmade.com/how-to-make-the-best...

Whether a Mickey Mouse or a Whole Wheat Sorcerer, we can all practice our conjuring. Here are another three recipes and whole wheat spells for inspiration:

SALT-KISSED BUTTERMILK CAKE: http://www.101cookbooks.com/archives/saltkissed-bu...

COCONUT CHOCOLATE CHIP CUPCAKES:  http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Cocon...

TRADITIONAL SHORTBREAD COOKIES:  http://www.marthastewart.com/1050498/whole-wheat-s...

Good luck! I hope you enjoy your whole wheat adventures, whether you're an experienced baker or a whole wheat apprentice like me. I'll be over here with Mickey working on my basics...

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