ANCIENT FLOURS RISE AGAIN
Growing interest in traditional grains
—buckwheat, sorghum, and teff—
goes far beyond their gluten-free credentials
Story and photos by Anna Mindess
T he enticing aromas of warm honey, cinnamon, and butter waft through Emeryville’s Bacano Bakery one early morning as workers carefully remove hot pans of banana muffins and pinwheel Danish from the oven. The scent is familiar, but there’s an odd sound here . . .
The quick slap-slap comes from the work table where owner Laverne Matias swiftly shapes balls of sepia-toned bread dough flecked with millet, chia seeds, and olive chunks. Missing is the characteristic push and pull of kneading. Since these loaves of Kalamata olive bread, like everything else in the bakery, contain no gluten, there’s no need for the classic stretching action that activates gluten to ensure that wheat breads bake up light.
Another surprise: Instead of the rice and potato flours that most gluten-free bakers rely on, these hearty loaves are made from teff, sorghum, and millet.
A Runner’s Diet
It was Matias’ passion for long-distance running that set him on an unexpected course to becoming an innovative gluten-free baker. Since his exhilarating marathons took a toll on his body, Matias researched the diet of elite endurance runners from Africa, hoping to find clues as to how he might lessen the long recovery time he needed after races. He discovered the central role native grains, such as teff and sorghum, play in African runners’ diets.
Teff is the key ingredient in injera, the crêpe-like flatbread essential to Ethiopian cuisine, and a powerhouse of protein, calcium, and fiber. Sorghum, a dietary staple for more than 500 million people in 30 countries, boasts B vitamins, iron, and zinc. These grains match up with Matias’ other aim: switching to a gluten-free diet like that of top-ranked tennis player Novak Djokovic, who saw a dramatic improvement in his game and health when he gave up gluten.
Matias embarked on his edible explorations by cooking morning porridges from teff, sorghum, and millet, and although the easy-to-digest grains left him feeling more energetic, he didn’t find the hot cereals particularly tasty. Having grown up in Puerto Rico helping his mother bake a variety of cakes and cookies, he decided to experiment with flours instead of whole grains.
He took a classic muffin recipe and replaced the wheat in turn with flours from single grains: teff, sorghum, or millet. Next, he combined two flours at a time to see how they would behave. This culinary puzzle-solving helped him pinpoint properties of each flour. His goal was not only to balance taste and texture, but also to limit added sugar. Matias found teff flour to have an earthy, nutty taste and grainy texture, while sorghum, with its natural sweetness, acted more like traditional flour and worked well in cakes.
When Matias started selling his gluten-free, multi-grain bread, cookies, and cupcakes at several area farmers’ markets, he drew long lines of enthusiastic customers, and in 2014, he and partner Elan LaLonde opened Bacano Bakery. Their notion was that rather than replicating classic baked goods, as most dedicated gluten-free bakeries around the Bay Area were doing, they would feature Matias’ novel combinations, which capitalize on nutritionally packed ingredients. Most of his breads, muffins, and pastries are original, inventive, and deeply satisfying, including a unique bread called Seeds of Joy, a complex blend of teff, sorghum, millet, and sweet rice flours sprinkled with fennel, caraway, and coriander seeds. His dark, richly spiced, sweet gingerbread is vegan and 65% teff. His focaccia owes its pliability and pillow-y softness to sorghum flour. (Below is Matias’ recipe for Buckwheat Apricot Bread).
The recent spike in the popularity of gluten-free products may be motivated by health necessity or plain curiosity, but a growing number of consumers share Matias’ concern about empty starches in the largely rice- and potato flour–based gluten-free cake mixes and frozen baked goods that dominate the market. They are on the lookout for healthier ingredients.
Master Baker Masters a Crop of Non-wheat Flours
For Alice Medrich, master baker and prolific author of award-winning cookbooks on chocolate, cookies, and desserts, an interest in these ingredients came along at a later stage of a long baking career. Medrich, a Berkeley resident, found a new challenge working with alternative, non-wheat flours, and the resulting cookbook, Flavor Flours, won her the James Beard Award for Best Baking and Dessert Book of 2014.
In our interview Medrich explains, “I finally stopped just walking by the Bob’s Red Mill section of the market. And I thought, here’s a bunch of things that I’ve never worked with: all these interesting flours, and some of them were kind of beautiful. I love looking at something from a new perspective. Right away, I realized I wasn’t interested in the all-purpose blend thing. So it was more ingredient-driven. Like, what’s this ingredient like? Very different from trying to make them all act like wheat.”
Medrich’s groundbreaking and visually stunning book devotes a chapter to each of eight different flours (including teff, sorghum, buckwheat, oat, and chestnut). Exploring their properties, flavor profiles, and affinities, she describes them as “hero ingredients” instead of just stand-ins for wheat flour. To Medrich, the gluten-free distinction is a bonus. “I chose these flours because each has a very distinct flavor—a voice really,” she says. For example, she describes buckwheat as having a toasty aroma with notes that can vary from oak, grass, and green tea to honey and rose. Her recipes for buckwheat crêpes, cakes, and crackers highlight its affinity for nuts, coffee, and dark spices.
“Teff is here to stay,” Medrich proclaims in Flavor Flours. She appreciates that it’s loaded with calcium, protein, vitamin C, and fiber, and finds its earthiness pairs well with chocolate. She shows off these virtues in several recipes for teff chocolate cakes and killer brownies (see opposite page). Medrich explains her attraction to this grain, which is almost unknown outside of Ethiopian cuisine. “Teff flour,” she says, “has a lot of nutrition. And I love putting things that people don’t think of as dessert in a dessert. I like creating that surprise. I don’t come to this from a health or diet or syndrome perspective, I come to it from the curious eater, the pastry chef, the problem solver, the I-bet-I-can-make-it-work–in-a-way-that-somebody-else-can’t perspective.”
Medrich cites an added bonus for bakers using non-wheat flours: “Most of the intricate techniques of classical baking—designed to outfox gluten and prevent it from producing tough cakes and cookies—are no longer necessary.”
Sorghum’s slightly gritty texture Medrich finds to be a little challenging, but she appreciates its ability to grow in “soils inhospitable to other crops.” As for its long history in the American South, Medrich surmises that, “Sorghum seeds probably traveled across the Atlantic with African slaves.” She pairs it with other Southern flavors, such as walnut pralines, figs, pecans, nutmeg, ginger, and bourbon.
This second wave of gluten-free baking with well-chosen, nutrient-rich ingredients has led to a resurgence of interest in various grains, seeds, and grasses that have quietly nourished countless generations around the globe. What may seem like a novel trend in alternative flours is actually a rediscovery of time-treasured staples that have been mainstays in Africa, India, and Asia for thousands of years.
Tracking Teff Traditions
Fetlework Tefferi, owner of Oakland’s popular Ethiopian restaurant Café Colucci, is passionate about teff, the world’s tiniest grain. It takes about 3,000 of these poppy seed–size grains to equal one gram. The small size makes it hard to separate into germ, bran, and endosperm, so the entire grain is ground into flour, which may explain its unrivalled nutritional properties.
Teff is also easy to grow. Planted in fields from sea level to high altitudes, it can accommodate drought conditions or waterlogged soils, and its seeds sprout in a mere 36 hours, a shorter period than any other grain.
“Teff is ancient,” says Tefferi. “Grains of teff were found in the tombs of the pharaohs in Egypt.”
One cannot overstate the importance of teff in Ethiopia, where it is cooked into gruel, baked into cakes, and made into beverages.
But this grain’s starring role in Ethiopian cuisine is as the key ingredient in injera, the sour, spongy crêpes that serve as bread, as well as edible tablecloth, plate, and utensils at every meal.
Meat and vegetable stews are served atop the huge injera crêpes, and in a culture that values eating with the hand, ripped pieces of injera are used to wrap up bites and deliver them to the mouth. “If we are travelling,” adds Tefferi, “we take dried injera chips to simmer in warm sauces with onions or use in cold salads after steaming.”
When Tefferi witnesses the appreciation and new uses for her beloved teff, she feels proud. “Because of its isolated geography, the cuisine of my ancient country hasn’t changed,” she says. “The original seeds have been preserved and cultivated by succeeding generations in the traditional manner, such as planting sunflowers to protect the delicate grass-like teff stalks from the wind.” Besides serving classic Ethiopian dishes in her restaurant, Tefferi also sells teff flour and injera chips (called derkosh) in her neighboring store, Brundo, and occasionally holds classes in injera making.
Sorghum: Popping Good Stuff
Although teff and injera are almost synonymous, Tefferi adds that in the hot lowlands or deserts of Ethiopia, injera is made from sorghum, a grain that plays another important role in Ethiopian culture: Its small round kernels are popped (like tiny popcorn) and eaten as a snack during traditional coffee brewing ceremonies.
The sorghum that Laverne Matias makes into chocolate cake and Alice Medrich fashions into crunchy cinnamon sticks originated in Egypt at least 4,000 years ago, then spread throughout Africa and into India and China. It is still one of the world’s most important crops for subsistence farmers.
Cooks in India, besides popping sorghum, use the ground or cracked grain in flatbreads. In South Africa, it is made into porridge. In Arab cuisines, the whole grain is made into couscous, soups, and cakes. In some parts of Central America, it is made into tortillas.
Sorghum is a complex carbohydrate that contains high levels of antioxidants, protein, fiber, and potassium. This environmentally friendly cereal grain is heat resistant and needs less water to grow than corn.
Ironically, the United States is one of the top producers of sorghum, but the majority of the crop is not destined for human consumption. Instead, it is used for livestock feed and ethanol production. It also serves as a building material and is used to make brooms. Going back to the Civil War era, sorghum syrup has been a popular sweetener in the American South, but today, sorghum is gaining new fans for its gluten-free potential and as the grain of choice for gluten-free beers.
Buckwheat Appeal Spans the Globe
Technically not a grain but a fruit seed, buckwheat is related to rhubarb and sorrel. The triangular seeds of its delicate pink or white flowers are a good source of magnesium, manganese, iron, antioxidants, high quality protein, and fiber.
In Eastern Europe, crushed buckwheat groats are cooked into kasha. Buckwheat flour is made into blinis in Russia, soba noodles in Japan, and several traditional dishes in Tibet and Korea. Buckwheat holds a special place in Northern Indian cuisine, where during several Hindu fasting holidays when cereals such as rice and wheat are prohibited, it becomes the go-to flour for making pancakes and batter.
But perhaps the most celebrated use of buckwheat is in the savory crêpes of Bretagne. Thriving in the rocky soil but good climate of France’s northwest corner, buckwheat is a traveler from Southeast Asia, where it was reportedly cultivated as early as 6,000 B.C. It gradually made its way through Central Asia and the Middle East, arriving in France with returning Crusaders in the 12th and 13th centuries.
Called galettes, Bretagne’s hearty buckwheat flour crêpes are usually filled with some combination of cheese, ham, mushrooms, spinach, ratatouille, onions, tomatoes, sausage, tuna, turkey, ground beef, or a fried egg. In French cuisine, there is a distinction between savory and sweet crêpes. The latter term refers to lighter wheat-flour crêpes, typically holding Nutella, bananas, jam, or just a sprinkling of sugar.
In France, galettes and crêpes are made at ubiquitous street-side stands, but also in crêperies, specialized restaurants where one might enjoy a meal of a savory galette, a wide-mouthed cup of alcoholic apple cider, a salad, and then a sweet crêpe for dessert.
At several farmers’ markets around the East Bay, underneath a big blue-and-white tent labeled “La Crêpe à Moi,” Dj Dahmani or his wife Rebekka ladles out their 100% organic buckwheat batter and gives it a careful swirl with a traditional French wooden tool to evenly cover the hot crêpe griddle with a thin coating. Moments later, they use a long spatula to gently flip the thin cake. When done, it is filled, folded, and served.
Dj, who is French-Algerian, got his first summer job at the age of 18 making crêpes in La Villette, a large urban cultural park in Paris. After a long career at a range of Parisian restaurants, he met Rebekka, a Francophile from Sonoma County who was working in Paris. They married, had a child, and moved to California, where Dj thought his extensive resume would easily land him a job in fine dining. But it was 2006, the start of the Great Recession, and Dj had to settle for a bussing position. What saved the couple was their idea for a crêpe-making stand. Out on the festival circuit they garnered an overwhelmingly positive response for their crêpes, and they soon realized they could cut their long driving distances by restricting the circuit to East Bay farmers’ markets. They currently make and sell fresh crêpes at the Jack London Square, Alameda, Kensington, San Leandro, and Concord markets.
“We try to make authentic French crêpes, using only traditional ingredients,” says Dj. “But we also try to follow the desires of our customers.” A year after they started in 2009, they heard that many customers wanted their crêpes to be gluten-free. “Most traditional recipes in Bretagne include a small amount of white flour to make the batter easier to handle,” explains Rebekka. “But we accommodated those requests and now use only 100% buckwheat flour in our savory crêpes,” she adds, “even though it’s more expensive, harder to handle, and more time consuming to make.” In France, crêpes from crêpe stands are usually folded into wide triangles and served wrapped in white paper cones. “When our customers wanted to eat with a fork and knife, then on plates, we also adapted,” says Dj. “But when someone asked me for a pineapple crêpe—non, merci. That was too much. The point is that we are carrying on a tradition.” They hope to open a traditional crêperie in the East Bay soon.
Whether relishing a modern riff on ancient grains or enjoying a traditional dish that still sustains with satisfying flavors and nutrition, we can feel linked to the long history behind buckwheat, sorghum, and teff flours connecting caravans to Crusades to kitchens around the world.
Freelance writer Anna Mindess follows immigrant food journeys and stories of cities where food and locale deliciously intertwine. A frequent contributor to Oakland Magazine, KQED Bay Area Bites, and Berkeleyside, she also works as a sign language interpreter and combines her food and culture interests by leading tasting tours in ASL. Find more of her writing a eastbayethniceats.com.
Bittersweet Teff Brownies
Excerpted from Flavor Flours by Alice Medrich (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2014.
Makes sixteen 2-inch brownies
These moist and deeply chocolate brownies have a light, rather elegant melt-in-your-mouth texture. Teff flour has a nuance of cocoa flavor to start with, so it is a natural choice for brownies. If you need something dressier than brownies, bake the batter in a 9-inch round pan and serve wedges with whipped cream—and perhaps a scattering of seasonal berries—and call it dessert. Either way, the recipe comes together quickly and the results remain deliciously moist for a few days.
10 tablespoons (1¼ sticks) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
6 ounces 70% chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 scant cup sugar
¾ cup teff flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (optional)
3 large eggs, cold
1 cup walnut or pecan pieces (optional)
Handheld electric mixer
8-inch square pan, bottom and all four sides lined with foil
Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°.
Melt the butter with the chocolate in a medium heatproof bowl set directly in a wide skillet of barely simmering water. Stir frequently until the mixture is melted and smooth.
Remove the bowl from the water and cool the mixture to lukewarm. Stir in the sugar, teff flour, salt, and vanilla, if using. Add all of the eggs and beat on high speed with the handheld mixer for about 2 minutes. The batter will get thicker and a little lighter in color, like chocolate frosting. Stir in the nuts, if using.
Scrape the batter into the pan and spread it evenly. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out fairly dry and clean (don’t worry; the brownies will be moist even if the toothpick is not).
Cool on a rack. Lift the foil ends to transfer the brownies to a cutting board. Cut into 16 squares. The brownies may be kept in an airtight container for 2 to 3 days.
Buckwheat Apricot Bread
This dairy-free, wheat-free bread, a creation of Laverne Matias, is so versatile you can enjoy it for breakfast or dinner. Earthy, moist, and nutty, with just a hint of sweetness, it’s great toasted and topped with apricot preserves or avocado.
1 cup buckwheat flour
1 cup tapioca flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ cup flax seed meal
¼ cup psyllium husks
½ cup unsulfured dried apricots, finely diced
¾ cup hot water
4 eggs, at room temperature, separated
2½ tablespoons olive oil
¼ cup molasses (or maple syrup)
1 cup pitted fresh ripe apricots, chopped
Preheat oven to 375°. Oil an 8½-inch x 4½-inch loaf pan.
In a large bowl, whisk together buckwheat and tapioca flours, baking powder, and salt until the mixture attains a uniform color, then set aside.
In a small bowl, mix the flax meal, psyllium husks, dried apricots, and hot water until well blended, then let rest for 7 minutes.
In a separate bowl, stir together egg yolks, oil, and molasses until blended.
Transfer the flax meal mixture to a food processor and purée, adding fresh apricots and pulsing until the apricots are cut into small pieces and well integrated.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk egg whites until soft peaks form. Add the puréed apricot mixture to the whipped egg whites and integrate well at medium speed for about a minute, then add the egg yolk, oil, and molasses mixture and continue mixing for another minute.
Add half of the dry ingredient mixture to the mixer bowl, mixing at low speed to incorporate. Then add the rest of the dry mixture and continue mixing for 2 to 3 minutes, scraping the sides of the bowl. The batter will be sticky. Pour it into the oiled pan and smooth the top with a spatula.
Bake for 30 minutes at 375°. Then reduce the temperature to 350° and bake for 30 more minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Let rest in the pan for 5 minutes, then de-pan and cool on a wire rack.
Serve immediately or store in an airtight container for up to 3 days or in freezer for up to 4 weeks.
Editor’s note: Two sets of recipe testers put this through the drill and both remarked at the bread’s deliciousness.
“I was looking forward to having it for breakfast,” said Adrienne Baker, “but there was none left.”