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Photo: Colette Davidson.
“Arnaud Crétot holds three varieties of his organic bread, which he bakes using a solar-powered oven,” reports the Christian Science Monitor.He is the first baker in Europe to use the technique.

I was 16 when I went to France and got hooked on café au lait and baguettes. So good! Understandably, the French cherish the purity of such traditional foods, but according to this article at the Christian Science Monitor, even the French can experiment a bit around the edges.

Colette Davidson reports on Arnaud Crétot, the country’s first solar baker.

“Every Thursday, he takes a break from his small business NeoLoco, roasting local grains for snacks and aperitifs, to make bread using solar panels. For the next few hours, he will scuttle back and forth between the makeshift, cabinlike kitchen he’s built in his yard … to his wall of 57 concave mirrors.

“At 10-minute intervals, the 5-square-meter contraption needs to be manually rotated ever so slightly into position, in order for the sun to properly fire up the outdoor oven connected to it. …

“By the end of the day – if the temperamental Normandy weather cooperates – he will have produced 40 loaves of sourdough-fermented, sun-baked bread. …

“Mr. Crétot is part of a burgeoning group of ‘neo-bakers’ around France who are working to incorporate local products and ecologically friendly, ancestral methods into making bread. For some bakers, it’s a question of choosing additive-free wheat or organic ingredients. For others, it’s about method – hand kneading dough or using sourdough fermentation in the place of yeast. …

“ ‘We have to adapt, to constantly re-imagine and renew our products without abandoning traditions,’ says Patrick Rambourg, a French historian and specialist in gastronomy. ‘The French aren’t against innovation. They like new things – but based on something they know and love already.’ …

“Over time, [French bread] grew to be synonymous with French gastronomy, and this past March, France’s culture minister nominated the French baguette for UNESCO cultural heritage status. … But in recent decades, the role of bread has diminished. …

“While around 10 billion baguettes are consumed each year in France, some 20,000 bakeries have closed since the 1970s. Shoppers are more likely than in previous decades to buy their bread at the supermarket, where it’s generally made on assembly lines instead of using artisanal methods. 

“ ‘When you look at what the French are eating commonly as bread, it’s an awful product of really mediocre quality,’ says Steven Kaplan, professor emeritus at Cornell University who has written 15 books on bread, trained as a baker in 1969, and lives in southern France. ‘The everyday, white baguette is an insipid, denatured bread – tasteless, not properly fermented, and full of additives.’ 

“That’s created an opening for new techniques and ingredients for those hoping to revitalize this French staple. Among them is Paris baker Benoît Castel’s pioneering pain d’hier et de demain – ‘yesterday and tomorrow’s bread.’ It’s the culmination of a year’s worth of meticulous work to find the right combination of ingredients and method to create a sourdough-based loaf using pieces of leftover, already-baked bread. 

“At the outset, Mr. Castel set off on this baking journey to fight food waste. France wastes approximately 10 million tons of food each year, equivalent to 3% of its gas emissions. The government has passed a handful of bills in the last decade to address the problem. 

“ ‘I’m lucky to have grandparents who were farmers and it’s made me realize how much we take raw materials for granted,’ says Mr. Castel. His pain d’hier et de demain is a hearty round loaf with a crusty outer layer and airy, light body, and lasts up to five days – as opposed to one day for a typical baguette. 

“ ‘That means respecting the land as well as the hard work others put in to grow wheat, cocoa, etc. We throw away a lot of food before utilizing all the energy and resources it can offer us.’

“Local initiatives in bread-making move in the same direction as trends in France’s agriculture sector. Over 10% of French farmers work with organic products and in 2018, around 7,000 farmers registered to convert to organic farming, according to national organic agricultural agency Agence Bio. Approximately 13% of French people eat organic products everyday, according to the same agency. 

“But neo-baking remains niche, and most baking schools continue to teach primarily based on dominant techniques. Thomas Teffri-Chambelland, who founded the International Bakery School in southern France in 2005, is hoping to shake up modern-day teaching. The school focuses entirely on using organic ingredients and offers the only high school-level diploma in Europe dedicated to organic and sourdough baking. Since its launch, 80% of graduates have opened their own bakeries, and none have closed since. 

” ‘Most of our students have recently changed careers and are looking for something more concrete and meaningful,’ says Mr. Teffri-Chambelland. ‘Working with organic materials or sourdough isn’t just about being trendy. It’s raising awareness about the benefits they have for health, conservation, and the environment.’ 

“[Mr. Crétot] learned about Solar Fire – the company that developed his solar oven – as well as the solar tech nonprofit Go Sol during a trip to India in 2014. He went on to work on developmental projects across Africa with them, teaching sustainable baking. Now, every month he gives training to those looking to learn more about his technique. … [He] plans to start delivering his bread to sales points by bike to further reduce his environmental impact.”

More at the Monitor, here.

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Photo: Netflix
The Great British Baking Show

There’s a television show in the UK that has become such a part of American culture that Saturday Night Live regularly spoofs it. In fact it’s from SLN that I even know about the show. Today’s article helps me understand why people love it so.

Eliot A. Cohen writes at the Atlantic, “For my physical health, there is a rowing machine, but for my peace of mind, I have learned this past year, nothing beats old episodes of The Great British Baking Show, which one can binge-watch to satiety on Netflix.

“This trick of seeking temporary refuge from the realities of a grim world by indulging in fantasies of the simple pleasures situated in some lovely part of rural England is nothing new. During the Blitz, Londoners rediscovered the joys of the 19th-century novelist Anthony Trollope. …

“Trollope is still very much worth the reading. But in our fraught times—so much easier, to be sure, than the dark days of 1940—many people like me have sought refuge in a different idyllic England of our dreams. Hence the entirely deserved popularity of The Great British Baking Show — devotees were ecstatic when, the coronavirus notwithstanding, a new season began a few weeks ago.

“Every summer for the past decade, a dozen amateur bakers have trooped into a cheerful, white party tent supplied with counters, ovens, refrigerators, and all the basic paraphernalia they need. Each week is themed — breads, pastry, biscuits. …

“The setting is the lawn of a magnificent bucolic estate in Somerset or Berkshire. Most often the sun shines, but when it does not, we know somehow that the rain is more a gentle and fructifying moisture than a miserable downpour.

“The contestants are supervised by Paul Hollywood, an experienced baker (and race-car driver), and, in later seasons, Prue Leith, the chancellor of Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh and a restaurateur, an author, and a journalist. … They have two sidekicks, in the current version of the show: Matt Lucas, an actor and a comedian, and Noel Fielding, a comic who is weird but amiable, if you like Goth.

“A decent-tasting cake is not enough. … Prue is intimidating enough in her Professor McGonagall way: ‘This is rather a mess, isn’t it?’ and ‘Hmmm. Claggy. What a pity.’ But the hard man of the show is Paul Hollywood. …

“In the days of the empire, he would have been a regimental sergeant major, looking an unhappy private in the eye three inches from his face, pointing at a fleck of lint on an otherwise impeccable uniform, and saying, ‘Your uniform is filthy, you horrible little man.’ … He is one heck of a baker.

“In The Great British Baking Show, there are standards. If it looks a mess, the judges will say so, and the bakers swallow hard and acknowledge their failures. … The vaguely obscene puns — which never seem to grow tired — about flabby buns and the dreaded ‘soggy bottom’ allow no sympathy for the vagaries of fate. Results, not good intentions or effort, are what matter.

“And yet, the show is animated by the warmth of humanity. … There are college students and grandmothers; carpenters and lawyers; soldiers, sailors, and personal trainers; immigrants (or their descendants) of varying hue from Hong Kong and Jamaica and Mumbai. They are remarkably nice to one another.

“When one of the bakers is having a crisis — a cake separating in the middle, a collapsing gluten-enhanced edifice, cracked biscuits — the others rush to help out. … They even hold hands, some of them, in that agonizing wait as the sidekicks menacingly intone, ‘The bakers now await the judgment of Prue and Paul.’ In the face of a really serious meltdown, even Hollywood can be heard to murmur, ‘It’s just a bake, mate.’

“To watch The Great British Baking Show is to believe that the average guy and gal can do remarkable things, that good nature is compatible with excellence, that high achievement will be recognized, that honest feedback can lead to improvement, that there are things to life beyond work. …

“To watch it is to know that, Brexit or no Brexit, and despite royal scandals, political cock-ups, and the occasional omnishambles, there will always be an England. And that is a comforting if possibly delusional thought.

“In short, as the Brits would say, The Great British Baking Show is brilliant, thoroughly joined up, and fit for purpose. To watch it is to feel refreshed, inspired, and confident, ready to return to work with a strong heart and a clean conscience, knowing that somewhere in rural Wiltshire or Somerset, Noel and Matt will say every week in voices of varying and unmodulated creepiness, ‘Bakers! On your marks, get set, bake!’ ”

More at the Atlantic, here.

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Now for something a little different in the Christmas cookie department. How about gingersnaps that look like ancient clay tablets? With cuneiform inscriptions.

As Jennifer A Kingson writes at the New York Times, that’s what Katy Blanchard of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology brought to her holiday party a few years ago. Now everyone wants to try it.

“Ms. Blanchard, whose passions are archaeology and baking, used chopsticks, a fish knife and a gingerbread recipe that came packaged with a Coliseum-shaped cookie-cutter she once bought. Not only did her cuneiform cookies beguile her colleagues at the office party, they also gained some measure of internet renown after a Penn Museum publicist posted an article about how she made them. (Sample comment from the public: ‘Mine will probably taste more like the Dead Sea Scrolls.’)

“From there, cuneiform cookies started to become — as the newspaper The Forward put it — ‘a thing.’ Bloggers were enthralled, including one who said she was taking a class in Hittite and opted to practice on shortbread. …

” ‘It really struck the world in just the right nerdy place,’ said Ms. Blanchard, noting that a number of people, including home schooling parents, classroom teachers and scholars of ancient languages, had taken the idea and run with it. …

“Inspired by Ms. Blanchard’s cuneiform cookies, Esther Brownsmith, a Ph.D. student in the Bible and Near East program at Brandeis University who has been studying Akkadian for years, went all out: For a New Year’s party, she baked four tablets of gingerbread, each on a 13-by-18-inch pan, and copied part of the Enuma Elish, a seven-tablet Babylonian creation myth, onto them. A stunning step-by-step description of this feat has drawn thousands of ‘likes on her Tumblr blog.”

More here, at the Times.

Photo: The Forward and Kay Blanchard
The online world is snapping up recipes for these gingerbread cuneiform cookies by Katy Blanchard of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

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Here’s a nice story by NY Times reporter Dan Bilefsky about a British Muslim bake-off contestant who is a winner on many levels.

Bilefsky writes, “Prime Minister David Cameron praised her coolness under pressure. Bookmakers monitored her performance as they do election candidates.

“Television watchers admired her raspberry mille-feuille and soda-flavored cheesecakes — along with her blue chocolate peacock, and a mountain of éclairs in the form of a nun.

“The victory of Nadiya Jamir Hussain, a petite 30-year-old, head-scarf-wearing mother of three from northern England, in a wildly popular reality show called ‘The Great British Bake Off’ on [Oct. 7] has been greeted by many in Britain as a symbol of immigration success …

“Ms. Hussain’s popularity, bolstered by her self-deprecating humor and telling facial expressions, helped the final episodes of the baking program, in which contestants vie with one another to make a variety of desserts, attracting well over 10 million viewers per show, according to news reports. She has also become a darling of social media, with more than 63,000 followers on Twitter as of [Oct. 8]. …

“Ms. Hussain’s triumphant final dessert, a ‘big fat British wedding cake,’ offered a multicultural message of sorts by fusing her Bangladeshi and British identities. The lemon drizzle cake was decorated with jewels from her own wedding day in Bangladesh and was perched on a stand covered with material from a sari in red, blue and white, the colors of the Union Jack.”

More here.

Photo: Mark Bourdillon/Love Productions, via BBC
Nadiya Jamir Hussain, the winner of “The Great British Bake Off.” 

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On days when you are thinking a lot about a faraway relative in need of heavy doses of good vibes, it may make sense to do some baking.

Fortunately, I worked at home today, so I was able to spend the time between 5 and 6:15 baking rather than running for trains. The no-peel apple crisp recipe I attempted was one that Lisa posted recently on Facebook. Although it didn’t specify an oven temperature or size of pan, I guessed 350 degrees and 9 x 13, and it came out great. The ingredients include dried apricots, an orange, and walnuts. Oh, boy. Here’s the link.

More constructively, many of us sent loving messages both for the relative and her son in San Francisco, and posted and contributed to a GoFundMe site. I especially liked Suzanne’s recommendation of a visit to Glide Memorial, a comforting San Francisco church she learned about when a former colleague suffered something dark. (I have mentioned the church a few times on the blog.)

What else can you do but let people know you are thinking of them a lot? In spite of everything, I think my relative will be deeply thankful at Thanksgiving for two Good Samaritans who chose not to pass by.

Photo: http://food52.com/blog/11755-no-peel-apple-crisp

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I remember many days with Carole on the playground at recess playing house and gathering “grain,” which we pulled off a common weed and sometimes pretended to eat and sometimes buried — in case we might need extra food someday. Carole was a great kid to play with.

Asakiyume, whom I met in adulthood, is the kind of person I would have wanted to play with in childhood. She has a wild imagination that seems to fire on all burners 24/7. And now that she is old enough to carry out some wishes from age 10 or so, she is going right ahead with them.

For example: acorn cake. At Asakiyume’s blog, followers watched her leach the tannin out of her acorns over a period of days, changing the water repeatedly. We kept tabs as she next roasted the acorns, made acorn flour, and finally baked a cake.

“Today I baked an acorn cake,” she wrote on Nov. 3. “I used my ground-up, leached acorns, and a recipe from Hank Shaw (posted here). The body of this cake is equal parts acorn flour and wheat flour.

“And–it tastes fabulous. It has a flavor like molasses with a hint of ginger, and your tongue tingles a little afterward, like when you eat something peppery. …

“It’s a tiny childhood dream come true–feasting on the abundance of acorns! (Okay, helped by honey, oil, and eggs, not to mention that wheat flour, but still.)”

Read more here.

Photo: Asakiyume
Acorn cake with sugar outlining an oak leaf.

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Photo: Tracy Lee’s Signature Apple Nut Cake

The other day I realized that since I have no plans to go apple picking this year, I better come up with a substitute apple activity to fill that seasonal need. Tracy Lee Karner had a yummy-looking apple cake recipe at her WordPress blog, here. I made up my mind to try baking it.

With the understanding that I, too, require only ingredients and utensils I happen to have handy, I baked it in an 8-inch-square glass pan instead of Tracy Lee’s 10-inch round — for 43 minutes instead of 40. I can’t be sure it was as yummy as Tracy Lee’s because I haven’t tried it in the 10-inch round, but it was pretty darn yummy.

P.S. You may have received random photos from me with no text. This will pass. I’m getting used to the Lumia 1020 phone Suzanne gave me for uploading pictures directly from the camera to the blog, which as you know, is part of Suzanne’s birthstone jewelry company, Luna & Stella. Sometimes I hit the wrong button.

tracy-lee-karner-apple-cake

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Getting in the spirit: listening to carols on the radio, decorating the fat tree my husband found, attending my friend Alden’s holiday concert at the Melrose Symphony (a whole post on that to come), and baking cookies.

Even though I try new recipes, I find the sugar cookie recipe John got in nursery school to be the most reliable, and I love the worn cookbook he made, held together by yarn, and his scribbles on the cover.

I especially love this line in recipe: “use good-sized cookie cutters so children can be successful in handling shapes.”

Here I am working away. Please note my five golden rings, Suzanne’s creation.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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Still the best sugar cookie recipe comes from the cookbook John made in nursery school, age three.

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