Baking in Ecuador

by Sarah Owens


One aspect that motivates me the most about baking with sourdough is the community that is cultivated around its curious magic.  Nowhere have I felt that more than here in Ecuador.  Baking in this diverse but sometimes inadequately supplied country is a challenge on its own, despite the added complications of high altitude, high humidity, or inexperience with exotic ingredients.  The rewards have been many though and those who have shared this journey with me  have enjoyed a delicious blend of South American tradition with Brooklyn creativity.

Top L to R: Harina de Yuca, Harina de Maiz, Harina de Platanos,  Middle L to R: Pinol, Harina de Quinoa/Trigo/Maiz, Harina de Negra Maiz Bottom L to R: Amaranth, Quinoa, Barley

Top L to R: Harina de Yuca, Harina de Maiz, Harina de Platanos, 

Middle L to R: Pinol, Harina de Quinoa/Trigo/Maiz, Harina de Negra Maiz

Bottom L to R: Amaranth, Quinoa, Barley

The food in Ecuador is a complexity of simple ingredients manifest in surprisingly flavorful dishes.  Bowl after bowl of murky soup appears at Almuerzos, followed by what seems to be endless lumps of carbohydrates to accompany an unidentifiable stew of meat.  The surface of these appearances belies little of their flavor though.  Rich broths spiked with fresh herbal notes are a canvas for potatoes and succulent meats.  Bland hominy corn that I choked down as a child is a culinary celebration in this country.  So when I spied the many panaderias throughout my first few days in Ecuador, I had high expectations.  

The makings of an apple tart with naranjillo, cinnamon, ginger, and local honey.

The makings of an apple tart with naranjillo, cinnamon, ginger, and local honey.

A loaf made with caramelized onion, cumin, and blue corn flour.

A loaf made with caramelized onion, cumin, and blue corn flour.

No such luck.  Despite the endless varieties of flour and grains that can be found in the markets or grocery, most bread found in Ecuador is a bland rotation of uninspired soft white buns.  There are some tasty exceptions such as pan de yuca but rare is the dark crusty loaf with character.

So I set out in blind faith that I would be able to create something wholesome, tasty, and a reflection of what is locally available.  Butter for shortcrust was close to impossible to find on the coast as well as simple things like dish towels or baskets for proofing.  And forget about a baking stone or lame!  Here in Cuenca, I've found some staples at the Super Maxi along with promising substitutes for the steam bath method of baking levain.  Flour selection tends to vary by province and climate but I've sourced several that are sure to inspire some new recipes.  

The first loaf I attempted was at a beautiful hostal on the coast in Manglaralto.  Tagua Lodge is run by Luis and his girlfriend Caty who couldn't have been more helpful or accommodating.  With photos of their open-air kitchen and semi-industrial oven, I was itching to put mi Madre to work.  With two handleless pyrex glass pans and a little finger work from Luis, we produced a gorgeous crusty loaf of purple levain laced with caramelized onions.  Everyone at the lodge gathered to nibble, asking many questions about the leavening power of mi Madre.  But soon the humidity of the region set in and the crust softened.  It continued to toast wonderfully though and for several days we feasted on the 2 lb. loaf.   One local farmer who was adept at a type of pineapple mead fermentation was smitten with the process and traded a small container of mi Madre and a tutorial for some fresh veggies.  This was the perfect audience for baked goodies!  An apple galette laced with the tart juices of naranjillo, cinnamon, and ginger followed and didn't last nearly long enough to succumb to the action of the coastal air.  After more than a week, I said a temporary good-bye to Tagua with hopes of returning to harvest yuca from Luis' nearby finca...

Many items can be found in the mercados throughout Ecuador that can be used to create the conditions needed for a good crusty loaf of bread.  Cooking pots and hand woven baskets are in abundance.

Many items can be found in the mercados throughout Ecuador that can be used to create the conditions needed for a good crusty loaf of bread.  Cooking pots and hand woven baskets are in abundance.

Once I arrived in Cuenca, the options widened.  The rotary market was full of ceramic ware that promised to provide an ample and more manageable steam chamber.  Hardware stores were confounded but happy to sell me a large razor blade and the Super Maxi had all kinds of butter at a reasonable price.  I was in business.  

Staying with a young American couple I had found on Airbnb, I was able to use a modern oven much like the one in my own apartment in Brooklyn.  At 8,300 ft, the biggest concerns are dough that can easily overproof.  Higher altitude means lower air pressure, decreased rise times, and very dry air.  But with a few adjustments, I was able to achieve adequate dough strength as well as enough rise time to guarantee a complexity of flavor.   Instead of mixing the levain, water, and flours as my initial step in building dough, I first mixed the flours and water and allowed to autolyze for an hour before adding the levain.  This allowed full hydration of the flour, encouraging gluten development, before the action of the wild yeast and lactic bacteria ever began.  I used a low percentage of levain in the dough itself once mixed which allowed for a slow rise and even an overnight cold retardation.  The naturally slow(er) fermentation from sourdough as opposed to commercial yeast was also on my side.

Handwoven baskets from the local mercado are perfect for proofing bread.  With a 3.5 hour bulk fermentation and an overnight cold retardation, the dough was puffy and ready to be loaded into the clay baker.  

Handwoven baskets from the local mercado are perfect for proofing bread.  With a 3.5 hour bulk fermentation and an overnight cold retardation, the dough was puffy and ready to be loaded into the clay baker.  

My wild cards were two ingredients I had never encountered or used before: pinole and plantain flour.  I combined these with some barley chops and a little honey as well as whole wheat and bread flour.  The result was a delicious and hearty loaf with a touch of sweetness.   I can't wait to play a little more!

Plantain, pinole, barley, whole wheat, and oat bread.  Laced with a little honey, this was a deliciously malty loaf with a thick crust and moist whole grain crumb.  

Plantain, pinole, barley, whole wheat, and oat bread.  Laced with a little honey, this was a deliciously malty loaf with a thick crust and moist whole grain crumb.  


Traveling with mi Madre in Ecuador

by Sarah Owens


2013 took me by surprise.  Subscribers responded with enthusiasm and support for BK17's first official year in business and the sourdough experience just keeps getting richer.  Maintaining a full-time career with two part-time businesses on the side was no fair feat and a six week break in Ecuador sounded like just the reprieve a tired baker/gardener needed.  Little did my starter know, it would be taking the journey as well!

A typical panaderia in Cuenca, Ecuador

A typical panaderia in Cuenca, Ecuador

The book project that is in the works was receiving positive feedback from publishers by the time my bags were packed and I knew it wasn't wise to take time off without baking.  In addition to the cathartic pleasure that comes with leavening bread, the temptation of a year-round local growing season with exotic fruits and vegetables was an engagement I couldn't resist.  So I plotted to pack my starter...

Mercado 9 de Decembre in Cuenca, Ecuador features an endless selection of potatoes, beans, peas, and exotic fruits like babaco, maracuya, and naranjillo.

Mercado 9 de Decembre in Cuenca, Ecuador features an endless selection of potatoes, beans, peas, and exotic fruits like babaco, maracuya, and naranjillo.

True, I could have cultured a new one once I was in the country but the challenge of traveling with mi Madre was one I welcomed.  I developed a strategy to get it through the 12 hours of travel time to Quito and crossed my fingers.  After a few back-to-back feedings, I divided it into two portions and tucked them in the freezer.  Ten minutes before I left for the airport, I put one in my carryon and one in my bag to be checked.  This turned out to be a smart option since my checked bag was lost in Mexico for almost a week.  I had doubts my bag would show up at all, let alone with my valuables.  But it did!  With a dead starter of course.

Mi Madre bubbling away happily in Quito after a 12 hour journey.

Mi Madre bubbling away happily in Quito after a 12 hour journey.

Unfortunately, the bread revolution hasn't seemed to reach Ecuador.  There is a vast selection of panaderias scattered throughout each modest sized town but they all seem to serve up the same uninspired rotation of soft white rolls and sweets.  At $0.15 per bun, I suppose I shouldn't complain but quitting good bread cold turkey has been a bit torturous!

Thankfully, the portion in my carryon thawed and awoke with joyous salutation to its new environment.  It was more difficult than I expected to find unbleached bread flour at the local Super Maxi in Quito so I offered mi Madre some barley flour and whole oats.  This seemed to keep her happy until I arrived in Banos where I was to find a whole array of baking supplies, including plantain and blue corn flour.   With a little research and some basic Spanish, I have high hopes that my starter will be put to good use!


Vermont Sail Freight Project

by Sarah Owens


Sustainable commerce includes varying definitions as the movement to eat consciously evolves.  An unfortunate fact is that unless grown and purchased locally, consumer demand for organic produce often comes with a large carbon footprint.  A few weeks ago I was able to procure organic flour from the  The Vermont Sail Freight Projectan ambitious effort linking the farms and forests of Vermont with the Hudson Valley.  Thankfully the project's newly constructed barge-hull sailboat the Ceres, is as romantic an idea as it is a practical solution to this dilemma.  

Banner over a warehouse in the Navy Yard announcing the first Vermont Sail Freight Project market in Brooklyn.

Banner over a warehouse in the Navy Yard announcing the first Vermont Sail Freight Project market in Brooklyn.

The Saturday I retrieved my pre-order secured through Good Eggs, I found the casual but frenetic pace that ensued during the pick-up somewhat endearing.  It was a sparkling blue day and friends also in attendance kept me satiated with hot apple beignets.  I followed no less than three young men trying to sort my order with beers in hand and facial shadows suggesting recent sailing.  It was obvious the system needed tweaking to meet demand.  Computers were down and we resorted to an honor system of what I had paid for vs. what I would receive.  This felt like community rather than a hard-sale purchase.  I negotiated for bulk flour pricing and they seemed genuinely happy to get it into the hands of someone who valued its sourcing and delivery.

Some of the delectables that were available for purchase from the Ceres. 

Some of the delectables that were available for purchase from the Ceres. 

Indeed, the vision of this project harkens to a time when these port markets were necessity, not just a way to avoid burning petrol.  Goods were sold at competitive auction and without failing wi-fi signals to muck-up the process.  

Before those in attendance of this particularly lively event lay the contents of the ship, purchased directly from the source. Cleverly packaged in manageable sizes for the New York consumer, one could find amber jars of maple syrup, whole grain flours, dried heirloom beans, luscious jams, and exotic sculptural pieces of kombu and wakame.  The amount of loot was somewhat surprising given the modest size the Ceres suggests in person.  Patrick Kiley, one of several helmsmen and distributor of goods, fed my imagination by comparing the hull's 15 tons of cargo with the contents of a typical NYC bodega.  Not a bad haul, most of which was sold in New York City, despite the other stops along the Hudson.  

Ceres is named after the Roman goddess of grain and agriculture.  A fitting title for this workhorse of a boat.

Ceres is named after the Roman goddess of grain and agriculture.  A fitting title for this workhorse of a boat.

After room was made by selling the ship's contents, Kiley and his mates packed other goods to take back to Vermont including 1 ton of Brooklyn Roasting Co. coffee.  BK17 is left with a substantial amount of rye flour, something I couldn't source locally in NY this year because of torrential spring rains resulting in crop failure.  

A very happy baker, taking home some of her favorite organic bread flour from Mt. Marcy.

A very happy baker, taking home some of her favorite organic bread flour from Mt. Marcy.

 

After a winter of rest, reflection, and revision, Kiley said they intend to make 5-8 sails in 2014, including a possible leg from Maine down the St. Lawrence and then from Lake Champlain to NYC.  I already have notions of how to harness this unique wind-powered opportunity.  Liqueur laden fruit cakes curing on their way back North might just make some Vermonters very happy with their cups of Brooklyn java....

 

 


Lemon-Fennel Levain: A Garden-Inspired Loaf

by Sarah Owens


People are often curious about professional horticulture in an urban setting.  After announcing the title of Rosarian at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, they scratch their heads and ask "...well what do you do  all day?"  

A volunteer working in the Cranford Rose Garden at peak bloom.

A volunteer working in the Cranford Rose Garden at peak bloom.

Those who work desk jobs often romanticize working at a botanic garden.  They imagine straw hats, tan arms, and earthy smiles putzing around the garden smelling roses and poeticizing about bees.  In actuality, it's a lot of hard manual labor peppered with few moments of divine communion with nature.  Highly cultivated nature.

The last week in the Cranford Rose Collection has been a bit contrary to the sweaty, heat-induced cloud of consciousness that characterizes gardening in the summer months.  Mornings lately have been unseasonably cool and I've unashamedly spent at least an hour each day watching insects feed on companion plants to the roses.

Baldfaced hornet feeding on fennel.

Baldfaced hornet feeding on fennel.

These companion plants are intentionally dispersed throughout the Cranford to break the rosaceous monoculture and increase insect diversity.  Fennel's protein-rich pollen and carbohydrate-laden nectar satisfies the needs of insects but also presents a whole array of flavors in the culinary world including citrus and licorice.  I've watched it hypnotize bees, wasps, spiders, and ants as the ever-reaching plant offers its umbelliferous blooms to the sky.  Even the aggressive cicada killer wasps that stalk anything nearby are so entranced by fennel's magic that they barely notice you're near their ground nest, conveniently burrowed underfoot.  

Black swallowtail butterfly catepillar feeding on fennel foliage.

Black swallowtail butterfly catepillar feeding on fennel foliage.

So what does this have to do with bread?  Along with a little organic lemon zest, I have meticulously harvested some fennel pollen to lace into a loaf made with rye, spelt, semolina, and bread flour.  The result is a chewy, aromatic, and tangy canvas for all kinds of goodies: fish would be an obvious selection but also garlicky hummus or seasonal jams would accompany this bread quite well.  You can rest well knowing you don't have to be an insect to feast on fennel's deliciousness.

 

Loaves inspired by the fanciful butterfly!

Loaves inspired by the fanciful butterfly!