Here's a little story for you. One day, years ago, I read an article in the Los Angeles Times about a pastry chef named Kim Boyce who was learning how to bake muffins with whole-grain flours so she could feed her two little girls snacks that were delicious and healthy at once. Sounds sort of familiar, doesn't it? Except the recipes included were anything but familiar. Kamut muffins made with Cotswold cheese, or oat flour muffins studded with apples, these muffins sounded...spectacular. I made a batch of whole-wheat muffins with yielding pockets of roasted sweet potatoes and mooned over the whole batch.
A few years later, sitting at my desk at the company where I edited cookbooks, an agent sent me a proposal for a book. Written by Kim Boyce. But instead of a book of muffins, I found a proposal for a book stuffed with dozens and dozens and dozens of recipes, for cakes, breads, pie doughs, and more, all made with different kinds of whole-grain flours, all bound together by Kim's brilliant philosophy: that whole-grain flours shouldn't just be eaten for their nutritional value, but rather for the subtle and delicious flavors each one had, especially when combined intelligently with flavorings like ripe apricots, dark chocolate, damp Muscovado sugar, rhubarb-hibiscus compote or fresh herbs.
Like I said. Brilliant. It took me one read through Kim's proposal to know that I had to publish her book. And also bake every single thing she mentioned.
So yes, this isn't an impartial post. This post is about as biased as you're going to get. But trust me when I tell you this book is a marvel. I don't know how to pick which recipe is worth the price of the book, because each one is.
Oatmeal cookies, palm-sized and iced with Jackson Pollockian drizzles, made with a mix of flours like barley, oat, millet and rye. Just as chewy and perfect as the ones you get at the convenience store. Except, you know, better.
From graham crackers made with teff flour to chocolate babka made with Kamut flour to flaky rye pie dough to homemade cereal uncannily resembling Grape-Nuts, made with graham flour and buttermilk, everything in this book is wonderful. Delicious. Interesting. A classic. Things I'll be making and baking until I'm old and gray, I know it.
The point is not that you're remaking classic recipes as healthy alternatives, but rather that Kim's desserts are stand-alone gems in their own right. You'll find yourself craving her whole-wheat chocolate chip cookies because they taste better, full-flavored and rich, than others you've made before, not because they're made with whole-wheat flour. You're also learning that whole-grain flours have subtle flavors to be teased out.
Did you know that corn flour shines when paired with bright, fruity notes? Or that oat flour has a milky flavor best paired with chocolate or butter? Amaranth is grassy and meant to be mixed with musky sugars like Muscovado. Buckwheat is faintly bitter and needs fall fruits to show off its complex character. Kim put an enormous amount of work into this book - every page is filled with information. I learned so much working on this book and cooking from it.
My most recent discovery from its pages is this humble-sounding Olive Oil Cake. Ho-hum, you might say. Haven't we been here before? It's probably citrus-flavored, you think, and a little boring. Okay, so listen to this. First of all, it uses a combination of spelt flour and all-purpose flour. Just so that the cake has a little character, a sturdy little crumb, appealingly speckled. Then, you add chopped dark chocolate and minced fresh rosemary.
I know. I did not think I would ever be a fan of rosemary in cake. I like it on my potatoes just fine, but in my desserts? Nah, no thanks.
Silly me. If anyone was going to make the combination not only seem right, but essential, it'd be Kim. I don't know how she figured this out, but the fruity olive oil, the dark funk of the chocolate and the herbal, aggressive rosemary combine in the heat of the oven to produce the most astonishing thing: a simple tea cake that tastes complex and deep and delicious, with a flavor that is very, very difficult to put your figure on. It tastes so bewitchingly good, you will find yourself thinking about the cake the day after you make it, and the day after that as well, trying to find excuses to bake another round of it. Pretty wonderful.
Do you ever pick up a book and just sort of feel like you were meant to be holding it, that if you could be kindred spirits with an object, that book would be it? That's how I feel about Good to the Grain. I clutch it to my chest periodically, find myself poring over the pages, the rich colors and photos, getting hungry with each passing page. Yes, if books could be kindred spirits, this one would be mine. Its author already is.
Olive Oil Cake
Kim's note: You don't need to use a specialty olive oil for this cake. But if you have one with a lot of flavor, the cake will be that much better.
Olive oil for the pan
3/4 cup spelt flour
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup olive oil
3/4 cup whole milk
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, finely chopped
5 ounces bittersweet chocolate (70% cacao), chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. (175 degrees C.). Rub a 9 1/2-inch fluted tart pan with olive oil.
2. Sift the dry ingredients into a large bowl, pouring any bits of grain or other ingredients left in the sifter back into the bowl. Set aside.
3. In another large bowl, whisk the eggs thoroughly. Add the olive oil, milk and rosemary and whisk again. Using a spatula, fold the wet ingredients into the dry, gently mixing just until combined. Stir in the chocolate. Pour the batter into the pan, spreading it evenly and smoothing the top.
4. Bake for about 40 minutes, or until the top is domed, golden brown, and a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean. The cake can be eaten warm or cool from the pan, or cooled, wrapped tightly in plastic, and kept for 2 days.