I thought I knew chocolate-chip cookies. And then I made Kim Boyce’s, from her book Good to the Grain: Baking With Whole-Grain Flours.
Her chocolate-chip cookies, made completely with whole-wheat flour, lack nuts. Sacrilege! But the cookies — and the book — are a revelation. The whole-wheat flour provides a nutty flavor and nubby texture for a cookie that exceeded my chocolate-chip-cookie expectations.
You might expect a whole-grain baking book to be full of health-food recipes. But Boyce brings serious pastry experience (she was a pastry chef at the Los Angeles restaurants Spago and Campanile) to her recipes.
With chapters arranged by flour type rather than by recipe category, Boyce encourages readers to experiment with underused grains, such as amaranth and quinoa, as well as more familiar ones, like whole wheat and rye. Her interest is in highlighting a grain’s flavor, not in hiding it to nourish the unsuspecting.
Sometimes this means treating a familiar grain in an unexpected manner. Boyce’s Seeded Granola begins with rolled oats. I like nuts in my granola, but there aren’t any here. Again, I didn’t miss them. The seeds (pumpkin, poppy, two types of sesame, sunflower, and flax) provide a complex texture, and an unexpected hit of cayenne is just enough to heighten all the flavors.
Other recipes call for restraint. Boyce’s sublime Sand Cookie is made from Kamut flour. Only butter, sugar, and salt bolster its sweet taste and slightly gritty texture; your hands are the only required mixing tools. The cookie’s simplicity — in preparation and flavor — delights.
Other grains call for different treatments. Amaranth’s grassy flavor can be off-putting in baked goods, so Boyce suggests teaming it with stronger sweeteners to tame its strong flavor. Her Honey Hazelnut Cookies are glazed with an orange-cardamom-infused honey (and Quentin Bacon’s glistening accompanying photo is particularly tempting).
Of course, you can’t substitute rye flour for all-purpose flour in a cake recipe and expect the same tender crumb. Some of these flours, such as corn, quinoa, and teff, lack gluten. Rye tends to absorb more liquid than wheat, making a gummier muffin. Boyce addresses these issues in her chapter introductions. Many recipes also use all-purpose flour (this is not a gluten-free book) to maintain a pastry’s structural integrity.
Boyce addresses salt’s importance in baked goods in the Pantry section of the book. She also offers a conversion formula for different types of salt. Her chocolate-chip-cookie recipe, for example, calls for 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt (she uses Diamond Crystal Kosher in these recipes). But if you use table salt, you only need half as much salt for the same recipe.
In general, the amount of salt called for might surprise some bakers. One of the first recipes I tried was the Crumble Bars with rye flour. A layer of jam (I used sour-cherry jam, as Boyce had suggested cherries as a good partner for rye) is sandwiched between a rye shortbread crust and a crumb topping made with rolled oats and rye and all-purpose flours. And salt. I was a bit alarmed when I tasted the topping on its own, but in the finished cookie, the somewhat salty crumble topping offset the jam’s sweetness perfectly. You’re in skilled hands here, so go ahead and trust them.
Quibbles? I wish Boyce offered both volume and weight measurements for ingredients, as bakers are becoming more accustomed to scales. Buying flours in the bulk section would be easier if you knew the required weights. Trying to scoop flour from small bags and containers can be frustrating — I find it much simpler to use my scale.
I’d also like a clearer sense of the finished cookie sizes. The small yield gives you a hint, but the 4-inch Iced Oatmeal Cookies surprised me. They are delicious (made with her multigrain mix scented with nutmeg), but larger than I expected.
Finally, it would be great to have the flour and grain information offered throughout the book distilled into one chart.
I appreciated Boyce’s streamlined Technique section, in which she lists six basic issues you must note to assure baking success — things like careful measuring and knowing your oven’s actual temperature. The list is slim and solid.
Some of Boyce’s recipes offer takes on familiar foods. The Graham Nuts, for example, made with whole wheat and graham flour, are her version of Grape-Nuts. Mine didn’t grind properly with my food processor’s grater attachment (I ended up with big pieces and dust — perhaps it wasn’t baked enough?), but they had that faint malty taste you associate with Grape-Nuts, and were great in a bowl with milk. I also folded them into lemon ice cream, and layered some with vanilla pudding and bananas.
This is typical of Good to the Grain — the recipes wake you up with their new tastes, and you begin to imagine what else you might try. As Boyce says, “A recipe should be an inspiration, not just a mathematical formula.” Her book offers that inspiration.
Giovanna Remolif Zivny is a writer living in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and three children. Her writing has appeared in Gourmet magazine and elsewhere on Culinate.
Culinate props open and ponders cookbooks, nonfiction, memoirs, and other books about food.
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