This ain’t all bad.

There are some remarkable things going on in my neighborhood, here in Louisville. It was warm-ish here yesterday and the sun was out, so the Pastry clan headed out for a brief bicycle ride since we still have that freedom of movement. The flowers and flowering trees have been budding and blooming for about ten days now, which for Louisvillians means the pre-Derby festivities are about to begin. Not this year though. It’ll be autumn leaves, not flowering dogwoods, that’ll be decorating Churchill Downs in 2020.

No one was thinking about that yesterday afternoon though. The four of us had barely strapped our helmets on when we heard singing coming out of a house somewhere on the block. It was a young woman singing something that sounded like a pop tune, I couldn’t make it out. Two blocks into the ride, though, I was in more familiar musical terrain. A high schooler I’d never seen before was sitting on his front porch with a tenor sax blowing Charlie Parker riffs. Now THAT’s some spring music, man!

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Talk about classic American baking…

Baking doesn’t get any more American than johnnycakes. Native Americans were the first peoples to make flat cakes out of mixtures of pounded roasted corn and water. The batter or mush would be spread out on hot, flat rocks (either thin slabs placed over a fire, or hot spots where a fire had been allowed to burn before being swept away) for thorough heating. The end result was a fairly basic preparation as you might imagine, though depending on availability other things like berries or beans might be mixed in for flavor or texture.

Early European settlers were quick to take up Indian “pone”, “ash cakes”, “hoe cakes” or “johnny cakes”, though not because they thought these Indian breads were especially delicious. These were wheat people. “Indian flour” (corn meal) was for them a food of last resort. In time, however, corn breads became a staple of North American cuisine. No longer heated on rocks, most of them were griddled over fires or baked in shallow pans in hearths.

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Sourdough Johnnycake Recipe

Johnnycakes come in many shapes and sizes. I’ve seen thick skillet versions, oblong slab versions, and flat, pancake-style versions. I surveyed them all when putting together this recipe, and settled on the pancake. First because I think it’s probably the original form of the johnnycake, but also because the thicker versions require chemical leavening to give them height and lightness.

I’m dispensing with the chemical leavening because I want to keep the formula as streamlined as possible for those who may not have access to chemical leaveners at the moment. However because I do want as many bubbles as I can get, and because — despite the pandemic — we still live in the modern era, I’m going to add some egg white foam as a lightener. I believe the results will be quite satisfactory. But I guess we’ll see!

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Or…

Reader Jen offers a stellar idea for those who are intimidated by the prospect of growing their own starters from scratch: use packaged yeast to initiate your starter. Now why didn’t I think of that?

There are all sorts of ways to get starters, well, started. One of the most common is to introduce a little packaged yeast to a 50-50 (by weight) mixture of water and flour. You let it sit about three hours and boom, you’ve got a starter. It’s what’s known in baking circles as a “poolish” starter. Normally you use one of these right away, but in truth once one of these things is going you can just keep it and feed it like you would a home grown starter. It will work just as well.

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Duck-and-Cover Pantry II: Making Baking Powder

Home baking is an essential industry. That’s true whether we’re facing a pandemic or not. So what business do any of us have sitting on our hands? However and whenever we can, we should be getting to work.

Over the weekend I encouraged everyone — especially those who found themselves fresh out of leavening — to get a bread starter going. Mine’s in the process of waking up, having been in a state of suspended animation for over a month. It should be ready for business tomorrow. But that’s me. Others out there are having to grow starters from scratch which will take about a week assuming all goes well. Meantime, there’s always the option of chemical leavening: baking soda and baking powder.

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Building the Duck-and-Cover Pantry

Before we crank the blog back up in earnest, let’s start with a quick pep talk. We bakers are hardy folk. I’ve written before that inside every Jacques Torres there’s a Chuck Norris waiting to get out. I still believe that (to one degree or another) and know down deep that as long as we keep our wits about us and take sensible precautions, we’re all going to come through this just fine — and even better, stronger bakers than we were before. Life in the future will not be a Mad Max movie. Too few of us have the groovy leather clothes. So let’s occupy our minds with the really important things, like the height of our biscuits and the volume of our meringues. Can I get an amen?

So now, to first things: ingredients. As mentioned in yesterday’s comment fields, flour has flown off the shelves most everywhere. Still I’m betting that most of us have at least some, which is good for a start. Distribution chains are holding up, which means that as time passes things will only get better in terms of supply, as the hoarders start to relax, the food makers continue to produce and ship, and the supermarkets get more product on the shelves.

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Such a House Cleaning!

I spent the day yesterday strolling through Old Pastry Manor here, pulling the sheets off the furniture and clearing away the worst of the dust and the cobwebs. I was stunned to see literally thousands of unanswered comments stuffed into one closet. I was immediately overcome with guilt…at least in the few seconds before I batch deleted them all. Because baking is about the future, not the past. At least that’s what grandma always said.

Deep apologies to all those whose questions wound up in the dust pan with the plaster chips and dried mouse droppings. I regret that you waited for me in vain. That said, if you’re still wondering about something, even after five years, just resend your question and I’ll do my best to get a prompt answer to you.

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Well ain’t this a pickle!

I turn my back for a year or two, and look at the state the world gets itself into! Did I not repeatedly say that the precipitous drop in the frequency of home baking could only lead to civilizational decline, mass hysteria and global pandemics? Oh Lord, when will they listen. Happily the sun still rises, the electric oven still works, and Wordpress…well I guess that’s another matter.

First, a big apology to everybody for the outages of the last month. Evidently a bevy of new web security standards were introduced in my absence, and not having kept up with them…well, you saw the result. Thank God for the crack IT team here at JP, who came out of retirement to get me up and running again. Ms. B, I am in your debt!

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