Prairie mom warms to the tastes, aromas of the Midwest

January 06, 2002|By Rob Kasper

Judith M. Fertig knows the prairie. She lives in a Kansas City suburb and is intimately familiar with the grasslands that stretch west of the city and run for hundreds of miles toward the purple mountain majesty of the Rockies.

She knows about grain as well. From the prairie cathedrals or grain elevators that tower over the Kansas City expressways she drives, to the wheat she grinds at home to make her own flour, grain is her frequent companion.

Her passion for and knowledge of the heartland are apparent in Prairie Home Breads (The Harvard Common Press, $19), a book featuring 150 recipes -- mostly breads and rolls -- from America's breadbasket. More than a cookbook, Prairie Home Breads reads at times like a short course in cultural anthropology.

When I visited her home in Overland Park, Kan., a few days after Thanksgiving, I almost expected her to be clad in a dress fashioned from a flour sack. The style, I had learned from her book, was popular during World War I when Belgian women, protesting German occupation, fashioned flour sacks donated by American mills into clothing. Instead, Fertig wore a blouse and slacks, looking pretty much like the modern American mom, with two kids in college.

She got the idea of writing about the prairie when she followed her husband from their Kansas home to a job in London. On a trip to an English nursery, she saw goldenrod, an ordinary Midwestern plant, being sold at premium prices and realized she had overlooked the value of what was growing in her own back yard. When she returned to Kansas, she began writing about Midwestern cooking, publishing Pure Prairie in 1995, Prairie Home Cooking in 1999 and the bread book last year.

She writes about foods, she said, that deliver "the taste of the place where you find yourself." And few foods, she said, say more about a region than its breads.

I agree, but I also think that the local beer says a lot about where you are. So the other night I made bread from Fertig's book using Midwestern flour and Maryland beer. It was wonderful.

Brewhouse Bread

Makes 1 loaf

1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast

1 1/2 cups good quality ale (I used Snow Goose)

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons molasses or honey

1 1/2 cups unbleached, all- purpose flour

1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour

3 / 4 cup stone-ground graham or substitute whole wheat flour

yellow cornmeal for sprinkling

In large bowl, sprinkle yeast over ale, set aside until foamy, about 10 minutes. With a wooden spoon, stir in salt and molasses. Stir in the flours, 1 cup at a time, until dough is stiff and sticky.

Turn the dough out on a floured surface; knead for 5-8 minutes. Add flour if necessary, until dough is smooth and elastic. Place dough in a large oiled pan, turn to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature for at least 8 hours, or overnight.

Place baking stone in the middle of the oven and preheat to 425 degrees. Sprinkle cookie sheet (without sides) with cornmeal and set aside. Punch down the dough, turn it on a floured surface and knead for 2 minutes. Form dough into an oval, or boule, and place on cookie sheet. Mist dough with water from sprayer bottle.

With a quick jerk, slide dough off cookie sheet onto baking stone. Bake for 20 minutes, then reduce heat to 400 and bake for 15-20 minutes longer or until bread turns a dark reddish brown and sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.

-- Adapted from Prairie Home Breads by Judith M. Fertig (Harvard Common Press, 2001)

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