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Appetites: 'Heritage wheat' gives rise to tasty breads

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Heritage wheat
A bunch of heritage wheat hangs outside the home of Sunrise Flour Mill's Darrold and Marty Glanville Friday, Jan. 17, 2014 in North Branch. For fun, the couple tried to grow it in their backyard last summer. The grains they mill into flour come from Kansas and Alberta, Canada.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

Editor's note: Food author and critic Beth Dooley joined MPR News' Tom Crann to talk about heritage wheat on All Things Considered. Click the audio player to hear their conversation, and read Dooley's thoughts on heritage wheat below.

Something about wheat speaks to the American soul: we sing the beauty of amber waves of grain;  pennies minted in the 1950's show bundles of sheaves.

Wherever it is grown these days -- Washington state, Texas, Kansas -- commodity wheat is of a modern variety, bred for yield, disease resistance, ease of harvesting and long storage.

This hasn't always been the case. Modern wheat is a hybrid grain, a cross of tall heritage wheat and short shrubby Japanese wheat. It is a sterile plant, meaning its seeds can't be gleaned, and requires massive amounts of fertilizer and pesticides to grow.

Heritage wheat
A loaf of freshly-baked bread made with Sunrise Flour Mill heritage wheat flours from Chef Jonathan Kaye, a Le Cordon Bleu instructor, Friday, Jan. 17, 2014 in North Branch.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

But, old strains of wheat, vigorous plants that don't require petrochemicals, are making a comeback, especially the one that made the upper Midwest the bread basket of the world -- Turkey Red wheat. It's a beautiful grain -- burnished brown stalks shimmer as they ripple in fields under the sun. It grows tall enough for a man to hide in. 

It originated in Eastern Europe. According to legend, Catherine the Great helped German Mennonites immigrate to Russia to avoid military service and, in exchange, they were to plant their Turkey Red for her country. In 1870, they immigrated to Kansas and, to avoid having the wheat confiscated at the border, the women sewed seeds into their undergarments.

Because it's a hard spring variety with high gluten content, it makes wonderful bread. It's considered a "landrace" -- the term for a domesticated plant that has developed naturally. Landraces draw on a rich gene pool to adapt to climate stresses, soil types and preferences.

It's wonderful stuff, because it is so fresh you can actually taste the nuttiness of the wheat in the bread or pastries. Bakers and millers say the nature of the gluten in this flour makes it easier to eat for those with tolerance issues.

Years ago, farmers saved the last sheaf of wheat to grind for the "sowing loaf." The bread made from the last sheaf was fed to the animals for strength and vigor and planted along with the first seeds in the spring to insure a good harvest.

WHERE TO FIND IT:

Several small millers in Minnesota are beginning to mill flour from this Turkey Red and Red Fife (another heritage grain).  Sunrise Flour Mill  of North Branch sells freshly ground Turkey Red wheat at the Mill City Market and several area co-ops.  

RECIPE: Sunrise Flour Mill Popovers

This popover recipe is quite simple. A popover pan works the best, although in a pinch, a muffin tin will work well, too. Bring the ingredients to room temperature before starting.

1 cup whole milk
1 cup flour (Red Fife, if possible)
2 eggs
1/ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon melted butter

Preheat the oven to 425°F. Lightly grease the pan or spray with non-stick spray. 

Put all of the ingredients in a food processor or blender and process for 30 to 40 seconds. Pour the batter into the prepared tins.  

Bake at 425 degrees for about 15 to 20 minutes. Then reduce the heat to 375 and continue baking for another 10 to 15 minutes.