For first-time author and head baker Ellen King of Hewn in Evanston, Illinois, heritage grains hold a special place within America’s food chain. She wants customers to appreciate the value and traditions of local grains and craft bread, and for these traditions to continue. Further, she wants to help consumers fully comprehend the importance and commitment that a rising number of craft bakers are making to local grains in bread baking.
“I don’t want to be the bread nerd who is talking over (customers),” says King, who holds a master’s degree in American history. “The only way we are going to change this in a large way is to change the vocabulary. I want our bread to be approachable for them.”
King wrote a book, “Heritage Baking,” due out Oct. 23 through Chronicle Books, based on her experiences as the co-owner and director of baking operations at Hewn, which she opened five and a half years ago with Julie Matthei, the co-owner and director of business operations.
“My background is the savory side and my style from the start was very much driven by the farmers we worked with,” says King, a classically trained chef who worked in various restaurants in Seattle with a specialty in French, Mediterranean and vegetarian foods. “When I started baking bread in the Midwest, I wanted to delve into local. I met a lot of farmers experimenting with heritage grains, and we started with it very slowly. Five and a half years ago we were at zero. Now, we’re using about 75% local wheat.’
Hewn’s breads are made almost entirely of heritage wheats, such as Rouge de Bordeaux, Turkey Red and Red Fife. She sources bread flours from three stone mills: one in Wisconsin, one in central Illinois and one in northwest Illinois.
“Some customers come in and say I really like the Turkey Red, but I don’t want them to be tied to one variety,” she says. “People like different flavors, and each wheat does have different uses and characteristics. That’s why it is important to get that vocabulary in place.’
King buys flour from Central Milling that she uses to make croissants, but primarily she has converted to local wheat flour from nearby mills. “We buy what we can ahead of time and pay them upfront,” she says. “They are not going to mill it until we need it.”
King has a diverse background. She once served as an artisan cheese buyer for Whole Foods in Bellevue, Washington, and spent time at Quillisascut Farm School, a sustainable farm school in Rice, Washington, where she first learned to bake bread in a wood-fired oven. King attended the Seattle Culinary Academy, where she was awarded the Les Dames d’Escoffier 2003 scholarship, and is a member of Chefs Collaborative, Women Chefs and Restaurateurs and the Bread Bakers Guild of America.
Several years ago, King was taking a historic preservation course through the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. The project involved dating parts of an 18th century house by examining the building techniques. One way to date a structure is to look at the beams and determine if they were hand-hewn or cut with a saw. She discovered a treasure when a hand-hewn beam was found inside the walls, meaning that a craftsman used an axe to shape the beam. King’s career as a historic preservationist ended after working on the Maine coast when she started to pursue her passion for food, but the word hewn stuck with her.
Baking bread is an ancient craft that relies on the hands of the baker. The word hewn is a way to connect the past with the future. Everything at Hewn is made in-house, from scratch daily. The bakery sources local and seasonal ingredients from small, local farmers when their flavors are at their peak. All breads are hand-mixed, hand-shaped and naturally fermented.
Each day Hewn’s bakers mix the dough by hand, turning it every 30 minutes over a four-hour period. The dough is then shaped and placed into bannetons, where it rests overnight to rise naturally. In the morning, the bakers fire up the oven and bake the bread. From the start of the mix to the bake, the bread is fermented approximately 20 hours.
Placing emphasis on relationships with local farmers and almost-extinct heritage grains, the unique cookbook encourages people to ask three important questions when baking: Where did the flour come from? How was it milled? And how was the wheat grown in the first place, in order to create better bread products? “The Midwest has some of the best farmlands in the country, but in order for this movement to succeed we have to adopt change,” she says. “There is a need for local mills, maybe owned by the farmers or a co-op, and there is also a need for cleaning facilities for organic grains. We’ve lost this infrastructure.”