Category Archives: Bakery Life Essays

Springerle Cookie Molds

Artfully embossed Springerle cookies evoke a sweet nostalgia. 

story & photos by Bakery Boy

Think of them as sweet little woodcarvings that you can eat. Springerle cookies — thick, cake-like, anise-flavored cutouts topped with intricate three-dimensional figures — date from medieval times in southern Germany. Yet you can make these “picture cookies” fresh right now wherever you are. All you need are a handful of molds and a few helpful tips from Connie Meisinger.

Connie Meisinger makes embossed-topped Springerle cookies and sells molds in more than 500 designs.

Connie Meisinger is the queen of Springerle (pronounced SHPRENG-er-luh) and an enthusiastic expert on the subject. Based in Elmhurst, Illinois, just west of Chicago, she owns House on the Hill, Inc., which sells more than 500 different Springerle mold designs. Pressed firmly into rolled-out cookie dough, the molds create embossed images such as birds, flowers, pine cones, fruit, harps, angels, snowmen, stars, baskets, houses, trees, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and more. Rolling pin versions create a variety of images with a single pass over flattened dough.

Springerle pine cone mold and cookies pressed with it.

I met Connie when she taught a Springerle making class at Susan Green’s Birmingham Bake & Cook Company near my home. Connie travels extensively to tell her story, share her recipes, demonstrate her techniques, and promote her line of Springerle molds (for a schedule of appearances visit houseonthehill.net/news-and-events.) She has been on TV shows including NBC Chicago on WMAQ Channel 5, ABC News Saturday Morning on WLS Channel 7, and The Martha Stewart Show on the Hallmark Channel. During presentations she tells her story while rolling dough, dusting molds with flour, pressing shapes into dough, cutting and transferring cookies to baking sheets, baking them and eventually letting everyone try samples.

The molds press intricate images into cookie dough.

House on the Hill offers many nostalgic designs.

Connie became an avid Springerle baker when her aging grandmother was no longer able to make the old-fashioned treats that were eagerly anticipated by her family during the holidays. She scrounged up harder-to-find key ingredients including anise oil and hartshorn (ammonia carbonate today but formerly a preparation made from ground-up deer horns) to go with the more readily available flour, sugar, eggs and butter in grandma Nini’s recipe. She found a few factory-machined molds that didn’t quite satisfy but that eventually led to her current career as a mold designer and distributor. Her extended family, glad to the see the tradition continue, rejoiced at the tasty results and gobbled every cookie she made.

On a lark in 1993 Connie submitted her recipe to the Chicago Tribune’s annual cookie contest. She was named one of several winners and got mentioned in the newspaper. Caroline Kallas, the owner of a little homegrown Springerle mold business called House on the Hill in nearby Lombard, read the article and contacted Connie to invite her to check out the merchandise. “I did, and I was hooked,” Connie says. “I became a frequent customer, collecting as many molds as I could afford. Caroline died in 1999, and three years later my husband and I bought House on the Hill from her husband. We’ve been running it ever since.”

The Showstopper Rolling Pin (top center) presses 25 different images. Photo courtesy of House on the Hill

The molds look like they’re hand carved from solid wood just as they were centuries ago. Modern versions, though still handcrafted, are made from resin and wood composite. Most are replicas of antique carvings, giving them a historic and traditional appearance. “Bakers in guilds back then had to be excellent woodcarvers too, so they could create their own molds,” Connie says. “When a lot of German families immigrated to America in the late 1800s, they couldn’t always bring big things like furniture, but they brought cherished cookie molds made of clay or wood or metal. Many of those heirlooms are in museums and private collections now. Sometimes we’ll borrow an antique mold from a museum and replicate the historic design to add to our selection. We also have a woodcarver create new designs.”

...then lifts the cutout to a baking sheet.

Connie cuts around a pressed angel image...

During her classes Connie offers interesting tidbits and helpful hints. Traditional Springerle cookies are flavored with anise, she notes, but she also uses orange, lemon and almond and is experimenting with a cherry-almond combination. It’s best to make them after the first freeze, she says, when humidity is low and the dough stays dry so it doesn’t stick in the molds. She says symbols play a big part in Springerle designs, ranging from pomegranates (once given as wedding gifts because their many seeds represented fertility) to depictions of great cathedrals (created as souvenirs for travelers who visited renowned religious sites).

The molds look like carved wood but are made of resin and wood composite.

By the time her class ended and I was nibbling a one of the pretty little white works of edible art, I could hardly wait to get home and try a batch of my own. If you’re interesting in making Springerle cookies and need some molds to get started, order some from the House on the Hill website, which has pictures of each design.

I recently learned that in German the word Springerle means “jumper” as in a jumping horse. I wonder if the unique style of cookie got that name because jumping horses were once depicted on them. Or because pulverized deer horn (deer jump too, right?) was once a key ingredient. Or because the dough “springs” out of the deeply carved molds or “springs” up as it bakes. I also read an account of how medieval Yule festivals among pagan Germanic tribes involved animal sacrifices in hopes of appeasing the gods into sending a mild winter, and that poor people who couldn’t afford to kill their livestock instead created token sacrifices in the form of animal-shaped breads or cookies.

I don’t know the definitive answer, if there is one, but I plan to ask Connie about it the next time she comes to town to teach her Springerle baking class. Meanwhile, I’ll just enjoy some cookies and hope you do too.

______________________________

House on the Hill, Inc.

650 West Grand Avenue, Unit 110, Elmhurst, IL 60126

630-279-4455 or toll free (in the U.S.) 877-279-4455

email support@houseonthehill.net

See a catalog of Springerle molds and order online at houseonthehill.net

Find out where Connie Meisinger will be demonstrating Springerle techniques by visiting houseonthehill.net/news-and-events

Pristine white Springerle cookies might look too pretty to eat, but go ahead!

Advertisements

Santa Bread

Put a little Dough! Dough! Dough! in your Ho! Ho! Ho!

by Bakery Boy

This Santa Bread photo came to me from Joan, a loyal subscriber to the Bakery Boy Blog and a friend and neighbor of my sister in Virginia. Joan works at a physical rehabilitation center and says a thoughtful patient presented this homemade flaxseed Santa Bread to the staff as a token of her appreciation.

I’m glad Joan took a minute to snap this picture before she and her coworkers tore into their holiday treat. Seeing it reminded me of various shapes my father made out of bread at the Dutchess Bakery where I grew up in Charleston, West Virginia. He’d make Santa heads, reindeer, Christmas trees sleighs and more, all out of creatively shaped bread dough.

For some reason I’ve never figured out — since we didn’t live in alligator country — my Pop made alligator bread complete with scissor-sniped spikes running along the backs and tails and with mouths propped wide open through a clever arrangement of folded cardboard during proofing and baking. Maybe he just made them because he could and because it was fun, which would be reasons enough. I made some recently just to see if I could remember how. They turned out well and kindled a fond memory, just like Joan’s Santa Bread photo did.

For a couple of years while I worked as a baker at Le Panier Very French Bakery in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, I made elaborate holiday stars out of braided bread. Some were nearly a yard a wide, great for dangling in the shop’s windows as bakery-themed decorations. Others were about the size of a regular loaf, used as table centerpieces for parties. The smallest would fit in the palm of your hand and served as Christmas tree ornaments.

Good times. I’ve also seen bread shape like a cable car and a sea lion in San Francisco, bread shaped like a cactus and a fish and a donkey-pulled cart in Albuquerque, and bread shaped like a lobster in Maine. Someday I should write an article all about bread shaped to look like something other than bread.

There’s no recipe or how-to lesson with today’s post. You can find plenty of those just by entering Santa Bread into any search engine. TasteOfHome.com has a nice version and so does MarthaStewart.com, to name just two.

Or you could just take your favorite bread dough recipe and wing it, using your imagination and maybe a little well-placed food coloring to devise your own version of Santa Bread. Maybe it’ll turn out great or maybe it’ll be an absurd mess, but either way you’ll have a little fun and create a new holiday memory.

Whatever interestingly shaped bread you make please snap a picture and send me a copy (find my email link at bottom right). I’d like to put together a slide show of the best and the worst — as well as the funny, the odd, the what’s-that-supposed-to-be? and other gallant efforts — for a blog post to run next year at about this time.

Until then, happy holidays!

Vintage Bakery Sign Restored in Bessemer, AL

A 3-digit phone number. Coke for a nickel. Simpler times. A vintage sign recently restored on the side of an Alabama building recalls Square Deal Bakery circa 1922.

story & photos by Bakery Boy

The phone number with just three digits and the nickel Coke got my attention. I’m not old enough to remember when either was common, but somehow the combination hit my nostalgia button.

A recently restored 1911 commercial sign filling the side of a small building in downtown Bessemer, Alabama—the city immediately west of Birmingham—brings to mind simpler times. Based on a newspaper photo from 1922, the retouched brick wall at the corner of 19th Street North and Alabama Avenue features the words Square Deal Bakery prominently at top center, along with a Coca-Cola ad, a giant 5¢ symbol, and the name Sam Raine & Co., a former owner of the single-story structure. Bright green, red, yellow, and white paint true to the period make it stand out in a district of less-flashy red brick shops, offices, and warehouses.

My favorite part is the message “FRESH BREAD & CAKES” followed by “PHONE 983” in the top right corner. Aside from the unintended double meaning (were fresh bread and cakes supposed to call?) it’s funny to think of such a short phone number. But then, with today’s cell phones, whereby frequent contacts are preset to as little as one speed-dial click, maybe we’ve gotten back to simpler times after all, even if through a far more advanced technology.

Dr. Richard Neely, a historian who teaches at Indian Springs School and a member of the Bessemer Historical Homeowners Association (which bought paint for the project), completed the task earlier this month with help from his brother, actor John Neely, and other volunteers. Both men love history and have time on their hands during the summer, so they’ve made a hobby of restoring vintage signs. Adjacent to the Square Deal Bakery sign, on a defunct freight depot, stands last summer’s project proclaiming a century-ago wine and whiskey distributor in equally bright colors. Other Neely-brothers efforts include building-size ads at historic Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham and a 1913 ad in Marion County.

“We volunteer our time. We don’t get paid. We just enjoy doing this,” says Dr. Neely. “Our history is fading out all around us. We take a little bit of time, if people will let us, to restore some of these historic signs.”

One of the aims of the Bessemer Historical Homeowners Association, he points out, is to preserve historic structures. Outdoor advertising was a relatively new part of the culture of the early 20th century, so preserving such signs is appropriate.

Exactly when the building, located next to busy railroad tracks, was constructed isn’t clear, possibly around the turn of the century. The restoration mirrors the sign as seen in the background of a 1922 newspaper photo that appeared with an article about a man getting electrocuted on overhead power lines. (That’s a whole ’nother story.  If you’re interested, see the original photo preserved at the Bessemer Hall of History Museum in the old Bessemer Depot directly across Alabama Avenue from the restored sign.)

Square Deal Bakery has been gone for decades but is not forgotten. As I photographed the sign, an elderly man asked what I was doing. He then told me, pointing south across the railroad tracks, that he’d grown up in a house just a few blocks away. He recalls fondly that as a child he could walk from his home to the bakery and two movie theaters nearby. “In the 1930s,” he said, “19th Street on a Saturday night was so busy that the sidewalks would overflow and people spilled out into the street. Of course, there weren’t as many cars then, so that wasn’t a problem.”

The building currently holds four small storefronts, but Square Deal Bakery and the John Raine Co. aren’t among them. Instead there’s River’s Tailor Shop (alterations), Cal’s Ego (clothing), Just About Everything (faxing, typing, and laminating services, plus Avon products), and an empty. It’s not exactly a hopping part of town, but it’s less than three blocks south of the famous Bright Star Restaurant, a dining institution founded in 1907 that last year earned a prestigious culinary award from the James Beard Foundation (category: America’s Classics, honoring restaurants with “timeless appeal”). If you eat at The Bright Star, swing south on 19th Street, turn left on Alabama Avenue just before the tracks, and check out the restored Square Deal Bakery sign.

I’m tempted to dial Square Deal’s three-digit phone number just to see what happens. Probably an endless pause as our modern communication system awaits more numbers. Maybe, though, by way of some unexplainable Twilight Zone connection, I’ll be patched through to the ghost of a bakery from the past, where I can order bread and cakes and, when I go to pick them up, grab a Coke for just a nickel too.

______________________________

The restored Square Deal Bakery sign is located at the corner of 19th Street North and Alabama Avenue, facing well-trafficked railroad tracks and the old Bessemer Depot, now home to the Bessemer Hall of History Museum (205-426-1633).

______________________________

Got a bakery-related story idea for the Bakery Boy Blog? Email a note to Bakery.Boy@att.net.

Bake Cookies In Your Car

Fellow bakery blogger Nicole Weston of Baking Bites shares her technique for baking chocolate chip cookies on the dashboard of a summer-hot car.

by Bakery Boy

Cookies baking on a hot dashboard. Photos: BakingBites.com

It’s August. It’s hot. You park your car in the sun, and when you get in to drive somewhere the heat is unbearable. Maybe you roll down the window and drive fast to flush out your rolling furnace. Maybe you crank up the AC and wait a few minutes in nearby shade. Here’s an idea. When you’re not going anywhere, why not use that hot-as-an-oven car as, well, an oven?

Fellow bakery blogger Nicole Weston of Baking Bites explored this notion and developed what has become one of her most popular posts. First published in 2007, the story frequently earns a button at the top of her home page, even four years later.

These chocolate chip cookies will be ready soon, and the car they're baking in will smell wonderful too.

Nicole includes plenty of tips for car-based baking:

• realizing the advantages of chilled-and-sliced dough over spooned-and-dropped dough for achieving even thickness and even baking

• placing oven mitts or a towel under the cookie sheet to protect the dashboard, which she considers the best spot for baking

• parking in full sun

• placing an oven thermometer where it can be seen from outside

• avoiding opening the car door too often and letting heat out

• testing by touch instead of sight since car-baked cookies won’t caramelize and brown the way regular oven versions do

• doubling up with two batches if you have a large dashboard or two cars or a friend with a car to park next to yours, making it a team project

It’s a fun piece. The reader comments are worth scrolling through both for more car-as-oven tips (an Arizona woman says she cooked a steak to well-done in four hours) and other suggestions (such as using the resulting aroma of fresh-baked cookie to help sell a used car).

Here’s the full URL linking to Nicole’s story, including her cookie recipe: http://bakingbites.com/2007/09/car-baked-chocolate-chip-cookies-step-by-step/. Or just click here.

Thanks, Nicole, for keeping this story prominently displayed at your site. It’s an inspiration to us all!

______________________________

Nicole Weston of Baking Bites

When Nicole Weston isn’t baking, photographing, and writing for her Baking Bites blog, which she launched in 2004, she is often riding horses (American Saddlebreds) or dancing (ballet and salsa). Based in Los Angeles, she holds a degree in linguistic from the University of California Berkeley and a certificate in professional pastry from the New School of Cooking in Culver City (across from the historic Helms Bakery complex, which now holds a collection of restaurants and design and furniture shops).

______________________________

Got a bakery-related story idea for the Bakery Boy Blog? Email a note to Bakery.Boy@att.net.

Cookies and Milk at Tellico Grains Bakery

I’ve interviewed hundreds of bakers, but this was the first one who—during our visit and without prompting—tucked into some cookies and milk just for the simple pleasure of it. A Zen moment. Ahh…bakery life is good!

story & photos by Bakery Boy

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

When the bakers I meet realize that I am truly interested in what they do and that I want to write about them—that I’m not asking for a job or stealing trade secrets or trying to sell them anything—they usually open up to me, show me around, let me take pictures while they work, and share a recipe or two.

After countless encounters with bakers, a recent incident came as a most pleasant surprise. It happened during my interview with Stuart and Anissa Shull at their Tellico Grains Bakery in Tellico Plains, Tennessee (click here to see the full story).

At the moment, Anissa was telling me about their family life, about raising two small daughters in a small bakery in a small town, while she rolled pastry dough and scooped fruit filling and folded turnovers. Jotting in my notebook, I glanced over toward Stuart, who was studiously monitoring the temperature of the bakery’s prized wood-burning brick oven.

Just then Stuart—quietly and without me prompting him for a photo opportunity or whatever—poured himself a glass of milk, grabbed a few chocolate chip cookies off a warm pan, and started having a little snack.

My jaw dropped. My pen froze in place. This was bakery life at its best. Here was a baker, unaware that anyone was watching, enjoying the fruits of his labor—enjoying a Zen moment on the job. Stuart dipped a cookie in the milk and took a bite before noticing that I’d grabbed my camera and zoomed in on him.

He broke into a crumb-flecked grin. Classic!

______________________________

Click here to see a separate Bakery Boy Blog post about Tellico Grains Bakery

Click here to see a separate Bakery Boy Blog post sharing a recipe for puff dough from Tellico Grains Bakery

______________________________

Tellico Grains Bakery

105 Depot Street

Tellico Plains, TN 37385

423-253-6911

email: tellicograins@hotmail.com

website: http://tellico-grains-bakery.com

______________________________

Bob Dylan Baking Songs

Bob Dylan turned 70 and my Bakery Boy Blog turned 1 the same week recently. I’m a big fan of both Bob and baking, so for me his lyrical references to baking or baked goods or even basic ingredients commonly used in baking always stand out. Okay, so these aren’t songs actually about baking, just songs with key words that, for me at least, invariably trigger thoughts about baking, my favorite subject. Here are a few tasty Dylan lines, listed alongside the albums on which they first appeared. If you know of others, please tell me (leave a comment) so I can include them on a mix CD I’m pulling together to listen to when I travel to visit more bakeries.

Bakery Boy

          ###

Well, it’s sugar for sugar/ And salt for salt/ If you go down in the flood/ It’s gonna be your own fault

– from Crash on the Levee (Down In The Flood) (Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 2, 1971)

          ###

Why wait any longer for the world to begin/ You can have your cake and eat it too/ Why wait any longer for the one you love/ When he’s standing in front of you

– from Lay, Lady, Lay (Nashville Skyline, 1969)

          ###

She’s a junkyard angel and she always gives me bread/ Well, if I go down dyin’, you know she bound to put a blanket on my bed

– from From A Buick 6 (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)

          ###

Sold my guitar to the baker’s son/ For a few crumbs and a place to hide/ But I can get another one/ And I’ll play for Magdalena as we ride

– from Romance in Durango (Desire, 1976)

          ###

Continue reading

Bakery Boy Blog Goes Global

The Bakery Boy Blog has gone international. Besides reaching a growing audience of bakery fans all across America, the website now has followers signed up for free e-alerts in…

Dunolly, Australia (G’day, Rod!)

Kaunas, Lithuania (Sveiki, Julita!)

Waterloo, Canada (Hello & Bonjour, Cameca!)

UPDATE: Since posting this piece, additional subscribers from London, England; Adelaide, Australia; Sydney, Australia; Assam, India (east of Calcutta); Israel; and Tuscany, Italy, have signed up. Welcome, all! 

We share in common a love of baking and bakeries. These three—like Bakery Boy followers from Maine to California and from Oregon to Florida—receive e-mail notices whenever new articles about bakeries, cookbooks, recipes, events and more are posted to the site.

In honor of bakery fans abroad, here is a peek at some of the bakeshops these three enjoy in their communities.

______________________________

Dunolly Bakery in Australia

AUSTRALIA

Rod Stuart owns and operates Dunolly Bakery in the small town of Dunolly in Victoria, about a two-hour drive northwest of Melbourne. Known as the Historic Central Goldfields region because of a gold-mining boom in the 1850s, the rural area now attracts bicycle riders who—like Rod does when he’s not busy baking—ride a network of scenic bike routes called the Dunolly Cycle Tracks.

Dunolly Bakery Turnovers

“I stumbled upon your blog via Google alerts for bakeries,” Rod tells me. He had heard of the Australian Bakery Café in Marietta, Georgia (near Atlanta), which I blogged about last summer, and knew that the two owners originally came from a small town not far from his. He saw my story about them and signed on. “I’m so glad to be your first Aussie subscriber,” he adds. “I love being involved in the baking industry and checking out other baking ideas from around the world.”

Aussie Meat Pies

His compact bakery facing the Dunolly’s main street makes breads, cakes, pastries, and of course Aussie Meat Pies—hearty staples filled with beef, chicken, lamb, and gravy that practically rank as a national dish Down Under. The closest I’ve come to tasting such meat pies are those I sampled at the Australian Bakery Cafe in Georgia, but someday I hope to visit Rod’s country for a first-hand experience. Out of loyalty to my first international subscriber (and no doubt hungry from the long flight) I’ll head straight for Dunolly and the Goldfields.

Dunolly Bakery: 97 Broadway, Dunolly, Victoria, Australia 3472; www.dunollybakery.com.au; phone (03) 5468 1331; email Rod at dunollybakery97@bigpond.com

One of several Crustum bakery locations in Lithuania

LITHUANIA

Julita, who bakes at home for fun and also found the Bakery Boy Blog while web surfing on Google, lives in Kaunas, Lithuania, the northern European country’s second largest city after the capital, Vilnius. “Bakeries here mostly specialize in Bundt cakes, croissants with a variety of fillings, and some breads and cakes,” she says. “One of my favorite bakeries in Lithuania is Crustum Mano Kepyklėlė, which translates to ‘Crustum My Bakery’ in English.”

Pastries at Crustum

Bread from Crustum

She also sometimes buys baked goods from SOTAS, a chain of café-bakeries, and Mantinga, a large-scale bakery that supplies frozen and fresh items to markets and grocery stores.

Swirl bread from Crustum

Lithuanian bakeries, Julita laments, rarely bake some of her favorite treats, such as brownies, cupcakes, or macaroons. So she bakes at home, trying new recipes she finds on the Internet.

“Maybe you could send me some of your favorite baking recipes?” she asks, addressing both me as Bakery Boy and anyone else reading this. [NOTE: If you have a great macaroons recipe please send it along and I’ll forward it to Julita.]

Crustum Mano Kepyklėlė (“Crustum My Bakery”): If I understand this right—I speak no Lithuanian, so the website is a bit of a mystery, though it is photogenic enough—there are apparently five locations of this bakery in Vilnius and Kaunas; www.crustum.lt; phone in Kaunas 370 685 87702; email acropoliskaunas@crustum.lt

CANADA

Wedding cake from Jirinas Bakery in Waterloo, Ontario

Cameca hails from Waterloo in southern Ontario, a city known for universities and high-technology companies just west of Toronto and Niagara Falls and surrounded by three of The Great Lakes: Huron, Erie, and Ontario. Waterloo and Kitchener (neighboring communities known locally as the Twin Cities) boast several noteworthy bakeries, including European-inspired Nougat Bakery & Delicatessen and Nova Era Bakery & Pastries (the latter an extension of a five-location Toronto operation); cake-oriented The Cakebox and Jirinas Bakery; fresh-local-organic-and-preservative-free-obsessed Golden Hearth Baking; artisan bread specialist Grainharvest Breadhouse;  and creative-pastry-designing Sablétine. Apparently there’s a lot of creative baking energy in this area.

______________________________

JOIN US?

That’s a quick glimpse of three far-flung places that have added a global profile to the Bakery Boy Blog. Feel free to join us and share your favorite bakery stories. You’ll find a Free E-Alerts sign-up field near the top right corner of each page on this site.

Let me say “thanks” here to everyone who reads this blog, wherever you are. I’m glad to have you along for the ride and I hope to hear from you. Meanwhile let’s all go out and find some great baked goods. Be sure to tell me about your discoveries! (Email bakery.boy@att.net.)

– Bakery Boy

Braiding Challah at Crème Patisserie, Asheville, NC

SLIDESHOW: See Asheville baker Jennifer Jacobs braid beautiful loaves of challah. Story & photos by Bakery Boy

Braiding bread can be fun once you get the hang of it. T he gorgeous results never fail to attract compliments. When I dropped in on Crème Patisserie & Confectionery recently in Asheville, North Carolina, (click here to see a separate article about Crème Patisserie) the bread dough was already mixed and rising. During the course of an interview, I watched baker and co-owner Jennifer Jacobs braid traditional Jewish challah loaves. Take a look at the slide show, be inspired, and try this yourself sometime with any yeast-risen dough you prefer. Getting beautiful bread like this takes practice, but it’s well worth the effort.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

______________________________

Crème Patisserie & Confectionery

640 Merrimon Avenue, Suite 201

Asheville, NC 28804

828-350-9839 or cremeasheville@gmail.com

______________________________


Baking 1800s Style at the Chuckwagon Cookoff in Pigeon Forge, TN

Using cast-iron pots over campfires beside his vintage chuck wagon, Lexie Dean bakes old-fashioned fruit pies, cornbread, and biscuits.

by Bakery Boy

Lexie Dean prepares to serve cowboy vittles from Dutch ovens at his Ramblin’ Rose Chuck Wagon. Photos by Bakery Boy

Lexie Dean bakes like it’s the 1860s. He bakes like he’s the camp cook on a cattle-drive, stirring up hearty grub for hungry cowboys on the dusty trail. He bakes like, at the latest, it’s the 1880s, just before railroads replaced cattle-drives and rendered chuck wagons obsolete.

Obsolete maybe but still appealing to hobbyists such as Lexie—who calls his rig the Ramblin’ Rose Chuck Wagon—and others who keep chuck wagon traditions alive. They set up at festivals, rodeos, scout camps, church picnics, vacation bible schools, and anywhere else they’re invited to re-create authentic cowboy cuisine.

As he bakes biscuits, cornbread, and lattice-topped fruit pies to go with the chicken-fried steaks, beans, potatoes, and sawmill gravy that round out his menu, Lexie uses ingredients, tools, and techniques true to the period. He does this because he’s a stickler for authenticity, because people gather to watch how things were done back in those days, because he’s a fan of cast-iron cooking, and because he’s being judged.

Chuck wagon cooking, it seems, has become a competitive pastime as well as a nostalgic hobby.

CHUCKWAGON COOKOFF

Impressive sight: Lexie and Katy Dean cooking and baking with more than a dozen heavy cast-iron pots.

Look for Lexie wearing his trademark stovepipe hat, muttonchop whiskers, cowboy boots, and bandanna at the fourth annual Chuckwagon Cookoff in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, in late February. He and Katy, his wife and trusty sidekick, will be busy among more than a dozen big, heavy, scalding-hot, cast-iron pots and a string of campfires. Their Ramblin’ Rose will be among six chuck wagon teams—with names such as Grumpy’s Grub, Cow Camp, Fairplay Cattle Co., Double X Ranch, and Wish Bone—competing for prizes, honors, and bragging rights. It’s a highlight of the 11th annual Saddle Up!, a four-day celebration (February 24-27) of the old American West that also includes Western music and dancing, cowboy poetry readings, mechanical bull riding, storytelling, and a cowboy church service.

As he geared up for this year’s Chuckwagon Cookoff from his home in Greenville, North Carolina, Lexie was glad to talk to the Bakery Boy Blog about 1800s-style campfire baking.

Lexie cuts strips of pie dough for a lattice top crust.

“First of all, everything I cook or bake is done in cast-iron pots,” he says. “For contests I take 12 of the big 16-inch-diameter Dutch ovens with the flat lids so I can pile hot coals on top [to get more even temperatures inside]. Each one weighs more than 30 pounds empty and costs about $120 to $160. I also take two 26-inch skillets, two 18-inch skillets, and two 10-gallon bean pots. Mine are mostly from Lodge Cast Iron in South Pittsburg, Tennessee, and from Cabella’s, the big outdoor equipment company from Nebraska.

“Proper care of the pots is a big part of being successful at this,” he says. “You have to use them a lot to break them in and clean them well after every use. I wipe them with olive oil for storage. Other vegetable oils or any sprays will turn to a glue-like paste and ruin the pots. The acid in tomatoes will take off the finish. But if you treat these pots right, they’re great for camp cooking.”

While steaks, potatoes, beans, and gravy simmer, Lexie focuses on baking: yeast-style biscuits featuring a sourdough starter, thick cake-like cornbread suited to sopping up sauces from the main course, and his specialty—fruit pies.

PIE TIME

How Lexie designs his woven pie crust top.

“A lot of chuck wagon cooks make cobbler, but I like pie,” he says. “The difference is the crust. I put a layer of pie dough on the bottom and make a basket weave pattern for the top [see diagram].”

The main ingredient in the filling depends on what the contest organizers supply. “At these events you never know exactly what you’re going to work with. They might give you apples or peaches or dried apricots or blueberries. You have to be prepared for anything, just like camp cooks on cattle drives, where sometimes they had to cook whatever they could scrounge up.”

Flour for the Chuckwagon Cookoff comes from The Old Mill, an historic water-powered mill in Pigeon Forge.

Using rough measurements such as “handfuls” of sugar, a “dusting” of cinnamon, “just enough” fruit depending on what kind and how juicy it is, and “lots of” butter, Lexie mixed his pie filling more by feel and experience than by a strict recipe. Same with the crust, made from flour supplied by The Old Mill, an historic water-powered mill in Pigeon Forge, lard or vegetable shortening, a pinch of salt, and cold water.

Pies, rolls, and cornbread go into aluminum pans that go into cast-iron Dutch ovens perched over beds of hot embers and covered with more glowing coals. “I use hickory wood because it burns hot,” he says. “It’s hard to judge the temperature of charcoal and other types of fuel, but with hickory I have a pretty good idea. I put a third of a cord on my fire the morning of the contest, let it burn down into a humongous coal pit, and then get all the food cooking so it’s ready at noon, when it’s time to eat.”

COME ’N’ GET IT

Piping hot and ready to eat, one of the scrumptious glories of campfire baking. Photo courtesy of Lexie Dean

Held at Clabough’s Campground in Wears Valley, the cook-off attracts chuck wagon teams from as far away as Georgia and Texas. Hundreds of people wander through camp to inspect wagons and watch cooks at work. Tempted by wafting aromas, many buy $10 meal tickets and line up for platefuls of grub at lunchtime. Judges gather under a tent for an official tasting before awarding prizes in several categories.

The Ramblin’ Rose wagon dates to 1868. Photo courtesy of Lexie Dean

Last year Lexie’s Ramblin’ Rose won 1st place in wagon authenticity, bread, and potatoes categories, tied for 1st place in cornbread, took 3rd place for meat, and landed 1st in the coveted overall category. Not a bad day for a cowboy camp cook.

“On Friday it’s all about authentic wagons,” he says. “You don’t want anything showing that wouldn’t be found in the 1860 to 1880s. No cell phones or plastic coolers or aluminum foil that judges will see. On Saturday it’s all about the food and there’s a different set of rules. Cleanliness comes first, so it’s okay to have plastic wrap and coolers to keep the food safe.”

WHY DO THIS?

“We work hard to make every detail of our chuck wagon authentic,” Lexie says. Photo courtesy of Lexie Dean

“I’ve been a scoutmaster with the Boy Scouts of America for a long time and starting cooking outdoors 25 years ago,” Lexie explains. “I saw a chuck wagon with a guy cooking the old ways at a charity event, and I was hooked. I started looking for a chuck box to outfit an old farm wagon that has been in my family for generations. It’s a 10-footer with a 12-foot tongue to harness four mules to pull it, built by the Fish Brothers Wagon Company of Racine, Wisconsin in 1868.

“Since I got the wagon from my grandfather, the Ramblin’ Rose has crossed the Mississippi River 34 times going to events and coming home,” he says. “Between contests and scout trips and church functions, I cook about 15 chuck wagon meals every month.”

Lexie works as a mechanical test engineer for NACCO Materials Handling Group, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of heavy-duty lift trucks. “You know those crash test dummies you see in car commercials? What I do is something like. I try my best to tear up the lift trucks we make in order to see how we can improve our designs.”

Ramblin’ Rose includes harnesses for four mules to pull it. Photo courtesy of Lexie Dean

He’s much more cautious with his antique chuck wagon, carefully transporting it on a 35-foot flatbed trailer. “People see it going down the highway and wave me over so they can ask about it,” he says. “Anytime I stop for gas, someone wants to know what it is and where it’s going.”

For years, Lexie’s wife Katy has been his constant companion on this adventure. “If she ever gets tired of doing this, I guess I’ll go on by myself. Most teams have four or five people, but we do fine with just us two. If I had to, I think I could be a one-man show.”

He keeps going because of reactions from spectators. “I let kids climb on the chuck wagon for fun when I’m not cooking. At events people will look at it and say, ‘It’s beautiful!’ or taste my cooking and say, “It’s really good!’ or shake my hand and say, ‘Thank you!’ That makes it all worthwhile.”

______________________________

Email Lexie Dean about his Ramblin’ Rose Chuck Wagon at agldean@nmhg.com

Learn more about chuck wagon culture from the American Chuck Wagon Association

For more about the Chuckwagon Cookoff and Saddle Up! (February 24-27, 2011) in Pigeon Forge, TN: www.mypigeonforge.com/saddleup

For more about Pigeon Forge: www.mypigeonforge.com

For more about Tennessee: www.tnvacation.com

_____________________________

Christmas Ornaments Made of Bread

The bread ornaments I made 25 years ago are holding up pretty well, so this month I made more to give as gifts.

story and photos by Bakery Boy

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

These bread ornaments I made 25 years ago remain family favorites. Photos by Bakery Boy

Hanging little loaves of bread on the Christmas tree seems quite natural to us bakers, I suppose. As conversation pieces, they’re hard to beat. As housewarming presents at holiday parties, or simple gifts for neighbors and co-workers, or stocking-stuffers for family members, they’re fun to make and pretty much guaranteed to bring a positive reaction.

I decorate our tree with some miniature bread ornaments I made 25 years ago while working in a French bakery in Seattle. Some are four-inch-long versions of French loaves, scissor-snipped into alternating pointy “grains” to resemble ripe wheat tassels. Others are shaped into 1½-inch-diameter wreaths just the right size to hold small candles in the middle and sit upright on tree branches. I wrap the straight loaves in red ribbon that doubles as a hanging loop at the top end, and I use paper-and-wire twist ties from bread bags (how appropriate) to strap the round wreaths onto Christmas tree branches.

Wreath-shaped bread ornaments hold candles.

Over the years I’ve gradually lost some of my original bread ornaments to breakage while getting them into and out of storage or on and off the tree. So this year I decided to restock my collection and make extras to give as gifts.

Reactions to receiving the little favors usually go something like this: First a look of genuine surprise, followed by some variation of the phrase, “Are they really made of bread?” Next comes an appreciative smile of thanks. And finally the urge to hang them right away in a place where they’ll be seen.

What more could a devoted baker-turned-ornament-maker want?

Start with a basic French bread dough.

HERE’S HOW Start with a basic French dough of just flour, water, salt, and yeast—nothing like butter, oil, sugar, or eggs that will attract critters while in storage. I make a large enough batch to bake a regular loaf or two to eat right away and still have plenty left for making a few dozen ornaments.

Snip the mini-baguette into points alternating left and right to resemble wheat tassels.

When it has risen (that’s more of an Easter reference, I know, but bear with me), divide the dough into pieces about the size of ping-pong balls and roll them into four-inch “fingers” or mini-baguettes. Let them rest a few minutes, either on a cutting board to be moved gently later, or on cookie sheets lined with parchment paper and ready for the oven.

Cut at a 45-degree angle about 3/4ths of the way through the dough.

Holding scissors at a 45-degree angle, snip each piece half a dozen or so times at equally spaced points, cutting about ¾ths of the way through to leave a solid line on bottom for a sturdy “backbone” effect. Set each little point off slightly to the side, alternating left-right-left-right. The results will resemble the rows of grain in harvest-ripe wheat tassels.

For wreath-style ornaments, form some of the bread “fingers” into circles about 1½-inches in diameter, leaving a center hole about the size of a small candle. Snip the dough at an angle 45-degrees to the center of the circle with the points aiming out.

Cool and dry thoroughly. For longer-lasting ornaments, coat with varnish.

Let the shaped dough relax and rise another 20 minutes on parchment paper-lined cookie sheets, then  bake at 350o for about 10-15 minutes or until they start to turn golden brown. TIP: Under-baked, they’ll tend to sag and bend; over-baked, they’ll be brittle and more likely to break.

Let the ornaments cool and dry for a day or two. Eat any that don’t look so well, but be careful not to eat the entire project or you’ll have to start all over. This is why I bake a regular loaf at the same time, so I can eat it while I’m making ornaments.

If you really want your bread ornaments to last a long time, spray them with a thin coat of clear lacquer or varnish. Allow them to dry thoroughly before applying decorative ribbon. This also provides the kind of shine you would get with an egg-washed surface. Even without this extra treatment though, they’ll be good for a few years before they start to shrivel and crack.

Form a crisscrossing pattern with bright-colored ribbon.

Wrap each straight ornament with a thin, brightly colored ribbon to form a crisscrossing pattern like calf straps on gladiator-style sandals. I use red ribbon, but any color that doesn’t too closely match the bread itself will do. Run the ribbon into the channels made by the scissor cuts, which will keep it from slipping.

Tie the ribbon once snugly at the top of the ornament to hold the crisscrosses in place, and then again a couple of inches away to form a loop for hanging the piece. Square knots will suffice at both junctures. Or you could get fancy by tying bows for the second knot. Trim away any excess ribbon.

A bread bag twist-tie holds each candle wreath onto the tree.

For each wreath ornament, gently push the bottom end of a small candle snugly into the center hole and tie ribbon into a simple bow on the candle itself. Use paper-and-wire twist ties, recycled from store-bought bread bags and laced through the center hole, to strap the ornaments to Christmas tree branches with the candles aimed up. NOTE: These candles are not intended for lighting, just for looking good.

A child's shoebox holds my bread ornaments between Christmases.

When you take down your decorations, wrap each bread ornament in tissue paper and store them in a small shoebox. For many years I’ve had mine in the same box my firstborn’s first pair of sneakers came in!

GOT MORE IDEAS? Feel free to share your bread ornament ideas with fellow bakers by leaving a comment below or by sending an email to the Bakery Boy Blog at bakery.boy@att.net.

Finished bread ornaments, ready to hang or to wrap as gifts.