Quinoa Was Just a Gateway Grain

Julia Bainbridge
Food Editor
May 2, 2014

We took a broad look at the list of 2014 James Beard Nominees to see if there were larger trends afoot in the food world. Turns out there were. Here, we present What’s Happening In Food Right Now. So far: Midwestern food and far-flung Asian cuisines. Today: ancient grain breads.

Chad Robertson’s Smoked Sprouted Rye. Photo credit: Chad Robertson

We all know what quinoa is now. We’ve known it for a while—but we didn’t know it ten years ago. Couldn’t even pronounce it if the word was written on a piece of paper and submitted in front of us. Now it’s in every major supermarket in this country, either in whole form or baked into chips and other snacks.

And now we want more. Quinoa was the gateway grain. Spelt, buckwheat, kamut, amaranth, we’re ready for you.

“Quinoa has captured the imagination, for sure,” says San Francisco baker Chad Robertson, who owns the lauded Tartine Bakery. “As far a bread goes, we’ve introduced techniques where you can use grains like quinoa and millet and teff—there are ways of getting flavorful, nutritious grains into bread. Things are “getting more interesting and delicious.”

Robertson is referring to the recipes in his his third cookbook, simply titled “Tartine Book No. 3,” which is nominated for a James Beard award. “I was looking [at these grains] out of curiosity in the beginning, but what I found is a much bigger story,” he told us. “The story of these regional grain economies that are being built around the idea of bringing back more diverse heirloom grains.” When researching for his book, Robertson saw this happening in Scandinavia, in France, and in South America; “people are selecting for flavor instead of selecting for machinability.”

Robertson hears the criticism: that these products are too expensive to really incorporate into your diet if you don’t own a top-rated California bakery. “That doesn’t really float with me,” he says. “I lived through the first era when grass-fed beef came around. I thought it was ridiculous. Now we all—at least in San Francisco—can buy affordable, really high quality grass-fed beef in the grocery store and cook it at home.”

“I’m in the camp that is hopefully helping to push positive change.”

And we’re up for it, just like we’re up for baking more at home, something that’s changed with this homesteading movement America’s undergone in the past ten years. “People are, for whatever reason, up for tackling projects now,” says Robertson. “The bread thing has been going on for a while, since Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread recipe ran in the New York Times. It makes itself, really, and people are ready for the next step. They’re ready to tackle something more engaging.”

If you are part of that “they,” try Robertson’s recipe below. It uses kamut, “which is kind of a wonder grain in my book,” he says.

Chamomile-Kamut Shortbread
Yield: Five dozen small cookies

This delicate, golden shortbread is made with whole-grain Kamut flour. Chamomile flowers, along with honey and lemon, are infused into the butter.

53 g/1⁄4 cup honey
10 g/4 T dried chamomile flowers
255 g/1 cup plus 2 T unsalted butter, very soft
255 g/1 ¾ cups whole-grain Kamut flour
75 g/1/2 cup plus 2 T cornstarch
½ t fine sea salt or kosher salt
110 g/1⁄2 cup sugar
Zest of 3 lemons

Preheat the oven to 350°F/180°C. Line a rimmed baking sheet or 6-by-10-in/15-by-25-cm glass baking dish with parchment paper.

In a small saucepan over medium heat, warm the honey. Add the chamomile flowers in a tea strainer or satchel, remove from the heat, and let steep for 30 minutes, until cool. Remove the chamomile and discard.

Put the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (the butter must be very soft, the consistency of mayonnaise or whipped cream). Mix on medium speed until creamy. 

Sift the flour, cornstarch, and salt together into a bowl. Add 55 g/1⁄4 cup of the sugar to the butter and mix on high speed for 5 to 8 minutes until very light, fluffy, pale and doubled in volume. Add the flour mixture and mix just until a smooth dough forms, then fold in the honey and lemon zest. 

Pat the dough evenly into the prepared pan. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until the top and bottom are golden brown. Let cool on a wire rack until warm to the touch.

Finish the shortbread by dusting the surface with the remaining sugar. Tilt the dish so that the sugar fully and evenly coats the surface, then carefully tip out any excess sugar.

While the cookies are still warm, with a thin, sharp knife, cut the shortbread into rectangular fingers about ½ in/2.5 cm wide and 2 in/5 cm long. (If the cookies have become cold they will not slice well, so they must still be warm when you cut them.) Refrigerate the cookies for at least 1 hour before removing them from the baking dish.

The first cookie is difficult to remove, but the rest should come out easily with the aid of a small offset spatula. The cookies will keep for up to 2 weeks in an airtight container.