Bread Rises from the Prairie ; New Cookbook Features Recipes from Midwestern Farms, Bakeries, Homes

By Conrads, David | The Christian Science Monitor, March 13, 2002 | Go to article overview

Bread Rises from the Prairie ; New Cookbook Features Recipes from Midwestern Farms, Bakeries, Homes


Conrads, David, The Christian Science Monitor


Judith Fertig has made something of a cottage industry out of chronicling the culinary culture and food ways of the Midwest. Her 1995 book "Pure Prairie" (Two Lane Press) put a contemporary spin on foods, both cultivated and wild, that are produced in this part of the country. Her "Prairie Home Cooking" (1999, Harvard Common Press) is a comprehensive look at Midwestern foods, from pioneer days to the present.

It seems only fitting that Ms. Fertig should complete her "prairie trilogy" with a book about bread baking. In "Prairie Home Breads: 150 Splendid Recipes From America's Breadbasket" (Harvard Common Press, $18.95), she draws on a variety of sources - from family recipes and 19th-century cookbooks to well-known bakers and serious hobbyists - to celebrate the abundance of the nation's breadbasket and the extraordinary wealth of gastronomic creations derived from wheat and other types of flour.

Nothing signifies hearth and home quite like a loaf of fresh- baked bread, and the recipes in "Prairie Home Breads" reflect the diverse cooking traditions of the many ethnic groups that have settled in the Midwest. One can find recipes for Farmhouse Rolls, classic rolls made with old-fashioned egg-bread dough, as well as Russian Mennonite Sour Rye Bread, Italian Slipper Bread, Challah, New Maxwell Street Bolillos, Plains Indian Fry Bread, and Spicy Pear Bread, a Swiss concoction.

Fertig's definition of bread is broad. Her book includes examples of just about anything made from flour, including naturally leavened, slow-rising, whole-grain and yeast breads, muffins, popovers, scones, biscuits, crackers, coffeecakes, and pastries.

In a recent interview, Fertig, who lives in Overland Park, Kan., noted a rising interest in breadmaking, due in large part, she believes, to the popularity of automatic bread machines. These machines will do everything, from mixing the ingredients to baking the loaf. Fertig herself uses such a machine, but only for mixing and kneading the dough.

"A lot of people are bread snobs and wouldn't touch one of those with a 10-foot pole," she says. "I think it has its place. If bread machines encourage people to make bread, I say go for it."

In her book, she indicates recipes for which she believes a machine does a superior job with mixing and kneading.

Even many avid cooks find bread-baking to be intimidating. For them as well as for novices, "Prairie Home Breads" includes many tips and techniques. Fertig, a native of Ohio, who studied at the Cordon Bleu in London and at La Varenne, then in Paris, teaches cooking classes in addition to writing. …

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