My great-grandfather milled flour. He lived in a small town in Russia where he owned two mills, one for flour, one for schnapps, both from grain, salt of the earth, manna from heaven. For who can live without flour and alcohol, bread and drink?
And this great-grandfather would travel from town to town, milling grain into flour, expert that he was. But he wouldn’t always keep his nose to the grindstone, so to speak, for he had a reputation as a lothario, handsome and wealthy that he was. He would dust the flour from his lapels and court the young women until, of course, he met the woman who would become my great-grandmother, a beautiful young woman close to thirty years his junior.
Did he woo her with, shower her in flowers? In flour?
My other great-grandfather made and sold ice.
I would stand at the long, wooden kitchen table and knead dough for bread or pizza once, sometimes twice a week and the dog, a tremendously large, unusually tall boxer named Kikka, our pet, would hover around, quietly observing me work. Flour, water, salt, sugar and yeast, eggs, honey and milk when making Challah for the Friday night meal, but always flour, water, salt, sugar and yeast would be blended in a large bowl and then pushed out onto the table onto a heap of flour poof.
And I would knead and knead, dusting, scattering a fine blanket of white across the mound of dough, scoop up the dough and fling a fine blanket of white across the wooden surface of the table like a snowy landscape. And knead.
In a cloud of flour.
And then I would notice the nose and the tongue. While I had been concentrated on my dough, spellbound by the rhythmic movements of my kneading only broken by the quick scattering of flour, Kikka would have noiselessly approached the table, nose up, enthralled by the scent of the flour, and, my attention elsewhere even as she was just at my feet, place the side of her snout against the edge of the table and silently begin licking the flour that had been nudged to the table’s edge. Large pink tongue would flick out and flick in, how she loved flour.
Now I have a much smaller dog whose snout, much less his tongue, would never reach anywhere near the countertop where I now blend flour, water, salt, sugar and yeast into dough, where I scatter a find dusting of flour atop the mound of dough and across the work surface and knead and knead once, sometimes twice a week. But he, like his predecessor, adores flour, can sense when I am working with flour, can detect the odor of flour whenever I pop open the plastic box filled with the white flour, whenever I am baking. Yet scolded once too often for insinuating himself under my feet, he waits (im)patiently until I am done, dough resting or bread in the oven, the box of flour stored away, and he scurries into the kitchen just to lick, not silently as did Kikka but rather snuffling lustily, the flour from the floor in the spot where I was standing. For there is invariably, always, a fine dusting of flour on the kitchen floor in the spot where I bake.
“Bread is the king of the table and all else is merely the court that surrounds the king.” once said the novelist Louis Bromfield and if he be right I say flour is the king of the kitchen, all else is merely the court. What can’t flour do, what magic does flour not create? From breakfast to dinnertime, from snack time to dessert. Pancakes and waffles, cinnamon toast. Or crêpes! Batter thickened, breads made, rounds sizzling on the griddle, a thin thread of steam rises from the toaster, inhale the aroma of breakfast.
A spoonful of flour or a just a bit more and butter or milk, soup or gravy transforms into something else, thick and rich and worthy of a meal. Béchamel. Roux. Ah, the French, how did they know to add flour? Soup or gravy, from thin and watery thickens into dinner.
Biscuits abundant with flour, and breads, muffins, scones, teatime! Sandwiches for lunch, blinis elegantly supporting a glistening mound of caviar or smoked salmon, crackers scooping up dip.
Pound, pestle, grind, flour from wheat, rice, chickpeas or chestnuts, each enriching whatever is made from such a simple ingredient, an innocent powder with a distinct texture, a unique flavor. Cake, what is cake? Cocoa powder, eggs, butter, milk and sugar but what without flour? Ah, a flourless cake! More a pudding, less a cake! And my clothing, my skirt, my shirt, my apron, my face and arms covered in white floury handprints. His or mine?
Almond flour, sweet, earthy, nutty. Flour? Ground almonds, almond powder. Corn flour, so American (when not polenta and Italian), corn flour and I make him corn bread, corn pone, spoon bread, all-American. When he wears that shirt of cornflower blue it brings out the cornflower blue of his eyes. Sparkling.
And the tenderness, light as water and as flour. – Pablo Neruda
He offers me flowers I offer him flour, homemade with love.
Fish filets and chicken tenders dredged in flour, dragged back and forth, flipped and dragged back and forth again. Thick chunks of beef chucked into a shallow bowl of flour and tossed, pushed and swirled and rolled to coat. Lift out the fish filet, the chicken tender, the narrow tail end pinched between thumb and forefinger and shake off the excess flour. Scoop up the chunks of beef and, fingers slightly splayed, give a gentle shake to rid the meat of the excess of flour. Flour turned to paste clumped on the tips of my fingers, just impossible to shake, to push, to pick off. Flour turned to glue.
Meatballs! Meatballs of beef or lamb or chicken or fish always tossed in flour before being baked or fried or simply tossed into sauce, the flour giving a golden, crispy coating and thickening the sauce at once. Some will call it alchemy, I can call it wizardry because the powers of flour, all the things flour can do never ceases to amaze me.
Chickpeas become felafel; chickpeas ground and blended with onion and garlic, parsley and coriander, spices of Middle Eastern origin and shaped into balls in between the palms of your hands and rolled in flour. Fried chicken. I love fried chicken. Chicken rolled in flour and fried.
Roll berries in flour, nuts in flour, chocolate chips in flour before stirring into batter will they sink or swim?
Rouler quelqu’un dans la farine. To roll someone in flour. To trick, dupe, swindle, mislead someone and once again the French just know what to do with flour.
Crêpes are the basis of a very simple, homey and fun meal; we stir up a bowl of crêpe batter when the refrigerator is bare, no dinner plans have been made, and everyone is hungry. Everyone pulls up a stool to the kitchen counter and crêpes are made and handed out one by one. This recipe makes very tender, rich-tasting crêpes, perfect eaten with either a savory (crème fraîche & smoke salmon, ham and grated cheese…) or sweet (jam, fruit butter, sugar or Nutella) filling. But my favorite ways to eat crêpes are given below the recipe.
JAMIE’S TENDER FRENCH CRÊPES
250 g / 8.8 oz flour
250 ml / 1 cup milk
250 ml / 1 cup cream
1 Tbs sugar
Whisk the eggs and the flour together until smooth, slowly pour the milk and cream into the flour and eggs, whisking continually until there are no lumps. Stir in the salt and sugar. Cover the bowl and allow to stand for at least an hour. Heat a skillet or pan (preferably nonstick) or a crêpe pan, rub butter or margarine around the entire surface (we use a paper towel rubbed across the surface of the butter or margarine then rubbed around the skillet); when the butter sizzles pour on a ladle of batter, swirl and tilt the pan until a thin coating of batter is spread evenly over the surface of the pan. Flip the crepe when the surface is bubbling and the underside of the crepe is browned. Cook until both sides are a golden brown. When making crêpes, the first crêpe is usually blond or very pale… the French say that this first crêpe is for the chef.
I have two favorite ways to eat crêpes:
Sprinkle with sugar and squeeze on some lemon juice, fold into quarters and serve/eat.
Or smear the hot crepe quickly with salted butter, sprinkle on sugar, fold into quarters and serve/eat.