I figured since today is October 14th, National Dessert Day in the States (okay, this is probably made up, but come on… it’s a great excuse, right?), I would post about baking responsibly in Unprocessed October.
Sometimes a girl’s just gotta make a batch of buttercream frosting. Seriously.
This isn’t to say that I believe that all things sweet should be eaten without moderation. I’m a firm believer in less is more, especially when it comes to baked goods. When I bake, I find myself giving away most of the end results simply because I can’t bring myself to eat more than one or two servings myself. I’ve been taking all sorts of baked goods to the horse farm to hoist off into the arms (and mouths) of unsuspecting students and boarders. Did you know that some horses like yellow cake?
Anyway, today I wanted to share some of the ways I’ve been able to source responsible ingredients for the baked goods I’ve been pursuing. If you don’t follow my regular blog, you might not know that I’ve been working lately to develop a number of baked goods and confections (and skills!) to start a market-based bakery next spring. I’ve been baking several different things a week, from cakes to candies to traditional pastries, and more often than not the results end up tossed out for the chickens because I’m insanely picky about my sweets.
One of the easiest ways to find responsible ingredients in your area is to use a basic internet search engine (I prefer Google). For example, when I plug the words “Michigan Flour Company” into the search box and within the first ten results there are three local milling companies! It’s amazing how well the internet works these days.
Basically when I plan to make something that I don’t already have ingredients for, I spend a good hour or two doing internet research to find out what is available locally, what is organic, what is sustainable and what is all of the above. In Michigan we have this amazing small-scale miller called “Jennings Bros” and they sell primarily at markets. Archibald “Archie” Jennings is a fantastic man who loves to share stories of growing up on a dairy farm, and his flours are locally grown, organic and stone-ground in small batches. They grow their own grains and are just about as sustainable as you can get in our area for grain flours, specialty flours and even pastry flours.
Another great way to find ingredients (and I know I’ve mentioned this before) is to just talk to people. Farmers and Farmers’ Market goers alike often LOVE to talk. It’s amazing how many sources I have gleaned just from talking to people at my local market and co-ops.
If you live far enough out from the cities, it’s even possible to source eggs just by wandering the back country roads until you spot a sign for farm eggs for sale, and in many states it is legal to buy eggs directly from the farmers. Or you can go all out and raise chickens or ducks for eggs yourself! Our laying flock consists of various heritage chicken breeds, and next spring our seven Khaki Campbell ducks will be laying in full swing and should provide us with an egg each, daily! Duck eggs are fantastic for baking and if you’ve never tried it, I strongly suggest it.
If you have do to buy non-local and you don’t have a good mom-and-pop co-op or shop around, I’ve found a decent source for backup ingredients can be (dare I say it?) Whole Foods Market, where I’ve been able to find fairly local flours, non-gmo sugars and free trade natural cocoa, which is another difficult ingredient to source. In fact, in some cases I have actually allowed Whole Foods to do a lot of research for me. They pay their own people to go out and source local foods that they can carry in their stores. You can just walk around the stores with a notebook and write down the businesses and farms that are on the the “Made in ______!” stickers and go home to source them more directly! (This is not cheating, however it might be farm-stalking…)
This is how I found the best local butter and milk near us, Calder Dairy. I was having a hard time finding dairy in the area that was small-farm based. We have a number of dairies in Michigan, but none that I could find could boast that they actually knew their cows. They would all source their milk from a gazillion different farms (that might be an exaggeration) and then all of the milk from those gazillion cows would get smushed into a homogeneous sludge they called milk. Okay, I’m a purest – I get that – but in Michigan we aren’t allowed to purchase raw milk, or even pasteurized milk straight from the farms. We have to take what we can get.
Calder Dairy keeps all of their own cows on non-certified mostly-organic pasture (which they are very honest about), and they grow their own hay, and source local grain to supplement their lady-cows. The dairy is open for public visits so you can actually go see the operation and see that the cows are healthy and just about as happy as they can be in a commercial dairy. My favorite part? This 65 year old dairy also offers old fashioned delivery to our door! We get our milk in glass jars and every week we put the empties on the cooler out front and just after noon we hear the dairy truck come rumblin’ up the drive. They even offer “Cream-top” or “natural” unhomogenized milk. It comes with the thick layer of cream at the top of the bottle which can either be shaken into the bottle or used for baking. I love this – I love everything about it!
The biggest sticking (heh) point in sourcing responsible baking ingredients, at least for me, has been sugar. Michigan has been known for it’s beet sugar for a very long time, but in 2008 (I think?) the courts decided to allow genetically modified beets to be grown for sugar in Michigan. Ick. Blech. Ugh. &%#$. Arg. (Am I allowed to say &%#$ on this blog? Hmm.)
There have been a number of movements in Michigan to get gardeners to grow their own sugar, but holy cow that seems like a lot of work to me. Hmm. Then again, I do need another project in my life… maybe I’ll start researching that some more. (Please, somebody talk me out of this!)
Anyway, I have started buying organic cane sugar since it is nearly impossible to find local sugar that is guaranteed GMO free. The fact that it is local at least somewhat makes up for the fact that it is shipped in from far off exotic places and possibly harvested by people with some pretty poor living conditions. Like I said, it’s sticky.
An alternative that I have started exploring is using honey in place of sugar, but in things like buttercream and meringue it’s just not realistic to expect the two types of sugars to behave exactly the same. The honey doesn’t hold it’s stiff form when mixed into eggs and begins to break down quickly in meringues so it has to be served ASAP after finishing – in other words this is not something I can use in baking for market sales. Ah well. I still use it in cookies and cakes to substitute at least part of the sweetener, and because I live in a state with lots of honey farmers (for now) it is easy to get local honey.
So as I continue to experiment with my baked goods I will also continue to develop recipes that include responsible ingredients. It never even crossed my mind to buy conventional or lower quality ingredients. Despite the sometimes added cost of the “good” stuff, it seems logical to me that in order to produce the highest quality and most ecologically responsible baked goods, I often have to sacrifice economy. People who taste my finished goods can taste the difference, and so can I. I prefer to eat my baked goods with a glass of (Calder’s) milk, a smile on my face and a clear conscience.
Have you ever tried to source local ingredients? What has been most difficult for you to source?
Want to read more from Tanglewood Farm? Check out Emily’s blog over at A Pinch of Something Nice where she writes about her experiences with her gardens, her livestock and her leased historical home in SE Michigan.
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