There’s nothing mysterious or complicated about harvest baking. In fact, you might already be doing it.
I can scarcely remember a time when I didn’t like to bake. My mom and dad were avid fruit pie makers, and when I left home in my teens it didn’t take long to realize that I’d inherited some of their baking DNA.
It wasn’t until the early ’80s that fresh produce became a dominant theme in my baking. A few years out of the navy and looking for a new adventure, I packed a few belongings and moved from New Jersey to rural New Hampshire to take a position as the chief cook and bottle washer at a group home for kids who’d been dealt a lousy hand and gotten off to a rough start in life.
Everything I prepared had to be vegetarian, and pretty healthy. Fortunately, there was a perk that came with the job, and his name was Michael, our groundskeeper and gardener. Michael was born with dirt under his fingernails. He was a vegetable whisperer, someone who could miraculously turn patches of dense New Hampshire clay dirt into rich, organic soil capable of producing fat tomatoes, the most vivid greens, and the tastiest onions you have ever eaten. All of which, sooner or later, landed in my kitchen with a hefty thud.
“What’s that?” I would ask when he dropped off several bushel baskets of something unfamiliar.
“Kale. It’s sorta like spinach on steroids.”
“What am I supposed to do with it?”
“You’re the cook. You figure it out.”
And that’s how it began. Michael would grow it, I’d cook it, and sooner or later I’d find a way to work it into yeast breads, rolls, pizzas, calzones, biscuits, cakes, cookies, and the like.
I’ve seen a lot of kitchens in the 30-some years since. And I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had a career figuring out how to make the best of the harvest and showcase it on our plates — especially in our baked goods.
I imagine, as you read this, that you might have a few questions — such as, What does it mean to be a harvest baker, and how is it different from “regular” home baking? Do I have to grow my own food? Will my kids/ spouse/partner eat it? And will I have to spend a lot of money on kitchen equipment I don’t already own?
First of all, relax. There’s nothing mysterious or complicated about harvest baking. You don’t have to grow a garden, though many harvest bakers do (even if it’s just a few herbs on the kitchen windowsill). Nor will you need to shell out a lot of money for kitchen tools.
Indeed, you may not realize it, but chances are you’re a harvest baker already, at least some of the time. Ever made zucchini bread? Or piled fresh veggies on your homemade pizza? That’s harvest baking right there, the kind everyone relishes and wants more of.
Harvest baking is part of a larger movement toward wholesome foods, locally sourced as much as possible, and prepared in ways that nourish body and soul and look great on your plate. Just look around; there are signs of this movement everywhere. Farmers’ markets are more popular than ever, and the farm-to-table phenomenon is exploding. Supermarkets carry a wider selection of produce than ever before, much of it local and organic. Finding inventive ways to use fresh produce is the driver behind numerous food blogs. And the number of home gardens continues to soar.
Is it any wonder, then, that we’re experiencing a corresponding surge of interest in baking with the harvest? Harvest baking is right in step with the way people are cooking today — an incredibly gratifying development for someone who’s been at it for more than 30 years.
White Bean, Spinach, and Bacon Pizza
I love a traditional red-sauce pizza — who doesn’t? — but the pizza revolution of the past decades has opened wide the doors of creativity with delicious results, like this pizza topped with garlicky white bean mash, spinach, onions, and bacon. When all these flavors come together on a crispy crust, you get a harvest pizza that’s indescribably satisfying.
Makes 3–4 servings
- Oil and cornmeal for the baking sheet
- Hand Method Pizza Dough (recipe follows)
- 4–6 bacon strips
- ½ medium red onion, very thinly sliced
- 3–4 cups packed baby spinach (5 to 6 ounces)
- 3–4 tablespoons olive oil
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 1½ cups (one 15- or 16-ounce can) soft-cooked white beans
- ¼ cup water
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup grated mozzarella or provolone cheese
- 2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary or thyme
- Prepare the pizza dough and set it aside to rise. You’ll only need half of the dough for this recipe. The other half can be refrigerated, frozen, or used to make a second pizza. Lightly oil a large baking sheet and dust it with cornmeal.
- Cook the bacon in a large skillet until crisp. Remove the bacon and set it aside to cool. Add the onion to the skillet and cook in the bacon fat for 1 minute. Add all of the spinach and, using tongs, mop it around in the pan for no more than 30 seconds, just long enough to barely wilt it. Remove the spinach from the skillet and set it aside on a plate.
- Cool the skillet off a bit, then add 2 to 3 tablespoons of the olive oil. Stir in the garlic and heat for about 15 seconds over medium heat. Stir in the white beans and water, scraping the skillet well with a wooden spoon to pick up any flavorful bits from the surface. Heat briefly, then remove from the heat and mash the beans with a large fork or potato masher. Don’t try to mash them too thoroughly; they should be rough but a little saucy, with a good mix of whole and mashed beans. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- When your dough has doubled and you’re ready to bake the pizza, preheat the oven to 450°F (230°C). Punch the dough down and knead for 1 minute on a lightly floured surface. Divide the dough in half. (Save half of the dough for another use.) Cover your dough loosely with plastic wrap and let it rest for 10 minutes on a lightly floured surface.
- Once it has rested, press or roll the dough into a large, thin circle or oblong. Transfer it to the baking sheet. Lightly brush the surface with the remaining tablespoon or two of olive oil, especially around the edges. Let the dough rest for 10 minutes.
- Dollop the bean mixture evenly over the surface of the dough, but don’t smooth it. Cover evenly with the cooked spinach. Crumble about half of the bacon over the top. Bake on the middle oven rack for 15 minutes.
- Slide the pizza out of the oven and sprinkle the cheese and rosemary on top. Bake for another 5 to 7 minutes, just long enough to melt the cheese thoroughly. The crust should be golden brown. Slide the pizza onto a rack and cool for 5 to 10 minutes. Crumble the remaining bacon over the top and serve. Refrigerate leftovers. Reheat slices directly on a baking sheet, in a 300°F (150°C) oven, for 8 to 10 minutes.
Hand Method Pizza Dough
This is a good recipe to start with if you’ve never made yeast bread before, and you can make a white or a whole-wheat version (see below).
Makes enough dough for 2 medium pizzas
- 1 cup plus 3 tablespoons lukewarm water (105 to 110°F [41–43°C])
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 packet (¼ ounce) active dry yeast
- 3–3¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1½ teaspoons salt
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus a little for the bowl
For Whole-Wheat Pizza Dough
- Before you start, combine 1¾ cups whole-wheat flour and 1½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour in a bowl and whisk well to mix. Use this custom flour mixture to prepare your dough.
- Pour the water into a large bowl. Stir in the sugar. Sprinkle the yeast over the water. Let it sit for a minute, then give it a little ruffle with a fork to stir it up. Set it aside for 5 minutes. As it sits, you’ll see the mixture begin to bubble up and come alive.
- Add 1¾ cups of the flour to the water. Using a wooden spoon, stir vigorously for 100 strokes; the dough will be quite thick at this point but not firm enough to pull away from the sides of the bowl. Set the dough aside for 5 minutes.
- Add the salt and 2 tablespoons olive oil to the dough. Stir well. Start adding the remaining flour to the dough, no more than 1/4 cup at a time — less as the dough gets firmer. Before long, the dough will begin to pull away from the sides. When it does, work the dough vigorously against the sides of the bowl with your wooden spoon for a minute or two.
- Dust your work surface with some of the remaining flour and turn out the dough. Dust the dough and your hands with flour and start kneading, gingerly at first because it will be sticky. The usual way of kneading is to push the dough down and away from you, bring the dough back toward you, fold it over, give it a quarter turn, and repeat. (The easiest way to learn this skill is by watching someone else do it. If you don’t have an experienced kneader in your life, find one on YouTube.) Continue dusting your dough with flour as required.
- After 8 tor 9 minutes of kneading, your dough should be smooth, supple, and elastic. If tears develop in the dough, you’re pushing too hard. Smear a teaspoon or two of olive oil in a large ceramic or glass bowl, add the dough, and turn it to coat the surface with oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Place the bowl in a warm, draft-free spot until the dough is doubled in bulk, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Once it has doubled, punch down the dough and proceed with your recipe.