Making Backyard Bread

by Sara May

I grew up in the rural Finger Lakes region of New York state but moved to Philadelphia shortly after college. I spent 15 fun-filled years in the City of Brotherly Love. I met my husband in Philly, and we bonded over the fact that while we both loved the city, we were craving a quieter, more rural life. We began to make tentative plans to move back to the Finger Lakes.

Our abstract discussions quickly crystallized into real-time moving plans when the pandemic hit, and we found ourselves laid off from work. Last spring was a whirlwind of fear and uncertainty and hope, as we left our life in the city behind and moved to a house on top of a hill, surrounded by forests and dairy farms. 

During the anxiety-ridden days of the early pandemic in our new home, I was unemployed and full of nervous energy, so as soon as the weather allowed, I began to split my time between long walks through the woods and epic baking sessions in the kitchen. As the season progressed, I began to see all of the wild edibles pushing their way through the still-chilly spring soil and thought a lot about the reasons we’d moved to the country–to reconnect with my family and the land I grew up on.

Bringing home armfuls of foraged greens, I immediately got to work in the kitchen. The weather was still on the chilly side, so I wasn’t craving salads yet: I was craving something comforting and rich, something that would ground me. A savory loaf of bread seemed just the thing to make with my foraged bounty. I made my first foraged bread almost a year ago today amidst all of the uncertainty of the early pandemic, and I’ve been baking versions of it ever since.

Loosely connected to the British tradition of picnic cake in which all of the elements of a square meal are baked into a savory loaf, my bread is packed with wild onions, tender dandelion greens, nubs of local bacon, cubes of Old Chatham Creamery Three Milk Gouda, dried local apples and is topped with aged sheep’s milk cheese from our neighbors at Northland Sheep Dairy

A note about ingredients: While this bread is infinitely adaptable and certainly can be made with supermarket staples, I urge you to try baking it at least once with wild greens. Dandelion greens give the bread a pleasantly bitter note that offsets the richness of the bacon and cheese, but garlic mustard, shepard’s purse, and watercress make delicious substitutions. As an added benefit, garlic mustard is an invasive species, so you can feel comfortable foraging large swaths of it! Ramps (sometimes referred to as wild leeks or spring onions) are the trendy darling of the foraging community, and as a result have been drastically over-harvested in some areas. Help to do your part by making sure that you have permission to forage the land you’re on and by taking only the leaves of the ramps, leaving behind the root for the plant to regenerate next year.

As for the cheese, bacon and apples, again, these ingredients can easily be purchased from a grocery store, if that is all you have access to. But if you are able, I urge you to seek out local markets and purchase these ingredients from the people in your community. Connecting with the makers and growers of your region is such a great way to support your community, to develop lasting relationships with your neighbors and to discover some truly delicious food! 

During the anxiety-ridden days of the early pandemic, picking wild greens helped to center me and making this bread felt useful and good. Seeking out local farmers for our meat and cheese made me feel connected during a time when everything felt so isolating. Things are (thankfully!) a little different this year, but I am carrying with me the lessons of resilience and hope that discovering wild food in my backyard gave to me.

INGREDIENTS:

  • 3 ounces (45 grams) sharp sheep’s milk cheese, such as a Pecorino Romano or hard Tomme style, coarsely grated 
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 3 ounces (100 grams) thick cut bacon, thinly sliced into batons
  • 2 ounces (66 grams) ramp leaves or scallions, thoroughly washed and thinly sliced 
  • 4 ounces (115 grams) tender dandelion leaves or other foraged greens, thoroughly washed and thinly sliced
  • 3 ounces (84 grams) dried apples, roughly chopped
  • ¼ cup (55 grams) unsalted butter
  • 1 cup (240 ml) whole milk
  • 1 large egg
  • ¾ cup (180 ml) plain full-fat yogurt
  • 2 cups (280 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
  • 6 ounces (170 grams) nutty melting cheese, such as a Gouda or a Gruyere, cut into small cubes
  • ¼ cup (10 grams) fresh parsley, roughly chopped

DIRECTIONS:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line the bottom and sides of a 9 by 5 inch loaf pan with parchment paper, letting it overhang by 1” on either side of the pan. (This will give you a handy sling to get the bread out of the pan!) Sprinkle half of the grated sheep’s milk cheese on the bottom of the pan.
  2. Place sliced bacon and olive oil in a large saute pan and over a medium burner. As soon as the bacon starts to sizzle, turn down the heat to medium low. Cook bacon, stirring frequently, until the fat renders and the bacon pieces are crispy and brown. Using a slotted spoon, remove bacon from pan (leaving rendered fat behind) and place on a paper towel-lined plate.
  3. Add sliced ramp leaves to skillet with bacon fat and toss until just wilted. Add sliced dandelion greens and stir until tender, about 2 minutes. Stir in dried apples and cooked bacon and remove pan from heat. Allow mixture to cool to room temperature.
  4. In a small saucepan set over medium heat, melt butter. When the butter is fully melted, begin swirling pan. The butter will foam initially and as the foam subsides, the milk solids in the butter will begin to toast. Keep swirling until the butter begins to brown and smell nutty. As soon as the butter is deeply browned, immediately remove pot from heat and pour into a heat-proof bowl. (If left in the saucepan, the butter will burn!)
  5. In a small bowl, whisk together milk, egg, yogurt and browned butter. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper. Mix in the Gruyere chunks, the parsley and the cooked greens mixture. Pour the milk mixture into the dry ingredients and, using a spatula, fold everything together until no dry spots remain, making sure you’re scraping the bottom of the bowl thoroughly. The batter will be quite wet.
  6. Pour batter into the prepared loaf pan and sprinkle the remaining grated sheep’s milk cheese over the top. Place on the bottom shelf of the oven and bake for 30 minutes. Rotate pan front to back and place on the top shelf of the oven for another 15-25 minutes, or until cheese on top is browned and a tester inserted in the middle of the loaf comes out clean.
  7. Place loaf on a wire rack and allow to cool completely in the pan. To unmold, run a butter knife around the edges of the loaf and gently pull on the parchment sling until the loaf pops free. Remove parchment paper and use a serrated knife to cut slices of the loaf. 
  8. Store loaf, tightly wrapped in plastic, for up to a week. Serve at room temperature or toast in a pan with a little butter.

Photo credit: Sara May