Healthier Options Blossom at Flour Bakery

PHOTOS BY MICHAEL PIAZZA

When the bakers at Flour Bakery decided to fill out their pastry case with new items at the end of last year, they took a look at recent sales figures to get a sense of what was most popular. They noticed that there had been a significant uptick in sales of whole-grain and other nutrient-dense products. They realized that they had a lot of regular—even daily—customers looking for alternatives to the bakery’s delicious (but not necessarily healthful) regular menu items. 

The menu already offered a whole-grain pastry—a currant oat scone made with spelt flour—along with a nut-, seed- and fruit-dense power bar, a labne granola parfait and a grain bowl, all of which seemed to be increasingly popular. Many customers were clearly opting for the few healthier items they offered, and the bakers recognized an opportunity. 

They decided at first to simply introduce a few more whole-grain options. A handful of items could be prepared using whole-grain flours without much tweaking, like their double chocolate chip cookie. It contained only a small amount of white flour, and didn’t rely on it for structure. And its flavor could easily benefit from the use of a flour with more complexity. They opted for toasted rye, which balanced nicely against the chocolate intensity of the cookie. Similarly, their bittersweet chocolate brownie was only improved when they swapped out the white flour for spelt.

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Muffins and snack cakes were easy to change over to whole grains as well. The bakers quickly transitioned both a vegan carrot-ginger muffin and an apple spice snacking cake to use Khorosan flour. (Khorosan, or kamut, one of the many “ancient grain” wheat species coming back into use lately, is considered higher in protein, vitamins and minerals than common wheat.) The snack cake was another instance where the flavor was improved by the use of a whole grain flour, since its more robust flavor helped to temper the sweetness of the apples and sugar. 

After having made these shifts, they began to introduce new menu items using whole-grain flours, such as a whole-wheat apple scone and a breakfast cookie loaded with millet, oats, sunflower seeds, pepitas and coconut. (The breakfast cookie, based on a low-sugar cookie that hadn’t sold well, is already a big hit with customers. But it was created for the bakers themselves, so they could feel better about their habit of indulging in cookies during early morning baking shifts.)

From there, it was easy to see the contours of a much bigger project. As Nicole Rhode, executive pastry chef at Flour, told me, “It kind of snowballed. We were, like, ‘Let’s DO this. Let’s make a commitment for 2018 and beyond to offer pastries that we currently make [as well as new ones], incorporating whole-grain flours into them without having our guests go out of their way to get them into their diets.’” 

They decided to give the campaign a name—WHOLEflour—to set it apart from their other menu items, and to give the products greater visibility. The goal is to have half of their pastry line transition to at least 50% whole-grain flours by the end of 2018. Every month they plan to introduce a new muffin using whole-grain flour (or to reformulate a previously existing one). Carrot and devil’s food cake will be adapted to use whole-grain flours, and cookies too, like the soon-to-debut granola bars and biscotti.

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And it’s not just pastries that are going to get the whole-grain treatment at Flour. They are currently developing whole-wheat versions of their brioche and croissant formulas, and are planning to transition their multigrain sandwich bread to use 100% whole wheat. But adapting breads and flaky croissants to whole-grain flours presents a much greater hurdle than do pastries, since the flour does nearly all of the heavy lifting, structure-wise. 

Flour Bakery uses their brioche dough in a variety of products, including sticky buns, cinnamon rolls and topped brioches both savory and sweet. Creating a whole-wheat version of this dough remains a challenge. 

Lofty loaves and flaky, tender pastries like croissants get their structure from gluten, the protein networks that contain the gases produced during fermentation. And the amount of gluten present in a bread determines its texture (think chewy bagels and New York–style pizza, both of which are usually made with high-gluten flour). Meanwhile, whole-grain flours are loaded with bran, the ground up particles from the seed coat of the grains. Bran is extremely hard, making it difficult to mill finely, and very slow to soften when mixed with water. Therefore, bran particles act like microscopic razors within a dough, cutting gluten strands as quickly as they can form, which is why breads made from whole-grain flours are typically denser and tighter-crumbed than those made from refined flours. The presence of bran (around 15% of the total weight of the grain) also lowers the overall amount of gluten-forming proteins in the flour, further complicating things for the baker who wants to use them to produce airy breads. (Some bakers circumvent this problem by using so-called “high-extraction” flours, those that have been sifted to remove most of the bran while still retaining most of the flavorful and nutritious components of the grain that are typically removed to make white flours.)

The bakers at Flour are making progress with their brioche dough, but it’s not ready for prime time quite yet. Brioche gets most of its plush, ethereal texture from the large amount of butter it contains rather than from gluten structure, so a baker can get away with using lower-protein flours. But the bakers at Flour are finding the whole-grain version a bit too dry so far, most likely because the increased bran is so resistant to holding water. They are testing out a few different types of whole-grain flours, and no doubt will have something that meets their exacting standards soon enough.

The Flour croissant has proved similarly challenging to convert to whole-wheat. They’ve had success producing one with great flavor and the appropriate amount of honeycomb layering, but the bakers aren’t yet satisfied with the look of the whole wheat version, since it lacked the sharp, “stepped” appearance of the classic one. And herein lies the problem for the baker dedicated to improving both the flavor and nutrition of her products AND to aesthetics, especially when the original recipe itself took years to perfect. 

Here’s how Rachael Boyce, production pastry chef, put it: “[T]he aesthetic has been such a departure from what our house croissant represents: a recipe that has gone through years of tweaks to be what it is today. Beautiful layers, flaky crust, [a] buttery and tender honeycomb. I really love our croissant for both its flavor and appearance, so in doing these tests, I had to ask, ‘Are we concerned with losing the aesthetic while enhancing the flavor?’ Not entirely, but it is my mission to keep both.” 

Flour hasn’t decided yet whether they will keep both croissant versions on their menu, but I get the sense that they won’t stop making the white-flour version until the whole-wheat one is as beautiful and satisfying as the classic. For now, the plan is to offer both, along with a whole-wheat almond croissant and a whole-wheat sausage and cheddar version.

Despite the challenges, the bakers at Flour are clearly enjoying the process. Working with whole grains presents opportunities as much as it does obstacles, since it gives a baker the chance to think about new ways to build flavor. 

“Extracts, for example, I would love to leave behind,” says Boyce. “I know there is not a ton you can do to replicate almond extract, but vanilla? We have only seen the expense of sourcing that ingredient increase. Can we add a sweet, nutty or woody flavor through other means? Absolutely. It may not entirely replicate vanilla, but the flavor that toasted rye flour can impart on a chocolate dessert is far more interesting to me than … vanilla extract.”

Joanne Chang, Flour’s founder-owner, has a similar enthusiasm for the WHOLEflour project and the new line of products her bakers have created: 

“Today’s consumer is knowledgeable and curious and opinionated about what they eat and put in their bodies. Offering products with whole grains is hugely important. In the same way we’ve added vegan and gluten-free options to our menu, now we have whole-grain items and our guests appreciate these and benefit from them. This [project] would not have worked had the new whole-grain options not been amazing—but once we started down the path of making things with whole grains we found them to be more flavorful and interesting and delicious. I can’t wait to see what else we can make WHOLEflour.”

Andrew Janjigian is a Senior Editor and resident breadhead at Cook’s Illustrated Magazine. He can be found online as @wordloaf on Twitter and Instagram. He’s also a photographer of people, places and things at andrewjanjigian.com.