Baker Roxana Jullapat brings mother grains to modern times — and makes chocolate chip cookies

Written by Andrea Domanick, produced by Laryl Garcia

Aiming for an adult chocolate chip cookie? Use buckwheat flour, suggests baker Roxana Jullapat, and pair it with a strong, black cup of coffee. Photo by Kristin Teig.

Way before the sun is up and most of Los Angeles has opened its eyes, Roxanna Jullapat flips on the lights and turns on the ovens of Friends & Family, the restaurant and bakery she owns with her husband in East Hollywood. By the time the doors open at 8 a.m., the pastry case is glowing with baked goods featuring vibrant colors and textures of whole grains. 

A longtime advocate of the modern grain movement, Jullapat compiled recipes, some of which you'll recognize behind that glass, into a long-awaited cookbook  called “Mother Grains.” Jullapat spoke with KCRW about creating the cookbook and the pilgrimages she made to discover barley, buckwheat, corn, oats, rice, rye, sorghum, and wheat.  

KCRW: You were an early advocate of the local grain movement. Did you have an “Aha!” moment that really plugged you into it?

Roxanna Jullapat: “I feel like probably the most clear revelation for me was gaining an understanding that grains are also seasonal. ...My husband and I, and the school of cooks from which I stemmed, are firm believers in seasonality. We're in California, we cannot escape it, it's all around us. So it was just a matter of connecting that missing dot.”

You took some time to travel and visit farms. And you went up to the Washington State University Breadlab, which is a famed place of pilgrimage for bakers who want to use grains from their local food sheds. Can you share what those experiences were like for you, to push you in this direction?

“It's interesting, the approach to grains that we have here in America, versus the approach to grains that other cultures and other countries have to grain. Here, it’s kind of like something we discovered or rediscovered. Like it just occurred to us that maybe we should reconsider this whole commodity flour model and study all these ancient grains and varieties, and bring them to modern times and help them acclimate to new microclimates and an ever-changing world and how to best utilize them in a modern context. 

But then, the most interesting travel I did was right before we opened Friends & Family. I had the opportunity to go back home to Costa Rica, where I had grown up. And then also I spent some time in Turkey. I went to Bhutan. Eventually, I ended up in Scandinavia. But what was really enriching to me was to not look at grains as something to be rescued, or something that was necessarily new, but something that is already part of us and the fabric of who we are. And we just have to reconnect with it. 

Growing up as a Latin American kid, I was thoroughly exposed to corn. And I always had access to vocabulary that explained to me that there were more grains than just this wheat that we use for everything that is highly refined and grown at a very industrial scale. So it was really, really cool for me to see the ease with which other people, cultures, countries, cooks and bakers just treated grain without sort of like having to write a treaty about it.”

In your book, “Mother Grains,” you concentrate on eight grains: barley, buckwheat, corn, oats, rye, rice, sorghum, and wheat. Why these particular grains?

“First, they are all what we call ancient grains. We know this because we can trace them genetically and trace how old they actually are. But we also know that they have played a vital role in domestic agriculture. They're of tremendous historical importance for their contributions as economical, cultural, and even political catalysts in different regions of the country, and also through different time periods in the country.”

In your recipes in the book, do you use any white flour or what we would think of as “all-purpose flour?”

“Indeed I do. And let me just start by saying that I dream of a day when we can all bake with 100% whole grain flours. However, I think of refined flours as a tool and use them as such. But for flavor and texture, the whole grain flour has to be central. So the only reason why white flour, and minimal amounts, is in the book is to fill in wherever the whole grain flour might come short. Depending on the grain, it can be things like lack of gluten, a grated texture, sometimes you can have a bitter flavor or a starchy aftertaste. So that's the role of the refined all-purpose flour, or even refined bread flour. It just comes in as a building block. While the whole grain flour is there to be the assertive and identifying note of the baked good.”

Your buckwheat pancake — every time I've eaten it, or your variation made with corn, I always thought it was genius. Truly a cake made in a pan.

That's exactly right. That was the intention. I have a very warm spot in my heart for buckwheat. Buckwheat always makes me want to create things that are super comfort foody. So what is more comfort food than a pancake, right? What I like about doing just a big, badass pancake is that you can actually just make one, as opposed to a huge stack. 

And the secret to make this pancake work is that you start in a cast iron pan, and you pour the batter on the stove. So you start by making this nice, crispy edge, and then you finish it in a hot oven. And that just allows the pancake to actually become cake, so to speak. So it's going to have that oven spring that we aspire to when we're making a cake. So you get the best of both worlds. That crispy edge and then cakey dreaminess inside.”

Seven of the eight mother grains can be used in your chocolate chip cookie recipe. Can you riff on the properties that each of the flours impart to the cookie? And then what your preference is?

“As I was writing the cookbook, I knew I was going to have to tell people. Because people were going to ask me, and they still do, ‘How can you substitute one flour for another? And how do you know which flour is appropriate for which use?’ And I always have this saying that you can use whichever flour you want, wherever you want, as long as you know what the flour is capable of. Because if you know that, for example, buckwheat has no wheat, you'll know that you'll have to match it up with a flour that is glutinous. 

But that is really easy for me to say and understand because I bake every day. So I knew I was going to have to do a recipe in which you could use a great variety of flours, and that they were going to yield results that were very similar, or that you would have a delicious result no matter what the flour was, even if the resulting cookies were each unique and special in their own way. So don't ask me to choose a favorite one, because it's like choosing a favorite child. And it's interesting. This is the effect across the board. When we were testing these recipes, each one of the bakers has a favorite one. And no two bakers pick the same one. 

So let's start with barley. Barley is a very special flour. It’s very, very low in gluten. And to me, categorically, it represents fall flavors — spice, warm notes, 100%. So the cookie that it produces is quite a bit butterscotch, very, very brown sugary. It also has a really nice texture, because that's what barley flour is. It’s a very tender flour. 

I really, really liked the buckwheat chocolate chip cookie. There's definitely an incredible affinity between the darker grains, such as rye and buckwheat, and chocolate. So I find this cookie to be a little bit sober, a little bit more adult, and absolutely delicious. It’s also terrific with just a black cup of coffee. 

The oatmeal chocolate chip cookie is super playful. It will taste a little bit lighter, but it also has that chew that oats will impart in a recipe. It makes a terrific ice cream sandwich. 

The rice chocolate chip cookies are very interesting, because rice is very neutral. So the way it reacts when we put it in a recipe is that it adds a little bit of sweetness, but it's not sugar. It's a sweetness with a little bit more depth, but it also adds tremendous crunch to a recipe. So I like to bake them just until they're crispy on the outside, but it's still a little bit softer in the center. And that crispy edge with rice flour is like buttery magic, crunchy deliciousness in your mouth. 

The rye chocolate chip cookie, like I said, there’s a great affinity between rye and chocolate. It is the one version that we make here at the bakery. And it is all of those things, like very elegant, and also the rye flour tends to have a little tartness to it, so it balances the sweetness of the chocolate. And it's terrific with just a few flakes of sea salt on top. 

Then the Sonora wheat chocolate chip cookie is really great. Sonora is a really awesome flour that we produce tons of here in California and the West Coast. It’s very sustainable and super climate friendly. So this is a winner cookie, like nobody will object to this cookie. … And it's also very kid friendly. So for those of us who bake for children, often this is an excellent way to introduce them to whole grains and talk about flour and flour that grows close to them. 

And, of course, spelt chocolate chip cookies work great. Spelt is a great flour because it's pretty user-friendly. You could almost utilize it as an all purpose flour one to one.”

Chocolate Chip Cookies
Makes 16 cookies

Ingredients 

  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick/115 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • ½ cup (100 g) granulated sugar
  • ½ cup packed (112 g) dark brown sugar
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ¾ cup (100 g) sorghum flour
  • ¾ cup (105 g) all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup (175 g) bittersweet chocolate chips
  • Coarse sea salt such as Maldon or fleur de sel (optional)

Whenever someone new to ancient grains asks where to start, I recommend making a familiar staple, like chocolate chip cookies. I’ve made these using every grain in the book, including all heirloom wheat varieties I came across while developing these recipes. I know these cookies so well, I use them as my measuring stick.

Each flour may behave a bit differently, but I can confidently say that, with the exception of corn, the cookies work beautifully with all mother grains. Every version taught me something new and distinctive about its featured flour: what the flour tastes like, how it responds to fat, if it browns quickly or slowly, and if it creates a chewy or crispy texture. It was pretty hard to decide which chapter these cookies belong in, but I finally settled on placing them here, in the sorghum chapter, to underline how an unusual flour can be used in traditional recipes. I’ve also included on page 253 a list of seven variations showing how to make them with other grains.

Because it’s gluten-free and therefore less structured, I blend sorghum flour with all-purpose flour in a one-to-one ratio. The same ratio applies if trying the recipe with other gluten-free grains, such as buckwheat or rice. These cookies are sublime with rye, and their texture is remarkable with spelt. But when made with sorghum flour, this recipe yields beautiful golden rounds, with crispy edges and tender centers. Sorghum’s complex, sweet notes will have you making this cookie time and time again.

Instructions 

-In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugars on medium- high speed for 2 to 3 minutes.
-Add the baking soda and kosher salt and mix for another minute.
-Add the egg and vanilla and mix to combine.
-Add the flours and mix on low speed until a uniform dough forms.
-Add the chocolate chips and mix until well distributed in the dough. The dough will be very soft at this point.
-Transfer the dough to a sheet of parchment paper or plastic wrap.
-Flatten it into a disk, wrap tightly, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes (and up to 2 days)—chilled dough will be much easier to work with.
-Place two oven racks in the middle positions and preheat the oven to 350ºF.
-Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
-Divide the chilled dough into sixteen equal portions, about 1½ ounces (45 g) each.
-Working quickly so that the dough doesn’t warm up, round each portion with your hands. You can freeze the cookie dough balls for up to 2 weeks in a freezer bag to be baked from frozen at a later time. Keep in mind that frozen cookies may take longer baking time.
-Place the cookies on the prepared baking sheets, at least 3 inches apart to prevent the cookies from touching as they spread when they bake. If desired, top each cookie with a few flakes of coarse sea salt. Exercise restraint—it’s still salt.
-Bake for 8 minutes. Then rotate the sheets, switch their positions in the oven, and bake for another 8 minutes, until the cookie edges are brown but the centers are still a little gooey. Rotating and switching the sheets halfway through the baking process will ensure that the cookies bake evenly.
-Let the cookies cool completely on the baking sheets or enjoy while still warm. The cookies will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days.


Variations


Barley Chocolate Chip Cookies
Soft-textured cookies that look very appealing. Hints of vanilla come through. Very kid friendly.
Replace the sorghum and all-purpose flours with:
-½ cup plus 2 tablespoons (80 g) barley flour
-½ cup plus 2 tablespoons (90 g) all-purpose flour


Buckwheat Chocolate Chip Cookies
Sober version of this cookie. Really highlights the affinity between chocolate and buckwheat. The earthy flavor of buckwheat comes through. For the more adventurous baker.
Replace the sorghum and all-purpose flours with:
-½ cup plus 2 tablespoons (95 g) buckwheat flour
-½ cup plus 2 tablespoons (90 g) all-purpose flour


Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies
Lacy texture with a toasted-grain flavor. Tastes great with milk and makes delicious ice cream sandwiches. Replace the sorghum and all-purpose flours with:
-½ cup (105 g) old-fashioned rolled oats
-½ cup (70 g) oat flour
-½ cup (70 g) all-purpose flour


Rice Chocolate Chip Cookies
Slightly sweeter than other versions with a nice, almost snappy crunch. Texture-rich with a pleasant grit from the finely ground rice.
Replace the sorghum and all-purpose flours with:
-½ cup plus 2 tablespoons (90 g) brown rice flour
-½ cup plus 2 tablespoons (90 g) all-purpose flour

Rye Chocolate Chip Cookies
Elegant, more adult version of this cookie with a slightly sour-bitter flavor from the rye. This is the version we offer at Friends & Family.
Replace the sorghum and all-purpose flours with:
-1¼ cups (160 g) dark rye flour


Sonora Wheat Chocolate Chip Cookies
Pretty and tasty cookie with crispy edges and chewy center. Very close to the classic version of this American staple with a hint of toasted wheat bran flavor.
Replace the sorghum and all-purpose flours with:
-1¼ cups (160 g) Sonora wheat flour


Spelt Chocolate Chip Cookies
A great cookie for grain novices to make and eat. Uniform in flavor and texture with a delicious
crunch.
Replace the sorghum and all-purpose flours with:
-1¼ cups (165 g) spelt flour

Bittersweet Chocolate
Use your preferred brand of bittersweet chocolate chips in this recipe; just make sure the label indicates it contains 60 to 70 percent of cacao solids. A great grocery store brand is Guittard. Specialty stores offer a vast variety of high-​quality chocolate brands too, top among them Valrhona, El Rey, and Callebaut, but they don’t always offer chips. If that’s the case, you can chop larger bars into smaller pieces with a chef’s knife. To further highlight the chocolate flavor, garnish the cookies with a few flakes of crunchy salt such as Maldon salt or fleur de sel (see page 32).

Los Angeles baker Roxana Jullapat explores eight ancient grains in her long-awaited cookbook. Photo courtesy of Norton.

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