Italian Truck Stops and Eating a Monet: Q&A with Maggie Bjorklund

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Maggie Bjorklund is a self-proclaimed nerd when it comes to baking bread, insisting on freshly ground Italian flour, pure spring water, and plenty of time for repeated risings. Her high standards for bread come as no surprise after listening to her dark and dreamy second album, Shaken, out this month. The Danish pedal steel guitarist/singer/composer has produced a meticulously crafted effort, with only the highest caliber of musicians, including members of Calexico, Portishead, Sparklehorse and Lambchop. Clearly, high-quality ingredients and patient effort are worthwhile in bread as in music.

Paste spoke with Bjorklund about truck stops in America and Denmark, fish and chips in Germany, and her recipe for long rise bread. “It will taste like a dream,” she promises. We believe her.

Paste: You’re at a truck stop, you’re starving, and you have five minutes to assemble a meal. Please describe that meal and how you feel about it.

Bjorklund: Truck stop meals are the worst kind in the world depending on what country you are in. Italy has the best truck stops, where you can get some decent pasta. But an American truck stop…mmmm let me think. What you can assemble in a place like that is nothing I would call a meal. It can be called snacks, or comfort food, but ideally here is what I would try to assemble: get a pretzel, a cheese, an apple, and some fruit juice. And hope a real city is not too far away where you can get some good wholesome food.

Paste: What about a truck stop in Denmark?

MB: I would go for the Danish smoerrebroed (smorgasbord). They are reasonably healthy and it’s hard to go wrong with them. It is basically an open sandwich based on the very heavy Danish black rye bread topped with egg and shrimp, for instance, or lettuce, salami, and raw onion rings. Some of these have strange names like, “the vet’s late night dish.” It’s black rye bread topped with liver paste, salty sliced beef, and raw onions. Not bad for a vet….

Paste: When you’re traveling, what food from home do you crave?

MB: I don’t crave my food from home, I know I will go back again and taste it, so I never feel the longing for it. That said, one thing I always feel a great deal of satisfaction from eating when I come home is Danish rye bread. It has nothing to do with American rye bread. Ours is a very dense, very heavy, almost black bread that is made of only rye, beer, malt, and sourdough. I love the taste of that bread.

Paste: Are there any specifically American foods that you particularly like? Any that particularly puzzle you?

MB: I like the hotness of the southern cuisine, when it is getting close to being Mexican. It is wonderfully exotic to a Scandinavian palette. Or the amazing sourdough bread from San Francisco. Nothing beats that bread.

The American thing I don’t get or understand is your supermarket bread. The white weird thing you buy in a store and call bread. To me it is more like a piece of paper or air surrounded by over-processed flour and water.

Paste: What restaurant in the world do you most look forward to visiting when you’re on tour?

MB: In Hamburg, Germany there is a small fish and chips shop close to Knust, a venue where I’ve played. They make everything from scratch. You point to the fresh fish in the display, and they make the most amazing fish and chips I have ever had. It’s very humble, but very honest, and sooo delicious.

Paste: What’s the best meal you’ve had lately?

MB: My dad invited me to the Danish restaurant Noma for my birthday. It has been selected as the best restaurant in the world for a few years running, and I understand why. When you are experiencing something of that caliber you know it is not just a meal, it is a piece of art that you enter, a play you are guided through, a story where all your senses come into play. Everything works together to bring you an experience that is beyond anything you’ve tried before: the look, taste, smell, feel, the people in the restaurant, the room where it takes place. It felt like eating a painting of Monet. The tastes were so pastel in color and light, delicate, and on a level I have never tried before. I loved every second of that performance, and it was a true inspiration to be presented with such a piece of living art.

Paste: What’s your favorite thing to cook or bake? Do you have a specialty?

MB: I am a really good baker, if I say it myself. I’ve lived out of the city where you could only buy the factory-baked bread and it just didn’t cut it for me. I set out to learn how to bake really good bread, and it takes a lot of experience to get the feel of it. You have to know how to read your dough, and how to adjust the processes according to what the room temperature is, and how long you want the dough to rise. I love working with bread that needs a long time to rise.

If you have a time frame of about 24 hours for the rise and making of your bread you can get the flour to open up and mature. I am the kind of nerd that gets into details such as finding flour that is newly ground, and contains the whole part of the grain. Industrial flour you buy in normal stores has been robbed of all the nutritious parts of the grain. They take out the oil, because it will start to oxidize as soon as the grain is broken, and if you leave it in the flour it will have a rather short lifespan before it starts to go stale. They also take out the shells, and you can buy them as fibers for a bloated price down the aisle from the pure white flour. If you want to bake really good bread, you need flour where every part of the grain is kept in there. Take the time to let the dough mature, and then you can get the taste that will knock your friends and family over with delight.

Paste: Please share your bread recipe!

A Wonderful Long Rise Bread

Ingredients

2 cups wheat flour (Italian 00)
2 1/5 cups sifted spelt flour
1 tablespoon plus ½ teaspoon fresh yeast, divided
2 cups water, divided (Not tap water that contains chemicals. Use spring water that won’t kill the yeast).
1 heaping tablespoon course sea salt

Directions

Day One: Make a dough (called a biga) by combining wheat flour, ½ teaspoon yeast, and ¾ cups water. Stir until it is a lean dough, but not beyond that. Cover dough with a cloth or plastic wrap and leave it to sit until the next day.

Day Two: Make a separate dough by combining spelt flour, 1 tablespoon yeast, and ¾ cups water, or maybe a little more depending on how the dough feels. Stir into a smooth dough without lumps. You don’t need to knead it. The dough should feel soft but not runny.

Leave this dough on the kitchen table for half an hour and then knead in the biga from yesterday, along with the salt, until a smooth dough forms. It doesn’t need much kneading, just make sure it is smooth.

Put dough in a bowl greased with olive oil, cover, and let it rise for an hour.

Fold the four corners of your dough over each other. Leave it for another hour. Do this 4 times.

Take the dough carefully out of the bowl and fold it into a loaf of bread. Leave it on your baking paper to rise until it has doubled in size.

Preheat oven to 475.

Put loaf in the oven, and make sure to throw some water in the bottom of the oven when you have put your bread in there. It will evaporate immediately and raise the moisture level in the oven. It will give the bread a wonderful crust. Bake at 475 for 10 minutes, then lower the temperature to 400 and leave it in there until it is baked. When is it baked, you ask? Well, when it is brown and has that hollow sound when you knock on the bottom of it. You have to learn by doing.

Take the bread out and leave it to cool. Then invite your friends over so you can be smothered in praise and admiration for your skills. It will taste like a dream.

Freda Love Smith is a writer, drummer, and lecturer living in Evanston, Illinois. She was a founding member and drummer of The Blake Babies, and has since played with Antenna, The Mysteries of Life, Gentleman Caller and Some Girls.
She writes about food on her blog, lovesmiths.blogspot.com.
Follow her on twitter: @fredalovesmith