Buckwheat, the Unexpected Hero of My Baking Repertoire

One day last year in Paris, I went to the Musée de Cluny, a temple to the tactile esoterica of medieval France. I remember seeing braids of wooden hair, a marble gown sculpted in almost calligraphic lines, and a rose made out of gold, all of which seemed to defy conventional physics. The same day, I bought a buckwheat cookie from PLAQ, a chocolate store in the Second Arrondissement. The cookie was rotund and gray-brown, barnacled with a crust of buckwheat groats; like the relics, it had a material sensibility all its own. Instead of the glutinous chew or the crisp edge of an average cookie, it had the fudge-like density of Indian besan laddu. All the pleasure concentrated not in the butter, or even the chocolate for which the shop is known, but in the mellow, nutty flavor of the flour.

After that, I spent a lot of time looking for buckwheat. Any time I found it in the urban wild, whether a bag of Bob’s Red Mill or buckwheat-infused crème brûlée, I felt like I’d won some private bet. Over time, loving buckwheat became one of my ornamental personality traits, along with not having yet watched “The Sopranos” and being obsessed with lute-forward sixteenth-century music.

Buckwheat, likely a combination of the Dutch words for beech and wheat, is related to neither. It isn’t technically even a grain but a dark seed created in the blush-colored flowers of a knotweed plant. Still, the seeds—which have the tetrahedral shape of a beech nut—work in the same culinary contexts as any cereal. You could use buckwheat as cooks in Eastern Europe do, serving the boiled groats with butter (kasha), or making an old-fashioned, buckwheat-filled knish. In medieval Japan, buckwheat came into its own as a dumpling skin, closed around fillings of sweet bean paste, potato, or turnip. Today you’re more likely to find it in noodles or roasted, then steeped, as soba tea.

Buckwheat arrived in Western Europe pretty late, which means that in Britain, where I live, as in the U.S., it tends to fit into the same culinary niches as wheat. In Brittany, the errant limb of France that reaches into the Atlantic, you’ll find buckwheat galettes, a butch cousin of the crêpe: taupe rather than pale gold, with a muscular, savory quality that plays well with fried eggs, half-molten Gruyère, and ham. This is how I came to cooking with buckwheat—as a transliteration of the wheat flour I’m used to. Cakes that usually come at you two-fisted—pure butter and sugar—begin to relax when you swap some of the usual white-wheat flour for ash-gray buckwheat. Try it: the crumb is softer, the hallucinatory intensity of a really good brownie becomes deeper and more rounded. It also works well in a Tolkien-inflected seed cake, where the flour complements the assertively aromatic caraway.

Increasingly, I want to slip buckwheat into everything, though it has occasionally punished my enthusiasm: it has no gluten, which means it doesn’t have the elastic, lissom potential that wheat does. Too much buckwheat and things won’t rise—a loaf cake will end up with the funk and density of a cuboid Scandinavian rye. The smartest deployment, rather, is with dairy. In this case you need the whole buckwheat groats. Once roasted, you can infuse them into just about any cream or custard and get a concentrated, malt-like flavor. I’ve been telling friends that I dream about opening an ice-cream shop someday, and when they ask what flavors I’m going to make all I can think to say is buckwheat ice cream, assembled into a sundae with cream and toasted nibs sprinkled on top.

I can’t really account for why my attachment to buckwheat feels like a personal quirk, considering that any Google-literate devotee could find, in a matter of minutes, countless small-batch bakeries making buckwheat into chic, nude-tone treats. Call it the heritage-grain revival, call it the long tail of the gluten-skeptic twenty-tens. The seventeenth-century poet Bashō wrote that “haiku and soba match the spirit of Tokyo.” Now buckwheat matches the spirit of just about any nu-artisanal urban food scene.

Recently, I started a holiday in New York with a trip to the Met Cloisters, a place which houses one of the largest and most single-mindedly absurd collections of medieval art outside of Europe. I was delighted to find the cloister of a twelfth-century Benedictine monastery, contortionist gargoyles, a Romanesque apse reconstructed from the ruins of a Spanish church. It is in many ways New York’s foremost temple to the fanatical, monastic precision of craft. Later that day I went to another such temple: Lysée, a French-Korean bakery where I found pecan financiers and high-gloss black-sesame madeleines laid out like votive offerings at a shrine. One bake was a thick buckwheat cookie, with toasted groats and carefully piped dots of buckwheat caramel. It was just about the most Zeitgeisty cookie in the city, and it didn’t belong to this time at all. ♦

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