My first experience working on a farm forever transformed my relationship to food. I had always been a food lover, especially growing up with my mom’s garden, but I had never personally experienced the sweat, exhaustion, and sore muscles from long hours shoveling compost, preparing new beds, seeding and transplanting, and weeding under the hot sun. Unsurprisingly, it gave me a whole new appreciation for the amount of hard work and resources that go into producing each item of food we eat. What I didn’t expect was that it would also give me a newfound respect and gratitude for wild foraged foods: gifts from fields and forests, where mother nature single-handedly does all the work of bringing those plants to maturity.
Of all the wild foods to harvest, ramps (aka “wild leeks”) are a long-time favorite. I still remember biting into a pickled ramp as a curious four-year-old, the sweet vinegar mingling with the pungent foresty garlic flavor. It’s a taste I never forgot and every spring I crave it. Aside from garlic mustard, another favorite wild green that grows everywhere, ramps are one of the first foods to show up in the spring, well before anything is ready in my garden, and they are such a treat! They grow in woodsy eco-systems all over the northeast of Canada and the United States but these days, ramps are at risk of being overharvested and in some regions, they are considered endangered. So rather than harvest the full plant (with its tasty while bulb) as we did when I was a kid, the recommended method of harvesting ramps is to leave the bulb intact in the ground, and only harvest the leaves, ideally just one leaf per plant.
Part of the reason we have to be so careful with our harvests is that wild leeks have become very popular in recent years, at farmers markets and in restaurants, yet it takes a ramp plant 5 to 7 years to produce a seed & then that seed can takes about a year to germinate. So overharvesting a patch doesn’t give the plants enough time to reproduce and can quickly decimate it altogether. I consider myself extremely lucky to live near a forest that is home to an enormous thriving patch of ramps that no one else seems to know about. And each year, as I learn more about the plant, I try to harvest it even more reverently and cautiously than the previous year.
I’ve used ramps in everything from omelets to pickles but the very best use I’ve found for their leaves is to make ramp pesto. On pasta, nothing compares! But this spring, because of the explosion of bread and babkas on my social media feed, I was inspired to try my hand at a ramp pesto babka. Babkas are showy and fun to make and although they look complicated, the method is actually quite simple and yields impressive results. If you can’t find yeast right now but you have some sourdough starter, there are some great sourdough babka recipes online such as this one. One thing about babkas: even when they’re messy and imperfect, they still look gorgeous! Ramp pesto gives this babka an intoxicating fragrance, reminiscent of garlic bread. However, keep in mind you can use any type of pesto. Classic basil pesto works beautifully, you don’t have to use ramps.
Since self-isolation and distancing have prevented me from doing farm visits, I’m temporarily going back to my original Kitchen Vignettes format, and putting all my love into a few upcoming special episodes from my home kitchen. I hope you enjoy them!
- Babka Dough:
- 1/3 cup lukewarm water
- 1 packet active dry yeast (2 1/4 tsp.)
- 1/3 cup milk (can be plant-based)
- 4 large eggs (3 for the dough, 1 for brushing)
- 2 Tbsp. sugar
- 1 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
- 3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the work surface
- 6 Tbsp. unsalted butter (3/4 stick), cut into pieces and at room temperature
- 1 cup grated cheddar cheese
- 1 cup pesto (recipe below)
- 5 to 6 ounces fresh ramp leaves (about 6 cups roughly chopped), or any other fragrant
- greens such as basil
- 1/2 cup toasted walnuts (or any nut)
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- Juice of one large lemon (about 3 to 4 Tbsp. lemon juice)
- To make the dough:
Combine the water and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer. Wait until yeast has dissolved, around 5 minutes. Add all the ingredients (except the butter) and mix on low speed, using the hook attachment, until you get a shaggy dough. Continue mixing on low speed about 5 minutes. Add the soft butter pieces, one piece at a time, waiting until each piece is somewhat incorporated before adding the next one.
- When all the butter is incorporated, continue mixing for another 5 minutes until the dough is elastic and smooth. If the dough is sticking to the sides of the bowl, you can add a bit more flour (2 tablespoonfuls at a time) but keep in mind this is a somewhat sticky dough. Cover the dough with a clean kitchen towel, and let it rise until doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours. (Optional: after the 1 12 hour rise at room temperature, you can cover the dough with plastic wrap and place it in the fridge for an additional overnight rise of about 12 hours. This helps develop the flavour and texture. In this case, you would resume the recipe in the morning).
- While the dough is rising, prepare the pesto:
Place roughly chopped leaves and all other ingredients (except the olive oil) in a food processor. Pulse several times, stopping as soon as everything is minced, before it starts turning to a paste. Drizzle in the olive oil while pulsing until just incorporated. This pesto should be slightly chunky, it should not be a smooth paste. Taste and add a bit of salt or olive oil if needed. The pesto should taste lemony and salty for a bright, zesty, garlicky flavour to your bread.
- Assemble the babka:
When the dough has doubled in size, transfer it to a lightly floured work surface and roll it into a large rectangle approximately 16 inches by 20 inches with the long end facing you. Sprinkle more flour on rolling pin and work surface if the dough sticks. If you have a very hot kitchen and the dough is too soft, you can place it (covered) in the fridge for one hour so the butter in the dough hardens which will make rolling easier.
- Spread the pesto on top of the whole rectangle, in an even layer. Top with the grated cheddar cheese.
- Starting with the long end closest to you, roll the dough into a log. Seal the closing edge with a bit of water and turn the log so the sealer edge is facing down. Using a serrated knife, gently slice the log lengthwise, creating two halves, with their layers facing up. Beginning in the middle, twist each half around the other, creating a type of braided spiral. Seal the halves together at each end. Carefully transfer onto a large greased or parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Shape into a circle and seal the two edges together by pressing them together. Don’t worry if this process is a little messy, it will still come out looking great.
- Cover the babka lightly with a plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel and let it rise until puffed out a bit, about 1 1/2 hour.
- Place a rack in the middle of your oven and heat to 350°F. Whisk the extra egg with a teaspoon water and gently brush it all over the surface of your wreath. If you wish, sprinkle with a bit of black pepper, and flaky sea salt on top. Bake until golden and a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean, around 45 to 50 minutes.
- Let the babka cool for about 20 minutes. Serve warm (reheating if necessary).
Yield: 8 servings (one large babka wreath)
Aube Giroux is a food writer, a James Beard award-winning documentary filmmaker and a passionate organic gardener and home cook, who shares her love of cooking on her farm-to-table blog, Kitchen Vignettes.