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Key Ingredient: Millet

Paula Haney and crew at Hoosier Mama Pie go nuts with the ancient grain

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The Chef: Paula Haney (Hoosier Mama Pie Company)

The Challenger: Sandra Holl (Floriole Cafe & Bakery)

The Ingredient: Millet

Millet "is the main ingredient in birdseed, and you can totally tell that when you taste it," says Paula Haney. The small, round grain has been cultivated for thousands of years, mainly in India and Africa, and is often used as a substitute for other things—like grains that contain gluten—Haney notes. "I didn't want to go that route, because I hate food that is just a substitute for other food. So we tried to come up with some things that played to its strengths," she says. Its flavor is "slightly nutty, a little bitter on the finish."

She'd used millet when she worked at Trio (the now-closed restaurant where Grant Achatz began his Chicago career), where it was one of the grains they put in bread. But she hasn't worked with it since, and some experimenting was necessary. "We tried to deep-fry it," she says. "Not so good. "

They popped it like popcorn, "which didn't turn out so well. It didn't taste good. It did pop, but it's so tiny, it still was just really seedy." Toasting puffed millet in their convection oven also turned out to be not such a good idea: "For those of you who don't have a convection oven, it blows air continually, and puffed millet weighs nothing, so you open the oven and you get millet in your face."

As a pie shop owner, of course, there was one thing Haney really wanted to do with the ingredient. "I tried and tried and tried to get a pie application for millet, and it just was not working," she says. They attempted a pie shell, pressing the millet into a pie tin and putting a little sugar on top, but "it never really got crispy enough."

Haney's savory chef, Allison Stout, came up with a couple ideas that worked: hand pies and tabbouleh. "We eat a lot of Sultan's Market around here for lunch, so I was kind of inspired by bulgur wheat," Stout says. "I thought about tabbouleh instantly, and using bulgur as a filler in meat pies is sometimes traditional." Compared to bulgur, millet has a much stronger, more bitter flavor, she says, and doesn't absorb liquid as easily. Stout generally avoids cooking with water, preferring beer, wine, liqueur, or stock, which add more flavor. She soaked the millet in Goose Island Summertime, hoping that she wouldn't have to cook it and lose some of the beer flavor. "But the millet just would not break down, would not soften, even after a couple of days of soaking, so we did have to cook it," she says. Still, the beer is evident in the cooked millet. "It really smells a little bit like a bar. But in a good way," Stout says. "It's not super strong, but it just brings out that bitterness. It's nice."

The millet went into tabbouleh, with pickled ramps, parsley, and lemon vinaigrette. "With so many bright flavors—the acid in the lemon zest and lemon juice and the acid from the pickles and the bitterness from the beer—I didn't add any salt at all to this part," Stout says. For the hand pie, she used ground beef, garlic, ginger, shallots, mint, parsley, and the Moroccan spice blend ras al hanout in addition to millet. "You don't get as much of the beer and millet flavor in the hand pie itself, just because it's spicy, but it provides a nice texture," she said. "In the salad it's much more pronounced."

Haney ended up making a parfait with the millet "because it would be nice and cold and refreshing after the warm hand pies." She created a variation on rice pudding, but again had trouble getting the millet soft enough. "We tried cooking it in milk, because we found that it lost a little of the nutty flavor in the water, but it just never softened, so you still had these kind of seedy parts in your pudding." They ended up cooking it in water and adding milk and cream after the millet was cooked. Haney layered the millet pudding with passion-fruit curd, stewed rhubarb, pastry cream, and cherry compote, topping it off with some millet bark that she'd made from puffed millet, tempered dark chocolate, and salt (it tasted like a candy bar).

Prompted to try her creation, Haney joked, "We don't want any more millet. We really don't."

When she finally tasted it, Haney said, "The texture's cool. And the nuttiness does come through. You can tell it's not rice. It keeps it from being overwhelmingly sweet. That little bit of bitterness comes through, and it's kind of nice counterbalanced with the sweet fruit and pastry cream on top."

Who's Next:

Michael Carlson of Schwa, whom Haney worked with at Trio, cooking with Malort. The wormwood liqueur was suggested by Stout, who says, "it's super bitter, it's really strong, it's not for the faint of heart." Haney, for her part, has never tasted it. "I'm not tough enough to try Malort," she says. 

Video by Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon

Salted Chocolate Millet Bark

1 c puffed millet

1 lb 60 to 65 percent chocolate

Kosher salt

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spread the puffed millet on a parchment-lined half sheet pan. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until millet is lightly toasted. (Note: millet will never get super crispy. Do not overbake.) Set millet aside to cool.

Line another half sheet pan with foil or acetate. If using acetate, be sure to tape down the corners. If using foil, make sure the shiny side is up.

Temper chocolate. Stir toasted millet into chocolate and pour mixture onto prepared half sheet pan. Smooth the top with an offset spatula. Sprinkle kosher or other large-grain salt over the chocolate. Let harden at room temperature or in the refrigerator.

Creamy Millet Pudding

1/2 c millet

1 1/2 c water

2 c whole milk

1/2 c plus 2 T granulated sugar

1 vanilla bean

1 strip orange peel

generous pinch of kosher salt

1/2 cup to 1 c heavy cream

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Rinse millet under running water. Combine rinsed millet and water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and let millet simmer until most of the water is absorbed, about ten minutes. Let millet stand at room temperature until the remaining water is absorbed.

Transfer millet to a half hotel pan or six-cup baking dish. Add milk, sugar, and salt. Peel one strip of peel from an orange and add to the baking dish. Cut vanilla bean pod in half so that the vanilla seeds are exposed. Scrape seeds off each half of the pod with the dull side of a knife blade. Add the seeds and the scraped pod to the baking dish. Stir mixture until sugar dissolves in the milk. Cover and bake for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, carefully remove cover (there will be lots of steam ) and stir mixture with a spoon or spatula. Try not to break up the orange peel or vanilla pods. Cover and bake for another 20 minutes. Repeat process until most of the milk is absorbed. Add half a cup of heavy cream and bake, covered, until millet is tender. Let pudding cool to room temperature. Remove orange peel and vanilla pod. Add more cream as needed if pudding is too stiff. Store pudding in the refrigerator.

Beer Millet

1 c millet

3 c summery beer, such as Bell's Oberon

Combine beer and millet in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Turn heat down to medium and simmer, stirring frequently, about ten minutes. Taste for tenderness and add more beer or cooking time as needed until millet is done (it should still have some bite and not be mushy).

Hand Pie Filling

3/4 c shallots, minced

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 T butter

1 T olive oil

2 T parsley, finely chopped

3-4 mint leaves, finely chopped

1 inch knob ginger, grated

3 T ras al hanout

1 lb ground beef

1/2 c cooked beer millet

Salt and pepper

Heat olive oil and garlic over medium heat. Cook shallots until translucent, then add garlic and cook, stirring frequently until garlic begins to brown. Remove from heat and let cool. Add the shallot mixture to the remaining ingredients and mix until just combined. We formed this into a pastry filling, but it would make a nice meatball or burger too.

Tabbouleh

1 c parsley leaves

1/4 c chopped ramps (or your favorite pickle)

2 T cooked beer millet

1 lemon, zest and juice

1 t olive oil

Toss parsley, pickles, and millet together. Drizzle with lemon dressing and toss to coat.

Red Pepper Chutney

2 red peppers

3 medium shallots

1/2 cup sherry vinegar

1/2 cup sugar

salt and pepper

Roast red peppers on a grill, gas stovetop, or broiler. Peel off skins, remove seeds and stems and discard. Chop red peppers and shallots and add to a small pot with vinegar and sugar. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until all of the liquid has reduced. Season to taste with more vinegar, salt, and pepper.

Cream Cheese Dough

(We love this dough and use it all year long to make hand pies with seasonal ingredients. At the pie shop we have an attachment for our 30-quart mixer that works just like an old fashioned pastry blender. At home you may use either a stand mixer or food processor. In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that this dough is awfully hard on noncommercial mixers.)

1 lb unsalted butter cut into 1-inch cubes

1 lb cream cheese cut into 1-inch cubes

1 ¼ pounds unbleached all purpose flour

1/4 t kosher salt

1/4 t granulated sugar

1-2 egg whites

Combine the flour, salt, and sugar in a medium bowl and toss until the butter and cream cheese is coated with flour. Chill the entire mixture for one hour. Transfer to the bowl of a stand mixer or food processor. In a food processor, pulse until the butter and cream cheese is the size of large peas and the mixture is sandy. In a stand mixer, you do this by turning the machine on and off. Next, if using a food processor, process just until the mixture forms a ball. If using a stand mixer, turn the machine to a high speed and mix for 20-30 seconds. Turn dough out onto a floured work surface and knead until smooth. Divide into two balls and flatten into discs. Wrap each disk in plastic and rest in the refrigerator at least one hour.

Assembly

Take one disc of dough out of the refrigerator. Let stand at room temperature for five minutes. Working quickly, roll dough 1/8-inch thick. Using a pastry cutter or jar lid, punch out the dough into circles four-to-five inches in diameter. Transfer to parchment-lined sheet pan or cookie sheet and place in the freezer. Repeat process with the other half of the dough, placing circles on a second cookie sheet.

Take the first cookie sheet of circles out of the freezer. Prepare a third parchment-lined cookie sheet. Transfer a few circles at a time to the new cookie sheet and brush lightly with egg whites. Place two heaping tablespoons of filling in the center of the circle. Fold the dough in half over the filling to form a half moon. Crimp the edge with the tines of a fork to seal. If the dough becomes too soft to work with, return first cookie sheet to freezer and switch to circles from the second cookie sheet. If the circles are too cold to be pliable, warm them between your hands for a few seconds or let stand at room temperature until workable. You may have to do this several times before all the pies are filled.

Return assembled pies to the freezer for at least one hour before baking.

Baking

Preheat oven to 400 degrees (350 convection). Arrange hand pies one inch apart on a parchment-lined sheet pan or cookie sheet. Bake 20-25 minutes until pies are a golden brown.

Let stand on the baking sheet for a few minutes to firm up. Transfer to a plate with a fork or offset spatula. Pies should still be warm. Serve warm. Makes approximately 40 hand pies.

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