Wila Witch Bread and the Archetype of Trickster
I hope you enjoy this exploration of dark woods, shady characters, blooming onions, and the softest gluten-free bread I have ever baked.
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In mythology, the archetype of the ‘trickster’ is often the character that keeps the world from appearing black and white. These characters dance over boundaries and between peoples. They often carry secret knowledge, which they divulge at the times that serve them best. It’s hard to be entirely sure whose team they are playing for, or what they are playing in the first place. Rarely trustworthy but always interesting, trickers are often my favorite characters.
One of the reasons I’m so fascinated with tricksters is because they often break societal rules and expectations, playfully disrupting normal life in their antics. They are the ones that ask us to pay attention and to question the rigidity of the world we know. I sense a bit of that drive in myself. After all, throwing secret parties for strangers out in the woods is not exactly a societal norm! Gently encouraging my guests to cross the boundary away from the mundane world and join me in a magical feast is something I do with much pleasure. (That said, I’m less fond of many of the other ‘trickster’ activities, such as stealing cows, bribing gods, and causing plenty of other mischief.)
While archetypes of the trickster appear in cultures all over the world, the ones that are most fascinating to me are the tales from this continent. Stories of tricksters - particularly Raven and Coyote - have been gathered from many Native American tribes, but there are some common threads running through them. First, that the trickster is integral to growth. By shaking things up and questioning rigidity, the trickster often leads the people to view something with a new perspective. (After all, the biggest catalyst to growth is uncomfortable or curious change.) Secondly, tricksters often left their physical mark upon the landscape. In fact, the famous Multnomah Falls outside of Portland was said to be a result of either Raven or Coyote’s efforts.
In fact, many of those other marks on the landscape are found throughout our region here in the Pacific Northwest. “Wila” is a type of black lichen (Bryoria fremontii) that drapes itself from branches in dark woods. Several different First Peoples tribes of the Northwest Region have legends about Wila being from the hair of Coyote. In various versions of the story, Coyote somehow gets his fur caught in a tree (after he’s been dropped by a swan, tricked by a spider, etc.) After he safely returns to earth, he decrees that his fur should be revered as food and not wasted. Nice save, Coyote.
So, when I wander through the darkened forests dripping with black lichen, I smile to myself and wonder just how Coyote came to be stuck in that first tree anyways. The lichen I gaze at is also known as Witch’s Hair Lichen, Old Man’s Beard, and Horsehair Lichen. It grows plentifully in the interior forests of the Pacific Northwest, giving them an eerie dark feeling. These are the sort of woods that I would imagine a witch would build her cottage in, and naturally would probably be one of her favorite ingredients to cook with as well.
As Douglas Deur says in his book Pacific Northwest Foraging,
“[Wila lichen] is blandly nutty and can be used raw or in porridge and breads. It was traditionally pit roasted and was an important part of the diet of Native Americans in the Northwest, serving as an everyday delicacy as well as an easily gathered year-round food for lean times… It was traditionally pit roasted or boiled into a somewhat nutty-tasting but bland porridge; usually it is sweetened or mixed with other ingredients for sweetness and textural diversity. The lichen can also be used in breads and other baked goods, and when pulverized it can be used as a leavening agent.”
My interest in this ingredient was piqued when I read that it could be used as a leavening agent in breads or cakes. As baking an airy gluten-free loaf is a bit of a challenge, I figured it was worth putting it to the test. I am happy to report that I saw a noticeable difference in the texture of my bread!
Keep in mind when gathering that lichen grows almost unbelievably slowly. Never harvest it from trees; instead, take a walk after a good windstorm and pick up the pieces that have fallen to the forest floor. Never take all of it, as other animals depend on its rich carbohydrates for sustenance, especially during winter!
Processing/Safety: Lichen contains vulpinic acid, which is what helps it dissolve the surfaces upon which it grows. Wila is naturally lower in this acid than most other local lichens, making it easy to leach out safely. You should be sure of identification, and gather the darkest pieces you can find, which will be lower in vulpinic acid. To process, first pick through your lichen to remove any unwanted debris such as pine needles or other kinds of lichen. Then fill a big pot ¾ full and add 2 Tbs. baking soda. Fill with water and bring to a boil, then strain. Repeat the process. Then, fill the pot with clean water and bring to a boil, then turn off and let sit overnight. Strain out the lichen and dry it (you may need an oven on its lowest setting or a dehydrator for this), then grind into flour using a spice grinder or flour mill. At various points in this process, it may look like you are cooking tar or preparing an unappetizing and gloopy black slime. I would encourage you to tap into that trickster energy and ask your family what they think of your dinner preparations. (I certainly had fun with that!)
We’ll be mixing up the story of Coyote and the hair he left behind into a loaf worthy of the best forest witch. It’s a gluten-free loaf, similar in texture to a good rye bread. It has a pleasantly earthy and nutty flavor rich in umami, thanks to both the lichen and the sesame seeds that coat it. This bread rose far more than any other gluten free bread I’ve made and, while still denser than a typical gluten bread, had a pleasantly light and chewy texture. It also stayed fresh and moist for longer than is typical with gluten-free breads as well - just as tasty the second day as the first!
To make these loaves extra beautiful, I tried out some new bread-baking techniques. (These are described in the recipe.) I wanted to push the idea of boundaries, so I created a bread that looks like the night sky is cracking to reveal a sparkling beyond. If you want to dive into that metaphor like I did, it makes for some great mealtime conversation. If not, it’s just a really beautiful bread! The outer crust is firm and can be broken off and used like a pita chip for scooping up dips or butter. The interior is soft, with a faint smoky and umami flavor. This bread is wholesome, a little bit nutty, and absolutely delicious after a day in the woods.
Wila Witch Bread (gluten free)
I c. (1/4 lb) brown rice flour
1 c. (1/4 lb) teff or sorghum flour
1 ¼ c. (¼ lb) oat flour
1 c. (1/4 lb.) tapioca starch
3 Tbs. (1 oz. black lichen flour)
1 Tbs. black cocoa powder, culinary charcoal, or regular cocoa powder
1 Tbs. + 1 tsp. xantham gum
2 Tsp. granulated yeast
2 Tsp. sea salt
2 (or 2 1/2 c.) lukewarm water (or brewed tea??)
2 Tbs. molasses
1/4 c. white rice flour, for dusting
A star stencil, optional
Another 2 Tbs culinary charcoal
Extra brown rice flour
About 3/4 c. black sesame seeds
Oil, to brush
Whisk together the brown rice flour, tefff or sorghum flour, oat flour, tapioca starch, black lichen flour, black cocoa powder, xantham gum, yeast, and salt in a large bowl.
Add 2 cups water, the molasses, and eggs and mix well with a spoon or a stand mixer until everything is well combined. The dough should be fairly wet and sticky.
Cover loosely with a piece of saran wrap and allow to rest at room temperature for about 2 1/2 hours or until the dough rises slightly (unlike a normal wheat bread, this dough may not double in size)
Separate out ¼ of the dough and knead 2 Tbs. culinary charcoal into it, plus enough rice flour that you can easily roll it out (about 4 Tbs.) Cover and set aside.
On a piece of parchment paper on a pizza peel or a silicone baking mat, gently shape the main dough into a round loaf. Dampen your hands with water and use them to gently brush the outside to smooth it and make it sticky. Coat thoroughly with black sesame seeds.
Roll out your black dough into a large circle. Brush the back with oil, leaving 2” around the edges. Brush the edges with water. Gently set the black circle oil-side-down on top of the loaf. Tuck the ends in underneath. Place a star stencil over the loaf and dab with water, then sift white rice flour over the surface to leave a starry design. Cut an X in the top of the loaf, going through the charcoal layer only. (Kitchen scissors work well for this!) Then cut 4 more 2” slashes on the side of the loaf in the middle of each quarter, again being careful to just cut through the charcoal layer. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and allow to rest at room temperature for half an hour.
Meanwhile, preheat a baking stone in the middle of your oven to 450F for half an hour. Place an empty metal pot or pan in the oven that won’t interfere with the rising bread and that is accessible to add water to.
Carefully slide the loaf onto the hot stone. Pour a cup of hot water into the other pan and quickly close the oven door. The resulting steam will help the crust develop nicely. Bake for about 45 minutes, or until firm.
When you remove the bread from the oven, brush the sesame-encrusted areas with a bit of vegetable oil to really make them sparkle!
Allow to completely cool before slicing. (This is a great time to bake the onion blossoms below!) *As tempting as it may be to dive right into a delicious-smelling loaf, it is really important with gluten-free breads to allow them to cool at room temperature first. Otherwise the interior has an unbaked texture and will then dry out very quickly.
Sumac-roasted red onions and grapes:
I’ve included another wonderful fall recipe to serve with the Wila bread; sumac-roasted onions and grapes. These red onions “bloom” in the oven, creating a stunning accompaniment to the earthy flavors of the bread. Roasted grapes burst with sweetness and both are fantastic when paired with a bit of butter and eaten atop the wila bread. They are flavored with a sprinkling of tart sumac and herbs.
5 small red onions, intact
3 c. red or purple grapes
7 Tbs. olive oil
Sumac, powdered and dried
Preheat oven to 350F. Peel the papery layers off of the red onions.
Stand one onion up on its root end and use a sharp knife to cut 4 vertical cuts that reach almost to the bottom of the onion but do not cut through. You should have 8 wedges still attached to the root end. (Picture this as the flower blossom, as each layer will fall outwards in the heat, allowing it to bloom.)
Drizzle a little olive oil into a baking dish, then arrange the onions cut-side-up on the pan. Fill in the spaces with grapes. Drizzle everything with the remaining olive oil, then season to taste with the salt, dried sumac, and thyme.
Bake for 40 minutes, turning the pan and gently encouraging the petals to open after 30 minutes. After 40 minutes, drizzle some of the pan juices over the onions and cook until onions are tender and fully bloomed, about 20 minutes longer. Serve warm with fresh butter and Wila Witch Bread.
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