Category Archives: farmers markets

Giving thanks for a good year

My town’s final farmers market of 2015 was short but sweet. During the special two-hour event held the day before Thanksgiving in West Lafayette, I managed to sell all of my sourdough hearth breads and quite a few straight-yeasted “brown and serve” rolls. I also renewed acquaintance with some of my regular customers I hadn’t seen for weeks.

Overall it was a great experience, with the exception of a stiff breeze that made it seem chillier than it was, and notwithstanding the fact I could have been better prepared for the sale and the weather.

The day got off to a rocky start when I got ready to mix my first dough, a sourdough rye, and discovered I was out of caraway seed and nearly out of salt. This necessitated a trip to the nearest grocery, which was selling small plastic vials of caraway for $5.39 per 0.9 oz.  At that rate it would take $11 of caraway to bake six loaves of rye. There’s a limit to the price I will pay for my own stupidity. I drove to the next “big box” store down the road and found caraway at half that price.

One issue: I was out of synch. The last regular West Lafayette Farmers Market had been Oct. 28 so I had a four-week hiatus from baking in volume. Moreover I wasn’t sure what to bake for the sale. Would there be a mad rush of market-starved customers, or just a trickle? My guess was we’d have a lot of regulars show up but not much in the way of additional traffic, and I didn’t want to have a lot of unsold bread at the end of the day.

I decided not to make baguettes, which are good sellers but a lot of trouble to make with my equipment. I also decided not to make a 10-grain rye sourdough, my least popular bread. I cut back on the volume of loaves but increased my quantity of rolls. I made about 60 sourdough rolls and about 100 brown-and-serve honey wheat rolls, packaging them six to a bag and 10 to a bag, respectively. They sold for $5 a bag.

IMG_5164The process of deciding what to make, how many, and what to charge is one the most challenging and, if done right, rewarding aspects of my “job.” It involves risk assessment, knowledge of past sales, an eye on the weather and a willingness to try new things. If done well, good planning for market is rewarded with good sales and few leftovers. It gives you a warm feeling inside knowing that your customers value your product and your efforts, and it keeps the job interesting.

About an hour before the 3 p.m. opening bell, I started packing the car for the five-minute trip to the market. Normally I would start earlier, but for this abbreviated market I was not planning on setting up a tent, hand-washing station or sign. I did, however, need to have a folding table, and when I went to the garage to retrieve the folding table it was missing (The table, that is). I’d failed to remember we’d taken the table across town to use at a halloween party and never brought it back.

Also, I hadn’t yet retrieved cash to make change. This trip to the bank and to retrieve the table took an additional 30 minutes on top of packing, so by the time I got to market around three minutes to 3 p.m. all the other vendors were set up and customers were waiting. Fortunately the market manager placed me in a vacant stall right at the entrance, a location easy to get to and highly visible.

A stiff breeze greeted me as I set up my table, and as soon as I began placing bread on it a handful of pre-labeled plastic bags went flying down the center aisle. I got some help chasing them down and soon was too busy with sales to worry about how foolish I must have looked.

About an hour into the sale I was running low of sourdough but had plenty of brown-and-serve rolls left. With 30 minutes to go I had nothing left but brown-and-serve rolls. Compared to their heartier sourdough cousins, these dinner rolls paled in comparison, and I think a couple customers bought them either out of pity or because I had nothing else left.

As 5 o’clock neared, I was hopping on my toes attempting to keep warm. Because I’d left the house in a hurry, I’d forgotten to wear a coat or hat. My sleeveless sweater and flannel shirt would have been sufficient were it not for the breeze and the fact that this time of year the sun is dipping rather low around 5 o’clock.

A couple of things mitigated my discomfort. One was a pocketful of money to take home instead of half-full bread bins. And the warm reception I got from both returning customers and new ones made me realize just how much I’d missed selling bread the past few weeks. One of my regular customers, after going to his car with his purchase, actually walked back to my booth just to say that he and his wife really like my bread and wanted me to know they appreciated me being at the market.

What could I say except thanks from the bottom of my heart. And thanks to the folks at the West Lafayette Farmers Market for giving me the opportunity to sell my breads to an appreciative group of customers.

Rolling into the holidays

IMG_5147As I pen this reminder of this coming Wednesday’s pre-Thanksgiving Farmers Market in West Lafayette, a light snow is steadily flocking the trees and blanketing the grass outside my kitchen window. It’s a lovely sight, and a reminder that there’s little time to waste as we get ready for what traditionally is the biggest feast of the year.

As you stock up for Thanksgiving, please note there will be vendors gathered at the West Lafayette Farmers Market off North Salisbury Street for one last fling of the year from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 25. It will be an ideal time to pick up some locally made or grown items to share with your Thanksgiving guests.

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Sourdough rolls are a great companion to just about any dish

Smittybread will be there rain, snow or (hopefully) shine. I will have on hand the following baked goods:

  • Sourdough rolls: 6 to a bag for $5
  • Brown-and-serve honey wheat rolls, 8 to a bag for $5.
  • Pan Au Levain, 1-pound loaves for $5.
  • Large sourdough boule (25 % whole wheat) for $6.
  • Seeded sourdough oval loaves, $7.
  • Rye sourdough with caraway, $7.

The brown-and-serve rolls will be sold frozen and can be thawed overnight or kept in the freezer until you are ready to use them. Once thawed, they brown up in just a few minutes. If baked frozen, they take just a little longer.

All of the sourdough breads have a shelf life of a few days, or they can be frozen in an appropriate freezer bag until ready for use.

Hope to see you at the West Lafayette Farmers Market, if not this coming Wednesday then Spring 2016. Until then I’ll be working on a business plan, honing my baking skills, shoveling snow and working on a few new formulas such as 100% whole wheat sourdough, gluten-free sourdough bread, ciabatta  and possibly whole wheat croissants.

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Ciabatta is bit tricky due to its high moisture content, but the results are well worth it. However, I’m not ready for prime time yet, so these won’t be at the market on Wednesday.

If and when I can find a suitable winter kitchen (the garage is a bit cold this time of year) I will take bread orders. If you are interested in buying bread over the winter, send an email to me at smittybread1@gmail.com and let me know what you are interested in.

Bon appetit!

 

Outstanding in My Field

I’ll admit the past few farmers markets have been a bit of a struggle. It’s been hot. Hot and wet. Hot and humid. Did I mention hot? This made baking more of a challenge and kept crowds at bay.

Thus I breathed a sigh of relief this past when a cold front moved through, bringing temperatures back down to the upper 70s. Moreover, the ugly patch of rain clouds that had been moving steadily toward West Lafayette on the radar all morning steered far south, leaving the West Lafayette Farmers Market pleasantly warm, breezy and dry.

I think some vendors stayed at home fearing a rain-out, but I baked the same number of loaves I’d been bringing all along, amounting to a little more than 73 pounds of baked bread. Between the bags of rolls, baguettes and full-size loaves, it’s a sizable amount to bake three or four loaves at a time!

Anticipating a surge in hearth bread fans with the resumption of Purdue University classes, I baked several loaves of rye sourdough that disappeared quickly.
Anticipating a surge in bread fans with the start of Purdue University’s fall semester, I baked several loaves of rye sourdough. They went fast.

Preparing for market, I anticipated a bump in market attendance with the return of Purdue University students and faculty after summer break, and I wasn’t disappointed. I saw many new faces, including several Europeans who stopped to check out hearty breads they’d been unable to find elsewhere locally.

For the occasion, I baked half a dozen loaves of 40 percent whole rye sourdough, the recipe for which I found in Jeffrey Hamelman’s excellent book Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes. I sold two loaves before I even got to market, and the remaining four didn’t take long to disappear.

My booth location was a bit of a challenge. Because I’m a relative newcomer, I don’t get to pick and choose where my booth will be located, and this past week I drew a spot practically by myself. Even so, loyal customers sought me out, and those unfamiliar with Smittybread could hardly miss the booth. I sold out, down to the half loaf of Lafayette sourdough I’d cut into for free samples (half price of course!) It’s a nice feeling loading empty bread boxes into the car when it’s time to go home.

Up on the High Wire

Preparing for the weekly afternoon farmers market in West Lafayette is anything but routine for me. That’s because I like to come up with new baked items to sell while continuing to provide those products that have proven successful.IMG_4748

With limited production capacity, I have to start baking early (about 32 hours ahead of the market opening) and make good use of time. This usually means working on two or three and sometimes four breads at a time, all in various stages of development, and coordinating them so they don’t all reach oven-readiness at the same time. As I gain experience this becomes a little easier, but it also means I’m capable of doing more in the same amount of time. So instead of baking becoming more routine, it just becomes more action-packed.

Yesterday was a prime example. I have a list of products that I like to prepare on market day so they are as fresh as possible. That list includes pain au levain, sourdough rolls and usually some type of pastry, such as a brioche or laminated dough. Last week I added into the mix French baguettes. As I was not sure how well they would fit into a morning schedule, I omitted making pastries last week.

This week, however, I threw caution to the wind and decided to make all four products on market day. The following is drawn from a list of times I noted in my baking journal, providing a kind of outline of my morning “routine” that pretty much kept me on my feet and moving from 5 a.m. until the market started at 3:30 p.m.

5:52 — Start mixing dough for pain au levain, a type of sourdough bread, 100% naturally leavened. Adjust for humidity and temperature (reduce water, and ice it to 65 F). Finish initial mix at 6:09 and let it sit or “autolyze” until 6:30.

6:30 — Finish mixing and adjusting pain au levain. Place in container to proof.

6:40 — Take first batch of baguette dough out of fridge, divide, weigh and preshape. Set aside on floured board for a 1-hour rest. (This is repeated at approx 15-min intervals for three other batches of baguette dough.

7:24 — Finish dividing, weighing and shaping sourdough rolls, the dough for which was prepared the previous evening and refrigerated; fold pain au levain dough (it’s a very wet dough, so folding it helps it come together.)

7:40 — Shape first three baguettes. Start range oven and convection oven

8:00 — Preshape fourth batch of baguettes. Start second range oven, which is in a separate building.

8:30 —  Divide, weight and shape brioche dough (made Monday, frozen, then thawed in refrigerator overnight. Still a little stiff in the middle but workable). Expect a two-hour proof.

8:37 — The classic music station I’m listening to begins playing Khachaturian’s Gayane: Suite No. 1, a fitting song since I’m running around like a circus acrobat.

8:45 — First baguettes into steamed range oven.

9:00 — Transfer baguettes to convection oven to finish, then put first of two pans of sourdough rolls into second range oven.

9:15 — Fold pain au levain dough again; 9:20. Remove baguettes from convection oven and put sourdough rolls in it to finish browning; put second set of sourdough rolls into range oven.

9:27 — 2nd batch of baguettes shaped and into oven. Pull first pan of sourdough rolls out to cool. Send picture of rolls to my sweetie (first of two times I will sit this morning). So far so good.

First batch of sourdough rolls out of the oven.
First batch of sourdough rolls out of the oven.

9:40 — 2nd set of SD rolls out of second oven. Reduce temp from 450 F to 390 F (for brioche). Divide, weigh and preshape 12 pain au levain loaves; transfer 2nd set of baguettes to convection oven.

10:00 — Shape pain au levain loaves and place onto three boards, one of which is refrigerated; another is placed in cool part of house; 3rd will proof in warm bakery and be baked first.

10:15 —  Last three (of 12) baguettes into oven. Fill 20 brioch pastries with blackberry preserve and pastry creme. Place in 390 F range oven. (damn, forgot the egg wash. But didn’t really have time anyway. Oh well, next week..)

10:50 — Brioch baked and looking delicious.IMG_4749

11:00 — First pain au levain into oven. Continue washing containers and utensils.

12:20 — Last pain au levain into convection oven. Finish cleaning off work bench and starting loading car with cooled rolls, brioch and baguettes.

All the rolls, loaves and pastries came out fine, and when the market was done all but five loaves of bread (out of 57 loaves) plus five bags of rolls and 16 pastries were gone. I was pooped, but it was a worthwhile and remunerative market week.

Seeds of Success

Seeded sourdough, featuring a coating of white and dark sesame seeds outside and toasted sunflower, toasted sesame and flax seed inside.
Seeded sourdough, featuring a coating of white and dark sesame seeds outside and toasted sunflower, toasted sesame and flax seed inside.

We were blessed with great weather at this past week’s farmers market in West Lafayette, Ind., and I was happy to see many returning customers and a few new ones. I also had the opportunity to chat with several acquaintances who came by say hello, which is always fun even if they don’t always buy a loaf of bread. (Hey, I don’t buy bread unless I really need a loaf so why should they?)

My daughter Kaytie helped set up, and as has happened before I had to send her home to get an item I’d forgotten to pack (this time it was a digital scale.) While running that errand she received a call from my youngest son, Adam, who had tried without success to reach me all morning. He broke the news that he and his wife, Laura, had welcomed into the world that morning their first child, a baby son they christened Henry Nicholas. It was exciting news, particularly because it is my first grandchild. (I have a ways to go to catch up with my wife, Kathleen, who has seven and is expecting her eighth!)

This week I reintroduced Seeded Sourdough in place of the rye with walnut and raisins I’d been selling with mixed success the previous two weeks. Although I received several compliments on the rye, they didn’t sell out like the other breads. The Seeded Sourdough loaves sold out, as did most everything else I took to market, so I went home with a good wad of cash and a nice feeling that all those hours in the home bakery were worth it.

IMG_4734This week I debuted a French baguette. Although in a way they are more trouble than they are worth for my size oven, I wanted to give it a try in honor of Bastille Day and because someone last week suggested I bake a few. I also wanted to see how well I could pull it off because in the past my experiences with baguettes have been hit and miss.

To streamline the production process, I chose a baguette recipe that calls for the dough to be refrigerated overnight. I divided the dough into 3-loaf batches the previous evening. That way I could take them out of refrigeration every 30 minutes so as one batch finished baking the next would be ready to go. The technique worked but it was like a three-ring circus with four different batches of baguettes in various stages of production.

There’s something about making a good baguette that is truly satisfying, and judging by the comments we got, customers are equally happy to see real French baguettes instead of those puffy imitations they find in the supermarkets around here. I think I’ll try them again next week.

Man of the world

brioche
Brioche with strawberry and pastry filling.
After selling out my first two weeks at the West Lafayette Farmers Market, I have upped production to the point that I now have a few loaves left at the end of each market day. This is a good thing as I hate to shortchange customers who can’t get to market early or who happen to see us for the first time late in the day. And those loaves left unsold I’ve been able to sell or find uses for afterwards.

Even though market traffic seems to have slowed the past couple of weeks, I’ve been impressed with the number of returning and new customers who make it to the market and plunk down their cash for something as basic as sourdough bread. And the conversations I’ve had with customers who either want to know more about sourdough or who have sourdough experiences to share have been just as gratifying as the sales.

Being a university town (Purdue), West Lafayette sees a steep drop in residents during the summer break between spring and fall semesters, and I have noticed the drop in traffic the past three weeks. In addition, road construction has had a negative impact on market attendance, I think. The nearest major cross street (Cumberland) has been closed to traffic since spring, and construction on two highways outside town has detoured “through” traffic along Salisbury Street where the market is located. Consequently, getting to and from the West Lafayette Farmers Market has been more of a hassle the past few weeks, particularly for older drivers.

This past week, as an added incentive, I introduced a couple of new products. One was a sourdough rye made with walnuts and raisins, a recipe I got from Jeffrey Hamelman’s excellent book “Bread: A Baker’s Books of Techniques and Recipes.”  I also made a couple of brioche pastries, one of which was brioche au sucre (brioche with sugar) and the other a brioche filled with strawberry and pastry cream. I had only two brioche left at the end of the day and just one rye loaf, so they were a hit.

pain au levaine
Pain au levain just out of the oven, loaded in the car and headed to market.
I also had my first visit by health department inspectors. As a home-based baker, I’m not required to work out of a certified or inspected facility, but I still have to observe the health codes as they apply to retail sales. After they observed my booth and asked a few questions, the inspectors gave me a form that said “No violations at this time.” But I was advised to keep my plastic containers of bread from sitting directly on the ground and to make sure my bread labels include content weights.

One interesting side note: I had promised myself that I would make several batches of hot dog buns to sell for July 4, but it wasn’t until I was in the middle of this week’s market that I realized the 4th was already upon us. Oh well, there’s always Labor Day.

Another aspect of being in a university town is the number of residents who have traveled widely and tasted and experienced “old world” breads. I have talked to half a dozen people who after trying my sourdough ask if I’ve ever been to the Cheese Board Cooperative in Berkeley or tell me I should go there (I’ve been). One customer promised to bring me back some Cheese Board starter next time she goes.

I also have several regulars who are of German extraction (or who are from Germany) who feel as though they’ve found a home away from home at Smittybread. I have gotten the same reaction from an Italian who moved to nearby Montgomery County, where he raises vegetables for sale in West Lafayette and at other farmers’ markets. His wife, who makes and sells an excellent lasagne (with bechamel sauce) came by for three brioche pastries.

Finally, I recently received an email from a local charity who heard about Smittybread and wants me to make bread for a fundraiser later this year. I look forward to being a part of that worthy cause after the West Lafayette Farmers Markets closes for the season in October!

Baby, the rain must fall

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My daughter, Kaytlin Smith, holds down the Smittybread fort while dad takes a break.

Determined not to get caught short of bread at this week’s West Lafayette Farmers Market, I upped production 20 percent compared with the previous week. As I’d feared, the weather took a turn for the worse, leaving me with gloomy visions of returning home with armloads of unsold bread. Although the forecast had called for scattered thundershowers, it was raining steadily when I got up before dawn, and it rained on and off into the afternoon as great armies of heavy clouds slowly marched overhead looking for farmers markets to pillage.

When I arrived at the market site just before 2 p.m., the normally bustling site was mostly empty. Several vendors had cancelled; others must have been watching the skies because they rolled in later than usual. Still, when the opening bell sounded at 3:30 p.m., many of the stalls were empty. Soon after that, the smattering of rain turned into a downpour. This lasted a few minutes, or long enough to fill the popup ceiling with pockets of water before tapering off.

Despite the rain, turnout was slow but steady and we were able to keep the bread dry and satisfy several returning customers and a few new ones. During the dry spells we were able to chat with fellow vendors who’d obviously been through such storms and who likewise were grateful that the day was not a washout.

While the rain fell several market-goers took shelter under our tent, giving us a chance to captivate them with the wonders of our products. A few bought bread while waiting to move on. Moreover, I learned just how hardy sourdough lovers are. Returning customers came equipped with hats, rain jackets or umbrellas, and shopping bags.

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Kouign-Amann, a pastry made of laminated dough similar to a croissant. The ones on the right are filled with a preserve I made of strawberries purchased from fellow vendor, Brubaker Farm.

The rain let up about the time my wife, Kathleen, got off work and arrived to help with sales. When the closing bell sounded, we were left with about 15 loaves out of 55. Some of the products were sellouts, giving me a taste of what I could use more of in the future (and what perhaps to cut back.) A surprise best seller were the Kouign-Amann, hand-sized laminated pastries, some of which I filled with a jam made out of farmers’ market strawberries.

After unloading our tent and other supplies at home, Kathleen and I went downtown for a bite, taking the leftover bread with us. While downtown we ran into some folks we knew and sold a few more loaves. We also sent out messages on social media to anyone interested in buying. By the following afternoon most of the unsold bread was gone, although at discounted prices. All in all it was a good market and a learning experience for Smittybread.

Sold out … again!

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Dave “Smitty” Smith at the June 10, 2015, West Lafayette Farmers Market

OK, maybe selling out my first week wasn’t a fluke. This week at the West Lafayette Farmers Market I came prepared with 45 loaves of four different sourdough breads, plus five bags of rolls (1 lb. per 6 rolls) and a couple dozen “pocketbreads,” which are sourdough rolls with goodies inside. That compares with 32 loaves and no rolls last week. In other words, I boosted my production more than 50 percent. Still, all the bread and all but a few pocket rolls were gone within two hours of the 3:30 p.m. opening. Whew!

I didn’t expect a super high turnout because it was hotter than hades Wednesday afternoon (in the low 90s in the shade, if you could find any!). And with 15 additional loaves, I thought surely I’d have a few to sell after 5:30 p.m. But the rush began even before the 3:30 p.m. opening. One of the early customers included someone associated with the market who saw what happened the previous week and wanted to make sure to get hers before they were all gone!

Luckily I received able assistance from my good friend and artist LaDonna Vohar. She helped set up the booth and sell bread during the great rush. By the time my wife, Kathleen, arrived from work the bread was gone and we just stood there in our new Smittybread T-shirts watching the dwindling number of marketgoers and wondering when to pack up and leave.

Not that I’m complaining, but it makes for a long afternoon when no one stops to buy bread or talk about bread for the final hour and a half. Half the fun is explaining the differences between the various breads, answering any questions customers might have about the product, and talking shop with customers who are into baking or who are familiar with sourdough.

Several friends have asked how difficult it will be to increase production. I tell them that if I had a bread oven, cranking up production would be no problem. Even a small hearth oven (with or without steam injection) could handle a minimum of 16 loaves per bake. But cranking them out five or six loaves per hour using a kitchen range oven and a small commercial convection oven is time consuming, difficult work.

A loaf of sourdough Smittybread
A loaf of sourdough Smittybread

The baking is definitely the bottleneck, but on the plus side I am getting very familiar with the slight differences in volume, shape, and texture that occur when loaves are baked too soon, too late or just at the right time. I am also learning how to schedule production so that when the ovens are warming up to 475 F I’m being productive; when the loaves are baking, I’m measuring and mixing or shaping, etc. In fact, my goal in selling at the farmers market is working toward the bigger goal of learning what customers want and how to produce it consistently so that someday I can open my own bakery.

This past week I was able to increase production with slight adjustments in timing and oven usage. I also received some good advice from Jeffrey Hamelman at King Arthur Flour regarding alternative approaches to retarding levain so I can build it once and use it at different times of the day. It’s no big secret — refrigeration — but I was trying to keep my levain fresh by feeding it, which requires more guesswork (not to mention more flour!)

This week I plan on adding an external temperature-controlled relay to a two-door refrigerator so that it consistently stays at 50 degrees, which is an optimum temperature for overnight retardation of sourdoughs. Assuming that task succeeds, I’ll be able to boost production without increasing my lead time before sale. I think another 12 or 15 loaves should do the trick. We’ll see next week!

Sold out!

Joshua “JB” Farrell (right) and I survey the West Lafayette Farmers Market about an hour after opening. (Photo by LaDonna Vohar)

My first day at the West Lafayette Farmers Market was busy, rewarding and exhausting. The short version of the story is, we sold out of bread in about two hours. Luckily we still had some samples and business cards to share with customers who showed up after the hearty loaves were gone. And I walked away with renewed confidence in my baking skills and knowledge of what to do differently next time to become more efficient and make more customers happy.

Selling out is a gratifying but slightly embarrassing thing. I’m sure there were some who wondered why we would show up with not enough product to sell. Truth is, I wasn’t sure we would find as many customers for hearth-style sourdough breads as we did. I’ve been sharing and sometimes selling breads to enthusiastic family and friends for the past several months, but the general public? I had a notion we would sell some bread but hardly expected the enthusiastic response we received. The 32 loaves and 24 “pocketbreads” I brought to market were gone before I had a chance to take a decent picture!

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Fresh pain au levain loaves loaded in the car and ready for market. (Photo by David “Smitty” Smith)

First, I have to thank all my family and friends who helped me the past few weeks get everything ready to go, especially my wife, Kathleen, who has been my constant companion and moral and financial support as I pursue this passion. Also thanks to her son, Josh, for helping set up my first booth and for being a super salesman. To LaDonna, for making graphics, sewing bread basket liners and procuring business cards at the last moment. To Johnny, for logistical support (a Hobart mixer ain’t light!). And to Fergus, Bev, Gretel, Tom, Mary, Dave, TJ, Jennifer, Chris, Brent, Chuck, Richard, Kurt and many others whose appreciation for hearth breads (mine in particular) has kept me going.

See you at next week’s market!