Tag Archives: artisan bread

A ‘soft’ opening and some hard knocks

Bakery Day 2
John Kuckartz makes pretzels while Kathleen Farrell-Smith waits on a customer. Note: The yellow-painted counter is made of recycled Purdue lab benches with soapstone tops. The blackboard is from Purdue salvage, too.

It’s difficult to believe, but my dream of opening a sourdough bakery that sells crusty breads and scrumptious pastries turned into reality last Friday (Aug. 18).

As might be expected at a soft opening, Smittybread Bakery’s first customers were family. Usually the sound of chairs scooting across the floor gets on my nerves, but this time the noise was music as my step daughter-in-law Naomi and her children sat down for a breakfast of almond croissants and milk.

There followed a steady flow of customers, among them good friends, familiar customers and first-timers who stopped by to check out the new digs, buy a pastry or sandwich, and leave with a sourdough boule or baguette tucked under their arms.

Smittysign
A draft version of the Smittybread bakery sign that will hang over the sidewalk at 415 S. Fourth St.

I opted for a soft opening in order to give me and my co-workers enough breathing room to find out what works well and what we need to work on.

Like any artisan bakery worthy of the name, we make all our breads and pastries from scratch. As simple as that may sound, it’s anything but. Sourdough breads and laminated pastries take two to three days lead time before they come out of the oven, and that’s after you procure enough flour, butter and other ingredients to meet expected demand.

Up to now my production has been geared to the West Lafayette Farmers Market on Wednesday afternoons, for which I begin preparing on Monday. (As I write this on my baker’s bench I can see the wheat and rye levain before me, growing in volume and getting bubblier in preparation for tonight’s dough mixing.)

Usually on Thursdays after a typical farmers’ market, my pace would be leisurely. I would sleep until 8, count proceeds from the previous day, take a quick trip to the bank, and then go into the bakery to continue getting the business ready to open as a licensed retail food establishment — a considerable step up from being a home-based vendor.

Tom and Gretel
Good friends Tom Herr and Gretel Kalupka enjoy a sandwich and chips for lunch on Day One. It was Tom’s second visit that day.

On Monday, Aug. 7, I got the seal of approval (an actual gold-colored seal!) from the Tippecanoe County Health Department. It was the last legal hurdle before we could open the doors, and it was a good feeling knowing we had done things right.

Then the question was: So, when are you going to open? The query had come more and more often as neighbors and friends and other business people stopped by to see our progress.

Once we had the health department’s “all clear” I picked an opening date of Aug. 18. That would give us two weeks to get flour and other supplies and make final preparations. Those two weeks, which included getting ready for two farmers markets, went by in a blur. For whatever reason, our farmers market sales exceeded previous records.

Baguette forwardAs it so happens, Aug. 18 is my wife’s birthday. Kathleen’s business schedule called for her to be out of town the week leading up to that date, and I was supposed to pick her up at the Indianapolis airport Aug. 18. We had made plans to spend the evening in a hotel to celebrate her birthday.

By the time she reminded me of our plans, it was too late. I had already announced the opening date to one and all. I apologized the best I could but forged ahead.

Heading into opening I knew that shifting to multiple production days a week and going from an afternoon to a morning deadline would be a challenge, but it took a “soft” opening to hammer this home.

I showed up for work Thursday expecting a full day. I just didn’t know how full. My first clue was when I realized I had not made enough starter on Wednesday to make all the breads I planned to bake for Friday. This, by the way, is the professional sourdough baker’s second worst nightmare, the first being forgetting to save any starter at all for the next production cycle.

I made some adjustments, such as putting the freshly fed starters into the proofer to speed their progress, dropping some breads off the schedule and setting back the mix schedule a few hours.

My croissant schedule was also slightly behind, but since they are a yeasted product I was able to speed their progress.

As the day turned into evening, I had some breads coming out of the oven that looked really splendid, especially the pan loaves that would be made into sandwiches. But when I looked at the clock, I realized I would not be done prepping until at least 1:30 a.m. and I had yet another trip to make to an all-night grocery for avocados, pickles and other odds and ends.

I got home Friday around 4 a.m., by which time it was too late to catch even a cat nap. I did some dishes, ate for the first time in about 12 hours, and took a quick shower. Then it was back to the bakery.

I am fortunate to have a good friend who has been by my side through this entire endeavor and who managed to catch about an hour’s rest that morning. John and I were able to provide each other encouragement throughout the day, during which I nearly nodded off at the baker’s bench and he nearly did the same sitting on a stool.

The first day was a success. Proceeds exceeded our busiest-ever farmer’s market sale, and comments were positive even though product was slow getting to the front at times.

On Saturday we were a bit better prepared. I had by that time a few hours of needed rest, and my wife showed up bright and early to work the counter, schmooze customers and make sandwiches.

All in all it was a great way to get started. The months of planning, purchasing and prodding contractors paid off, and the lesson about the need to plan more carefully or pay the price won’t soon be forgot.

We will be open on Fridays and Saturdays for the next few weeks and continue to participate in the West Lafayette Farmers Market on Wednesdays. We also plan to participate in the Thursday noon market at Purdue University, selling sandwiches and pastries.

As we gain experience in daily production and the farmers market season winds to a close this fall, Smittybread Bakery will be open more days of the week and perhaps even some evenings. In all the future looks bright, especially after a few hours of much needed rest.

San Francisco bakeries: One sweet ride

In preparing to open my own sourdough bakery, I spent a day recently taking a whirlwind, calorie-packed tour of several San Francisco bakeries.

My “work” was amply rewarded, not in pounds gained but in a perspective and palate broadened by exposure to a variety of bakery designs, concepts, menus and tastes.

The tour also brought me unexpectedly face to face with one of San Francisco’s baking luminaries, Michel Suas, a delightful soul and pied piper of a whole generation of baking entrepreneurs.

I selected my targets by Googling “best San Francisco pastry shops.” There were numerous lists and more shops than I could visit in a day. I then created a Google map with pins marking the addresses of each bakery location so I could hit as many possible with the least amount of driving.

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Tartine Bakery dining room in San Francisco’s Mission District.

First stop was Tartine Bakery, a mecca for sourdough and pastry fans. As I walked expectantly into the Mission district building on a cool, sunny morning, I encountered a compact dining room filled with customers hunkered over cups of coffee, pastries and breakfast treats. The place was abuzz with conversation and food prep. The decor was understated. Painted wooden chairs and tables showed signs of wear from the thousands of hands, purses, butts and elbows that pass over them daily.

I ordered a Tartine country loaf, a morning bun and coffee for breakfast, and an almond croissant for my wife, who could not join me as she was elsewhere in the city on business.

The place seats about 25-30, depending on how tightly you squeeze, and has a counter where about eight people can comfortably stand. I stood at the counter and enjoyed every bite of my sugar-glazed cinnamon roll.

Takeaway: Busy is good, and flavor is everything. Nothing whets the appetite so much as seeing a lot of people enjoying themselves, and if you have a great product why bother with fancy seating, expensive light fixtures and neon signs?

Next stop, Craftsmen and Wolves, was located within easy walking distance in a brick commercial building.

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Craftsmen and Wolves describes itself as a contemporary patisserie.

The cabinets and display counter were modern and sleek looking, yet an exposed brick wall and spartan wooden tables and benches softened the look, creating an eclectic, funky feel.

I didn’t have room for the bakery’s signature pastry, the  “Rebel Within,” consisting of a whole egg baked inside a muffin. I ordered a kouign amann and a jasmine tea. Having just bolted a morning bun, I couldn’t wolf it down as readily but it was enjoyable.

I read that the unusual name (abbreviated CAW) refers to craftsmen bakers and wolf-like creditors. Having experienced the startup costs of a small bakery, I can relate. I also admired the chutzpah of someone daring to set up shop in Tartine’s back yard.

I next drove northwest to Marla Bakery Restaurant for lunch. The bakery is located in a small commercial district surrounded by residences in an area called Outer Richmond. The neighborhood is more village-like compared to the denser, urban Mission district I’d just left.

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Lunchtime at Marla Bakery Restaurant in San Francisco’s Outer Richmond district

I entered Marla, took a seat and ordered a half of a grilled cheese and soup and hibiscus tea. The meal arrived promptly and was rich and satisfying. The atmosphere was a homey, Midwestern sort of arrangement of painted chairs and stained wood tables, macrame wall decorations, and flowers.

A large wood-fired bread oven divided the dining room and kitchen. It’s not the kind of showpiece fire-fed oven you’d see at a pizza place but a workhorse. Heat from the wood fire circulates up and around the bake chambers.

A worker was stuffing olive wood into the fire chamber in preparation for the overnight bake. I had a very enjoyable chat with a young bread baker who explained some of the details of the bread schedule and oven.

Their bread was displayed on the bottom shelf of a glass-front sales/display cabinet. I left thinking the place could do a better job highlighting their bread by bringing it up to eye level as well as telling the story of the remarkable oven.

Driving due east I stopped at Heartbaker, a combination bistro/bakery with a small bar, beer on tap and locally produced artwork on the walls. I ordered a chocolate brioche pretzel. By now I was pretty well stuffed, and my notes don’t indicate what I thought of the pretzel. It was not well-shaped but had a decent flavor.

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Heartbaker’s simple but effective instant sidewalk cafe.

The bakery/bistro had an interesting sidewalk cafe created by two portable half walls bookending a couple of tables with chairs. The half walls roll inside at night. This was mid-afternoon, not a particularly busy time for any bistro, but several couples were enjoying their meals as sunlight poured through the cafe’s open doors.

Time was fleeting so I skipped the next bakery on my map and went straight to b. Patisserie. I had read about the partnership between Michel Suas, founder of the San Francisco Baking Institute, and Belinda Leong, another pastry chef who had briefly studied under him. I expected their bakery to be a highlight of the trip, and I was not disappointed.

B. Patisserie is located in Pacific Heights, a busier commercial district than either of the previous two stops on my tour. The place was packed with customers spoiling their dinners on amazing croissants, tarts, madeleines, scones, cookies and other goodies.

I made my way along the counter, admiring but not buying. I simply couldn’t stuff another pastry in my mouth, or so I thought. I chatted with a counter worker who tried without success to get me to try a pastry. Instead I purchased a bottle of water and went outside to sit and digest the day’s activity.

While outside I noticed through the bakery’s picture window a tall, blond gentlemen talking with a worker behind the pastry counter. Although I had never met Michel Suas, I thought I recognized him from pictures I’d seen on the Bread Bakers Guild of America website. I went back inside and asked the woman who’d waited on me if it was indeed Michel (I think I referred to him as Michael.)

“Oh, you know Michel?” she asked.

“I know of him,” I replied. While I waited she got his attention and brought him over. I introduced myself as aspiring baker from Lafayette, Ind., with plans to open my own shop in the near future. I explained his bakery was the fourth or fifth I’d sampled that day.

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b. Patissierie in Pacific Heights combines deep pastry experience with no pretense.

He asked me which shops I’d seen, and we compared notes. Here was a man, I thought to myself, at ease with himself, proud of his profession, and full of life. A good role model.

He asked if I had tried one of their pastries, and I explained I couldn’t possibly fit another in my belly. Before leaving, however, I purchased a kouign amann the size of a softball. I told him I would eat it later, but he said it would be better eaten fresh, adding, “You’ll be in pain.”

I shook his hand and went back outside. I opened the sack, peeked in, and took a bite. Then another, and another until there was nothing left but crumbs all over my shirt. I looked through the window and saw Michel looking out at me giving me the thumbs up. I returned the gesture and then continued on my merry but bloated way.

 

 

 

 

 

Smittybread bakery rises a bit slowly, but surely

In bread baking circles, the dough’s initial proof is called bulk fermentation. It’s the stage after all the ingredients have been mixed and kneaded but before the dough is divided and shaped into loaves.

To the untrained eye, not much goes on during the initial stages of bulk fermentation. Only the baker knows the potential within the bulky mass of unshaped dough.

Bakery exterior before
The future home of Smittybread (where that truck is parked) at 415 S. Fourth St. looks a little rough now but will soon get some TLC.

Just down the street from my house, a group of workers is turning a small commercial building into the future home of Smittybread. A lot of work remains to be done, but with perseverance and a little luck my long-fermenting business plan soon will be producing loaves of crusty sourdough bread and buttery pastries.

As with most naturally yeasted doughs, my dream of starting an artisan bakery got off to a slow, almost imperceptible start. It began Jan. 14, 2009, when I received a letter from the president of what used to be my employer, Gannett U.S. Community Publishing.

The letter said nearly every employee would be required to take a week off without pay in order to reduce company costs during an industry-wide downturn. I’d spent 26 years with the company, and it hurt to realize the future would never be the same.

Two weeks after receiving the furlough letter I purchased two books by baker and author Peter Reinhart, one titled “Bread Upon Waters,” the other “Sacramental Magic in a Small-Town Café.”

Although my memory of why I purchased those books remains dim, I can only surmise I was looking for something, anything, to take my mind off work. Some time later I purchased Reinhart’s “Crust and Crumb” and began dabbling in sourdough.

Between 2009 and 2014, the Lafayette, Ind., Journal & Courier along with many other newspapers underwent a steady decline in revenues and personnel. Dismayed by my own newspaper’s cutbacks and unable to see eye-to-eye with my boss on a variety of editorial issues, I left in June 2014 at the age of 58.

I applied for some writing and editing jobs at Purdue UniversityI found myself waking up nights wondering what I would do with the rest of my life that would give me the same sense of accomplishment as journalism. I had a feeling writing press releases wasn’t it.

Smilin' Smitty
Smilin’ Smitty greets a customer in his West Lafayette supermarket.

One constant that kept turning over in my head was a love for cooking I’d inherited from my Italian-heritage mom. investigated the possibility of getting a culinary degree but decided the cost of tuition was too high. Plus, my problems with authority figures might prove lethal around so many sharp objects.

Another factor was the legacy left by my dad, known in these parts as “Smilin’ Smitty.” In the relatively short span between his service as a P-38 pilot in World War II and his untimely death in 1967, his business, Smitty’s Foodliner, gained a reputation as the area’s premier independent grocery store.

It occurred to me that with a little capital (not much more than the cost of a culinary degree, I crudely estimated) and some additional hands-on training I might parlay my penchant for making bread into a business. Not a business on the scale of Smitty’s Foodliner, but one with the same focus on quality and personal service.

In October 2014 I told my wife I was signing up for a course at King Arthur Flour titled “Setting up a Successful Bakery.” The course was taught by Jeffrey Hamelman, a baker and author whose impact on the artisan bread movement has been immeasurable. His 2004 book, “Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes,” has taught and inspired many an aspiring craft baker, myself included.

He sprinkled the daylong courses with anecdotes, many humorous, but he was dead serious when he said some of us would leave the course knowing that starting a bakery might not be for them.

Jeff and me
David Smith watches Jeffrey Hamelman slice a Bee Sting cake in the King Arthur Baking Education Center in January 2015.

I wondered, was I in that category? Nevertheless, before leaving Vermont for the trip back to Lafayette, Ind., I signed up for another weeklong course the following month on advanced bread making.

That summer and next I set up a “home” bakery in a friend’s garage with equipment I’d purchased second-hand from a fraternity. I signed up as a vendor at the West Lafayette Farmers Market in 2015 and 2016, selling as much bread, croissants, brioche pastries and pretzels as I could make, sometimes with my friend’s assistance.

Indiana home-based bakers can sell bread directly to consumers at farmers markets or roadside stands but not elsewhere. Customers often would ask where they could buy my bread outside the farmers market, and I would shake my head and tell them options were limited until I could open my own commercial bakery.

If I had a donut for every time someone asked me, “So Smitty, when are you going to open your bakery?” I’d have a donut business by now.

After checking out several locations and looking into buying an existing business, I realized that opening a bakery, even a small one (or especially a small one), was harder than I had anticipated. Either the location was too inaccessible, too small, too large, ill-equipped for food service, or too pricey. And the capital costs are considerable.

Somewhere along the way I had a talk with Paul Baldwin, owner of two local food and drink establishments, The Black Sparrow, and Spot Tavern. Being a fan of good, hearty bread, and eager to promote the food and art culture locally, he suggested renting part of a building he’d recently purchased next to the Spot on South Fourth Street.

Choc cinammon rolls
Chocolate and nut cinnamon rolls like mom used to make on Christmas day were a big hit at the holiday bake sale.

The former tattoo parlor, nee laundry, was half vacant except for the occasional visiting musicians staying overnight before or after gigs at the tavern.

In May of 2016 we hired Arkor, a local architectural and engineering firm, to draw up some preliminary plans. Paul and I split the cost.

By fall the plan had the approval of the state fire marshal, but progress slowed as the holidays approached. Meanwhile, I had a one-day bake sale that turned into my most successful day of the year, thanks in part to a recipe for chocolate and walnut cinnamon rolls my mom used to make.

As this year started, the long-fermenting project began to show visible signs of life. Paul hired a contractor to install an underground grease trap per the city’s specifications. Workers installed new dry wall on the ceilings and walls. Plumbers installed floor drains for the oven, restroom, sinks and for general cleaning purposes.

Conduits
I’m going to park a dough sheeter right about here, hence the extra outlet.

Meanwhile I lined up some equipment and working capital financing and wired funds to Pro Bake Inc. in Twinsburg, Ohio, for the purchase of a Polin bread oven made in Verona, Italy.

 This past week electricians upgraded the electrical service from 100 to 400 amps and installed conduits for myriad pieces of equipment besides the oven, such as a dough retarder/proofer and a sheeter for rolls and croissants. I’ve also been scooping up used equipment such as a three-bay sink large enough to soak sheet pans, a bread slicer and a dough divider.

While there are many more details to share, time is short and the to-do list is long. Suffice to say that bulk fermentation is nearing completion. If all goes well, we should be dividing, shaping and proofing bread at the new bakery sometime this spring. I’ll keep you posted.

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.

A challenging penultimate end to 2015 market season

A variety of Smittybreads prior to the Oct. 28 West Lafayette Farmers Market.
A variety of Smittybreads prior to the Oct. 28 West Lafayette Farmers Market.

The downpour of rain that had been forecast for the nearly season-ending West Lafayette Farmers Market yesterday failed to materialize. In its place a cold front blew the rain sideways and then finally out, like a gust of breath blowing out a candle. Meanwhile, I and a few other hardy vendors braved the cold, wet fury, hanging on to our EZ up tents with each gust as well as to our hopes that the day would not be a complete washout. Fortunately, it was not.

The miserable conditions fit my mood. After taking a week off baking last week, I was finding it difficult to get back into the swing. Luckily my starters were more enthusiastic. I started feeding my rye and white starters steadily last week, giving them once-daily, then twice-a-day feedings over the weekend. They were growing like crazy by the time Monday came around and it was time to start building the sourdoughs, sponges and levains for baking on Tuesday and Wednesday.

On Monday the weather forecast was ominous. Hurricane Patricia was over Texas and pushing a large moist low-pressure system up our way. Not know what the hurricane remnants would hold for us Hoosiers by market day, I left caution to the wind (so to speak) and stuck with the game plan that had been bringing me success up to the time I took a week off to go camping. I made the following:

  • 12 loaves of what I call Lafayette Sourdough, which are 25% whole wheat boules (24 oz each)
  • 16 pain au levain, which are 16-ounce batards, mostly unbleached white flour with a hint of whole rye
  • 16 baguettes (not sourdough but a well-fermented and very tasty white bread, again with a hint of whole rye)
  • 6 seeded sourdough oval loaves
  • 6 multigrain sourdough oval loaves
  • 6 40% rye oval loaves, also sourdough
  • 24 croissants, approximately half classics and half pain au chocolat
  • 30 sourdough rolls (bags of 5 each).

Admittedly, that’s not a lot of bread for a standard bakery, but for my home-based bakery, churning out three or four loaves every 30 minutes, it’s a lot, especially when you consider the variety of stuff in the list. Every bread there except the baguettes and croissants relies on the vagaries of wild yeast and environmental conditions, not to mention timing, accurate measurement and what I call baker’s mojo.

I could write a chapter on mojo. Besides confidence and knowledge, its the presence of mind to stay focused so that if something goes wrong it can be quickly fixed.

Example: I make pain au levain from scratch the morning of the farmers market. It’s 100% naturally levained, meaning it takes its own sweet time. The kitchen was 63 degrees, not unusual for a fall morning but cold for sourdough. I heated up the mixing bowl and the water and proceeded to mix at 6:15 a.m. with plans to bake at 11 a.m.

Turns out the dough was too wet, so I added 2 oz. of flour and mixed some more. It still was slack. At this point the mixer had been going four or five minutes, and the dough was surpassing the 76-degree mark I aimed for. Adding more flour to the mixer would risk damaging the gluten, so I turned the entire blob onto the work bench and proceeded to mix by hand. Anyone who has tried to mix 20 pounds of slack dough by hand can appreciate how difficult that is. I managed to work in another 30 grams or so of flour while getting in some decent kneading until it was manageable enough to lift into the fermentation tub in one mass.

Over the next three hours I folded it three more times, and the dough came together. By 9:30 a.m. it was ready to divide, rest and shape like nothing had happened.

So what did happen? A glance at my iphone told me that along with the cloudy skies and rain, the humidity had gone from extremely low from the last time I baked (during a prolonged Fall dry spell) to 98 percent by Wednesday morning. I had not taking that extra moisture in the flour and air into account, but at least I had the presence of mind to not panic and just work out the problem. The resulting loaves were some of the best I’ve made.

But by Wednesday afternoon that was all looking pretty moot. Half of the vendors or more took a bye, calling it quits on the season rather than risking a washout. Those of us who remained looked at the sky, exchanged grim smiles with each other and prayed that customers would eventually show up. At least one vendor’s tent collapsed in the wind, and they packed up early.

The market manager came by and asked my opinion on closing early. My view was we’d come this far, let’s stick it out and see what happens. After 30 minutes passed without selling even a croissant, someone finally came up and bought one baguette. Then another. Before long, the rain stopped and the temperature dropped, marking the arrival of the cold front. Customers began showing up in twos and threes, and before long I had a pretty decent run of sales that lifted me out of my funk and sent me home with money to pay the bills.

While it was the end of the regular weekly farmers markets in West Lafayette, many of the vendors will get together one more time this year for a pre-Thanksgiving sale. That sale will be from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday Nov. 25. I’m planning on bringing some brown-and-serve rolls, sourdough loaves and other goodies. Maybe I’ll see you there. Happy holidays!

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.