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Confessions of a Bread Junky

... almost invariably the door will open, the person walks in and the nose will go up in the air and this look of bliss comes over their faces.

Few things in life comfort the soul more than freshly baked bread. To learn more about its making, I recently sat down with Bluegrass Baking Company owner (and UnderMain contributor) Jim Betts.  Here, you can read or listen to our conversation – or do both.

Listen to the interview on WEKU’s Eastern Standard

Tom: When and how did you get into this business?

Jim: Well, it started as a hobby. In college, I was part of a food co-op and my first two jobs there were dishwashing and baking bread and I went with baking bread. It’s just it’s anyone who’s baked at home knows it’s a very satisfying and relaxing activity, so it just drew me.

Tom: All that kneading.

Jim: Yes.

Tom: With a “K-N.”

Jim: And eventually with an N. It’s a great stress reliever and it’s one of those things that you can fit into your schedule.

Kneading bread at Bluegrass Baking Co.

Tom: So, when you decided to go into business with this, how did you develop a product line?

Jim: A lot of that was kind of ‘what do we like to do’ and also ‘what does the public like?’ When we first opened someone would walk in and say, “Do you make this?” I said, “No, but funny you should mention that, I was planning on doing it tomorrow.” So, we’ve tried anything at first and then as we got a little bit more successful we started honing our product line.

Tom: I think of the bakery business as being a very early morning endeavor. Is that true? Do you have to get up early in the morning?

Jim: Oh, yes, yes, and we’d stay up late. We basically are baking twenty-four hours. But, yes, if you want fresh goodies at 7:00 o’clock in the morning, someone’s up at 4:00 or 3:00 making those.

Tom: And, are you able to hold it down to a five-day week or is it more than that?

Jim: Well, I don’t consider myself to be a particularly good manager, so I tend to work six to seven days a week.

Tom: I put out a call on Facebook to offer some questions for you and we have one here Meg Tipton Boden. She asks: “What is your favorite bread recipe? What’s your favorite item in your bakery?”

Jim: My favorite bread to make is a baguette. It’s water and flour and yeast and salt. The baguette is as simple as you get and it’s all about technique. And I’d like to say the bread will rat you out. If you do it well, it shines, it glistens. The baguettes crackle when they’re done, they have a beautiful golden hue. And if they don’t work well, it’s pretty obvious – you’re pretty naked with them.

Tom: The tension between making a product look really good, versus tasting good, but not necessarily looking good. If you have to go one way or the other, which way do you go?

Jim: We’ve always skewed towards tasting good. And the great thing about a well-made baked anything is that it looks good, even the rustic ones, even the hand-formed ones. Look at the pie that granny makes. It looks amazing when she’s serving it to you. We’re more of a rustic style bakery as opposed to a French high quality high standard look and so, we tend to skew towards taste.

Tom: Okay. Another friend from Facebook, Debra Alexander, asks: “Is it possible to make a good gluten-free bread?”

Jim: No. You can approximate. You can make something that if you couldn’t eat gluten, you’d be thrilled to have. But there are huge differences.

Tom: What’s the most useful tool in your shop?

Jim: Our oven. We have a big deck oven. If you think about a pizza oven that is massive, that’s what we have. It’s stone-floored, steam-injected, and it allows our breads to be crusty. We bake at 480 degrees and it gives a beautiful heat for breakfast pastries and the like.

Tom: Have you ever encountered any unexpected challenges with owning and operating a bakery?

Jim: When we started the bakery, we just liked playing with breads and we thought, well, this is something we know how to do, let’s open a bakery. Probably the biggest concern with running a bakery is the running of the bakery. We can bake the stuff, but managing all the bits and pieces of what it is to be a business owner was not what I thought I was getting into when I opened the bakery.

Tom: Steve Stone is asking “what is a good bread to start with and work on? Maybe sourdough?”

Jim: I would say sourdough is sort of a graduate level bread just because the sourdough itself is something you need to manage.

It’s very easy to make a starter at home; it just takes a lot of management. Someone says it’s like having a pet, you have to feed it, you have to take it out and exercise it every now and then. I would say a white bread – a yeasted white bread is very easy to make at home. You can make it with just the four ingredients I mentioned, you can also add all kinds of things to it.

Tom: We were talking about kneading earlier; Julie Wilson wants to know how you know when to stop kneading.

Jim: I’m sort of a junkie about bread. Bread is very satisfying, has a great visceral feel. Pick up a loaf of bread, smell it, it just transports you to different places. Kneading, the same way. You knead, you knead, it’s kind of rugged and rough and eventually you’ll get to the point where it starts getting smooth. I say if it kind of feels and looks like a baby’s butt, you’re right in the right department.

Tom: On the business-side of baking, what sorts of market dynamics and trends do you watch?

Jim: The whole “buy local” movement has been something that we’ve been really interested in. We watch what can we do to utilize the locally grown materials around us. We’re working with UK to see if we can grow some bread wheat. Kentucky has more of the pastry low-gluten type of flours, so we’re looking to see if we can work with UK Ag department. And we’re probably a year or two away from being able to grow all the flour that we need for our business here in Lexington.

Other market dynamics: what do the restaurants want? What are people eating? And how does that fit in with what we want to do? We don’t want to just cave to the public demand, we want to maintain the integrity of our business design, but at the same time we want to give people what they want.

Tom: Okay. Another question from Facebook friend, Tanya Tyler. She asks: “what is the optimum temperature for yeast?”

Jim: Ah. Well, yeast likes body temperature between 80 and 100 degrees, it is very happy very active. If you’re not using it, keep it in your ‘fridge, that will keep it retarded, slow it down. So, lower temperature, 70, 80 degrees is good. It takes longer, the flavor results are excellent.

Tom: In your twenty-seven years in the bakery business, do you have a favorite story or experiencey?

Jim: Probably my favorite thing is to watch a new customer walk into the bakery and almost invariably the door will open, the person who walks in and the nose will go up in the air and this look of bliss comes over their faces. They take a sniff because I say if you walk into a bakery and it doesn’t smell good, you should turn around and walk out. Baked goods smell good. So, that’s a daily reminder of how good it is of what we have.

But, every year at the beginning of December, we have a cookie-decorating workshop and we throw the – this is sort of Norman Rockewelly of me, but we throw the bakery open to the kids. We cover our tables with plastic, put milk crates up and whole bunch of cutout shapes and icings and sprinkles. And just watching thirty or forty kids pile around this table, it’s probably – I’m not going to say that. Group of kids piled around the table and sharing their enthusiasm is a wonderful thing and it really makes you – it evokes what I think is the best of baking.

Tom: What is your vision for the future of your business your bakery business?

Jim: Continuing with our artisanal line of goods. Artisanal basically means hand-shaped, hand-worked. It means that we’re taking the extra time to work it by hand. So, we’re going to continue with that and continue playing with local or ancient grains trying to derive a more healthy and flavorful product.

~

Tom Martin is co-publisher/editor of  UnderMain, host of WEKU’s Eastern Standard, a columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader, Student Media Adviser at Transylvania University and keyboardist with the Patrick McNeese Band

original works

Eyes to See

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour

 Auguries of Innocence – William Blake

As a young man, I had the good fortune and insight to spend a great deal of time outdoors hiking and backpacking.  I traveled to Alaska and, on one memorable night, sat on a cliffside on Kodiak Island, watching a literal midnight sun disappear beneath the horizon, bathing sea, air, land in a glowing wash.  This was followed, a twilit dusky hour later, by an equally glorious sunrise, the sun that far north traveling not in an arc but in a barely truncated circle about the sky. 

I hiked the Olympic National Rain Forest for a sodden sublime week, sitting on a valley rim, alone in the vastness save for a deer, licking the sweat from my rain jacket I had hung to dry on a branch.  I watched in wonder as a white stag, whose forebears had been imported from Sherwood Forest, emerged from the fog of a Point Reyes morning, him being more interested in lording over the herd of females and fawns who materialized, with a shuffle, out of the whiteness. 

I sang to the glories of the grandeur unfolding as I hiked up the switchbacked cliff face of Yosemite Valley, each turn bringing me higher and deeper into the vast beauty of that hallowed land. 

I guided a raft of friends down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River through the heart of the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho.  We started in a tributary barely wide and deep enough to permit our craft, finishing, after many nights and rapids, in a wide, flat, slow flowing river which could accommodate a cruise liner.  The world was grand and big and I wanted to see it, to taste it, to bite off huge dramatic chunks.

I am not now that young man.  A friend’s t-shirt loudly proclaims my current state: “The older I get, the better I was.”  My hikes are now a morning walk, my vistas the downtown buildings I spy from my perch atop the coach’s tower in my neighborhood park.  Guiding rivers is now staring in wonder at the intricacies of the creek that flows through the next door neighborhood.  And yet, when I stop long enough to see, the grandeur which inhabits these spaces reveals itself.

I watched in amazement as the remains of a spring rain flowed down the creek, simultaneously carving a channel and creating a delta, as the carrying capacity of the swift water diminished with slowing flow.  In a fractal view of the world, I was watching the Mississippi River flow past New Orleans. 

On a neighborhood walk, I spied in astonishment a Cooper’s Hawk diving treacherously at a chipmunk, narrowly missing.  Or equally amazing, a Red Tailed Hawk lumbering skyward, hauling with him a squirrel who must have equaled the bird’s own weight, forced onto a tree limb perch by my insistent approach.  With the additions of a video crew and David Attenborough’s narration, this was life writ large, worthy of National Geographic. 

The other evening I went for a walk, to be greeted by a Rothko sunset: a flat, snow-leadened wall of cloud sat heavy on the sun, squashing an orange smear onto the horizon. 

Another night, I watched as clouds like a sheet of dryer lint dragged in front of a gibbous moon, fat and white, fixed and solid like a peg in the heavens.  That celestial display no less grand than the gauzy curtains of Northern Lights I was entranced by in New Hampshire on the Appalachian Trail. 

I watched a Bradford Pear tree, whose flowers bested 3 snowfalls and a hard frost to sweetly declare this spring’s imminence, at last give way to the greening of the branch.  The fortitude of our trees to persevere in the face of Spring’s grudging warming is as grand as the Redwoods’ or Joshua Trees’.  Caterpillars of snow crawling on the delicate limbs of Eastern White Pines, crashing down in a secondary snowfall as the sun-warmed branches released their burdens, are as wondrous as the calving of icebergs, the process being the same. 

I feel deeply, especially in spring, the glories of the world around. The volunteer Pin Oak in my backyard, 20 years ago a twig, now is rivaling the size of the 100-year-old Burr Oak of my neighbor’s.  The flocks of warblers travel like gaily colored acrobats on their way north, stopping to pick bug and bud from trees seemingly timed for their arrival. 

My legs are hampered by age and responsibility, my hunger for adventure diminished with time, but the wonders of the world surround us even in our backyards if we have eyes to see, an open spirit and the willingness to “waste” time on the slow and the minute.