Food writer Maureen Abood discovers the magic being baked up at Crooked Tree Breadworks in Petoskey. The Northern Michigan bakery is dedicated to making artisanal bread and pastries from scratch.
Featured in the October 2015 issue of Traverse Magazine. Get your copy.
I have to admit: I was skeptical at first to taste it.
Here Greg Carpenter, master artisanal bread baker of Crooked Tree Breadworks, is presenting to me—a dedicated baker myself—a gorgeous, golden brown loaf of his bread. The slashes, the baker’s signature, are deeply cut in the top and framed by the chalky white flour that dusted the loaf before it was baked. The crust is, well, as crusty as could be and begging to be torn into.
And yet, there is an important detail I know about this bread that makes me … skeptical. In a somewhat embarrassing way.
It’s embarrassing because I’ve been eating Greg’s bread (and Addictive Granola, and everything else in the bakery) for years, with total devotion. There is no reason to think that this loaf, dubbed the “Locals’ Loaf,” will be anything but as insanely good as everything else he offers in the shop … except for that one detail: The Locals’ Loaf is an unapologetic, 100 percent whole wheat bread. It’s no secret that most such breads tend to be too dense, too dark, slightly bitter, something to eat out of duty to good health rather than devotion to good taste.
We didn’t tear into the loaf right away. I was a little relieved. Instead, we admired its beauty and set it aside to cool a bit further while we went to see where the loaf’s flour was milled, which happens to be right there in the back of the bakery—and which happens, it turns out, to mean all the difference in the world to a loaf of whole wheat bread.
“Most people’s experience with whole wheat is that it tastes like cardboard or that it has no sweetness at all,” Greg says as we head to the mill. “I associated it with the food co-ops that I grew up with—it’s really the smell of rancid flour. This is not the scent of fresh wheat. The wheat flour you get at the grocery store loses that aroma very quickly.”
Clearly, I am here to learn.
A small mill with a stone grinder sits on a table with a big bin at the mouth to catch the flour as it’s ground, not unlike a coffee grinder in a grocery store. And like fresh-ground coffee, fresh-ground wheat is profoundly aromatic.
“Whole wheat flour is better freshly milled for flavor and sweetness,” Greg says. “The aromatics are better before oxidation happens.”
While the wheat berry itself is shelf stable for one to two years, once it’s cracked and exposed to air, things start changing for the worse. “It’s obvious,” Greg says. Not just to him, but to anyone whose hand seeks anything but the whole wheat roll in a breadbasket.
But here, I find myself reaching out to touch the whole-wheat flour as it pours like a waterfall from the stone grinder. The flour is soft as powder, golden in color, moist and warm with a fresh, sweet scent that would drive anyone with a pulse to a state of intoxication of the best kind.
“The stone grind preserves both the bran and the wheat germ, which is where all the nutrition and flavor reside,” Greg says. “It makes ultra-fresh flour.”
This mill, this freshly ground flour, the Locals’ Loaf—they’re all part of Greg’s growing interest in using local wheat for the flour in his breads.
“I’ve been baking bread, mostly sourdough, for over 20 years now. I’ve learned a lot, and I know a lot, but one of the things that has always puzzled me is the 50-pound sacks of this wonderful stuff called flour coming in,” he explains.
“That flour is great and fun, but you have to know a little more about it to feel good. It’s like an obsession. When you work with food you want to know as much about it as you can, like any chef.”
Greg’s obsession with flour is akin to his earlier obsession with hunting. He was a vegetarian for years, and at a certain point decided to begin eating meat again, but he felt the need to understand where it comes from, do the killing and cleaning himself.
“I kind of became like that with the flour,” he says. “I became a wheat hunter: to understand this wheat, I felt like I had to at least stand in a wheat field somewhere. I met some very interesting people around here who were all fired up about growing some grains.”
As a wheat hunter, Greg pursued his game with remarkable vigor. He started talking up his idea and found support among other like-minded friends in the community willing to discover answers to all of the big questions: how and where to grow the wheat, how to harvest it and store it. Then how to make the wheat better through soil and crop management, and selective wheat breeding.
With the partnership of growers like Jonathan Scheel, who planted Greg’s first crop of winter wheat on his Scheel Family Farm in Petoskey, Greg was able to watch the wheat being planted, keep track of it as it grew, was there at the harvest, and brought the wheat in to mill himself. “What more could a baker want?” he smiles, broadly. “If you really want to know your ingredient, that’s what you have to do.”
We should be breeding the perfect wheat for this region, Greg’s opinion. “The baker in me likes to find cool flours to work with, so there will probably always be flours from somewhere else in my bread, but ultimately, that’s where I’d like to go: to have my basic flour be made right here in Emmet County. Or Grand Traverse. Or Northern Michigan at the very farthest.”
It’s hard to imagine a better champion of a movement toward use of local wheat for bread baking. Greg knew from the start that what he was after was bigger than just one loaf of bread. He was after “Flour Power,” complete with T-shirts and signs on the wall. “This is truly a movement,” Greg says. “The social, political, and environmental benefits are not to be ignored. They’re meaningful to me right along with what I do right here in the bakery.”
The Power in the Flour
Flour Power is rooted in the artisanal bread baking enterprise that is Greg’s opus, Crooked Tree Breadworks. The concept sprouted in Greg’s first working years when he was fresh off the campus at University of Michigan and cooking in the kitchen at American Spoon in Petoskey (where he was inspired to consider what goes perfectly with jam). Now, two decades later, the bakery has blossomed into one of the few truly artisanal bread shops in the region.
Artisanal bread is defined by small batches, crafted by hand, and leavened with natural sourdough starter, which is fermented by flour, water, and naturally occuring yeast. By nature this method imparts more complex flavor and texture to breads, and ultimately imparts the real taste of the place where it is made because sourdough starter ferments under local conditions. Greg’s starters are built over a three-day process, where the sourdough is refreshed, or fed, with additional starter that’s left over from the prior day’s dough (called levain), to encourage enough fermentation for the starter to produce the 1,500 loaves of bread turned out at Breadworks every day in high season.
“I’ve been using the same starter since American Spoon, so mine is 19 years old!” Greg says. “The elegance of this process never ceases to amaze me. It’s so simple yet so complicated with so many variables, and you can take it any direction you want as long as you understand it.”
Unlike commercially produced breads where processes are on a mass scale and highly controlled, managing the variables is the challenge, if not the very essence, of artisanal baking. “You don’t know how many times that front door is going to open, and you don’t know if it’s going to be 95 percent humidity from one day to the next,” Greg explains.
The balancing act starts at the mixer with the water temperature. The baker chooses the temperature of water to mix with to get a final dough temperature, and that is based on what’s happening with the weather and the environment here day to day.
“We take the dough’s temperature with every batch, and if you were shooting for 80 and end up at 83, that will change what you’re going to do from there,” Greg says. “Three degrees may not seem like much, but it’s an exponential process—that dough won’t hit the oven until 18 hours later when the temperature is much different.
“My bakers know how to handle that.”
The bakers at Breadworks finesse these tasks while keeping a Zen-like focus, but they seemed not to mind at all when I sidle up to the baking table to give it a whirl. David is one of the bakers who has worked here for many years of his young life, and his father was an early colleague of Greg’s. He talks about developing “dough hands”—baker’s hands that over time don’t get as much dough stuck to them. Breadworks’ doughs can be particularly wet; hydration is one of those factors that makes for great texture and flavor, but wet dough can be difficult to work with.
Dave and Greg let me try my hand at smoothing out a few Parmesan Pepper Rolls, keeping the tacky side on the counter so it seals the roll, and making sure there at least two pieces of cheese in every roll.
“Otherwise, it’s the end of the world!” Greg’s “rockin’ baker” Kate tells me. “Really!” she says, “I dreamed it! There was no cheese in the rolls and the world was ending. I told Greg about it and he said that IS a nightmare!”
“Or you wake up thinking you hear your bread timer going off,” David says. “I woke up in the middle of the night and thought my timer was going off, but it was my alarm. I was done, not the bread!”
“That’s how you know you have committed employees, right there,” Greg nods.
I start to wonder how I might change my life so I can sidle up to the bakers’ table every day.
Artisanal baking got started in the ’90s, but it hit its stride in recent years. Ironically, Greg says that one of the things he believes is shaping artisanal baking for the better is the gluten-free craze.
“Couple of things at work with the gluten-free scare,” he says. “It’s not really based on much science, but what it has done is focus people’s attention on what they eat.”
With it has come a healthy fear of transparency and fear about authenticity in bread.
“For many years people have eaten this plastic-wrapped soft stuff. Yes, if you eat too much of that you’re not going to feel well. If you eat too much of anything, you’re not going to feel well.”
Artisan bread is actually easier to digest than commercial bread, because the enzymes have had time to begin breaking down the gluten in the flour while fermenting.
“We have been baking digestible bread longer than anyone else here,” Greg says. “When you make a sourdough bread or a bread with more grains in it, people feel better when they eat it. They come in and say they have a gluten sensitivity; then they try my bread and say ‘Wow, this was great for me.’ Well, there’s as much gluten in that bread as there is in anything else.”
Greg talks about the study that professor Peter Gibson wrote in 2011 that pointed to the gluten intolerance problem. “He was not himself convinced of the study!” Greg says. “And he just finished another one where he had a double blind controlled study of 37 people.
“The issues they were having—the bloating and digestive problems—he came right out and said there was no relationship between gluten and these symptoms.”
Regardless of how we think about gluten and health, the sensitivity to it gets people thinking about what they eat, looking at where it comes from and looking at what’s in it.
“That’s where artisan bakers have a real leg up,” Greg says. “People come in and ask me where the bread comes from—and here’s the flour bag, there’s the mill. I can show you. We’re just using flour-water-salt. We’re keeping it real.”
With so few ingredients, the focus on using the best of them makes sense. In Northern Michigan, we know our water is the best you can drink. But what about flour at home, where I’m not going to mill my wheat but want to bake a great, healthy, delicious loaf of bread?
“The thing to avoid is bleached white flour,” Greg says. Until he can employ local wheat for all of his breads, his flour of choice is King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour. Bleaching, he says, reduces flour to its worst parts. It’s an oxidation process designed to strengthen the gluten and all of the other proteins, which makes what you bake with it less digestible.
“Bleached flour was designed for commercial bakeries for products like Wonder Bread and hot dog buns, so they can bake bread very quickly without having to develop and strengthen the dough,” Greg explains.
By contrast, Breadworks takes three days to develop dough strength, mechanically by kneading and mixing, and chemically through the fermentation.
“Wonder Bread, for example, only adds yeast to their bread for flavor; they don’t use it for leavening,” Greg says. “They take these heavy bleached and bromated flours, whip the snot out of them in a heavy mixer, beating in air and all of these other conditioners. What leavens the bread is the moisture and the steam in the loaf, not the actual yeast. The flour was developed for that type of baking, but it’s everywhere else because it’s a commodity flour and it’s available widely. It does nothing for the flavor and health of bread at all. In fact just the opposite.”
Greg says that 30 percent of people are supposedly trying to reduce the amount of gluten in their diet, but it’s not evidenced in his bakery. “We simply have not seen that. We’ve been on an upward trajectory for the last several years, and it was the same with carbs when that was the big scare.
“You’re eating less bread, so you want what you do eat to be the best. I believe that anytime you’re paying attention to what you eat, there are going to be good benefits from that.”
It’s been some time now since Greg and I stepped away from that crusty, wheaty Locals’ Loaf in the bakery, and my skepticism has been tempered if not by schooling, then by all of my senses. The delirium that is freshly baked bread has cocooned us throughout our conversation, emanating from the ovens, the dough, the fermenting starters, and Greg himself.
Turns out the wait for the bread was quite intentional. “You don’t get all of the flavor out of the bread until it rests for a bit, even though it’s wonderful to pull apart a hot loaf of bread,” Greg says.
“When the bread comes out of the oven, it’s rock hard. All of the moisture is baked off the crust, but as it cools, the moisture from inside migrates to the crust. All of these micro-droplets that are caught within the gluten matrix make the crumb taste moist.”
As the bread sits out and ages, the starch absorbs the moisture so it’s not freely available, and the bread gets harder again. Often we take this for staleness, but Greg says with good bread it’s simply a matter of temperature. “That’s why when you reheat bread it tastes more moist. Warmed or toasted day old bread brings it right back to life, and it does not taste stale.”
Finally, it is time. Greg takes his beautiful Locals’ Loaf and breaks it apart. He breathes deeply over the loaf. I ask what he’s doing, expecting a scientific explanation. “This loaf took me a couple of years to make,” he says. “When I baked that first batch I wanted to tear into it but it took me that long to get there, so I slow down. When you see these loaves come from the ground up, you’ve got to respect them.
“Help yourself, try a taste,” he says, pushing a hunk of bread my way. I thought he’d never ask. I go for a dainty bite that makes my eyes open wide. I ignore all rules of propriety and tear off my own big piece. The flavor is sweet, nutty, fragrant. The texture is that perfect combination of chewy exterior and delicate crumb.
“I think we’re on to something with this batch,” he says. “This is what whole wheat tastes like when it’s freshly ground and long fermented,” Greg says. “It’s my idea of the perfect loaf of bread. This is the kind of bread I like to eat.
“In addition to being rich and delicious, it’s incredibly nutritious. Everything from the wheat kernel is in this loaf, yet people would think this is a white bread when they taste it, because of the sweetness—which is what you lose when you’re not fresh milling.”
Greg senses these bites of bread are not going to be enough for me. He sends me off with a Locals’ Loaf of my own, and a Flour Power T-shirt. “Wear it in all the right places!” he says, knowing his convert will do just that, without a doubt.
Tips for Baking a Crusty, Chewy Loaf
- Long fermentation time coaxes more flavor and more interesting textures out of wheat. A dough that ferments for more than 3 hours takes less kneading because the process of fermentation builds the structure of the loaf for you.
- Wetter is Better. Professional bakers have always known that it takes wet dough to get a loaf with a developed crust and the open, tender crumb that are the hallmarks of a country-style loaf.
- Keeping the loaf damp in the oven until it has fully expanded produces a taller, more open loaf and a better crust. A great way to do this at home is to bake it inside a preheated Dutch oven, which brings the additional benefit of better heat retention.
- Baking with a scale is far more consistent than using volume measurements (cups, teaspoons etc.) A good scale can be had for $20.
- Good wheat makes good bread. Bread contains only flour, water, yeast and salt. Use the best ingredients you can find.
Maureen Abood is the author of Rose Water & Orange Blossoms: Fresh and Classic Recipes From My Lebanese Kitchen (Running Press 2015), and her blog by the same name—maureenabood.com.