New England native Jonathan St. Hilaire was classically trained at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan and spent 15 years in Atlanta as a chef and bakery owner. Seeking a simpler artisan enterprise, St. Hilaire bought Traverse City’s Pleasanton Bakery in 2013 and brought his family and bread skills to the North.

Traverse food and drinks editor Tim Tebeau sat down with Jonathan to talk about the virtues of wood ovens, seasonal bread making and vintage starters, in this Q&A originally published in the February 2016 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.

Wood ovens seem like a lot of work. What’s the pay-off?

As a career baker I’d say this is definitely the most interesting and difficult way of baking. The wood-burning oven gives distinctive flavor and color to our breads. Because we’re working with live fire and limited in our ability to add steam to the oven, learning the oven’s idiosyncrasies and perfecting our dough recipes becomes really important.

How does deep winter determine the baking schedule at Pleasanton?

Low temperatures and humidity make it hard to get a good rise in bread, so this time of year we turn to heavier, denser-style loaves and flavor profiles like dark ryes and spelt. We use a lot of late apple varieties, dried fruits and nuts in our winter breads.

Every great bakery has a closely guarded starter, tell me about yours.

We use a sourdough starter that’s 22 years old. When we bought the bakery we married together two pre-existing starters that were here. It produces phenomenal flavor and really is the backbone of the bakery. We feed it every day with water and local flours, and it’s used in almost all our breads.

Seeking comfort in well-crafted Northern Michigan bread loaves? Here are 5 Northern Michigan bread bakeries to try.

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