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Secrets of the Loaves

Ellen Carney Granda of Necessity Baking Co. made it her mission to master bread.

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When Ellen Carney Granda began learning her way around a kitchen a few years ago, she armed herself with two things: a DVR, for recording every cooking show on the air, and a copy of Julia Child's The Way to Cook. The latter taught her how to roast a chicken well enough, but when she decided to try her hand at baking, the bible let her down. Or so she thought: "Julia Child had a French baguette recipe, and it was really disappointing," Granda says.

As she figured out later, that was partially because it called for all-purpose flour, which in the United States often means bleached high-protein flour. The high protein content ensures that the dough will rise consistently well but yields a tougher final product; the bleaching eliminates the flour's natural yellowish hue but can lend a chemical taste and smell. ("Why people think flour needs to be white, I don't know," Granda says.) When baking baguettes a la Child, Granda realized that "the crust was nice, and the interior was nice, but it didn't have that bread flavor. So I tried different recipes. I failed a bunch of times. I just kept trying. And I just got great."

That's not to say that the 42-year-old Granda, a former nonprofit fund-raiser who now owns Necessity Baking Co. (necbaking.com), believes she's got nothing left to learn. A recent anchovy-and-manchego focaccia, for example, was "the most heinous thing in the history of the world." But for someone who was turning out all of three baguettes at a time in her home oven less than a year ago, she's doing pretty well.

Granda now leases kitchen space from Lake Forest Country Day School and has hired several employees. She sells her artisanal breads at North Shore farmers' markets and the French Market in the West Loop's Ogilvie Transportation Center. She also makes home deliveries, and has even attracted a handful of customers to a breadshare program, which offers three months of in-home weekly bread deliveries to the North Shore for between $72 and $97.92. And she just acquired a space for a retail bakery, slated to open in April in a former video store in Highland Park.

Many of Granda's wares are boules, or round loaves, which she likes to wrap around a chunk of sweet or savory filling. "I needed to offer a variety of breads while mixing only one or two doughs," she explains. Her boule flavors to date include Plum Crazy, filled with prunes and chocolate and sprinkled with sea salt; Smokin' Papi, a chorizo-and-manchego combo named in tribute to her Cuban father-in-law; and Stinker Belle, made with garlic paste. Then there are what she calls the "faux-caccias." "You know how you get a ciabatta that's too chewy, and a focaccia that's too greasy?" Granda asks. She's found a middle ground with loaves such as the Faux Red Jammer, filled with red onion jam.

Artisanal bread baking is an art for the hard-assed. Let the dough get too hot or too cold and the yeast will die. Put in too much flour and the overfed yeast might make the dough explode. Use too much commercial yeast and you'll end up with a bitter aftertaste. Buy an undependable variety of flour and you'll get an inconsistent product. Granda buys from a mill she chose in part because it lets her talk to the technicians directly if she has questions about the flour. (She prefers not to reveal her source, saying only, "Most of our flour is grown in northern Wisconsin and southern Minnesota.")

It was all so intimidating at first that Granda decided to find someone to show her the ropes, a master bread baker from Madison named Cameron Ramsay. "Cam asked me, 'Are you weighing your flour? Are you taking the temperature of your dough?'" she says. "I was like, 'No. I know I need to.' He's like, 'OK, you're in deep doo-doo. You need to come up and spend a night baking with me.' I worked all day, and then I hopped in the car at 11 PM and arrived in Madison at 1:30 and worked until 10 the next morning. I got a graduate-school education."

In those eight and a half hours Ramsay gave her confidence as well as know-how. When Granda presented him with some bread she'd baked at home—a loaf made with lemon zest and rosemary—his reaction was "'Why would you do that?'" she remembers. "And I didn't back away. I said, 'I love those flavors.' He goes: 'You know, you've got problems with your bread, but you have a point of view. That's more important than anything.'"

Now Granda's Faux Lemon Rose is a customer favorite. "When I first made it, I couldn't sell one for the life of me," she says. "So I served it to some of my farmers' market colleagues, and they're like 'Oh, my God!' and someone else heard it as they were walking by, and then people were falling all over themselves to order it. A lady said, 'I need this. You must have it for me. If you're late, I'll be mad.'"

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