The use of a bread starter is both practical and symbolic.
Many bakers will say that a starter affords better flavor and quality in the finished loaf of bread. In contrast to commercial dried yeast, which exists in a suspended state, the liquid combination of flour, water and yeast really is alive.
Bakers keep it that way both by adding to it and by passing some along to other bakers, who in turn add to it and pass it along.
In that way, it creates a link from friend to friend, parent to child, baker to baker.
“Baking is part of what we’ve been doing as a family,” Robin Briggs said.
When Robin and her sister, Kate, contemplated summer plans this year, they decided it might be fun to pour their combined talents into a small commercial interest.
Food has infused the lives of these two young Bainbridge natives – Kate is 19, Robin, 21 – since they were little. They’ve each done, and are doing, restaurant rounds and catering work. Kate, in particular, has been into cooking since she took a class at West Sound Academy with Judith Weinstock.
An old family friend of the Briggs, Weinstock is well known to foodies in these parts, having owned and operated Winslow’s Streamliner Diner until the early 1990s, followed by the Kingston Hotel Cafe. She scaled back a number of years ago to focus solely on teaching and running Food Muse catering out of her vibrant, lemon-and-herb scented Indianola kitchen.
That space became a logical choice for the Briggs’ venture, to make artisan bread and rolls to sell at the Bainbridge Farmers Market.
Baking and loading their bread into their dad’s truck that first Saturday morning, the sisters had little idea what to expect from the market. They’d applied for their vendor spot late in the game, so they knew they weren’t going to be guaranteed prime space.
They’d quickly procured food handlers’ permits, a temporary food establishment permit, the tent, tables and other merchandising elements. Those small-businessy pieces turned out to take more time and attention than they’d anticipated.
“It’s not like running a lemonade stand,” Kate said.
But in the end, their bread sold out, sending them back to the kitchen to make more.
The process usually begins each Thursday, when the sisters convene in Weinstock’s kitchen. Kate comes from Bainbridge, Robin from just down the road.
They decide what they’ll bake and then start blending ingredients in Weinstock’s commercial mixer, which churns the liquid brew slowly and steadily until it starts to thicken.
When the Briggs make sourdough, they use a starter Weinstock originally made eight years ago. And that’s young, in bread-starter years; Weinstock has another starter in her kitchen that’s 210 years old.
“We always talk about starter like it’s a baby,” Weinstock said.
“You can tell it’s happy when it’s all bubbly,” Robin added.
On this Thursday afternoon, the Briggs are working on a basic whole wheat loaf. As Robin adds salt to the mixture in the bowl, magic starts to occur; the dough thickens and begins pulling away from the sides. Robin watches carefully for the moment when it’s ready to turn out, 50 loaves’ worth of dough flowing like thick lava onto the baking slab.
The two immediately set to work cutting, weighing and shaping each loaf, then putting each one into its own paper-lined basket, where it will rest in the fridge until baking day. They repeat the routine on Friday.
Saturdays, they rise at 3 a.m., convene again in the kitchen, spritz each of the loaves with water to create a chewy crust, and “bake it from there.”
Market staples include, among other flavors, their wheat round, wheat with caramelized onion, a braided challa, a fig-sage-walnut loaf, pumpernickel, and kalamata olive rolls. Customers were disappointed when the latter didn’t appear two weeks in a row.
Growing up, the Briggs’ parents relentlessly fed them healthy food; as a consequence, Kate craved Fruit Loops cereal, and Robin’s favorite thing to eat when she went to a friend’s house was a Wonder Bread and Jif peanut butter sandwich.
They’ve since come full-circle, placing a strong emphasis on using local, in-season ingredients, including eggs from Persephone Farms across the road, and herbs and vegetables from the organic garden on Weinstock’s property.
“As summer rolls along and farms are selling their best summer produce, we’ll be rolling that in,” Robin said.
They agree that while Kate is the more experienced cook, Robin is the more exacting baker; Kate points out that with less science involved, cooking is far more forgiving.
“I never thought I’d be Kate’s equal in the kitchen,” Robin said.
The siblings have no problem working together; conflict occasionally arises only when they’re figuring out which types of bread to make for each market.
In the way that siblings and close friends do, especially when they’re busy and punchy, Weinstock and the Briggs throw around inside terms as they work, like “wild yeasties” – “The wild yeasties, they’re so happy!”; “baker’s drift,” which is the unconscious tendency to slightly alter recipes once you’ve learned them by heart; and “bread farts.” That, incidentally, refers to the noises the thickening dough makes as it rests and percolates in the mixing bowl.
When the bread’s out of the oven on Saturday, they load up and hit the market by 8:20 a.m. Robin says she takes an almost obsessive pride in arranging the loaves and rolls to their best advantage.
“I like it at the beginning,” she said. “It looks all plentiful.”
They’ve hit a sell-out sweet spot with making 120-130 loaves, plus rolls; Kate semi-jokes that if they made any more, they’d have to get up even earlier. Prices range from $1 per roll to $5-$8 for loaves, with pricing dependent on the ingredients involved.
Based on early success, the Briggs have a few things to figure out when it comes to their new small business venture, not the least of which is their name. “Wild and Whole” is descriptive, but Kate’s not that into it. “Backwoods Bakers” reflects the rural oasis of Weinstock’s kitchen. “Sourdough Sisters” sparks the biggest laugh but seems the most likely candidate.
“Certainly we decided to do this for the fun aspect (and) to challenge ourselves,” Kate said. “And that’s what it’s turning out to be, which is great.”
Robin admits that by 1 p.m. each Saturday, she’s wiped – but ready to rise.
“When we’re done with the market, we may be tired,” Robin said. “But we’re already thinking, ‘What are we doing next week?’”