Categories: Lifestyle

The staff of life

Nothing like the heavenly smell and taste of freshly baked bread.

All the superlatives one can throw at a loaf of freshly-baked bread just aren’t enough. Cosy, comforting, heavenly, there is just nothing like it to describe the intoxicating aromas that warm a kitchen. It’s called the staff of life for a reason and (with apologies to those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance) tasting a piece of fresh-from-the-oven bread with butter is one of life’s truest, simplest pleasures.

Long time St. Albert resident Laura Rogerson knows this only too well. The accidental entrepreneur is owner and sole baker of Breadlove, a home-based business specializing in artisan (handmade) French-style chewy loaves (boule i.e. ball) focaccia, baguettes, sourdough and other favourites. Those who frequent the St. Albert Farmers’ Market understand the joys of Rogerson’s chocolate and pear boule, cinnamon buns and rosemary/sea salt or cheddar/jalapeno focaccia, but only if they’re early birds.

In fact, the hundreds of hand-crafted loaves and buns Rogerson creates in the wee hours of a summer Saturday morning are completely sold out before noon. That’s just how it is when it’s a bustling market, and you’ve got a reputation for stellar baked goods. With three ovens running in her Grandin-area kitchen, the self-described ‘bread-making machine’ has been baking and selling at the farmers’ market for the past six years. She also sells at the St. Albert Christmas market and at occasional pop-up events with other vendors. Today she is often hired for corporate team-building events (getting clients to work together in the kitchen) or to contribute her loaves and buns to Christmas gift baskets for businesses in Edmonton, Calgary and beyond.

But it’s in teaching others that Rogerson has found an even greater calling. She shares her decades of experience, knowledge and simple bread-making techniques at evening classes in Edmonton. She teaches pizza-making to teens and families and now, in her own home, for St. Albert bread lovers.

Just this fall, Rogerson opened up her home kitchen for demonstration classes (for up to six people at a session) to share how simple it is to create the rustic loaves, baguettes and specialty breads that those in the know pay a premium for at the market. The spring 2017 sessions are pretty much booked up) and it’s easy to see why. She shares homespun wisdom, tips on where and how to buy knives, yeast and bread flour (a 20 kg bag of baker’s flour at Costco for about $13 is a great buy, she explains). Rogerson doles out details while she mixes ingredients. It’s like hanging out in the kitchen with grandma while she bakes – the information is invaluable.

“I love the sharing – I’ve started a social enterprise too – baking with newcomers. Every culture has a bread, and sometimes people come here without the language to communicate, but yet they have a recipe in their head, so we communicate that way. Bread is magical and special,” Rogerson says.

The former fishing lodge cook picked up baking as a way to work part-time in retirement – or so she planned. (Rogerson recalls baking her first loaf of bread from a recipe off the back of a yeast packet). The game plan was to sell bread here during market season and then afford to take a bread-making course somewhere in the world in the off season. She has done that many times over, most recently in Holland, with plans to do the same next in Beirut (along with a quick jaunt to San Francisco to sort out her sourdough starter).

“I have such great support in St. Albert, and customers do love the product. Every Saturday, there’s a couple that comes for my chocolate/pear loaf, and they sit by the river and enjoy it with some cheese. I support local growers too – wonderful flour from Gold Forest Grains near Morinville, kitchen supplies on St. Albert Trail, and knives and spices from independent shops on Whyte Ave. (Knifewear and The Silk Road, respectively).

“It’s simply that I love to bake bread – the mixture of water, yeast, flour and salt and what that produces from the oven is still magic to me. You have to have a passion for this to get up at 1 a.m. every Saturday, but even so, I think bread making is a skill everyone should have.”

In the Bread Making 101 class, Rogerson takes participants through every step in the process from a front row seat at her kitchen island. Based on a French method, Rogerson creates loaves and buns with no equipment or kneading. The flour, yeast and salt are mixed with cold water for a 12-18-hour slow fermentation on a countertop until about doubled in size. A second proof for another hour until 1 times the size follows again. Then the bread is baked in a preheated Dutch oven for about 30 minutes. (The method is roughly the same for focaccia and baguettes, though times vary slightly).

Cast-iron pots are okay too, says Rogerson – round or oval and larger or smaller than the five-quart size she uses. Rogerson says planning is the key because it takes less than five minutes to mix the dough. So, if started at night, a loaf can be ready to bake the next morning or midday. Or, mix wet and dry ingredients quickly early in the morning and you can be ready to bake bread for supper that night, she says.

“You rule the bread – don’t let the bread rule you. And invest in a digital thermometer (bread should read 205 degrees), a sharp bread knife, and a kitchen scale. You get more consistent results measuring by weight, not volume,” she says.

Want to use fresh yeast instead of Rogerson’s go-to jarred dry yeast? Sure, but keep it in the freezer, and use three times as much fresh as dry yeast,” she says. Rogerson likes sea salt or kosher salt and when using any mix-ins like chocolate and pear for her specialty loaf, she adds it in with dry ingredients right at the start of the process.

“I like to say I’m innovative, but I’m also a lazy baker,” she laughs. There’s sourdough and whole wheat alternatives that Rogerson continues to experiment with, and a loaf she rolls in toasted pepita, sunflower, flax and poppy seed for added oomph and flavour. For her best-selling focaccia, Rogerson adds a bit of sugar to the yeast mixture and bakes it on a pizza stone in the oven (though she also uses an inverted aluminum baking tray) for a quick 15-minute bake.

“I want people to leave the class confident to try it for themselves – to take the basic method and make it their own. Make a sweet focaccia by adding grapes and apple. Or, I just tried soaking an onion in cream, then mixing with thyme for another focaccia topping. Just experiment.”

“I don’t bake a lot of bread, so I wanted to watch someone else do it. I’m going to go home and try it tonight,” says class participant Marisa Hutten, who picked up the starter kit Rogerson sells at her class (including bowl, bench scraper, etc). Bonus: everyone gets to taste what is baked, and take home any leftovers. And – another plus – Rogerson is reachable for follow-up with her students, through her Breadlove Facebook page.

“The classes are for everyone who wants to bake bread. And once you do, you’ll become everyone’s favourite dinner guest, because they’ll want you to bring that fantastic artisan loaf you make.”

Lucy Haines: Lucy Haines has been a freelancer writer for the St. Albert Gazette since 2012. She writes features on travel, food, seniors, homes and gardens.