George DePasquale, head baker and co-founder, The Essential Baking Co., has been baking since he was able to stand on a chair as a child and reach the kitchen counter. In 1994, he and Jeff Fairhall established The Essential Baking Co., the first local, certified organic, artisan bakery in Seattle.
“Baking is basically all I know how to do,” Mr. DePasquale said. “So opening a bakery with a friend in a city I already had fallen in love with seemed like a golden opportunity.”
Now the company is doing more than just baking for the local community. It’s launching an artisan line with Metropolitan Market and the Skagit Valley Bread Lab that uses a locally sourced, single-origin wheat. The Skagit Valley Artisan Reserve Line, which includes a large and small miche, baguette and pan bread, seeks to capture the flavor profile traced to the farms in the Pacific Northwest.
Mr. DePasquale spoke with Baking & Snack about the single-origin wheat used in the artisan line and the formulation benefits that followed.
Baking & Snack: What was The Essential Baking Co.’s purpose for making this artisan bread line?
George DePasquale: I’ve always been enthralled with the romantic notion that traditional breads (and other foods as well) from around the world have evolved in tandem with the agricultural systems because they make logical sense to the environment of the particular place. And those systems evolve because they leverage the grains and foods that grow naturally in that place. For example, there’s a reason why German and Scandinavian traditional breads are focused on rye: Rye can grow in poor soil at higher altitudes and is tolerant to weather conditions that are challenging to wheat. I’ve always lusted for a local terroir of bread like there is in other parts of the world, and this is hopefully getting us closer to that ideal.
What is the artisan bread made from, and how is it formulated?
Mr. DePasquale: The grain is grown in Walla Walla and Royal City, all single-origin “Expresso.” Expresso is a strain of wheat that grows well in our region and has a deep earthy flavor reminiscent of spices and hazelnut. The single-origin wheat used in these breads not only has exceptional baking qualities and complex flavor but also delivers more nutrition than commodity wheats. The commitment of our millers to Pacific Northwest identity-preserved grains means we can trace where our wheat is coming from down to the specific farm. In a very real sense we’re not only developing a local economy but a local flavor.
All of the breads are made with natural starters using the same flours that are in the bread and started with our 100-year-old mother starter. The starters are matured over a long period of time and are unique to these breads. The doughs are then carefully fermented in a controlled environment in order to develop their exceptional flavors and unique texture. They are hand-shaped to maintain the characteristic crumb, proofed with controlled heat and humidity, and baked in the traditional way on hearth ovens.
How does using a single-origin wheat affect the formulation of the bread?
Mr. DePasquale: In some ways it epitomizes some of what I love about bread baking: You have to work with the grain, see what it wants, how it ferments, how do you get the most out of it, which other ingredients does it complement? You have to be actively engaged with it and not try to force it into something it’s not naturally suited to. It’s not a blank slate; there’s character there.
How would you describe the bread’s taste?
Mr. DePasquale: So far there are three loaves that are out there, and they’re all very different. The miche has a light complexity that is meant to be a table bread. The flavors are mild and nutty, with a clean sour and hints of wild rice. The dark bake adds a bit of smoke and roasted coffee when you bite into it. The baguette has quite a bit more of a spicy flavor and reminds me of bourbon or whiskey. It’s not exactly a traditional Parisian baguette; in fact, nowhere near it. I’ve been playing around with a darker baguette for years, and this is close to what I had in mind — the high extraction flour really brings out the character. The pan bread of course is much sweeter, complex still, but rounder and meant to go with turkey and other sandwich meats and especially roast ham.
How did you ensure the wheat’s flavor wouldn’t be masked by other ingredients?
Mr. DePasquale: In general, I like the innate flavors to speak for themselves, so I don’t really tend to mix in a lot of ingredients anyway. Fermentation plays a huge part in the overall character of bread, obviously, so a small change in the proportion of grains or other ingredients can coax the overall flavor in one direction or another. Expresso seems to play well with others, as they say. To me, a rarely considered but incredibly important factor is what happens during fermentation. The other thing to note here is that this is high extraction flour — a lot more of the wheat berry is present, so there are flavors here beyond what Expresso will give you if you mill it all the way down to white flour.
What are some characteristics formulators should keep in mind when looking to use flavorful, high-quality wheat?
Mr. DePasquale: What are you after? Is it bitter, acid, sweet, spicy, nutty, etc.? I also think about what purpose is the bread being used for? What are the unique characters of the flour? For example, for table bread you might be looking for something a bit more intense than for sandwich bread, which needs to be versatile. There’s also the customer to consider. For example, with this bread I chose Expresso over a couple of others because it has a darker and earthier flavor but is still pretty mild. It had to be appropriate for a variety of breads, so it works well for that. I can coax a little variety from it with fermentation and the addition of small amounts of other flours, like the spelt in the baguette.
What’s significant about using local wheat?
Mr. DePasquale: For one thing, there’s the economics and logistics of it all. I get the efficiencies of scale, etc. that shaped the grain system in the U.S., but it really makes more sense to have wheat grown and milled close to where it’s baked. But maybe the most important thing to me is developing and preserving local flavor in bread, similar to the way terroir influences wine-making. That exists in spaces in Europe and somewhat here in America. Good examples are San Francisco Sourdough and Cornbread. I’m proud to have and keep a starter that was around for the Gold Rush.
Another reason for choosing Expresso was that it does really well here because of its rust resistant qualities and its semi-dwarf height. It’s grown all over Eastern Washington and somewhat in Western Washington. So in a way, while it’s not the most exotic variety and a fairly young one at that, it does represent a local flavor that’s gotten a lot of traction and is quite flavorful. That said, we’ll be incorporating more land race varieties in the near future — this is just the beginning.