Romanian-born Raluca Micu is the owner/baker of West London's OCTOBER 26, a one woman bakery that specializes in sourdough. Having studied marketing in college, and completed a Masters in public relations, Raluca's first ten years after formal education was working for a telecom company. But in January 2015, she decided to start baking for a living, opening the doors of her bakery three months later. I have been following her online since then. Now she's come to Stir the Pots to share her story.
How did you start baking?
I am not really sure, but I've been baking all my life. I became very interested in food in general around 8 years ago, and decided I want to have a food business. Somehow the idea crystalized that it should actually be a bakery. Initially I thought more about small fancy pastries, but then I started baking sourdough bread at home. I guess the rest is history.
When did you decide that you wanted to open a bakery?
For about two years. From the time I started to bake at home and moaned about my office job! I increasingly realized I was spending most of my days moaning instead of actually enjoying what I was doing. So in the end I made the decision to take redundancy money from my office job and give the bakery a go.
What have been the "highs and lows" of opening the bakery?
The most important highs are people! I've met so many amazing people in the last year of baking. More than I had in 10 years of working in a corporate office. Of course, people can be one of the lows, too. Take the end of a day. You are knackered [and out of bread]. A person walks in the shop, demanding bread. But you sold all your loaves. "You should bake more!" "You should wake up earlier!" "You should employ someone to help you!" "Just make some more now, can't you?"
Luckily it always happens a nice person comes along to tell me: "We love your bread! You have changed our lives!" That makes it all better. That's the biggest high. The fact that most people appreciate so much what I do, that they come back again and again. It's a very satisfying job - something I didn't really feel in my previous jobs.
The other low is that I am tired. My entire body often hurts and I dream of a 10 hour long sleep. I don't think I really thought about how tiring physical work will be in the long run.
What is your favorite loaf?
A dark loaf that I bake on Fridays called "The Wholey Loaf." It's a mixture of 60 percent whole meal, 20 percent light rye and 20 percent white wheat with around 100 percent hydration. It comes out dark and moist, with a nice nutty flavor.
What sort of bread did you grow up eating?
The bread we had in Romania was average. But I do remember the large round loaves that my great grandmother used to bake in a tiny oven in a side room of her house. That was bread! Dark crust, quite heavy, but tasty and fresh!
Where do you look to for inspiration and advice?
Everywhere. Not just fellow bakers that I find inspiring but also cook books, food history books, and my grandmothers.
As a woman in baking, do you find obstacles or prejudices from a male dominated business?
I haven't had the chance to really interact with the bigger industry yet - mostly because I am here six days a week. And the last one I spend with my little one and my husband. So can't say I felt many prejudices or obstacles.
However, what I can't help but feel is that people wouldn't come in and offer unrequested business advice as freely if I was a man.
Do you ever visit other bakeries to see what they’re doing?
Of course! I love to do that. We try to do it as much as we can here in London and when we travel abroad. I also love it when other fellow bakers come to visit me.
How difficult are the hours?
Difficult, but I think more difficult is that by doing everything my hand means every muscles in my body hurts and with only one day off a week is difficult to get enough rest to start a new week fresh.
What’s it like juggling life matters with baking?
I am very lucky to have a great husband who takes amazing care of our daughter when I am not home in the mornings and at the weekend. We try to spend as much time as possible together the rest of the time. And Fiona - my daughter - spends every Monday with me at the bakery wanting to be me "my little helper".
What grain, rye or wheat, spelt show up in your line most often?
It will have to be wheat, though I bake a mix of wheat and rye everyday too and spelt loaves every other day too.
How many people work with you?
None. I work alone for now. It's me and a ROFCO B40 oven. Clearly I have more defined arms since starting this adventure.
When you’re not baking, what do you like doing best?
Spending time with my family, eating new exciting food, reading, and lately growing succulents.
Are you baking with sourdough?
I only bake with sourdough - breads and cinnamon buns are all sourdough.
Do you also include Viennoiserie and pastries as well as bread?
Viennoiserie, not yet. I find it difficult to find any time for R&D and the tests I did last year for puff pastry didn't really turn, as I wanted them too. Hopefully I will get some more testing time this summer. I do make chocolate and lemon éclairs, fruit frangipane galettes and cinnamon buns.
What’s in Raluca’s future, expand or stay small?
Expand but stay small. I need to grow the business a bit both for my customers that request more bread than I can make these days and for financial purposes, but I don't want this business to become too big. I just dream of a mixer, another oven, a proper retarder and maybe two employees.
Tell us about your customer, the Russian Prince!
Aaaah, the Russian Prince. I haven't had the confirmation from him that he has indeed aristocratic Russian blood, but I like to think he is. He is one of the most elegant men I have ever met. I have never seen him without a tie or cravate, always wearing a suit coat and a pocket-handkerchief.
He is a dapper 83 year old man. Our relationship had a shaky start; he would come in and bitch about everything I was or wasn't doing. "It was closed yesterday! You don't work too much do you?! "You have a child?! How did you manage that?"
Somehow at some point things have changed. Now whenever he comes in, he brings me an ornamental plate, kisses me on both cheeks, and says nice things like: "You look lovely today!".
It's been years since visiting Wales to see my friend Mick Hartley, the "no bollocks baker" behind Bethesdabakin. Here's a recent exchange or gift long overdue I wanted to share his story regarding a present about hats!
Rick Easton of Bread and Salty Bakery just had a pop-up at Bruno Pizza. Joined by my pizzaiolo friend,Domenico, we visited to see and talk. Rick had been at it since early in the morning. Turned out his flour was not as extensible as he'd wanted, so he suggested making focaccia sandwiches rather then his signature taglio pizza. Here's what we had, joined by chef Pamela Yung of Semilla.
Recently I was invited by Jim Lahey to his bakery for a day finalizing and testing formulas for his upcoming book on no-knead sourdough. It was interesting to watch. And gave me an opportunity to get a richer perspective of Jim's kitchen philosophy. Besides talking bread, he shared his current obsession, the off-Broadway musical "Hamilton." The soundtrack accompanied our mixing a rack of namesake buns Jim created in honor of this production and founder of this country's monetary system. Here are some of the look behind the scenes.
Karin Anderson came to me through her daughter. It's a long story. Basically, my brother, Philippe, was head chef at a resort in Colorado. Karin's daughter trained under Philippe working in his kitchen. They became friends. And then I was introduced to Karin's bread blog. A German-born baker now living in Maine, she is someone whom I have come to respect and enjoy. I recently got a chance to interview her but first asked her for a bio. I think her self-description is better than anything I can offer.
After a long and very satisfying career as psychiatrist and neurologist, practicing and teaching psychotherapy in Germany, I moved to Maine in 2001. My American husband used to import container loads of furniture from Northern Europe, so why not adding a wife from Hamburg? Since I retired from my work as psychoanalyst, and our kids are grown up, I had to look for another outlet for my energies, and turned my bread baking hobby into a micro bakery. The baking keeps me entertained and happy, it also resolves the problem what to do with all my output - we are only two people, the cats don’t care for sourdough, and the freezer is full to the gills. My only complaint: So much to bake - and so little time!
And here’s my interview with this interesting woman.
How did you become a baker?
When I relocated from Hamburg/Germany to Maine, there was absolutely no decent bread to be found in our area. A major problem for me, since I love good bread, and my stomach doesn’t accept Wonderbreads. Therefore I had to start baking my own - out of desperation!With my husband as willing guinea pig, I slowly improved my baking skills, until I was happy with the results and felt confident enough to turn my home kitchen into a micro bakery.
What’s your favorite grain?
I can’t say I have a real favorite. I like adding rye, spelt, oat, barley and,more recently, einkorn and other ancient grains to my doughs.
How difficult or easy is it to find grains in Maine?
I purchase organic wheat, rye, spelt and oat flours and grains in bulk from a whole grocer in Lewiston/Maine. An Italian whole sale/retail grocery in Portland supplies me with low-protein Tipo 00 flour for my rolls.
Medium rye and grains that I use less often (like einkorn and other ancient grains) I have to order online.. And medium wheat or spelt (Typ 1050) I sneak into my carry-on when I come back from visits in Germany. How does micro baking differ from a storefront bakery, and how does it work in your community?
Baking from my home kitchen, I have very little overhead costs, and am able to schedule my baking preparations in a way that doesn't interfere too much with my family life. I bake for a local natural food store, depending on the season once or twice a week. They always order my signature rye baguettes and multigrain pitas, but otherwise it’s “baker’s choice”, and therefore the work never gets old! This, and the fact that people really seem to appreciate and enjoy my breads - I have a group of faithful “followers” - is very gratifying (and boosts my ego!).
What sorts of bread did you grow up eating in Germany?
The typical German everyday loaf is a rye/wheat sourdough (Feinbrot or Graubrot). On Sundays we would sometimes have wheat rolls (if somebody would get up early and buy them) and white toast bread. Every evening my father made us eat coarse, 100%-rye Vollkornbrot - I hated it, and it’s still my least favorite bread, even though the ones I bake taste much better than what I remember from my childhood.
Are you using primarily sourdough or mixed hybrid?
For my micro bakery I use mixed hybrid leavens in order to have more reliable rising times. My breads are all made with preferments and/or long overnight fermentation, so that I can keep the amounts of commercial yeast very low.
For my family, when timing is no concern, I often bake pure sourdoughs.
What bread is your tried and true favorite go to loaf?
My rustic rye baguettes with sourdough, a type of Pain a l’Ancienne. I bake them every week for my customers, and always have a supply in the freezer (my husband, the retired furniture dealer, calls them “the nicked and dinged ones”).
My other favorites are whole grain loaves à la Tartine. I like experimenting, and a basic Tartine bread can hold whatever porridge, grain, nut or seed I fancy. (photo: Tartine-like bread with Kamut Porridge)
When you visit Germany, do you visit bakeries for inspiration?
I love visiting bakeries, wherever I go. My favorite fresh market in Hamburg, the Isemarkt, also has several good bread sellers. And Germany probably has the best Turkish bakeries outside of Turkey. Sadly, even in bread country Germany so-called bake shops with their cheap, prefabricated stuff pop up everywhere, and drive many old, from-the-scratch bakeries out of business.
Maine has become the renaissance of grains like other places in the Northeast, do you use local or commercial flours?
I would love to use local flours, but, unfortunately, they are still very hard to come by. The only Maine grown wheat I can get in bulk is non-organic, therefore I can’t buy it for my organic bakery.
Who are your bread heroes?
First and foremost Peter Reinhart. After I mastered a decent German every-day rye, I widened my baking horizon with “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice” and “Whole Grain Breads”.
I still use his pre-dough method for my whole grain breads, and his stretch-and-fold technique (from “Artisan Bread Every Day) for many of the others.
My second bread hero is Richard Ploner, a baker from South Tyrol, whose small book “Brot aus Südtirol” has lots of interesting, unusual recipes. I bake many of his breads regularly - though I adapted them to long fermentation. Chad Robertson from Tartine Bakery inspires me to a never ending line of tartine-esque loaves, in all possible variations.
You blog about your baking. Do you want to write a book?
I’m probably too lazy. I admire people like “brotdoc” Björn Hollensteiner who doesn’t only manage to bake lots of breads (besides his regular work as a family practitioner!), but is a prolific blogger, too. He wrote a wonderful bread baking book, together with Lutz Geissler from ploetzblog, another German heavy-weight baker and blogger.
How do you explain something like sourdough or baker’s percent to budding bakers?
Sourdough is a collaborative of several different strains of wild yeasts and lactic acid bacteria that work together in tandem. The bacteria digest the carbohydrates of the flour, producing carbon dioxide and acetic acid in the process. They are responsible for the good taste of the bread, and, with their acidity, protect the sourdough from other, harmful, microorganisms.
The sourdough yeasts do most of the heavy lifting. They produce lots of carbon dioxide and some alcohol (sourdough always smells a bit alcoholic.) These wild yeasts not only tolerate the acidic environment the bacteria create, they even need it to grow! Therefore a new starter first has to turn sour, before it has any leavening power.
Bakers’ percent is the ratio between the flour (always at 100%) and the other dough ingredients. It helps bakers to multiply or reduce a bread formula, and, also, to estimate whether certain important ingredients like salt, yeast, or the amount of preferment, are within a normal range or off. I often calculated ratios with the Rule of Three - about the only thing I remember from high school arithmetic!
How do you rate a good bread?
It must have:
An appetizing smell
A golden, or dark golden, thin crust - not pale and rubbery like many under-baked supermarket loaves.
A moist crumb, without gummy areas. Depending on the type of bread denser or airier, but no giant gas bubble under the crust (aka “baker’s bedroom”).
And, of course, most important: a great taste. A hint of spice is nice, but not an overpowering monopoly of one spice (like caraway in some ryes).
What do you do when you don’t bake?
Blogging in English and in German about breads and pastries. Looking at recipes... Trying not to bore my husband with too much bread talk - unless I want to listen to minute details of classical guitar composition. I also like to read, travel, swim, and chase our cats around (since our ungrateful brood has not yet supplied us with grandchildren!) But I do get withdrawal symptoms if I’m too long away from an oven!
Karin was kind enough to offer this recipe for one of her “favorite breads.”
SUNFLOWER MINI BREADS (adapted from Richard Ploner) (6 small breads)
307 g bread flour
150 g whole wheat flour
50 g whole spelt flour
6 g instant yeast
340 g water, lukewarm (95ºF)
10 g salt
5 g sugar (1 tsp.)
200 g sunflower seeds, toasted
egg yolk, slightly beaten, for brushing
Dissolve yeast in warm water. Add to all other dough ingredients in mixing bowl. Mix for 1 - 2 minutes by hand or with mixer at low speed, until all flour is hydrated and ingredients come together. Let dough rest for 5 minutes.
Knead dough for 2 minutes at medium-low speed, adjusting with a bit of water as needed, dough should be smoother but still sticky. Continue kneading for another 4 minutes. Dough should be still somewhat sticky.
Prepare a clean, lightly oiled bowl.
Transfer dough to a lightly oiled (or wet) work surface. Lightly oil (or moisten) your hands. Pat and stretch dough into a rough square, then fold it from top and bottom in thirds, like a business letter. Repeat stretching and folding in thirds from left and right.
Place dough ball, sides tucked under, into prepared bowl. Cover, and let it rest for 10 minutes.
Repeat those stretches and folds 3 times, at 10 minute intervals (total time 40 min.) Dough will become smoother, but, with all those seeds, it will be also a bit stiff.
After the last fold, cover bowl, and place into refrigerator for overnight fermentation.
Remove dough from refrigerator 2 hours before using, to come to room temperature.
Preheat oven to 410ºF/210ºC, including steam pan.
Transfer dough to lightly floured work surface, and divide into 6 equal pieces. Shape them into large rolls, and place them, seam side down, on parchment lined baking sheet. Brush breads with egg wash.
Using scissors, make 8 incisions around rim of each bread (see photo). Then, with a small round cookie cutter, press down in the middle to create the flower shape (the breads will spread and flatten a bit). Spray breads lightly with oil, cover, and proof them for 30 - 45 minutes, or until they have grown 1 1/2 times their original size (finger poke test.)
Place breads in oven, steaming with 1 cup hot water (optional), and bake for 12 minutes. Remove steam pan, rotate baking sheet 180 degrees, and continue baking for another 13 minutes, until breads are a deep golden brown, and register at least 200ºF/93ºC (instant thermometer.)
While foraging my fridge New Years eve for a dessert ideas, I decided to make a cake with some puff pastry, specifically an epiphany cake, Galette de Rois. Lapsed in all religiosity, I'd rather make these symbolic cakes and meals to my faith in good eats. Prayers answered, crunchy airy and full of pistachio's!
I met Egoitz Fernandez (Fagus) at the pop up started by Dan Lepard and Iban Yarra in Donostia (San Sebastian) Spain. My first memory of this handsome Basque was of someone very quiet and intently focused on tending the oven, totally attentive to the craft. Since then we have kept in contact on Facebook, chatting periodically about breads and baking. Along the way he has helped me improve my abilities to recreate the "Extreme" loaf," signature of The Loaf In a Box. It's nice to be able to interview Egoitz on Stir the Pots, bringing back memories of the two days I spent with him in the autolyse of summer days in San Sebastian.
I did my first attempts in bread about almost 5 years ago. I have always been curious about those (outwardly) simple things that surrounded me. By 2011 a number of changes in my life lead me to embrace new and creative proyects (home brewing, cheese making, etc.). One of those new constructive things was bread. My Grandmother used to bake bread at home in an old wood-fired oven and she taught me the basics to start in fermentation.
Where do you work?
Nowadays I´m working in The Loaf Bakery, a small artisan bakery sited in Donostia- San Sebastian.
What is bread for you, philosophically speaking?
For me bread, along with cooking (and almost every kind of fermentation) is one of those things that makes us a really peculiar animal. Human beings have been fermenting cereals for 6000 years ago. When I bake bread, I feel like I'm learning something new, something wild from a bond between the soil and humans. Baking bread is a gesture of repeating the same movements of those who came before and still nurture your neighbors.
Describe what breads you make.
We make both yeasted and sourdough breads, always with organic flours. Most of them are stone milled. Currently we are making 9 to 10 types of bread every day, fermented with three different sourdoughs. We like to use long bulk rise, as well as high extraction flour, to make them more flavorful and aromatic.
What’s your favorite bread?
I like almost every (good) bread, specially I love those with rye or corn flour.
Who are your mentors or bread gods?
Dan Lepard and Iban Yarza. They were my very first mentors. Chad Robertson has been inspiring, along with lots of "anonymous" bakers from central and northern Europe.
What or how should bread be eaten?
With your loved ones.
How do you define well-made bread?
Balance. A well-balanced acidity and dark browned crust are, for me, the key to achieve the nutty and delicious cereal flavor that remains when the bread is gone. This aftertaste is what makes you want more. This is the real sign of a good bread, whatever is the flour of its is done.
What do you do when you’re not baking?
Fermenting and cooking everything I can. Also yoga. And when I can, climbing.
Do you want to open your own bakery?
I've always thought about that. But before that day arrives (if someday it arrives), I want to continue learning as much as I can from every baker who is aiming to share.
What was it like working in a pop up bakery in Donostia?
Working in The Loaf-in a Box was my first experience as an apprentice baker. I have a very good memories from these summer; sharing knowledge and passion, not just with Dan Lepard and Iban Yarza but with every person who spends time shaping, fermenting and baking with us. I remember those days like a big fermenting pot full of good people, excellent bakers and lots of fun. It was the beginning of relationships with lots of bread nerds (like me) who are from the bread world and make this "little" community alive.
What is a typical Basque bread?
We don't really have our own bread in Basque Country. There is no place to grow wheat, or any cereal, except in the southern part of Araba, close to La Rioja. The most representative bread is a flat one called Talos. It's made with corn flour. In the past it was baked in the surface of the wood-fired stoves. It's a bread that is very close to Mexican corn tortillas.
Even though I've attended many inspiring classes with great bakers and chefs, I never thought of myself as ever becoming a teacher, myself. But recently my friend Daniele (from Gustiamo) asked if I could help her put to use a piece of Italian levain that she had been given as a gift. Apparently, its origins were over 50-years old. While the flour used was unknown, Daniele had been feeding it some primo flour from Fulvio Marino, considered a top mill. Thinking about how to help Daniele best with this levain made me realize that bread baking is a tricky craft to teach. And that's odd given how the process actually starts with a just a few ingredients. But the art comes in juggling those ingredients as they traverse various stages. It's a slow food world, but we live in a fast paced existence. More to come!