New Beginnings: Wide Awake Bakery
Bread-making was just a hobby for Mecklenburg resident Stefan Senders, until he left academia to launch a bread CSA. Now dozens of members line up to get their weekly bread.
At Wide Awake Bakery in Mecklenburg, Stefan Senders takes the temperature of a loaf of bread, fresh out of the oven, as if it were his own child. “Nope, not quite done yet,” he says. “at about 186 degrees it’ll start to gelatinize. But to get a really, really nice feel in the mouth, you actually want it up to 205, 208, 210—almost boiling. When you open up a bread like that, it’ll just shine—it’ll just look beautiful.” He puts the bread back into the oven until it comes out a magnificent golden brown, a French boule fit for a king.
Wide Awake Bakery, the region’s first bread CSA, opened in April. For $100, anyone can become a breadshare member, giving them 20 loaves of bread, made mostly from local grains and baked that day in a wood-fired brick oven. Members pick up their bread weekly—on Tuesdays at Good to Go on Main Street in Trumansburg or on Fridays at Ithacamade on State Street in Ithaca. You have never tasted bread like this. The New York rye is light, with a touch of nuttiness but not overpowered by caraway. Wide Awake’s whole wheat breads are rich and soft (they’ve just started doing varietals—the Warthog got raves at a recent tasting at the French Culinary Institute), and the ciabatta . . . well—that you just have to try for yourself.
Senders began his career as a musician, studying the banjo in Appalachia and later Éwe and Dagbamba drumming in Ghana, West Africa. Intrigued by how those sounds and dances held communities together, he pursued a Ph.D. in anthropology at Cornell. This led to ethnographic research in Berlin, Germany, where he ate lots of bread. “It was everywhere,” he says. “You’d get it at the supermarket, at a department store—fabulous bread. And when I came back to the states, it was like being in a desert.” Finally, in Ann Arbor while working at the University of Michigan, he found Zingerman’s Deli. Their bread inspired a baking frenzy. “I baked almost every day, trying to reverse-engineer this bread. I started joking around with my wife, Liz, saying we should just start a bakery.”
It was sort of a fantasy at the time, Senders adds, but years later, after music and people they loved brought them back to Ithaca, the idea came back to him.
“I was doing research for the mental health division of the University of Rochester and I felt like I was going crazy. I thought, No one is going to get healthy through mental health science—they’re going to get healthy through their relationships with each other and the world. That’s what this bakery is about. It’s about how you create health, which has to do with food, the way you treat the land you walk on and the animals you live with, the whole shebang.”
Of course, baking at home for family and friends is different from supplying bread to 500 hungry customers a week. To learn more about running a bakery, Stefan attended the King Arthur Baking School in Vermont. He then used his training as an anthropologist, interviewing people who baked for a living. What his research and observations culminated in was a business model that values forming close connections with nature, the community, and the local economy—a CSA that would use local products and rely on local people to keep it going.
He then found partners: Newfield farmer Thor Oechsner and Brooktondale farmer Erick Smith (of Cayuga Pure Organics) supply the grains, which are milled by Greg Mol at Farmer Ground Flour in Trumansburg. Each flour is different, and the job ahead for Senders and partner Dave McInnis is to create the bread that will best honor the character of the grain. They carefully monitor the water temperature, the way they ferment the flour. “We’re just like livestock keepers. We try to create little microconditions that support the happiness of the yeast and bacteria. Some doughs ferment better warm, some are happier colder. Buckwheat ferments like nobody’s business. Same with rye.”
Once a loaf is made, it goes into an energy-efficient oven—nine tons of stone and steel based on a 19th-century Spanish design and heated with nothing but a small firebox. The oven was designed and built by Senders and Billy O’Brien, whom Senders refers to as T-burg’s resident mechanical genius—“What this guy does is see what you want to build and then teaches you how to do it, perfectly,” he says. After the bread is baked, Senders and McInnis pay attention to every detail—its color, its shape, its smell—to ensure that the loaf is just right. If it isn’t up to their high standards, it doesn’t go to market.
In the coming months, Wide Awake plans to get pasta and pastry production up and running. In the meantime, customers seem content. On a recent pickup day at Good to Go, they stood in line, sampling small pieces of bread, talking about children, jobs, and the reason they were there.
“Delicious!” said one woman, tasting a chunk of warm ciabatta dipped in olive oil. “Oh. My. Lord.”
“Try the whole wheat sourdough,” said another, who was wearing a wide-brimmed sunhat and holding a baby. “Isn’t that amazing? We were gluten-free for about two months this winter and I lost eight pounds. But then we got this local, delicious, everything-handmade fresh bread that I can walk to to pick up. What was I supposed to do?”
“Go back to gluten,” said her friend.
“Clearly,” said the woman in the hat, and took two loaves home.
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