For me, most Saturdays start off the same. Like clockwork Jonathan intensely jostles around 7:00am, waking both of us up. Ugh! Then, adorned head to toe in the sartorial equivalent of zombie-sleep-walking; we guide the dog (yep I said guide, because walking isn’t as collaborative) around the neighborhood and grab some coffee along the way. About 45 minutes later, we’re back at the house where I proceed to procrastinate and complain about my speed-deficient metabolism (self-diagnosed) for 32 minutes, because isn’t it about time we’re just honest with ourselves? Really? Who can enjoy food as much as I do and actually like going to the gym? And as annoying as I’m sure the windge-fest is for Jonathan, I insist he be a witness, because only then will he get to know the real me.
Eventually the image of myself in lycra leggings (think ruptured sausage casing) inspires me to get off the couch-of-complaints and to the gym. So with a surge of adrenaline and fear-masked-inspiration, we walk three blocks down the hill to workout. Inside I run three miles on the treadmill. All the while, I keep my mind off the run by watching Food Network’s Paula Deen and Ree Drummond cook the unhealthiest country-fried-southern-butter-biscuit-battered-baconed-and-cheddared cuisine, which sucks because all I want to do is shove my face with it all and I can’t! During the commercial breaks, I carefully judge everyone exercising within view. This is meant to make me feel better about myself, but usually backfires and leaves me feeling worse, which in turn keeps me running!
After the workout comes my favorite part of any Saturday- a stroll through the Fillmore Jazz District Farmers Market. With whatever random collection of reusable bags we grabbed from the apartment, Jonathan and I clench onto our sweaty wads of cash and take on the challenge of finding the tastiest and freshest digestible delights.
But this one Saturday was not like the others. This time I happened upon Eleanor McSherry, an adorably sweet comfy-jeans and sweatshirt clad young boulangeriess, hawking what looked like the most delicious chocolate babka by the slice.
The babka was intriguing so I moved in closer to investigate. She had a single folding table in a tent filled with bread bags and boxes of various savory and sweet goodies. One look at her bowl of bagels filled me with excitement and when she confirmed they’d been “boiled than baked like all real bagels should be,” I was ecstatic. Her challahs were perfectly braided with golden crusts and her baguettes smelled of yeasty yumminess! She had fresh homemade granola too.
I was most impressed with Eleanor’s selection of baked goods, because I could tell by the flour splashed across her face and wild wisps of hair that she’d been baking for days. “This is a small operation,” I said to myself, considering the range of both essential and slightly more obscure delicacies. But as I always say, there’s only one real test when it comes to things you put in your mouth- le test de degustation. An educational assessment I’m always more than happy to conduct. Which is strange knowing how little I liked tests in school.
Now, when conducting a proper taste test, you should select two diametrically opposed items in order to properly evaluate the breadth of knowledge being performed across different techniques, cultures, styles, and tastes. We chose some poppy seed bagels and the chocolate babka. I’m happy to report Eleanor McSherry of Hapax Bread passed with flying colors. Her bagels are hard on the outside and chewy and dense within. They’re not too sweet and are the perfect size. Her babka is flaky and soft, moist and full of chocolate. Put it this way, every Saturday since I’ve had something to look forward to at the end of my exhaustingly-humdrum morning routine. So much so, we conducted this interview in an attempt to learn more about this bread-baking bombshell!
Meet Eleanor McSherry of Hapax Bread- An American Boulangerie in San Francisco
EPJ: How long have you been baking and how did you start or get into the baking business?
EM: I’ve been baking professionally for six years. My aunt runs a local and organic grocery delivery company outside of Philadelphia (Harvest Local Foods), and while I was going to college in the area, she told me that one of her suppliers, a local bakery, was looking for help. Looking back on the experience, it was quite an unusual opportunity. Aside from cafe standbys like scones and muffins, we also made loads of laminated pastries such as croissants and danishes, puff pastry pinwheels and brioche products- and all entirely by hand. Most bakeries that make these products in house have specialized machinery, such as a dough sheeter, that allows them to easily and evenly roll the dough into delicate layers, but not at this bakery. We used massive rolling pins and elbow grease. On hot summer days we used to fill sheet trays with ice and lay them across the table to chill the surface before quickly rolling out these massive blocks of dough. The experience galvanized my interest in baking, and my desire to pursue a career in bread and pastry.
EPJ: Chocolate babka and bagels are two iconic Jewish delicacies….are you Jewish? Regardless of your faith, whose bagels (aside from your own) do you like the most in the Bay Area?
EM: I’m not Jewish, but I was raised in a town with a very large Jewish community, and was lucky enough to participate and experience a lot of Jewish culture. I participated in shabbat dinners with my friends’ families practically every Friday night, and attended holidays with my girlfriends’ families. Needless to say- all of the best bakeries around were Jewish bakeries, and some combination of challah, bagels, and poppyseed danish were always on my family’s kitchen counter. I’m quite fond of my own bagels, and I developed my bagels because I had yet to find an acceptably chewy and crusty specimen in the bay area. However, my customers are constantly offering me leads on delicious baked goods, and one of these days I am going to have to try a Beauty’s bagel.
EPJ: Recently you’ve been selling your amazing carb creations at the Farmers Market on Saturdays in the Fillmore Jazz district….where else can people purchase the fruits of your labor?
EM: I’ve just started participating in farmer’s markets, and am currently at the Fillmore market on Saturdays at Fillmore and O’Farrell, and the SF VA market at the Veteran’s Affairs hospital at 42nd and Clement on Wednesdays. Before starting the markets I was exclusively doing corporate breakfast catering for a handful of offices downtown, and I am still available for corporate and private catering through my website.
EPJ: Baking a variety of items (IE: savory breads and sweet pastries) takes a lot of work…do you have a team you work with?
EM: Haha- I wish. Right now Hapax Bread is a one-woman operation. I am the baker, salesperson, accountant and lead cat herder (But not really, since I’m allergic to cats). Right now my markets are roughly 20-hour days, but I’m hoping to bring on a rad baker or two in the coming months. One of the nice things about having been baking in SF for the last 3 years is that I’ve met an amazing network of talented bakers and cooks who are always willing to share their thoughts and tastebuds.
EPJ: What’s a typical day’s schedule for you from waking up to going to sleep?
EM: If I have a market, my schedule begins the day before around 7 am. I have a cup of coffee and snuggle my baby conure, Seldon, answer emails and plan my production. Around noon I pick up my flour, produce and other sundries, then head to the commissary kitchen I use, Eclectic Cookery. I prepare all of my enriched doughs, including croissant dough, challah, bagels and brioche for my babkas the day before. I shape these loaves and put them in the refrigerator overnight to develop their flavor. I scale my bread mixes for the next morning, and mix my various starters. I usually get home between 7 and 8, do any last minute prep, and order a pizza for dinner (I honestly worry about what Marcello’s on Castro must think of us). I catch a quick nap, wake up at 1:00 am and am in the kitchen by 2am. My morning is a flurry of mixing and shaping breads, shaping and proofing croissants, boiling and baking my bagels and other prepared loaves, and washing lots and lots of dishes. I am out of the kitchen at 8am, and off to the market, where I sell for four hours, before heading home for a long nap.
EPJ: Is there anything you will not eat? If so, what and why?
EM: Hmm, there are certainly foods I dislike, but aside from allergies I don’t avoid any foods on principle. My daily diet is heavily influenced by my work, and most of my meals begin with a base of leftover bread.
That being said, I think that there is a helluva lot wrong with our country’s food system. Nutrition has been jettisoned for convenience and aggressive marketing that shoehorns the foods we put into our body into our current consumer culture. I’m not going to pretend that I eat healthily or don’t participate in this destructive system, but opting out of it requires more time, effort, expense and mobility than most Americans enjoy.
EPJ: What does “Hapax” mean and how‘d it become the title of your business?
EM: When I was in college, I really had no idea what I wanted to do beyond those four years. I loved learning languages, and took intensive courses in Ancient Greek and Latin. Hapax is an Ancient Greek adverb that refers to something that only occurs once. For example, a hapax legomenon is a word that we only have one example of in that language’s entire written history. Sometimes we are able to glean the meaning of these unique words, and sometimes they are complete mysteries. I chose it for my company name because it encapsulates the balance of creativity and chance that first drew me to bread. Whether it’s the temperature of the kitchen, the hydration of the flour, or the characteristics of the levain, every day is slightly different, and each product reflects its unique circumstances.
EPJ: What’s your long term vision for Hapax Bread?
EM: My hope is that I will someday soon be able to expand Hapax to more markets and retail outlets, and that I will be able to set up my own commercial bakery in the south or east bay. Right now I work out of Eclectic Cookery, a wonderful commissary kitchen in Hunter’s Point Shipyard, but dream of the day I can work out of a mammoth deck oven designed specifically for the thick crusted, tangy and wholesome breads I love. However, working in a shared environment has given me the opportunity to meet all sorts of wonderful food entrepreneurs, and it is such an engaging and supportive workspace.
EPJ: Foodies talk a lot about “buying local” but I feel like that movement is usually about produce and proteins…is there a local baking movement? Do you source your flour from a local mill or is that just silly?
EM: There is definitely a local baking movement starting, both here in San Francisco and around the country. I was first introduced to local flours in Philly where my aunt carried wheat and corn flours that were milled less than 100 miles away in Lancaster country. I had never had such robust, fresh tasting flour, and the nature of the grain shone through in a way a bag of Pillsbury or even King Arthur can’t match. One of my first serious business decisions was that I was committed to using fresh, organic flours exclusively, and have been using flours from the Central Milling Company. They are based in Utah, and use grains from around the western and central US. I think their company is an excellent example of responsible agriculture, as they use waterpower to mill their grains, recycled packaging materials, and low emissions vehicles to transport their product. It’s a model I feel great about supporting and a product whose quality is worth the extra cost.
I think a lot of people are also paying more attention to the types of additives and processes their foods are subject to. Modern food giants have modified and engineered our nation’s food supply from seed to shelf, maximizing production and profit, but not nutrition. A loaf of white bread from the supermarket may have more than a dozen different additives and preservatives, whereas my basic bread formula is organic flour, water, salt and levain. When you buy a loaf of bread baked locally, you are much more likely to avoid all of the extra “stuff.”
EPJ: I hear a lot about how bakers have starters they’ve been developing for months and sometimes years…what’s the longest you’ve kept a “starter” going and does it really make a difference in the bread?
EM: I do have a starter, and bless its heart, it’s been with me through a lot. I’ve been keeping it going on and off since I attended SFBI (San Francisco Baking Institue), where cultivating our own starter was a part of the curriculum. When I haven’t been baking enough to support it (and it requires quite a bit of work and cost, being fed twice a day) I freeze a chunk of it and then thaw it a few days before I need it. Sometimes its characteristics change, but with a little TLC it’s always bounced back to the sweet, lactic bubbly goop I love.
One aspect of culture maintenance we learned about in school is that a starter is constantly interacting with its environment. It is a culture of wild yeasts and bacteria, and the ratios and types of those critters will change if it is exposed to new conditions or new strains. Those little packets of “authentic” French starter you can buy online? It may make a starter in your kitchen, but the native yeasts and bacteria will quickly dominate, as they are abundant and flourish in their native climate (your kitchen counter).
There are many different types of starters, and depending on how much and how often you feed your starter you can elicit very different flavors from it. Adding rye or whole grain flours will provide more nutritive enzymes for your starter to break down, creating a very robust and active starter. Keeping the starter young (as in, feeding it often) will not give it time to build up a lot of acidity, and will result in a sweeter starter, whereas starters that are fed more infrequently will pack a greater punch. Often bakers will use one starter to mix a variety of different starters prior to mixing their doughs in order to give different breads different characteristics and flavors, without having to maintain half a dozen levains. In this way, it can greatly increase the variety of a baker’s offerings without adding too much extra work or cost.
EPJ: What’s the item do you think is the most challenging to bake and yet the most rewarding?
EM: I would have to go with bagels. I know, bagels?! But they take such an inordinate amount of time. Each bagel is weighed, pre-shaped, shaped by hand and then boiled, washed with egg wash and baked. They are far and away my most time consuming product, but they are such a favorite and as a bagel lover I can’t stop making them. In terms of baked goods they’ve always been a cornerstone in my life, to the point that a visit home to Boston requires a post flight stop at Rosenfeld’s Bagels. My mornings would be incomplete without them. I don’t think I could stop baking them at this point either, as they are starting to even get a bit of a cult following, with people queuing up early to get the four or five dozen I’m able to squeeze into my morning bake.