Friday, June 17, 2011


Warm slices of birdseed bread.
Detroit Harbor, Washington Island, Wisconsin -

From the kitchen of the former Moonpennies Cafe, located just beyond the island ferry dock and next to the Washington Island Visitor Center, wonderful aromas are wafting from oven-fresh bread baked by Heidi Gilbertson.

Heidi learned brick oven baking in Red Lodge, Montana, at her small coffee shop where she built a brick baking oven.  She is now in her seventh year of baking specialty breads using the brick oven method.  She had been baker for the Washington Hotel here for several years, and when it closed in early 2010, she then leased the hotel's brick oven and began her own business, Island Bread Company.  This spring Heidi set up her baking equipment in the kitchen of the former Moonpennies Cafe, where this noon I picked up several loaves of warm birdseed bread to take home.

Because Heidi has no access to a brick baking oven at the present time, she uses an LP-fired pizza oven to continue production.  Bread is her main product line, but there are other items, too.  One day earlier this week, a cooling rack was filled with pizza crusts for a Madison customer.  Using a prep table, Maya Woods, Heidi's assistant, made pastries.  On an entry shelf, a small electric mill ground out island red winter wheat, and while she kept tabs on the flour mill, Heidi began to mix a new batch dough.  This former restaurant kitchen is small compared with her former work space, but according to Heidi it is very efficient.  The baked results bear proof of both efficiency and quality.

Heidi's background is in wildlife ecology.  Employed with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, she worked at various times, for example, with amphibians, wolves and the endangered Karner blue butterfly. While baking may seem distant from that career path, in a way it stimulated Heidi's interest in natural food products and the processes that she uses in baking.   She's learned the chemical actions that create natural starter, or levain, and temperature control that lead to baking excellence.

Brick vs. pizza oven

What differences are there between the wood-fired brick oven and the pizza oven?

"There's a huge difference in the bread," Heidi replied.  "The brick oven is hotter than the pizza oven. It stays hotter and gives better crust, because the brick is hot all around the bread.  It creates what is commonly called 'oven spring,' or liveliness.  The crust and dough spring to life in a brick oven."

A down side of a wood-fired brick oven is that a fire must be built eight to ten hours before baking.  The brick oven is a retained-heat oven, so once the oven reaches desired temperature, coals and ash are swept clear.  Then it is mopped and allowed to dry while the heat distributes evenly, taking about an hour, before its ready at last for baking.

"I bake smaller items first, like baguettes, then the larger bread loaves, and then as the oven cools, cakes and pastries.  The thermocouple which has six different sensors tells me what temperatures are all around the oven.  Ideally, they are within 50 degrees of one another."

Heidi bakes most weekdays, but bread is baked on Thursdays and Fridays.

"I have two days of prep time for bread," Heidi continued.  "Day one, I mix a portion of water and flour.
Day two, I mix the remainder of the dough and refrigerate overnight.  Day three, I bake.   The slow development of the dough allows the flavor of the wheat to come through, and the baked bread will have no spoiling due to the process and the natural preservatives found in the levain.

"I learn how the dough feels after it sits for four to five hours.  Every 1/2 hour I fold the dough, rather than the traditional machine mixing - all by feel.  Room temperature and humidity can also make a difference."

Is there a better time of year for baking?

"Winter is better time of year for bread making in terms of the dough, mostly due to temperature and humidity.  You adjust to whatever the conditions are at any time, in order to compensate."

Heidi prefers working with locally grown island wheat, as well as other local ingredients.  "Once the wheat is cracked, it begins to break down.  It's sweeter when it's freshly ground. "

While Heidi uses island-grown wheat, she noted that sometimes island wheat isn't always the best for bread making.

"Island wheat has 10% protein, with a lower gluten amount than the 12-15% protein that is best for whole wheat bread.  So I occasionally have to mix other flours with ground island wheat.   I was told by a farmer that rainfall and heat at critical stages of growth are necessary to produce the best bread wheat."

Heidi measures freshly ground
wheat flour.
Levain is a natural starter made
of wheat flour and water, and key ingredient
for creating new batch of dough.

A brief pause from baking duties:   Maya and Heidi.
Heidi uses other natural products to the extent possible, and not always in baked goods.

"I collected spring ramps (leeks) and made a great pesto that I sold in a farmer's market.  People really loved that stuff.  I also use island grown flax seed, berries, and asparagus. "

Maya works this summer as Heidi's assistant.  She gained baking experience the previous summer working at Sweetie Pie in Fish Creek.  So far, Island Bread Company has supported Heidi and a half-time summer position.

On Thursdays and Fridays, bread baking days, customers can pick up the freshest Island Bread Company products at Mann's Store, Fiddler's Green, Red Cup, and also at the door of her bakery that opens to Lobdell Point Road.

Several customers were in line at the bakery door to pick up fresh bread when I arrived at noon to take a few more photos.   One recommendation:  Don't wait until Monday to buy one of these special loaves.  Get one while it is fresh, before the batch is sold out.

  -  Dick Purinton


Nancy Walter said...

I visited the farmers market last Saturday morning in Sturgeon Bay, WI. and bought two of your Power Bars. They are absolutely delicious and I will be back for more !

Richard Purinton said...

I will forward your comment to Heidi when I see her. Try the birdseed bread, toasted, when you get a chance. - DP

B. Tracy Madison said...

Just discovered your blog as I was googling Heidi. I met her at the Madison Ave. Wine Shop in Sturgeon Bay and we talked about levain and gathering wild yeast for starter, whole wheat baking, recipes, wine blah blah wonderful blah. During another visit to Sturgeon Bay this year we bought the birdseed bread from Heidi at the farmers' market and devoured it–more like inhaled and basked in it. Then we made a special trip up there (from Madison) having contacted Heidi and Dede and pre-ordered the loaf (Dede sell Heidi's bread at the wine shop). You are so lucky to access to this most amazing food and thank you for your blog. It's like a fix, Heidi's bread, and it's nice to have a support group to discuss it. No need to forward this to Heidi for she knows how I feel. Actually, she's assisting me in getting my own starter going. Now for the oven. . .