A project of Straus Communications, this column originally appeared in the Oakland Tribune on February 8, 2002.

Cooking Fresh
Underwood best in organic bread at Brickmaiden Breads
By Laurel Miller - CONTRIBUTOR

I live for bread. Dense, chewy, handmade loaves with a faintly sour tang, or rustic batards studded with salty chunks of olives or fragrant walnuts. Slather on some good unsalted butter, and I'm happy.

The hearty loaves from Brickmaiden Breads fit the bill for my bread requirements. From her bakery in Point Reyes, that epicenter of regional foodstuffs, owner Celine Underwood turns out spectacular organic artisan loaves by hand in her tiny wholesale bakery.

Underwood, raised in West Marin, is a 26-year-old entrepreneur who began baking just seven years ago. She apprenticed with bakers throughout Northern California, including stints at Village Bakery in Sebastopol and Bovine Bakery in Point Reyes. Bovine Bakery owner Bridget Devlin became Underwood's business partner, and now Underwood sells Bovine Bakery's brownies and cookies along with her bread at farmers' markets.

Two of the most influential people in Underwood's career have been baker Ian Duffy of the Daily Bread bakery in Boulder, Colo., and Chad Robertson, owner/baker of the acclaimed Bay Village Bakery. Underwood bought Robertson's Point Reyes bakery in the fall of 2000, and went into business for herself under the name Brickmaiden Breads. Robertson, meanwhile, relocated Bay Village Bakery to its current Mill Valley retail location.

Underwood's bakery and wood-fired oven are located steps away from her home. "I can walk out my kitchen door right into my bakery," she says. Such close proximity enables her to maintain strict control over her doughs and starters. "My sourdough starters, which originated from the wild yeasts on grape leaves, need to be fed three times a day," says Underwood. "Starters thrive on the natural yeasts in the air, so I need to add new flour and water to give the yeast something to feed on. By feeding the starter frequently, I can slow fermentation and keep the dough from getting too sour."

Underwood employs two other bakers, but still produces most of the dough by hand. "I do own a big standing mixer -- the dough hook I use on it cuts the dough in a way that produces a great, chewy texture in the finished product, she says, "but I find that mixing the dough by hand, though laborious, produces a better overall consistency, so it makes more sense to do it that way."

It is this attention to detail that makes Brickmaiden's breads so special. In addition to her standard loaves -- whole wheat levain, sesame wheat levain, white sourdough, Kalamata olive, salted potato, and apricot-pecan -- Underwood also tries to "keep the creative end open" with baker's choice days, when her staff bakers produce whatever loaves they like.

Although her breads are not certified organic, Underwood uses only organic or all-natural flours, and organic nuts and other ingredients whenever possible. "I believe in promoting sustainable living," she explains. "That's why I try to buy organic."

Brickmaiden's breads are baked in a wood-fired oven, designed by master oven-builder Alan Scott. Underwood uses almond wood to fuel her oven because it produces a very hot, sustained burn, and "it's a renewable wood source because almond growers take out their trees and replant every few years or so," she says. Using a wood-fired oven allows the loaves to develop a crisp, evenly browned crust, moist interior, and hearty flavor that is difficult to achieve in a standard convection oven.

In spite of the increasing demand for her bread, Underwood plans to stay small. "At some point, I'd like to travel, finish my degree," she says. "There's a constant pressure to expand, but my goal is to continue to serve the community around me. This is my home, and every day I get vital feedback from the people I know. ... I really can't ask for more than that."

Brickmaiden Breads are available at retail outlets in West Marin, including Tomales Bay Foods, and at the San Rafael and Berkeley farmers' markets.


Recipe courtesy of Chef Paul Bertolli of Oliveto Restaurant in Oakland.

4 large ½-inch-thick slices of sourdough bread Extra virgin olive oil, for brushing and drizzling

1 large garlic clove, halved, plus 1 teaspoon minced garlic

¾ cup dry white wine

1 large shallot, minced

3 bay leaves

1 ½ pounds Manila clams, scrubbed

1 ½ pounds small mussels, scrubbed and debearded

2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly brush the bread on both sides with olive oil and toast for about 10 minutes, or until golden. Rub each slice generously with the halved garlic clove. In a large, heavy saucepan, combine the wine, shallot, minced garlic, and bay leaves and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the clams and mussels, cover, and cook, shaking the pan often, until the shellfish open, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the parsley. Put the toasts in bowls and top with the clams and mussels; discard the bay leaves. Spoon the broth over the toasts. Drizzle with a little olive oil and serve.

Makes 4 servings. Per Serving: 404 Calories; 9g Fat; 44g Protein; 25g Carbohydrate; 1g Dietary Fiber; 106mg Cholesterol; 737mg Sodium. Exchanges: 1 Grain (Starch); 51/2 Lean Meat; 1 Fat.

E-mail Laurel Miller at kaukaukids@hotmail.com.
This column is a service of the Berkeley Farmers' Market and Eating Fresh Publications (www.eatingfresh.com) publishers of "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area."
The Berkeley Farmers' Market is open 2-7 p.m. Tuesdays at Derby Street and MLK Jr. Way, and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays at Center Street and MLK Jr. Way.
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Last modified: March 26, 2002