I first met Leslie Mackie, owner of Macrina Bakery in Seattle, Washington, back in the winter of 2011, at The Bread Bakers Guild of America (BBGA)’s Wonders of Brioche class she was teaching. From the start I was awed by her creativity and captivated by her passion, energy and obvious delight in her craft. I next attended her workshop at the Kneading Conference West 2011 where she demonstrated baking with various percentages of barley, a grain I was starting to fall in love with myself. I saw her again at WheatStalk in Chicago in June 2012 and loved the simplicity and openness with which, together with Amy Scherber of Amy’s Bread, she discussed the joys and pitfalls of opening your own bakery.
Our paths crossed again in February 2013. Our grandson Noah had died two months earlier and our lives had changed irrevocably. Although I had registered months before for her BBGA class on flatbreads at South Seattle Community College, I had lost all desire to go and were it not for the fact that my friend breadsong had also enrolled and was actually staying with us for the weekend, I would probably have stayed home. As it was, I am glad I went: a little flame got rekindled during that class, tenuous and fragile, barely there, a spark in ashes. I still couldn’t bake, couldn’t write, couldn’t think except about our family’s horrific loss, but I remember that weekend as the first glimpse of a life that might be envisioned again one day.
Watching Leslie make, bake and fill her flatbreads, I noticed she was building flavor the way I imagine one makes music: every note matters, none eclipses the others and the end result is an harmonious whole. So when I emailed her earlier this year to ask if she would agree to a Meet the Baker interview, I said I would love to watch her create a new recipe for the bakery. In reply she invited me to the home she recently built for herself and her family in a renovated barn a short ferry ride away from West Seattle. The barn is equipped with a professional kitchen where she now does most of her research and development.
It was cold and bleak out on the day I went over. Spring hadn’t quite arrived yet and the world was a study in grey with barely a touch of green heralding the change of season. But Leslie’s house was bright and cheerful and her two dogs greeted me with passionate indignation. What with Leslie’s warm welcome, the frantic barking and the scent of fermenting dough permeating the air, I felt right at home.
Leslie explained that her goal for the day was to experiment with a new flatbread to use for sandwiches at the bakery. Years ago, she had had a delicious focaccia in Lucca, Italy: it was a stretched-out piece of bread, about four feet long, brushed with salt water and olive oil and baked in a wood-fired oven. As she remembers, it baked very fast. The customers would order a certain length which the baker would then cut off and sell. It was delicious on its own, toothier than what we call focaccia in the United States, maybe biga-based, with a medium-bodied crumb, spongy, not as dense as sourdough, not as light as regular yeasted bread. The crust had a flaky and chewy texture.
Back home, Leslie had recreated it for Macrina but although it had come out really tasty, she had found it a tad too “bready” for sandwiches. Also the crust tended to get too hard when grilled. So she was looking to create a new bread that would translate into a different kind of focaccia. Having recently traveled to Portland, Oregon, and eaten the most delicious pizza bianca at Roman Candle, she knew exactly what she wanted: a focaccia with the same taste and texture.
It is fair to say that, more than France, Italy is a major source of inspiration for Leslie when it comes to bread. She was attending chef’s school at the California Culinary Academy (CCA) when Il Fornaio opened up in San Francisco. It was a revelation: Leslie had never seen that kind of baking. Until then, her passion had centered around pastry. It now spread to bread. Carol Field’s The Italian Baker became her major source of inspiration and her go-to reference book.
There were not many good artisan breads then. Steve Sullivan (of Acme Bread) still worked at Chez Panisse Restaurant where the bread was phenomenal. Leslie graduated from CCA in 1982 and went on to do an internship under Jacky Robert at Ernie’s, the celebrated San Francisco restaurant. Jacky was doing avant-garde things: scallops with kiwi, avocado mousse for dessert. He was recognized at the time as very unique. His cuisine was French-based but California-inspired. The California food movement was just taking hold. Jeremiah Tower was doing great things. James Moore went on to work at Zuni Bar & Grill, today Zuni Café. All these creative chefs were so passionate about their personal philosophies that they strove to make it the foundation of their businesses.
Leslie moved to Boston where she worked as a cook for Lydia Shire whom some call “the Meryl Streep of the culinary world.” Leslie learned from her the importance of tracing a recipe back to its origins. Mindful of the precept, she next followed Carol Field’s bread recipes to Italy.
This “bread pilgrimage” was an eye-opener and to this day, even though she also went to baking school in France for an intense weeklong bread class at the French School of Baking, Italy, its cuisine and its breads occupy a very special place in her heart and imagination, not to mention her future travel plans. As Field wrote in her preface to the flavor-packed Leslie Mackie’s Macrina Bakery & Cafe Cookbook: Favorite Breads, Pastries, Sweets & Savories), during that bread-packed trip, Leslie “absorbed more than the formulas and techniques she saw and brought home not only memories of exceptional tastes but a commitment to reproducing them with fresh, organic, local and seasonal ingredients.”
Several years later when Leslie opened Macrina, she remained true to this early resolve: “I am not a trendy kind of person, I haven’t jumped on the bandwagon of all organic sourcing. We do use organic flour but not for everything. I am looking at the taste profile, never losing track of sustainability and of the need to support the local economy. As a bakery owner, I believe my job is to bring the best product forward: all our whole-grain flours come from Fairhaven Organic Flour Mill in Burlington, Washington. Their grain is locally grown and more nutritious, and the flavor is simply phenomenal.” Leslie’s customers certainly agree: Macrina is regularly listed among the top bakeries in America for its bread and pastries and as a frequent visitor, I too am under the spell. Not only is the decor whimsical and dreamlike, but the menu stands as an invitation to a journey into a world of flavors…
Bird pictures by a local artist as part of a monthly exhibit
Mural by Jean Bradbury
We get to work. Leslie takes out of the cooler the “seed dough”she will be using for the demo and I get my notebook and camera ready.
Seed dough is a preferment. In her enticing second cookbook, More From Macrina: New Favorites from Seattle’s Popular Neighborhood Bakery, Leslie explains that it “gets its name from being the very first thing one makes when crafting a loaf of Italian-style bread. It’s a short step that will add texture and complexity of flavor to your finished loaf. Essentially, it’s a small amount of dough -a simple mix of water, yeast, and flour- that is prepared prior to making your bread dough. It rises for several hours, then rests in the refrigerator for a minimum of twelve hours.”
Seed dough will keep for three or four days but it gradually loses its lift (although it increases in flavor as it ages). If you like the flavor of a really ripe preferment, you should use more yeast in the final dough. However you get the best crumb when the seed dough is one to one and a half day old. Leslie has mixed this one the night before. I ask if she has ever considered using a starter instead of seed dough. She says she has tried combining seed dough and starter to “inspire” the dough (don’t you love her use of the word “inspire” to describe adding a layer of flavor?) but found that the flavor became too assertive when the dough was retarded overnight. She was definitely looking for a creamier taste.
Leslie has pre-mixed a batch so that we can have the resulting bread for lunch (yay!) but she offers to make another one from scratch, so that I can observe. She gives the premixed dough a fold, commenting that it looks very wet but that it is part of the experiment. Adapting such a wet dough to the bakery will be a different story. The recipe must be kept to what the bakers at the bakery already know, which means that Leslie must find out how to create the desired result AND how to incorporate the new dough into production.
From the details she later communicated via email, the exciting part of devising a new bread was what I was observing, the rest is nitty gritty work, pure and simple: “I work out the recipe at the barn in terms of flavor profile and hydration. Then I increase it in size and transfer it to weights. I still mix it at home. Then I transport it to Macrina to shape, proof and bake in our ovens. It usually takes a few trials to get just the correct temperature and bake time (thinking of its shelf life and when it needs to be baked within the production shift.) Then I give it to our head bakers: talk them through it and have then mix it and follow it through production. I usually see it at completion of the mixing, forming and ready-to-bake stages. If it is successful I will finalize the recipe and then we need to determine who might buy this bread and what delivery route it will need to be on. This determines how we fit it into the production schedule.”
“We also need to determine oven space and packing needs after it is cooled. We then set it up as a product for our wholesale department. This entails the production cycle ( so it can be added to the mix sheet, forming sheet and bake sheet). The full product description is needed to describe the product to potential customers and to list out all ingredients for labeling and nutritional information ( now required of us).”
“We then test the product for two weeks in production before we go live. The test batches are checked for quality and presentation and sampled out in the café to get customer feedback. We determine packaging, shelf life and labeling needs at this point also. We let our wholesale sales staff taste and take it home with the hopes they will genuinely talk about the new products to customers calling in to place an order or change standing orders. We try to create a flyer for new products. These will go out to wholesale customers the Friday before the product is available for purchase which usually falls on a Monday.”
In other words, there is still a long and arduous road ahead for the bread Leslie is seeking to develop…
Back at the barn though, we are having fun. Time to give the dough its second fold: it receives two or three, at one hour interval. The first one involves six half-turns, the second one one single turn four times (the dough is holding its shape better). It is important not to do too many folds or the dough could become too strong.
Leslie sets the dough to ferment a bit longer and begins the mise en place for the demo. Out come the measuring cups. My eyes open wide! Cups and spoons? Seriously? Laughing, Leslie confirms that she doesn’t work with bakers’ percentage and has actually developed most of the breads at Macrina without ever referring to a recipe. Pulling the scale closer, she adds that while she does like to use volumes (and does in both her cookbooks), she also keeps track of weights when she does research and development.
Leslie deftly scoops out some seed dough which she covers with three cups of lukewarm water. From experience she knows that three cups of water will give her enough dough to fill a half-sheet pan. Next comes a teaspoon of active dry yeast and one third of a cup of extra-virgin olive oil, soon followed by six cups of all-purpose flour and three teaspoons of salt. (Please note that these amounts were experimental. For the final amounts, you want to refer to the formulas below).
The dough doesn’t look quite right. The flour is a new one, the only kind available at the island supermarket. Leslie adds another half-a-cup. The dough takes shape.
Leaving the second batch aside, Leslie now turns her attention back to the first dough. It is ready.
Leslie lets the two breads cool down some, then begins assembling our lunch. She paints both halves of the focaccia with a light coat of fragrant aioli, then chops up some membrillo (quince paste) which she distributes evenly on the bottom half…
…before covering it with thin slices of ham and turkey.
Next come cabbage and red onion, thinly sliced and quick-pickled with a splash of vinegar…
Down comes the top half of the focaccia and voilà, our sandwiches are ready.
They are excellent. The focaccia is tasty and tender, yet it has a satisfying crunch and, yes, all the flavors and textures play off one another to create a delectable whole. There is nothing to add, nothing to substract. A perfect balance…
A few weeks later as I check with Leslie before posting this, she says the bakers have taken well to the new bread. They are calling it Pizza Bianca and using it as a rotating sandwich bread. They do mix it by hand but they bake it on a half-sheet pan in the hearth oven which gives it an overall better top-crust appearance and bottom-crust finished bake. The customers are loving it.
Dessert was just as scrumptious: Leslie had adapted Bon Appétit’s Darkest Chocolate Cake with Red Wine Glaze recipe by replacing some of the all-purpose flour with grape seed flour she picked up at the Fancy Food show in San Francisco earlier this year, thinking it would pair well with the red wine glaze. It did, although the flour gives the cake a grainy texture that doesn’t really soften if kept for a day or two. She has presented the cakes to the bakery but that they haven’t been incorporated into production yet. They would need to find a niche first as the bakery already offers similar products. Needless to say, I am delighted Leslie decided to try them out on the same day she was experimenting with the pizza bianca.
What I learned from watching Leslie make these little beauties is that any recipe can be re-interpreted and made your own. I might have thought of using grape seed flour (I actually have some at home and need to use it up) but it would never have crossed my mind to spoon the batter in mini-muffin pans instead of a cake form and yet it makes so much sense. Now it’s decided. In my next life, I want to go to culinary school and become both a master bread baker and a pastry chef!