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.
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
Back at the barn, the dogs have finally realized that I don't have evil intentions upon the house or its inhabitants. They settle down on the couch and soon start snoring gently.
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.
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...
Leslie spreads it into the prepared oil baking sheet (the extra dough will proof and shape free-form) and sets it to proof...
Drizzled with olive oil and dotted with fresh rosemary, it will bake in a 455°F oven for about 20-25 minutes.
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.