I first met Sandeep Gyawali of Miche Bread in Austin at last year’s Grain Gathering when we sat next to each other the first night at dinner. But of course I already knew of him through his beautiful Instagram feed (@michebreadaustin) and I was eager to meet him. We talked bread (what else?) and I asked whether he would be willing to do a Meet the Baker interview next time the Man and I were in Austin (which happens fairly often since we have family there).
I knew nothing about him except that he made gorgeous bread. From the professionalism of his instagram feed, I probably assumed he was a full-time baker because I remember being surprised when he suggested I come on a Friday night if I wanted to see him bake. I asked if he had another job.
As it turns out, he does. Sandeep is a full-time neuroscience researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, specializing in the effects of alcohol on the brain. Truly, bakers never cease to amaze me. In French we have a saying: “Tous les chemins mènent à Rome” (all paths lead to Rome.) I don’t know about Rome but in my experience all paths can lead to bread. I have met so many bakers over the years, from different parts of the country or the world and very diverse backgrounds and walks of life. Whoever they are, wherever they come from, they are all going in the same direction and they are all fueled by the same passion. What a fantastic community to be part of…
Sandeep Gyawali was born in Kathmandu, Nepal. His dad moved to the United States in 1984, sponsored by his sister. He settled in Chicago. The family followed in 1986. Sandeep went to college at the University of Illinois. He graduated in 1999 with a degree in biochemistry. After a stint at a research lab, he went to graduate school at UCLA where he got a degree in neuroscience and started studying drugs that people abuse. He moved to New York City in 2005 to help build a psychiatry lab. His girlfriend at the time liked to bake (although her interest was in American-style breads). He bought the La Brea Bakery book and got badly bitten by the bread bug himself. So when research funding was cut and he lost his job at the lab, he decided to try working at commercial bakeries.
He approached Melissa Weller, who now owns Sadelle’s in New York but was then head baker at Roberta’s Bakery in Bushwick, Brooklyn. She said he was welcome to hang out but she couldn’t pay him. (At the time she was baking bread in a wood-fired oven located in a shipping container). Still at Roberta’s Sandeep learned how to make bread on a larger scale, a valuable skill.
A French bakery, La Boulangerie, opened up in Forest Hills, Queens. It was run by François Danielo, a “chef boulanger” from Brittany, France. François came from a long line of bakers. Interestingly, both he and Melissa had an engineering background and both had gone to the French Culinary Institute (FCI). François gave Sandeep carte blanche to develop his own recipes. If they turned out, he would adopt them.
A couple of magazines wrote good things about Sandeep’s baguettes. But life in New York City had become too expensive. Sandeep wanted to bake from home. His goal became to find a place where he could do that. In 2011, Texas was about to pass the Baker’s Bill (cottage food law) and he had a friend in Austin. He moved there. But he needed a job.
Easy Tiger, the bakery, was opening. They hired him to start their day shift: he used to be the only one there, making baguettes, sometimes up to one hundred and fifty a day. He made pretzels too. However after a while he realized he missed science. Plus the level of production at Easy Tiger was high and he found that sometimes he couldn’t move his right hand when he woke up in the morning.
As it happens, the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) was moving to start a lab at UT. He applied and was hired as a staff scientist.
He never stopped baking on the side and he found that with his newfound job stability, he could start thinking on how to manage both science and baking at the same time.
Today Sandeep has successfully melded his two passions: he holds two jobs, one at UT Austin and the other at the bakeshop. His scientific bend helps him coax as much flavor as possible out of the grain by manipulating the enzymes while preserving some degree of structure. He uses freshly milled grain and goes by one rule: constant tweaking. Most of the time he totally wings it. He remembers with a shudder the teff bread that nearly turned into a complete disaster.
Sandeep’s oven only allows him to bake twenty-four breads at a time. On baking night, he makes seventy-five to a hundred loaves. He runs a three-month subscription program. All bread is pre-ordered. The system is very much like community-supported agriculture (CSA,) except that it is community-supported bread-baking (CSBB.)
While he bakes his signature miche twenty-five percent of the time, he also tries to feature a different bread every week. On the day I visited he was testing Charcoal wheat flour from Grist & Toll in Pasadena, California.
But he had on hand a buckwheat-oat porridge bread he had made recently and offered me a slice. It had a complex lactic and beery taste with hints of strong buckwheat honey. All that extra flavor from 5% unhulled buckwheat added to the rye starter after roasting…
Enough to make me a convert to unhulled buckwheat! Which I never thought I would be after hearing from this French miller a couple of years ago that buckwheat hulls have no taste. I suppose it depends on the variety of buckwheat you manage to get your hands on. Or maybe it is the roasting. I have tried several different sources over the years and to date the most flavorful buckwheat I have found is the one milled and sold by Fairhaven Organic Flour Mill in Burlington, Washington. Sadly it is only sold in the Northwest and Fairhaven doesn’t ship to home bakers. Sandeep’s comes from a farm twenty miles away.
If you manage to find unhulled buckwheat, Sandeep says it needs “to be roasted it until the hull becomes brittle. Then it can be milled into fine flour. Otherwise, the hull mills very coarse and is annoying to eat.” He owns three small mills, a Wonder Mill, a Nutrimill and a steel burr attachment to his Assistent mixer which he uses for coarse/cracked grains and masa.
Speaking of masa, corn is another one of Sandeep’s enduring interests, dating back to his undergraduate days when he worked at a corn research lab. Every Tuesday night when he mills his whole-grain flours, he also nixtamalizes (is there such a verb or did I just make it up?) corn.
Nixtamalization is the ancient Mayan process of treating corn with some sort of alkali. Sandeep uses cal but he would much prefer to make juniper ash and to use that instead. Maybe one day. For now he soaks his corn in a hot bath for twenty-four hours (he lets it simmer twenty-five minutes, takes it off the heat and lets it rest for a day,) then he gently washes the corn to rinse the cal out. The process makes the niacin bio-available. Interestingly when the Europeans brought corn back home with them, they neglected to bring back the technique as well, with the result that later on when they had to convert to a corn diet (for lack of wheat), they suffered malnutrition.
Sandeep has been testing nixtamalized corn flour for flavor in regular porridge bread. He has also been making corn bread and experimenting with tortillas. He is trying to work with farmers to grow old corn varieties in or around Austin, a city with a huge appetite for tortillas. Corn is the most native crop of the United States. A long time ago, Texas had a thriving grain economy but the Dust Bowl put a stop to that. Plus the climate is hard: some grains don’t do well with drought or heavy rains. Corn is much more adaptable. There used to be thousands of varieties. Now there are only a dozen or so.
Fortunately there is a new miller in town. His name is James Brown and he owns Barton Springs Mill. The mill wasn’t operational yet when I went to see Sandeep but it is now. Like Sandeep, James is very interested in supporting and stimulating the local grain economy and he works hard at establishing a relationship with the farmers. So maybe a miracle is in the works…
Sandeep says: “Since I do worry about the potential glyphosate spraying of conventional wheat, I only use organic grains. I used to get much of the wheat and rye from Central Milling and Giusto’s, other grains (einkorn and some other wheats) from small farmers like Bluebird Grain Farms, and the Azure Standard Buying Club which has interesting rices and purple barley. Now I’ve started getting the wheats and ryes from Barton Springs Mill. They currently have three ryes (Danko, Musketeer, and Northern European) and several wheats (Red Fife, Turkey Red, Warthog, etc.) and I am running some tests for them.”
“When I bake, I am not looking for lots of CO2. Bulk retarding is mostly done at cold temperature but the whole grain gets a hot mix (mash or half-mash). I use a very long, cold autolyse (50°F) overnight, with salt to preserve the structure. The best flavor comes from a 36-hour autolyse at 40°F.”
Practically speaking though, how does he manage both a demanding full-time job and his baking business? After all he is himself his sole employee. I ask the question.
“On Monday and Tuesday I will make the precooked portions (like nixtamal, porridge, mashes, etc) and feed the starter. On Wednesday I mill the whole grains and create the soakers (with the whole-grain flours). I also start the autolyse (with the white or sifted flours) and feed the starter. Thursday morning I do the final build of the levain. Thursday night I mix everything together and overnight bulk-retard. Friday night I divide shape and bake.”
That leaves out Saturday mornings when Sandeep delivers his bread to the three pick-up points in town.
You bakers probably noticed that Sandeep used the word “starter” in the singular. He only keeps a rye starter which he uses for his miche, all other grain starters are developed from it on the fly. His is a stiff starter (60 to 70% hydration,) which he makes even stiffer before storing it in the fridge in-between uses. He starts feeding it a day before putting it to work, giving it two feedings before the final dough mix.
For teaching purposes (because, yes, some weekends Sandeep also teaches bread classes,) he makes sourdough powder (takes stiff rye levain, makes it wetter, adds flour in blender, mills that until it is very fine, sifts it and puts it in jars that he keeps in the freezer. At the end of class, he gives a jar to each student to take home.)
One of the reasons why he teaches bread-baking is that he wants more and more people to understand that real bread is a healthful product that takes a long time to make. He also wants the community to know the true cost of the ingredients. For the local grain economy to take off, organic farmers need to make a decent wage.
He currently sells his bread at $11 a loaf (the loaf weighs 900 g before baking). Some of his subscribers tell him he should charge more (maybe $15 a loaf). He has been selling his bread for close to two years and has gotten a lot of support from the Austin community. Today he has eighty-five customers a week, so, yes, people do want his bread.
At the time of this writing, Sandeep has changed his subscription model to once every two weeks because he needs time to work on his new grain projects, one of which is a hammer mill to make mesquite flour. He only recently got the grant for it and is very excited. The hammer mill is housed at Barton Springs Mill.
On the day I visited, Sandeep was making mesquite bâtards (straight dough cold-fermented for twenty-four hours, with 5 % mesquite flour and 0.2 % yeast) from mesquite seeds he had foraged himself in a friend’s yard.
“I am enchanted to be working with mesquite flour (one of our native flour sources here in Texas.) It grows everywhere. It was part of the diet of the people who lived here ages ago. Today most Texans don’t know about it. It is an example of a local nutritious food which we are not utilizing as our society has become so distant from there the food comes from. Using mesquite flour is a way to eat local. Mesquite is here. The seeds look like peas. You have to harvest them, dry them until they are brittle and then mill them.”
Sandeep gave me one of his mesquite bâtards to take home. It was just out of the oven. As we drove into the dark night, the hot and fragrant breath of Texas filled the whole car.