EdibWasa — Winter 2014
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Traditional Baking at Crumb Bros.
By Heather May ■ Photographs By David Vogel

When Bill Oblock palms a mini sourdough loaf, he can tell by its lightness and rich brown crust that it's going to be good. And when he slices into the bread on an angle with a sharp knife to reveal the crumb, the many and large holes reveal a key to why customers drive out of their way for this moist, chewy and intensely flavorful bread.

"Each of these little holes was where yeast was growing," says the head baker and owner of Crumb Brothers Artisan Bread in Logan, pointing them out with his knife. "You know you've had really good fermentation." Those yeast cells give his breads and pastries their unique tastes and textures despite their few simple ingredients.

It was, in part, Oblock's failure as a biologist that made Crumb Brothers possible. As a biology major, he never felt equal to his peers, figuring those other students had been exposed to the natural world as children more than he. "I was thinking, 'What do I have that's like that?' It was cooking. I always loved hanging out with my mom and watching her cook." His mother, whose parents emigrated from the former Yugoslavia to Rock Springs, Wyoming, made the nut roll potica, along with strudel and lots of elaborate cakes. He remembers specifically the one that was shaped like a guitar and adorned with licorice for strings. He absorbed the discipline and efficiency it takes to be a good cook from watching his mother, and admiring the way she artfully scraped out every bit of the egg white from the broken shell with her finger.

That attention to detail helped him in Boy Scouts – he'd won a few cake competitions but never the pinewood derby – and it eventually led him to train as a chef and open the Grapevine Restaurant in Logan, considered the top restaurant in northern Utah at the time. But long hours at the restaurant meant too much time away from his wife, Diane, and their then two young daughters. That's when, in 2003, he decided to open a European-style bakery with two baker friends, and named the business Crumb Brothers. Those two original partners have since left, and Bill and wife Diane now own the company. Diane acts as a creative force for the company, helping to maintain and manage the brand, marketing, and social media side of things. Ironically, Bill's actual brother Dave is now General Manager of the business, and is also the face many recognize from the Downtown Farmers Market every summer Saturday.

Bill continues to focus on a craft more common to his mother's era than today's: breads and pastries shaped by hand using the simplest and purist of ingredients – flour, water and salt – and brought to life with natural starters made of flour, water and the right temperature and time. He doesn't use commercial yeast, which would shorten the time it takes to make bread, but would then probably taste like a lot of products you can get at any grocery store.

His starters bubble and grow for days, some look like pancake batter and others more like bread dough. After the starters are mixed with bread ingredients, the dough sits for hours and hours more. That time translates into chemical reactions that create the flavor and texture of amazing bread. "We're gonzo about our starters. We're very careful. There's a certain time we feed them because starters, because they're alive, they're like your kids. . . . they need to be fed on a schedule to be at their best," he says.

Starters are as important to a baker as sauces are to a chef, asserts Oblock. But the bread dough recipe, or formula, isn't all that important. For bakers, the formula for success depends more on time and experience, along with quality ingredients. "It's a lot more magical. It's intuitive. It's like a nice ballet," he says.

Before it's placed on a conveyor-like belt and sent to the massive Italian hearth stone oven, the dough is shaped in wicker baskets and then scored, giving it triangular shapes on the top of the loaf. "If all goes well, it will feel like a baby in the womb," he claims. "It's alive. Something's going on in there."

Oblock recently stirred up some major changes within the business. Until recently, Crumb Brothers bread was a common sight in Salt Lake City restaurants and markets, found at Liberty Heights Fresh, Caputo's Market & Deli and others, and served in restaurants ranging from Martine to Siegfried's Deli. But he recently decided to quit the wholesale business altogether, scaling back from 1,200 loaves a day to 300, which are sold at the bakery (and in a few markets in Logan). "This allows us to be a small bakery, where I can create different bread whenever I want," he says. Bill hopes to draw enough people to buy directly from his bakery, as well as eat at the cozy onsite cafe, which currently offers soup, lunch sandwiches, cookies and pastries and is gearing up for an expanded menu. Crumb Brothers croissants are made with European butter (with more than double the butter fat as American butter) and filled with batons of bittersweet chocolate or almond paste or ham and cheese, and you can also find traditional palmiers, Danishes, scones and cookies. The bread menu changes daily and includes a Jewish Rye, kalamata olive, sunflower honey oat, along with baguettes and ciabatta buns.

Bill's driving force might be represented best by an old bread peel hanging in his office that shows an image of a baker using the paddlelike tool to slide bread out of an oven. It was given to Oblock by a customer who was moving away. "She said, 'I want you to have this peel because I want you to know how much your bakery has meant to me – to have bread that reminded me of when I was growing up in Denmark,'" he recalls.

His customers recognize his passion. Chuck Gay recently stopped by because he needed the best baguette to eat with cheeses he had brought back from a trip to Italy. "This is as close as it comes to that kind of pastry and bread" that he found abroad, he says. Marcia Herrera was in Logan for work and made sure to stop by the bakery for lunch and a mini baguette, to eat later with cheese and a glass of wine. "The bakery is really good. It's hard to find good bread freshly made," she says. "In a way, I'm glad I don't live here. You would find me here a lot."