PORTLAND — Making bread from scratch is as much art as science.
The ingredients may be the same every time, but no loaf is like another, even loaves from the same batch.
That’s just one aspect of bread making that fascinates Audrey Farber, owner of Bubbe & Bestemor’s Baking Co.
“I’ve always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to start a bakery,” said Farber, who lives in Falmouth and bakes at Fork Food Lab on Parris Street. “I recently moved back home and thought, ‘Why not now?’”
Bubbe & Bestemor – Yiddish and Norwegian, respectively, for grandmother –opened about four months ago. Farber now also sells her bread at Town Landing Market in Falmouth and the Portland Food Co-op, at the foot of Munjoy Hill.
They are a unique combination of Ashkenazic Jewish and Nordic baking traditions, according to Farber.
“Portland in a lot of ways is a really saturated market, so (my) goal is to fill a niche; making things that are delicious, under-represented and thematically cohesive,” she said.
And, “as an Ashkenazic Jew in the greater Portland area, it is really hard to regularly find things like babka, a really good challah, bagel or rugelach,” Farber added.
An Ashkenazic Jew is one whose ancestors came from eastern Europe. Farber is also of Nordic descent and said mixing the two baking traditions seemed to make perfect sense.
“As I began to work on recipes and researching the baking and culinary traditions of both communities, a lot of similarities started to unfold,” she said, including the “ubiquity of rye, rolled and filled sweet breads for holidays and special occasions, heavy use of almonds and lots of other things.”
In addition, Farber thinks of her bakery as a “bit of a preservation and revitalization project” and as being “a link in the chain, passing traditions between generations and communities,” even though, “this ‘Ashke-Nordic’ fusion is really my own invention.”
She also sees the bakery as an opportunity to “learn more about the culinary and other aspects of both traditions, to educate people in the community about the baking history and traditions of each and to contribute to the Jewish community in Maine.”
In making her breads, Farber uses as many local ingredients as possible, from eggs to honey to dairy products and some flours.
The breads generally available week to week include challah, babka, cardamom rolls, bagels, bialys, pretzels and various holiday breads and pastries.
During Passover, which starts April 10, Farber said she would likely have no breads available, since custom dictates consumption of only unleavened breads. But she may have some flourless desserts for customers to purchase.
Farber calls her offerings “heritage breads” and said focusing on her own heritage with her bakery is important because, “food is so tied up with cultural identity. There’s a trend in the popular food culture to seek authenticity and rejuvenate back-to-roots styles of cooking.”
For Farber, her bakery is a way to contribute to this “authenticity trend, as well as my way of staking a claim. To me, there is value in having someone making these breads who understands (their) significance in a personal way.”
While the shared commercial kitchen space at Fork is not kosher, Farber keeps her dairy and nondairy products separate, cleaning all her work surfaces and tools in between preparation of each item.
“I think this is something that demonstrates a consideration for the significance of the food I’m making that other producers often can’t do,” she said.
Another important reason behind opening the bakery is the chance “to explore what these breads might have looked like (100 or 200 years ago),” Farber said. “In the 1700s, for example, before commercial yeast and the availability of white flour, challah would have been way less rich, both flavor- and texture-wise.”
In some ways, Farber said, “The challah I make is a very 21st century bread; it’s full of fairly decadent ingredients, but in other ways, it’s very old-fashioned.”
That’s because she uses eggs and honey that are harvested and produced locally, much like people in “the old country would make challah with ingredients they got from their neighbors,” she said.
What she most enjoys about bread making, Farber said, is that “it’s different every time. I (also) like that it’s physical and it’s really hands-on. I do my mixing, kneading and shaping all by hand. Plus, bread is such a fundamental form of human nourishment.
“Culture in so many ways is defined by its food, and bread, at its most basic, is such a fundamental and cheap way to feed a community that I think it is the truest expression of culture for most grain-based agrarian societies.”
Her personal favorites, she said, are “probably my sourdough rye pretzels and challah, because it tastes like my childhood.”
Audrey Farber of Falmouth, owner of Bubbe & Bestemor’s Baking Co., mixes ingredients for her specialty bagels at Fork Food Lab on Parris Street in Portland.
Breads available from Bubbe & Bestemor’s Baking Co. include challah, babka, bagels, pretzels and more.