Andrew Hutchinson and Kevin Brungraber tend the ovens at Madison Sourdough.
“The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight.”— M.F.K. Fisher, The Art of Eating
Making bread is a bit like magic. Transforming the raw ingredients into the heavenly final package is rightfully seen as a kind of alchemy. Baking is chemistry, nostalgia, wonder and love all wrapped up together in a tasty package. The smell of a crisp baguette can send you across the Atlantic to the marketplaces of Paris, and the aroma of freshly baked sourdough can take you straight out to the windswept Pacific Ocean, where San Francisco has handed down living yeasts for generations. Madison has a thriving community of bakers too, working the ancient art to produce food that still feels like a miracle on a Sunday morning when it comes hot and fresh from the oven, an affirmation of life itself.
Andrew Hutchison is the head baker and co-owner at Madison Sourdough. He worked apprenticeships in France and studied with a third-generation baker in Paris. He then returned to Madison and purchased the business.The company has evolved greatly since, moving from Mineral Point Road to the much trendier Willy Street, opening a patisserie (a bakery for pastries and sweets) and milling its own flour from Wisconsin-grown grains.
A loaf of bread here takes 36 hours to make, from creating the dough to the final bath of heat in the oven. These are naturally leavened breads made from rye, corn and wheat. Madison Sourdough’s viennoiserie, leavened pastry, uses Wisconsin eggs and milk from Sassy Cow Creamery.
The item you must try here is the miche. “I am a bread guy,” says Hutchison. “If I could bake just one thing for the rest of my life, it would be the miche.”
A rustic sourdough, the miche is “at once an Old World bread and a new one,” says Hutchison. For him, miche comes from a tradition of artisan baking that “uses only natural leavening, local grain and fresh-milled flour to craft a bread with lots of character.”
Baguettes and artisanal loaves are baked fresh daily at Batch, natch. Baguettes of regular, demi size and epi de blé (cut to look like a sheaf of wheat) are the bedrock here. But go deeper: Look for challah, cheese ficelle, ciabatta, caraway rye (baked with only whole caraway seeds, and on Sundays only) and focaccia — painted with olive oil and rosemary and dusted with salt. Or try fougasse, a sort of flatbread, stacked with tantalizingly tangy combinations like oven-dried tomatoes with herbs or olives with Parmesan.
To create the time-honored deviltry known as sourdough, pros use a starter base (also known as the “head” or the “chief”) as the foundation for each batch. The head adds the microorganisms that chemically interact with other elements of bread to add that distinctive sourness; the starter is constantly “refreshed” in an exacting process that allows the same batch of lactobacillus-based goo to be used for hundreds of years.
At Batch, sourdough is made with a 100% whole-wheat starter that is mixed into a levain of rye and white flour, producing a strong and chewy crust. Very special: The honey wheat loaf is a fifty-fifty wheat and white boule. Picture a lightly smashed ball with chewy, crumby goodness and a nice, soft crust.
Batch is also big on holiday treats: Irish soda bread, hot cross buns, king cakes and Rosh Hashanah challah.
The story of Clasen’s stretches back to 1959, when brothers Rolf and Ernst Clasen arrived in America from Cologne, Germany, to open a bakery. Today the breads are still made from scratch every day, in the manner of the Old World, without preservatives. If you can count to five, you can count the ingredients in most of the loaves of bread.
While distribution extends to Milwaukee and parts of Illinois, half of Clasen’s products are sold from the Middleton bakery store. Over its 57 years, Clasen’s has developed recipes for cookies, cakes, quiches, rolls, pastries and a constantly changing array of seasonal baked products.
Second-generation owner Michelle Clasen cites her favorites as the kalamata olive artisan bread, ham and cheese croissants and Alpine Six-Grain bread. “That is exactly how we like to eat,” she says. “It’s how I cook at home.”
“Kosher means quality!” is the slogan at this near-west, near-campus bakery. In 1998, two years after opening, Greenbush worked with the Jewish community to obtain an official kosher certification, unique in Madison.
Doughnuts, especially good here, are a welcome treat for all the students in the neighborhood (go early on football Saturdays, or go home empty-handed). Greenbush provides an encyclopedia of doughnut styles, but don’t leave without one of its deep-fried cake batter confections, glazed with chocolate, dusted with confectioner’s sugar or topped with nuts. Fruit compote- or custard-filled options are just as good. The sour cream old fashioneds, cinnamon rolls, doughnut holes and fried pies (filled with cherry, blueberry or caramel apple) all have their partisans.
Stacy Amble of Bloom Bake Shop starts from scratch.
Annemarie Maitri is the owner of this small business in downtown Middleton. Maitri works with nearby farmers to obtain most of the shop’s ingredients for cinnamon rolls, doughnuts, cupcakes, bars, brownies and cookies. Bloom also emphasizes treats for vegans and those with allergies or gluten intolerance, and Maitri has come up with some amazing versions that are hard to distinguish from the dairy-full, wheat-replete items.
Bloom makes a bomb biscuit sandwich: a gluten-free biscuit stacked with vegan “cheddar cheese,” sweet potato, caramelized onions, arugula and a curried vegan cream cheese made from scratch, in-house. The homemade pop tarts and “whoopie pies” are as fun as they sound. Parents looking for an afternoon of kid heaven, take note.
You’ll hear the staff speaking French among themselves, French television streaming via satellite on mute backed by Edith Piaf on the stereo, and sometimes even see a copy of Le Monde lying around. If that’s not amazing enough, La Baguette moved to Madison in 2008 not from Marseilles or Lyons, but from Minocqua.
In an unassuming a strip mall near West Towne, La Baguette spirits visitors away to another continent with its Eiffel Tower motif and chalk-drawn menus. If you are interested in the way the French eat but can’t quite make it across the ocean, La Baguette is the place.
The “Parisien” sandwich showcases La Baguette’s delectable fresh baguette, topped with ham, cornichons and Swiss cheese. For a sweet treat, try a tarte au poire (pear), tarte aux fruits (with raspberries and strawberries) or chocolatine (an enormous custard chocolate chip-filled pastry the size of a hoagie). The shop makes its tarts and bakery items every day.
La Brioche first brought Swiss baking to hungry students, faculty and tourists in 1988 when it launched on State Street. Now on University Avenue, La Brioche continues its tradition of baking from scratch with unbleached flours and fresh dairy. This latest incarnation of La Brioche is also a full restaurant with a focus on local and organic ingredients, popular with neighboring Shorewood Hills residents.
Morning buns, multi-grain bread and butter swirl cookies are staff favorites, but bear claws, croissants, chocolate chip cookies, scones and tres leches cakes (milk cakes) are all outstanding.
It’s a large room, filled with bearded men reading newspapers, mothers with infants and students hunched over their homework and a cup of coffee. First opened in 1954 by current owner Chuck Lane’s grandparents, Charles and Flay Lane, Lane’s became a destination over time, known for its kringles and whipped cream cakes. Today Lane’s bakes many doughnuts, pastries and personalized birthday cakes for the kids.
Don’t, however, skip the kringle, the dense, flat, pastry ovals that originally came to us from Scandinavia. Kringles come in almond, apricot, cherry, blueberry, strawberry lemon cheese, with icing, raspberry cheese, and a rainbow of other sweet and semi-savory flavors.
This small but feisty new addition to Madison’s bakery scene is led by two expatriates from La Brioche: Claudia Soto, baker, and Oscar Estrada, pastry chef. Tucked into the same strip mall as Le Tigre Lounge, Le Petit Croissant has been a smash hit in the neighborhood, attracting crowds not only for its stellar sandwiches but for French-influenced baked goods. Look behind the cashier and you’ll see workers removing steaming trays of pastries, scones, sticky buns and cinnamon rolls from the ovens and stacking them neatly in display cases. Dear Lord, I love the smell of bakeries in the morning.
The croissants here are quite brilliant, buttery and flaky. Pain au chocolat is executed in the Parisian style, with buttery pâte feuilletée dough. Bear claws are enormous, enough for two.
Nature’s Bakery Cooperative, founded in 1970, is a worker-owned and -operated co-op specializing in organic whole-grain breads, granola and trail mix. Nature’s is mostly a wholesale outfit (though you can drop in and buy direct) that distributes to co-ops, grocery stores and health food shops in Wisconsin and Minnesota. It uses none of the high-fructose corn syrup, bleaches, chemical additives, pesticides or herbicides commonly seen in industrial bread making. All eight members earn the same for their shared duties, among them baking, clean-up, packaging and delivery — totally communal, taking the best lessons from Madison’s rich counterculture traditions.
Perhaps it’s a bit of a hippie cliché, but the crunchy, hearty granola really is good. The granola and trail mix can be shipped via UPS anywhere in the contiguous U.S., making for a very Madison gift.