A&E

Down to the grain

More than just an artisan bakery, Manresa Bread in Los Altos mills its own flour

The bread and pastries at Manresa Bread's new location in downtown Los Altos are not your average baked goods. The levain bread is made with half white and half wheat flour, salt and wild yeast. A beautiful slab of Einkorn bread, studded with air pockets, is made from one of the oldest known varieties of wheat. The pepper-jam danish is made with fresh-milled rye flour.

They're ingredient-driven, made with obsessive care several miles away in a Los Gatos commissary kitchen that operates virtually 24 hours a day, seven days a week under head baker Avery Ruzicka.

Petite and energetic, Ruzicka, 31, clearly lives and breathes bread. Her attention to detail has transformed the bread program at Manresa Bread's parent restaurant, the Michelin-starred Manresa in Los Gatos, and launched two popular spinoff bakeries. The first opened in Los Gatos in 2015 and the second on State Street in Los Altos in June.

"We're baking bread because we're curious about how we can make it better," she said in an interview at the Los Gatos commissary kitchen, surrounded by cooling loaves of bread.

At Manresa Bread, that means milling their own flour, having the time and space to nurture different kinds of breads to their ideal flavors and having someone at the helm who is equal parts creativity and discipline.

Ruzicka first arrived at Manresa as a food runner several years ago. She said she took the job to get her foot in the door, hoping to eventually end up inside the kitchen and involved with baking.

The North Carolina native had always loved food but thought she wanted to be writer, pursuing a minor in creative writing at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Wanting to write about food, but not as a critic, she took a job in a restaurant during college to learn more. She said she immediately "fell in love" with the world of cooking, and moved to New York to attend the French Culinary Institute in New York, where she completed both a culinary and a bread program.

After graduating, Ruzicka staged (working for free to gain experience, like an unpaid internship) at Per Se, a well-known, high-end New York City restaurant from Thomas Keller of The French Laundry, baking for the restaurant as well as for Keller's Bouchon Bakery and Cafe and wholesale accounts. It was there that she realized that she wanted to bake at a restaurant rather than a stand-alone bakery.

She had just helped a friend open a restaurant in New York when she got a text that said Manresa was hiring, but only for front-of-house positions. She flew to California, interviewed and made a six-month commitment to work as a food runner, bringing dishes from the kitchen to tables.

Manresa at the time was making its own bread in house, but "it was no one's passion," Ruzicka said. "It was something that got done every day but no one was lost in the details, no one was obsessive over it."

Enter Ruzicka, who slowly but surely tweaked and improved the restaurant's bread-making processes, becoming head baker after about a year. She introduced new varietals of grain, organic flour and fresh-milled flour, though she said she was limited by the baking facilities available at the restaurant. Soon, she was asked to sell the baked goods at the Campbell Farmer's Market in 2013 (quickly selling out on a regular basis), then the California Avenue Farmers Market in Palo Alto the next year. Manresa Bread also now has a stand at the Portola Valley Farmers' Market.

An already in-motion plan to open a commissary kitchen that would support brick-and-mortar bakeries was interrupted by a two-alarm fire at the Manresa restaurant in the summer of 2014. Despite that, Ruzicka and her team that fall moved into a space that could keep up with their vision for Manresa Bread.

The commissary has three rooms -- one for making bread, one for making pastries and one for baking. The bread room in front is temperature-controlled, with a stone mill that yields fresh rye and whole-wheat flour. These flours appear in the baking case in Los Altos in many of the breads and pastries. There's plenty of refrigerator space to slow down (also called retarding) the dough's rise. The levain dough, for example, is prepared on Wednesday and allowed to ferment for almost two full days before it's baked on Friday. This slower fermentation "dramatically" improves the flavor and quality of bread, Ruzicka said.

Fresh-milled flour, too, makes a difference that can be tasted. Fresh-milled flour is exposed to more wild yeast spores, which makes for a more active dough, Ruzicka explained. It also has a higher water-absorption rate than commercial, store-bought flour, she said.

Manresa Bread uses a baking technique called autolyse, which means mixing flour and water ahead of time so the dough can rest and start to develop gluten.

"You've gone through process of getting this really nice grain, milling it fresh so we can make breads with it, and we want to make sure, as much as possible, (that) we can hold onto the flavor of the flour," Ruzicka said. "The more you mix the flour, the more you oxidize the flour. So we want to do anything we can to minimize mixing time."

At the Los Altos bakery on a recent afternoon, a long baking case was filled with Ruzicka's creations: a hearty loaf of pumpernickel rye, made entirely with fresh-milled rye flour; levain; a baguette; a traditional sandwich loaf. Pastries ranged from the traditional -- croissants, cookies, monkey bread and kouign amann -- to the more unusual, like the savory pepper-jam danish with a filling made from bell peppers, Fresno chilis, creme fraiche and cream cheese. Seasonal items rotate in with staples. Even here, there are also gluten-free options.

Items like cakes, pies or macarons are rare, though they do make them for holidays or special occasions. The pastries are "much more bread-focused, dough-focused and grain-focused," Ruzicka said.

"The ingredient is where we want to find our inspiration and then the technique that will allow us to make the most of that, which I feel is what connects us with Manresa. That's how Manresa approaches things; that's how we approach things," she said.

The Los Altos bakery also has a cold case with drinks and a small selection of cheeses and salami (perfect picnic starters to go with the bread), and a full espresso bar serving Verve Coffee Roasters coffee. Manresa Bread also provides pastries for Verve's four cafes in Santa Cruz, where Ruzicka lives.

Don't expect to spend the day lingering over a latte and croissant in Los Altos, however; there is no seating inside the sleek, minimalist, 800-square-foot bakery, though Ruzicka said they'll be adding a few stools at a narrow bar that runs down the left side of the space. Grab a bench outside on State Street or take your goods to go.

While the pastries certainly don't disappoint, Manresa Bread is true to its name: The bread is the star of the show. The Einkorn bread is tangy, chewy and full-flavored in a way that will make you never want to eat store-bought bread again. The rye pumpernickel is dense and hearty; the nuttiness accentuated in all the right ways by jam or even an avocado spread on top.

There's a rising tide of Bay Area bakers who, like Ruzicka, are getting a lot of attention for doing something she said isn't revolutionary -- she's simply bringing back bread as it should be.

"I don't think that I'm inventing anything," she said. "I think if I traveled to Europe, I could find, not even necessarily a professional baker, but just an individual, a farmer who mills flour and makes bread and that's just his way of life. I consider myself very lucky to be in an opportunity to get to discover what people once knew and ... be someone who gets to introduce it to a customer base that is excited about it."

Manresa Bread

271 State St., Los Altos

manresabread.com

Hours: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. (or until sold out) daily.

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