Centuries ago in France, peasants would bake what's called a miche -- a 20-kilo, circular loaf of naturally leavened bread that was both cheap and long lasting.
Iliana Berkowitz's spin on that historical artifact is her "mini miche," a more reasonably sized one-kilo round made from whole wheat, rye and sourdough. Inspired by the miche at famous Paris bakery Poilâne, Berkowitz's is a deep brown-and-amber color, dotted with crevasses, air pockets and a sprinkling of white flour. It's chewy, dense and full of flavor. She also makes a "sesa-miche" topped with sesame seeds.
Berkowitz, a Palo Alto native who graduated from Gunn High School, is the owner and founder of As Kneaded Bakery, a new Community Supported Bakery (CSB). It's a different take on the more familiar CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, through which farms sell seasonal produce directly to consumers via a subscription services.
The 28-year-old launched As Kneaded Bakery last year, working her way from baking at home as a college student in Washington, D.C., to working on the bread program at Parc Bistro, a French restaurant in Philadelphia.
She grew up in a Jewish household in Palo Alto, where there was always food in the house and on the mind, she said in an interview with the Weekly.
"Culinary things were a big deal in my family all the time -- not just the eating of food but the careful analysis of food," she said. "Nothing was just, you eat it and it's yummy and it sustains you. It's like, 'What is it about this?' Very particular, always parsing and eating and tasting and talking about that along the way."
Along with essays for her anthropology major in college, Berkowitz would give herself "baking assignments." She amassed a collection of cookbooks and kept a blog.
After college, she moved to Philadelphia, where she sold bread at a specialty food store and then found work shaping croissants at a bakery before spending two and a half years at Parc Bistro.
Like many Bay Area transplants, Berkowitz eventually returned home. She made bread for Facebook for a year before working for a bakery based out of a San Mateo commercial kitchen, where she realized she, too, could rent space and launch her own business.
As Kneaded Bakery was born as a pop-up, which eventually grew into a bread club, offering a variety of breads that reflect Berkowitz's background -- the classic French baguette, miche, challah and others -- to subscribers on a weekly basis. The model was inspired by several success stories Berkowitz knew of, including Josey Baker, who runs uber-popular San Francisco bakery The Mill.
Every Friday, Berkowitz's 40 subscribers get a different loaf that she has baked that week. March 3, for example, was an herbed baguette; later in the month they will see a mini miche, baltic rye, flax sunflower and honey rye porridge (a "superbly moist loaf" with rye flour and a porridge made from rye flakes, according to the As Kneaded website).
They also get a detailed email from Berkowitz with information (and photographs) about what they'll be getting that week, updates on her business and the endearing sign-off, "Love and Loaves."
In a November email, she explained the process behind making her "hopped-up beer" bread, inspired by the San Leandro brewery where she held her inaugural pop-ups. The brewery also let her use nutrient-dense spent grains leftover from making beer, which she mixes with beer syrup and barley to make the bread.
All of her bread uses natural leavening, or sourdough, which is pre-fermented -- meaning a portion of the flour used to bake it has been fermented in advance.
Subscribers can opt in or out as they please, Berkowitz said. They pick up the weekly loaves at a certain time at designated locations in Menlo Park, Redwood City, San Mateo or San Leandro. A four-week month costs $36 for bread or $18 for the baguette-only club; five-week months go for $45 and $21, respectively.
If you prefer to buy your bread "as needed," Berkowitz joked, it's also for sale at numerous local stores, though bread club members get access to some varieties not available for wholesale. (For a list of where to find her breads for sale, go to askneadedbakery.com/wheretoshop.)
At a weekend farmers market in San Mateo, she's testing out a line of what she calls "noshes," or ready-to-eat items like a French bostock, a thick slice of her challah topped with orange simple syrup, citrus marmalade, almond cream and sliced almonds. Bostock toppings will change depending on the season, and she's experimenting with savory versions, she said.
In a nod to her Jewish heritage, Berkowitz also makes bialy, a cousin to the bagel that's baked instead of boiled, with a small dip in the middle rather than a hole. She serves it traditionally, with onions and poppy seeds.
For those who want to buy bostock and bialy locally, she's debating whether to rejoin the East Palo Alto farmers market.
As Kneaded's bread club is, admittedly, a stepping stone for Berkowitz toward opening a brick-and-mortar bakery. She's entering an increasingly competitive field in the Bay Area, which is in the midst of a bread renaissance of sorts, with places like The Mill, Manresa Bread and others finding enormous success in bringing bread back to its roots.
She called the region a "breeding ground" for increasing knowledge and interest in bread.
"It's being seen as a craft more now," Berkowitz said. "It feels good to be a part of that wave of people doing bread."
She's also proud to be a woman in a traditionally male industry -- not making delicate cupcakes at home, she said, but baking "large, rustic breads" overnight five days a week and being able to lift 100 pounds of ingredients over her head.
It's important "for more women to be doing bread," Berkowitz said. "It's very foundational. It would be nice for young girls in the kitchen to have female bread bakers to aspire to be."