Hands. As in hard working hands. Hands is the word that immediately springs to mind after spending a morning in rural Michigan somewhere near Hart. (“We could give you an address, but we’re not really on the map – this will get you pretty close”, I was told.) Hand-built, hand-mixed, hand-folded, hand-formed…made by hand. Until my visit, I thought I had some idea about what bread baking involved. But when I entered the hand-built bakery with hand-made brick oven at Laughing Tree, it was clear I did not. Not like this, anyway. There were no mixers, no rack ovens, no utility lines. Charlie and Hilde Muller have brought their off-the-grid sensibilities that are the basis of their home life to the bread baking business. Solar panels power the very few electric appliances – mainly refrigeration and presumably a couple of lights needed for 2am baking – and hardwood cut-offs, milled locally and the remnants of local pallet making, fire the oven. Laughing Tree Bakery is the only 100% solar-powered commercial kitchen in the state of Michigan.
While Laughing Tree Bakery has only been around since 2010, Charlie, a veteran of the Peace Corps, and Hilde have been baking bread – first separately, now together – since the 90s, first crossing paths in Ypsilanti. Hilde eventually found herself at the legendary Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, but not before popping in on the Depot Town Sourdough Bakery in Ypsilanti to see what was happening. Charlie, having baked his way from one coast to the other, was then the head baker at Depot. Along his journey, Charlie had the very good fortune of working with the legendary Alan Scott, artisan of the brick oven. When the Mullers finally found land where they could build a house and set up their own bakehouse, Alan’s design became the cornerstone of the kitchen. Charlie’s hand-built brick oven uses wood-fired heat captured by 15,000 pounds of masonry to create a radiant environment. This special design results in even heat so critical for creating loaves with “crusty, crackly exteriors and moist, perfectly textured interiors”. The vaulted arch with a low ceiling is important for bread production, so that the top of the bread is closer to the radiating masonry above for even baking and so that the steam is kept close to the bread, aiding in crust formation.
The commitment to sustainability and attention to detail does not of course stop with design. Over the years, they have sourced like-minded farmers that produce certified organic grains and flours: Central Milling, Natural Way Mills, and Ferris Organic Farm, a Michigan-based mill. Many of the breads are loaded with add-ins – sesames, flax, sunflowers, raisins, walnuts, Sunspire chocolate chips – also all organic. All but one of their eleven weekly breads – Oceana, a yeast dough named after their home county – are sourdough. Charlie mixes all the doughs, and I was surprised to see, all by hand in large tubs. Sourdough is a very wet, slack dough, and his is made simply from flour, well water, salt and a starter. And unlike yeast-risen doughs that require kneading to develop the glutens, this dough is bulk-fermented and quietly folded several times over several hours. Mind blown.
Rather than develop glutens, fermentation in fact is the key to breaking them down. The yeast and bacteria present in the sourdough starter transform the grains into digestible material. Hilde told me that “this is the process that makes gluten digestible for most. It is essentially a pre-digestion process. A healthy sourdough can have as many as 14 different yeast strains and multiple bacterial strains. In a commercially made yeasted loaf, only one strain of yeast is present and no bacteria.”
Saturday is Market Day for the Mullers, but the process for the next week starts again pretty much as soon as the last loaf is sold. It’s a continuous flow. If you have never been on the line in a commercial kitchen, you may not have a sense of the intricacy of kitchen timing. There, unlike in a kitchen using a wood-fired bread oven, we can easily turn up/down the gas with the flick of a wrist, and there are a lot of precise ways to determine temperature. At Laughing Tree, it is more art than science. The oven is fired over several days, long before baking commences, and only then the dance begins to bake the right things at the right time and at the right temp. During the stoking time, Charlie spends Wednesday weighing all the ingredients and add-ins and prepping the baskets. Meanwhile, Hilde is in charge of pastry recipes and production, wholesale accounts, orders, packaging, communications, scheduling and managing the staff. Charlie then spends Thursday mixing, folding, shaping and proofing. By Friday when the temperature has dropped from a peak of perhaps 1100oF to roughly 650oF, it’s time to start baking bread. The cold loaves from the overnight in-basket proofing are transferred to a peel and pushed onto the hot hearth. (All signs of fire have now been swept away.) Charlie generally can get in 8 oven-loads of 30-50 loaves each between 6am and 2pm before the temp gets down into cookie-baking range. Two or 3 oven-loads of Hilde’s cookies later (about 300 cookies), and it’s time to re-stoke the fire. After once again reaching a sufficiently hot temperature, the oven is ready for four evening loads of bread. Most of the bread baking is done on Friday most of the year. However, during summer markets and the very fabulous sandwich stand in the Muskegon Market (stall #9 – run Forest run – from June til the end of this month), sandwich loaves are baked on Thursday so they are cool enough to slice. And if you aren’t tired yet, the Mullers are popping three rounds of scones in on Saturday morning around 2:30 am while packing up the van for the markets. Then – finally – the last remaining bit of heat is used the following Monday to bake off Hilde’s granola and brownies when the temperature has cooled down to 325oF. Applause! Applause!! Applause!!
It’s a Family Affair
Don’t think that Charlie and Hilde are doing this alone.
This is Alida, age 3, and I have to say she was a fine helper the day that I visited. I have seen firsthand what happens when she uses her deft hand to dust the loaves with the final sprinkle of rice flour. While she doesn’t have an official loaf, the Honey Oat Loaf is called Rosie’s Honey Oat, after her nickname. Finn, age 11, is the namesake for Finn’s Pecan Raisin Pecan, chocked full or pecans and organic raisins. And Annie’s Raisin Spice, made with a Michigan-grown whole wheat, is named after the Muller’s 8-year-old. There is a very special Pilgrim Rye that honors the legacy of the angel baby Pippin Muller, who would be 5 now. His name is a shortened version of Peregrine, which shares a Latin root with Pilgrim.
The passion for bread and baking and having a low impact on the world around them has transcended generations and gives this family purpose and a shared sense of responsibility. It is easy to see – and taste – the commitment they all have in sharing their passion with others. It was Charlie’s grandmother that said when the winds are blowing the trees are laughing. I can’t speak for the trees, but the Elbridge Parmesan Olive Loaf sure puts a smile on my face.
Where to Find Laughing Tree Bakery Treats
Laughing Tree Bakery breads are available in several farmer’s markets on Saturdays: Grand Haven (through October) and Sweetwater and Muskegon Markets (year-round). In addition, you can find them at Gala Gourmet (Newago), Healthy Pantry (Whitehall), Montague Foods (Montague), The Cheese Lady Muskegon (holiday schedule), Hansen Foods (Hart), and Health Hutt (Muskegon). To get on the mailing list for weekly updates of varieties and schedules, send an email to [email protected].
Every summer until the last days of September, the Mullers set up an impressive stand (Stall 9) at the Muskegon Farmers Market. I think we have already established my profound desire over all things grilled cheese – it doesn’t hurt that this is called Grilled Cheese Charlie – but also not to be missed are Suzie’s Voracious Veggie, Market Day Reuben, and Morris Avenue Ham Slam. The Mullers make their own sauces and source organic toppings like sauerkraut and kimchi from fellow vendors in the market.
I love choosing a nice chewy sourdough like Three Coast Three Seed Loaf from Laughing Tree Bakery and stuffing it full of cantalet, sliced pears and a healthy dose of chipotle fig spread. This cheese is a great melter and the bread becomes a golden crusty wrap.
Sourdough bread, sliced (Laughing Tree’s Three Coast Three Seed is a winner!)
Spread one slice of bread with chipotle fig marinade and place slice, along with a second slice in pan, over medium heat.
Layer slices of cheese and pear on both sides and cook until melted. When cheese is melted and bread golden, flip one slice onto the other. Transfer to a cutting board and cut in half.
Cantalet is one of France’s oldest cheeses. Produced in the Auvergne Valley and dating to Roman times, Cantalet is a firm, creamy, mild but nutty cow’s milk cheese. Try any melting cheese you like, but this one pairs nicely with the chipotle, fig and pears already in play.
Or are you just hungry? My guess is that you are sitting at your computer or with your iPad and finishing off your Morning Joe & Scone. Or maybe it’s a green smoothie. A Starbucks triple double frapalatte? Whatever it was or whenever you are reading this, I doubt you have this many hands reaching for the only orange or are as truly hungry as the 795 million food insecure people on this planet.
Did you know?
Or how about this fact?
The number is higher if there are children in the household.
But we got this! You can join me in making a difference! Helping others is very important to me and I know that it is to you, too! It doesn’t take much to have meaningful impact.
I recently hosted a fajita Pot Lucky (post coming soon) and looking at that wonderful, bountiful feast truly highlighted how blessed we are. I asked my guests to join me in this fight against hunger and many did. Thank you to all that have supported this campaign. For my birthday (today, if you insist on knowing!) this year, I am partnering with CWS to raise funds to fight hunger. As a member of the CWS Board of Directors, I can personally assure you that your help WILL make a positive difference in this fight.
A little bit goes so far.
Help me support an organization with a 70+ year track record of successfully doing the work, every day, to support hungry people and create sustainable solutions that improve conditions for people in need in communities in the US and around the globe. We are #Greateras1!!
Thanks for helping me fulfill my birthday wish of fighting hunger and supporting those that need it most! #PalatePassionPurpose #FightHunger
How many times have you reached for that egg caddy in the fridge and not thought a whip about where those eggs came from or how their mothers have been treated. I was making a roasted poblano strata (recipe in the next post) for some house guests one weekend and decided it was high time to take a deeper dive. An NPR interview with the very funny Mardi Jo Link discussing her book Bootstrapper: From Broke to Badass on a Northern Michigan Farm piqued my interest. And then I became friends with the chicken whisperer Tracy Wise, often seeing her three times a week at several local farmers’ markets. While I had already made the conscious decision to exclusively buy her eggs and chickens, I knew very little about what set them apart or why ethical farming mattered.
This summer I paid a visit to Wise Family Farm, the ten-acre plot owned by Tracy and Brad in Robinson Township (Michigan). Brad has spent nearly three decades with the US Coast Guard and they arrived with the family, including kids Jaycee, Garett and Annaliese, from Alaska only five years ago. Looking ahead to their next chapter, the family Wise opted to try their hand at farming. And a family affair it is. Not just adults, and not just eggs and chickens. As the photos proudly displayed at market show, all the kids are also involved – via 4H – and are responsible for calves, pigs, goats, and more. While chickens, eggs, and turkeys are the primary focus, the farm is home to many more. The cows, ranging from Jersey, to Holstein, to Maine-Anjou, are a real commitment to a traditional farming process that is increasingly harder to source. Because the Wises raise growth-hormone-free and non-GMO fed animals, they must source their calves at birth. They are quick to buy back the 4H winners because they are fully aware of the animal’s quality. More modern farming techniques may rely on growth hormone implants, but those committed to old-school techniques showcase both their labor of love and commitment to quality, a technique that is both time-consuming and expensive. When I asked Brad how they mastered this immense operation with no previous experience while he is holding down a full time job, he said “some trial, mostly error.” #Inspired!
Their menagerie also includes pets, as well as friends and family of the animal variety. There’s a Welsh Harlequin duck by the name of Cheese & Quackers. A pig named Petunia. A small flock of guinea fowl, roaming off by themselves. A South-African breed of goats, name for the Afrikaans word Boer, meaning farmer. Some small mini lops rabbits (including one named Rose) and some very large Flemish Giants – which gave me a whole new perspective on where the term fluffy bunny slippers came from. They even have bees.
But for me the main draw was the ladies, as Tracy calls them. I was intrigued by the fact that despite chicks and turkeys being hatched at a nearby farm, the hatch-lings are shipped day-old via the US Post office. This follows best practices targeted at preventing the spread of avian flu. There will be no cross-contamination by setting foot on another’s farm. Currently the Wises have some 65 turkeys – in preparation for this year’s Thanksgiving – and 700-800 laying Leghorn (I say, I say, boy – is that a chicken hawk?) hens. While all birds have access to the local non-gmo high quality feed provided, they love to roam and munch on fresh clover.
I visited the turkeys (still quite young) in a 10×10 foot partially covered pen. The chickens were in a large corral with a sort of covered wagon (the nesting box) within. Both are moved daily to a fresh patch with new grasses, clover, and grasshoppers. This has the added benefit of leaving behind yesterday’s droppings to fertilize the soil for future use. The nesting box or laying house is moved by tractor, but the smaller turkey pen is wheeled by hand to an adjacent patch daily. What alot of work.
The ladies get a lot of daily attention and are much more demanding than say a meat bird. In addition to providing food and water, the Wises must open the nesting box each morning, collected eggs twice daily, and finally close the box at night. Owls and hawks (yes, chicken hawks) are the biggest threat. And don’t forget the whole witness relocation program – hitching the tractor and pulling the nesting box over a few feet to its next resting spot.
Once collected, eggs are run through an egg washing machine, as required by the State. Trust me I had more than a small “I Love Lucy” moment, but Tracy’s deft hand racked them and transferred as fast as they came through the washer. Then again the woman has practice – she washes from 100-200 DOZEN eggs each week.It’s not too late to order this year’s Thanksgiving turkey. By this time last year, it was. So I placed my 2016 turkey order in August of 2015. See below for details on placing your order.
Not Eggsactly as Eggspected
– Or things you had no idea you needed to know about yard birds and ethical farming:
Did you know hens like to “go outside and play in the dirt til dinner” – just like we did. It’s called dirting or a dirt bath. Very cool, as in built in air-conditioner.
Did you know Tom turkeys strutting their stuff are called “Tomming Out”? When it’s time to be big man on campus, it turns out they can ruffle their own feathers.
Did you know an egg can be laid without a shell? Sometimes called Jelly Eggs, these are laid shell-free for a variety of reasons – very hot day, less than 24 hours between laying (insufficient time to form shell), or diet (unlikely at Wise Farms because they are so well tended and have access to quite the feast).
Did you know all hens (like humans) are born with all the eggs they will drop throughout their laying life-cycle? The reason a hen can lay almost daily is that the ova are in a continuous chain, in various stages of development . In general, it takes 25 hours to form a shell and lay an egg, and they are laid normally during daylight hours, so each day they are laid a bit later until its too dark, and then they skip to the next day. Here is a diagram of the 25 hour journey.
Do you know the difference in free-range, cage-free, and pastured? You may be impressed by the wrong terms. Wise animals are pastured – and that means so much more than free-range which doesn’t guarantee that animals leave their sheds since food and water are generally kept inside. It only means they have the option to range freely. When you think of chickens living the good life, roaming in a wide open clover-filled field, you are thinking of Wise Family Farm. But in many places that is not what you get.
Ever wonder why fresh hard boiled eggs are impossible to peel? Remember how that egg and its shell were literally just created in 25 hours? That means the membrane (the outside on the jelly egg or that white thin layer just inside the shell on a boiled egg) and shell are very much integrated and the white (albumen) with its fresh acidic pH is attached to them both. Once the egg has been washed (before it ever gets near your kitchen), the shell becomes more permeable and the albumen loses some of its carbon dioxide, which in turn reduces the acidity of the egg white. Lower acidity egg whites means easier to peel since there is further separation between the albumen and membrane. Concurrently, as the egg ages, it will dehydrate and shrink, creating a bigger air pocket between the shell and the membrane. More separation equals easier to peel.
Wait – do I have to choose between easy to peel and fresh?? No you do not. Before you settle for supermarket eggs that are allowed a full 45 days from packing to use-by date, consider this. Tracy suggests putting a rack or steamer basket over boiling water and steaming rather than immersing in boiling water. 12 minutes for hard boiled – 6-9 for soft boiled with a somewhat runny yolk. You may also try taking the egg from the steamer or boiling water and immediately running it under cold water. While holding the egg under the running water, peel, starting at the rounded end where there is an air pocket, .
Get to know your farmers and once you know their passions, it’s easy to be more mindful in your buying choices. Local farmers work incredibly hard to bring you quality produce, so what’s say we show them some love??
Grand Haven Markets: til noon Wednesday and Saturday (through October) Shop! Shop! Shop!
Spring Lake Market: til two Thursday (through mid-October) Shop more!
For orders: 616-499-5662 (if you are not in range for Wise turkeys, think now about finding a source near you. It’s later than you think when it comes to planning for your holiday bird. #EatLocal #EatEthical)
I’m traveling and have split this post into two parts. Stay tuned for Eggstravaganza Part 2 featuring my Roasted Poblano Strata recipe – using Wise Family Farm eggs, of course!
I created this salad earlier this summer – in part because it is so tasty (of course), and in part because it is a starch that is hearty and filling without being potato salad. Yawn. Plus that whole mayo aversion thing I got going. It made its first appearance at the Burger Pot Lucky. And ever since, I have been getting requests for the recipe. One of the great things about adding grains to any salad is their ability to stretch. The ingredients normally found in a Greek salad are all primo, which is to say pricey. The addition of quinoa gives you bang for the buck.
If you aren’t familiar with quinoa, get to know it. It’s kind of a miracle food: it comes in several colors including black, white and red, cooks in 10-15 minutes, is high in protein, fiber, and folate, is gluten-free, and is a decent source of iron, zinc and magnesium. First cultivated in the Andes (Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador) some 4000 years ago (with non-domesticated sightings dating back more than 7000 years), Incans considered quinoa the “mother of all grains” and held it sacred, which caused the Spanish colonists to consider it pagan and led them to forbid it. But, quinoa is finally having its day – the United Nations General Assembly gave quinoa its own year – 2013 the International Year of Quinoa – to celebrate the Incan ability to preserve this ancient tradition and live in harmony with nature. Hallelujah! It was the hope of the UN that quinoa would be a major player in attaining MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) and be instrumental in maintaining SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) by providing food security, nutrition and aiding in poverty eradication. And while you are getting to know quinoa, get to know the UN and its work on food security.
Meanwhile back in the kitchen: I know I can only ask you to pit olives so many times in one summer (looking at you panzanella), so here I am telling you to pick up a jar of an olive relish or tapenade or bruschetta topping – grab a product that has done the heavy lifting for you – and make that the base of your dressing. I’m all about short cuts in cooking when possible. Trader Joe’s has a green olive tapenade that I really like and it makes a super tasty green olive vinaigrette, but check your condiment section at the grocery and see what you have available. If you can’t find something olive based, then try a pepper relish or whatever kind of bruschetta or crostini topping your joint offers.
My Big Fat Greek Salad
Green Olive Vinaigrette:
1 cup green olive tapenade (I like Trader Joe’s and use the whole 10-ounce jar. But you can also use any kind of tapenade or bruschetta spread, or just use 1 cup chopped oil-cured green or black olives. Please! No California black olives in water!!!!)
1/2 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup EVOO
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper or favorite pepper blend (lemon pepper would be amazing)
Zest of two lemons
Whisk together all ingredients in a small bowl.
Store, refrigerated, in an airtight container.
Makes 2 cups. (This salad will use about 1/3 of this Vinaigrette recipe.)
1 cup raw quinoa (red or white)
1 16-ounce can garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
½ seedless English cucumber, cut in ½” dice
4 scallions, sliced
1 ½ cups halved cherry tomatoes
8 ounces feta, cubed
¼ cup each: chopped parsley, mint, dill and cilantro
Rinse and drain the quinoa, then add to a pot with tight-fitting lid along with 2 cups water or stock. Bring to a boil, cover, and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook for 10-15 minutes until all liquid is absorbed. Transfer to a mixing bowl and cool.
When cool, add garbanzos, cucumbers, scallions, tomatoes and feta.
Dress the salad with the green olive vinaigrette, using about 1/3 of it or more, as needed. Refrigerate until ready to serve, then add chopped herbs and check seasonings. I like to finish it off with my beloved Maldon Sea Salt Flakes. This dish can easily be made a day or so ahead, but add herbs and check seasonings and acidity at serving time.
Makes about 1 ½ quarts.
This post contains affiliate links. For more of my must-have faves, check out my shop.
The above photo has been shared more than 60,000 times. And on so many levels it is heartbreaking. Santucci Farms in Traverse City, Michigan is dumping cherries…more than 14% of this year’s bumper crop, some 40,000 perfectly good cherries. And to add insult to injury this paves the way for 200 million pounds of imports. Say what?? Just shake the trees and let the gorgeous bright reds fall and rot?
But like most things, there are complex factors at play. The agricultural marketing order driving this action dates back to the 1930s, but the growers and processors willingly opted in only 20 years ago. The goal was to stabilize the market for a very volatile crop. Not to go all micro-economics on you but – supply meet demand? This marketing order favors the farmers in lean years and will limit sales in banner years. And when prices are propped up domestically, that will open the door for cheaper foreign competition.
But even that is not the full story. While it might seem shocking that we are importing while wasting, Michigan (and other domestic) farmers focus primarily on the retail market, while foreign importers (primarily Turkey and Eastern Europe) focus on industrial markets. The industrial market demand exceeds the entire US production, so there is no real way to be competitive there anyway.
Additionally yields vary drastically from year to year, one of the primary motivators behind accepting the USDA plan, with this year boasting a 100 million pound surplus. To complicate matters, this particular crop – the tart cherry – has a very short shelf life – only a couple days, requiring processing right away. But processing capacity is finite, sufficient for average not banner years. Processors are unable to keep up with surplus crops. While there are options for donating surplus, via the Michigan Agricultural Surplus System, an organization that works with 70 farmers to rescue food “too ugly for retail”, the extremely short shelf life of tarts is a big challenge, compared to say potatoes with much greater stability. All this to say, that while that photo reveals a truly tragic waste, the issues are much more complex than rotting cherries.
And the tragic waste is not limited to tart cherries. Food waste in the US is more than 40% of all agricultural production. That is a fact. And each year about 7% of what is produced is not even harvested. So yes there is work to be done. While there are a number of agendas underway to address this epic fail, much of the problem happens at home, and we can make a difference on our own without a global agenda. 70 Billion tons of rotting methane-producing food goes into landfills while 49 million people go hungry. It’s time we all put heads together to #stopfoodwaste. I say: Eat Your Leftovers!!!
Some of you are still taking the food waste quiz (how YOU doin?) and some are asking for more recipes and tips on how to keep from wasting food (duly noted). But even bigger and better, late Monday GrubStreet reported that Shark Tank investor Robert Herjavec put $100,000 into Hungry Harvest, a delivery start up rescuing deformed produce. #loveuglyfood I feel better already!
Since this Shark Tank exposure, 1,000 people have signed up for this delivery service – in just 5 days. Each delivery, on average, reduces 10 pounds of produce from going to waste, and they also donate 1.5 pounds of produce to the needy, per week.Multiply that by 1,000 – and they’ll recover 10,000 pounds and donate 1,500 pounds of produce per week. Not to be too computational and all, but that’s 43,000 pounds recovered and 6,450 pounds donated per month. And 520,000 pounds recovered and 78,000 pounds donated per year.
Hungry Harvest currently delivers to the Maryland/DC/Northern Virginia area, but Philly and NYC are coming soon.
Stay tuned for more tips from me on how you can cut waste by re-purposing produce into delicious recipes………..coming soon. And give an ugly eggplant a hug, will ya?