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Passion & Purpose: Laughing Tree Bakery

Passion & Purpose: Laughing Tree Bakery

Proofing Dough in Baskets


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.

Charlie & Hilde Muller at the Muskegon Farmers\' Market

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.

Charlie Muller with a peel in front of the wood fired oven

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.  

Charlie Mixing the sourdough by hand


Dumping the DoughRather 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.” 

Slacking Olive Dough

Resting Dough at Laughing Tree BakeryProofing Baskets on a baker\'s rack at Laughing TreeSaturday 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.

Alida Muller, laughing tree bakery helperThis 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.

What Makes Our Breads Unique - farmers market sign with Charlie Muller

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].

Hiilde on the Line at Laughing Tree Farmer\'s Market stand


Sandwich Stand at the Muskegon Farmers Market

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.

Reuben sandwich hot off the grill at farmers market

Big Bite of Laughing Tree breads Rueben Sandwich

Grilled Cheese & Tomato on Third Coast Three Seed

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Grilled Cantelet, Chipotle Fig Spread & Pear on Three Coast Three Seed

Laughing Tree Bakery Grilled Cantalet, Chipotle Fig Spread, and Pear Sandwich

  • Author: Katy Keck
  • Total Time: 10 minutes
  • Yield: 1 sandwich


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. 


  • Butter
  • Sourdough bread, sliced (Laughing Tree’s Three Coast Three Seed is a winner!)
  • Cantalet or melting cheese, sliced
  • Chipotle Fig Marinade, used as a spread
  • Firm pear, thinly sliced


Melt 1 Tablespoon butter in a sauté pan.

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.

If you don’t have any chipotle fig marinade on hand, use any prepared fig spread

  • Prep Time: 5 minutes
  • Cook Time: 5 minutes

Grilled Cantelet, Chipotle Fig Spread & Pear on Three Coast Three Seed

© Copyright: KatyKeck.com 2017. All rights reserved.

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Chipotle Fig Glazed Chicken & Fajita Fiesta – Olé!

Chipotle Fig Glazed Chicken & Fajita Fiesta – Olé!

Hand holding a fig marinated chicken fajita with avocado, garnished with lime and cilantro

If it’s summer, it’s grilling time and what better way to get a little entertaining help than a Pot Lucky. After the success of last year’s Slider Grill-a-thon, I picked Fajita Fiesta for a theme.  I also had a brand new jar of Balsamic Pepper Fig Spread land on my doorstep and immediately thought of chipotle. To be specific, Chipotle Fig Glazed Chicken Thighs! Are you feeling me? On a grilled tortilla with some refried beans, maybe a little guacamole, pineapple salsa, cilantro sprigs and perhaps a grilled veg or two?  Well don’t stop there! We got so many wonderful contributions that the pairings and combos of flavors were virtually endless.

Margaritas in a large jar

But let’s get this party started properly. Normally my potlucks are a BYO event (leaving me time to focus energy on coordinating culinary contributions, trying to weed out duplicates). But this time one couple decided to bring her dad’s signature and award-winning margarita in lieu of food. Score! They also brought that darling baby that appears further down this post. The cocktail recipe itself is a secret, but I have it on good authority that there is a certain blue collar beer in the mix. Nobody seemed to remember Hop Skip & Go Naked, but that was one of my earliest (college) blender memories. Starting with frozen lemon or limeade, all other “liquids” added used the juice-can-as-measure technique. Beer was definitely in the mix. Anybody?

Dinner\'s Done - condiments for fajita party - lime, guacamole, cilantro, sour cream, queso, salsa served on a serape

Readers have asked how to host a Pot Lucky, as I have taken to calling the Curated Pot Luck. ICYMI, I have a deep-seeded fear of pot lucks. Shivvvvvvvvvvver. One too many frilly picks atop Velveeta cubes atop Slim Jims. True fact: I ate that last summer. I was THAT hungry. So it occurred to me a couple years ago to help people help themselves. By creating a theme (which makes it easier for guests to focus on their contribution to the menu), suggesting categories, and having a Sign Up for Your Dish List, you can create an amazing feast.  We’re pushing our tenth Pot Lucky, all covered in this blog, but a few of my favorites are sliders, pizza, meatloaf, and nautical style.  Like any good mother, I can’t really choose.

Here’s the 101 Crash Course on how to host a Pot Lucky. Doubtless there will be additional thoughts coming in subsequent posts, but let’s start with the basics.

The 411 on Pot Lucky 101

Like most things in life, the devil is in the details, and I am a firm believer in plan, plan, planning. Make a master list for any gathering and create sections for who is coming, what they are bringing, your shopping, prep, and set up.

Create a Theme

Creating a theme to curate your Pot Luck around is step one to giving menu directions. This is the best possible insurance against Velveeta with a frilly pick on a Slim Jim. Because unless your theme is Junk Food (I actually did that theme for a Chefs’ Night Out after the James Beard Awards, because let’s get real – that’s what chefs crave) or White Trash, there is a high likelihood you can avoid this culinary treasure. I have done sausage making, pizza toppings, soup swaps, sliders, nautically themed, Thanksgiving family treasures, meat loaf and more. What about a clam bake? Salad Palooza (my next Pot Lucky), American BBQ classics, fondue, Chinese New Year’s, Indian street food? So many possibilities.

Who is Game?

Most times when you entertain, the cast of characters is pre-ordained. An office party? Family gathering? School reunion? But if this is just a time to pull folks together around this menu, consider who would enjoy it. I’m all about being inclusive and fully believe everyone can whip together something using ready-made components – I have offered to give tutorials to those that might feel a teeny twinge of stress over this – but what you don’t want is take-out. That is a whole other party. Calvin Trillin used to host an annual dinner in NYC to benefit the NY Public Library and he had minions scattered all over Chinatown to scoop up and swoop in with military precision, delivering NY’s Best Chinese Take Out.

Look for people that think this is fun. It might not be everyone you know, but you might be surprised how many people jump on the bandwagon and show up with papier mâché marionettes wearing sombreros.  Be prepared to yield a wide berth for exceptions and provide a hall pass to anyone happy to pitch in in other ways. Do you do dishes? You are absolutely most welcome!

Set Expectations

I always provide detailed descriptions of the evening’s flow from arrival time to what to bring (already plated with serving spoon).  I also like to include a list of everything I am providing.  And then I plan for contingencies for that one person that shows up with the bowl, the ice, the cocktail sauce and no shrimp. I might not have shrimp to make that dish whole, but I will have a backup appetizer to fill the void.  A day or two before, I provide a general head count for everyone so they know how much to bring. Nobody has to make enough to feed the total crowd because there will be so much food. 2 or 3 cups of a salsa goes a long way when sprinkled on a fajita. But I usually specify quantity on proteins (2-3 pounds each for the fajita mains; 2 dozen 2-ounce sliders for the burger party) and ask the people bringing lower priced or less time-intensive items to bring 2 or 3 items. And, some Pot Luckys are geared toward sharing the food beyond the night. So make sure folks bring containers to nab portions of the many meatloaves that were sampled, but not finished.   

Provide Sample Menu with Categories

I put some time into coming up with categories and then list a smattering of ideas under each category.  Don’t assign particular dishes to guests, unless it’s their signature and you must have it (Deb’s shrimp burger as a slider is an example.)  Everyone comes from different places – work, home, yet another soccer game – so let them figure out what they are comfortable with making that fits their skills, palate, schedule, and budget.

Track the Menu

As much as I would like to say your job is done, I want you to avoid the all-pork-tenderloin dinner party. Every Pot Lucky has one item that is the highly coveted I MUST MAKE THAT. For fajitas, it was pork tenderloin. By asking guests to reply to you directly (no need to clog everyone’s inbox), you can track what is already taken. And if you got this email and want to bring one particular thing, reply ASAP!! You can also set up a private event page online and let people sift through all the comments to see what is already nabbed, or better yet, use an app that tracks commitments by whatever categories you specify.

Set the Table

Whether the event is at my house, on a boat, or at the park, I always pack extra serving spoons and forks, some condiments and seasonings, and plates, silverware, and napkins.  For smaller groups, it may be a sit down with linens and table décor. For portable events, I try to consolidate, but still throw in a tablecloth and a pot of herbs for décor. Sometimes people show up with their own decor ideas, and you might turn around to find a prayer candle for the Virgin of Guadalupe and a big sombrero right where you left your chip basket. Get creative, but be organized with a master list of what you will need.

Organize Arriving Food 

Once the food starts arriving, try to categorize it by how it will be used. For pizzas, that means putting all the sauces in one area, the cheeses in another, the scattering-type toppings in yet a third. For fajitas, put the tortillas at one end of the table and the cilantro sprigs at the other. This is your chance to be restaurateur for the day, so make a plan to lay out all contributions in a logical order. There may be some things that are for noshing now, so you can stage them in a separate area to clear space for working and setting up your buffet.

Be Flexible

This is like point number 7 on every Girl Scout badge – after Be Prepared, there is Be Flexible. Even the best planning will go off the rails at some point or in some way, but just roll with it. Extra people? No problem because I have extra plates! Forgot your spoon? Got it handled – because I pulled out extras. Didn’t read the part about having the soups to swap in individual containers for take away? Done and done! We will wash all the containers from the tasting portion and repackage with the soup that needs to be portioned.  At the end of the day, this is a party and the only rule is to have fun. Be inclusive. Be gracious. Share! Generosity of spirit covers a multitude of mistakes (that nobody but you needs know about).

Zero Footprint

Let’s leave this place better than we found it.  That goes for the host and also the participants. Whether the party is in your own home, someone else’s or at the park, enlist help to return to pre-party conditions. Too often we don’t want to break the spell by doing the mundane, but many hands make light work. Don’t be a martyr – this is a community party so it’s a great time to get some extra hands to hand back platters and serving utensils, pack up the dirty things and make a trip to the recycle bin. That leaves you free to wake up tomorrow and bask in the memory of a great party, not to face a mound o’ mess!  

Meanwhile back at the fiesta….

here are some of the amazing dishes that arrived for the Fajita Fiesta. One section of the table was reserved for the more app-type contributions to nosh on while the grill was firing up – chips & salsas: pineapple, pico and mango, and guacamole. 

Pineapple Salsa in a pineapple half, on a pewter tray shaped like a pineapple

And there were so many toppings, among them grilled onions, squashes, and peppers. Pickled and fresh jalapenos, cilantro & lime, tomatoes, scallions, lettuce & arugula, sautéed mushrooms.  Oh my! Cheeses ranged from goat to queso fresco, and Monterey Jack to habanero cheddar. Corn and flour tortillas were given a quick pass on the grill to warm up and slightly char. Dan brought his legendary refried beans and there was a tomatillo cilantro rice.

Surveying the Feast overhead shot of the sides for the fajita bar

I kind of left Sauces & Salsas open, with only a few ideas offered, and the range of things that came in did not disappoint. A red chili sauce, the roasted Hatch chili salsa verde, a yogurt cumin sauce and several chunky salsas, including black bean & corn, mango coconut and pineapple.  Lots and lots of guacamole.

What I love is that everyone is into working the theme into the décor. Props showed up by the boat load (literally – across the lake by boat with a serape and maracas). Look how great these sauces are in the Mexican terracotta.

Fiesta Party Decor - Virgen of Guadalupe candle, mexican marionettes, maracas, mexican pottery

Salsa Verde and Salsa Roja in pitchers in a mexican terracotta tray

Next up the mains: In addition to the chipotle fig glazed chicken thighs, the main event included pork tenderloin, fish, shrimp, sirloin, chorizo, pulled brisket and shredded pork.

Give me some meat! overhead shot of all the accoutrement to accompany grilled fiesta meats - refried beans, salsa, etc

Chipotle Fig Chicken Fajitas

My contribution was this sweet heat chipotle and fig glazed chicken thighs. The chipotle fig marriage lands this chicken dish squarely in Mexican territory and the sweet and heat combo makes it a fiesta! Olé! Throw some tortillas on the grill, stuff with chicken, avocado, cilantro and a big squeeze of lime and you are on your way to a party in your mouth. 

Grilled tortillas wrapped in a tea towel

Balsamic Pepper Fig Spread in a jar with a wooden spoon on burlap

Grilled Chicken in Chipotle Fig Sauce

Grilled Veg in Salsa Verde


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Hand holding a fig marinated chicken fajita with avocado, garnished with lime and cilantro

Chipotle Fig Glazed Chicken & Fajita Fiesta

  • Author: Katy Keck
  • Total Time: 20 minutes
  • Yield: Serves 8 as a main, more if making fajitas 1x


The marriage of figs and chipotle lands this dish squarely in Mexican territory and the sweet and heat combo makes it a fiesta! Olé!




  • 10 ounce jar Balsamic Pepper Fig Spread
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 3 chipotle peppers in adobe sauce
  • Juice of two limes
  • 1 Tablespoon molasses
  • 1 teaspoon Kosher salt

2 pounds boneless chicken thighs


Make the marinade:

Place all ingredients in a small bowl and stir to combine. Makes 1 2/3 cups.

Prepare chicken:

Using about 1/4 of the marinade, combine with chicken and refrigerate, covered, for 1-2 hours, up to overnight. The remaining marinade will keep, refrigerated and covered, for several weeks.

Remove the thighs from the marinade, shaking off any excess marinade. Grill over a medium-hot fire (or bake the chicken at 350oF) until cooked through, about 5 minutes per side. Internal temperature should reach 165oF.

Let the chicken rest for ten minutes, then cut in strips if making fajitas.

  • Prep Time: 5 minutes (plus marinating time)
  • Cook Time: 15 minutes
  • Category: Mains
  • Method: Grilling
  • Cuisine: Mexican


Baby Young

At first I thought this little doll was eyeing the margaritas, but I realize now she was on to the cake. The cake on the left – Feliz Cumpleaños – was brought because, yes!, there has been yet another spin around the sun, and the other lovely was a wonderful Tres Leches.

Considering having a Pot Lucky of your own? Let me know in the comments or pick my brain at [email protected].

Cake! Birthday Cake and Tres Leches cake

Lighting the candles on the birthday cake

© Copyright: KatyKeck.com 2017. All rights reserved.

Hey, we want to hear from you!

Don’t forget to Comment, Share & Subscribe to our blog.