This Thanksgiving, homemade dinner rolls are a sure thing. One basic dough recipe can be turned into a variety of shapes, resulting in a bread basket that looks as tantalizing as it tastes, piled with classic cloverleafs, buttery fan tans, seeded knots and crescents. (Tom Wallace/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT)
Photo: Tom Wallace/MCT
Photo: Tom Wallace/MCT

Chemical engineer turned baker offers tips for bread

The smell of freshly baked treats greets patrons as they step into the newly opened Village Oven at 1407 Union St., in Brunswick. 

The brand new bistro, just five weeks in operation, was formerly the site of a car wash, but has found new life as a Euro-inspired cafe. The latest locale to join the ranks of the downtown business is the brain child of Drew Gahagan. The entrepreneur hopes to create an establishment reminiscent of the tiny, family-owned bakeries found across the pond. 

“You see them all over there ... I wanted to create something similar to that. But people here aren’t really used to those things and the way they are made there. So you have to introduce them gradually,” he said, seated at a table in the bakery. 

The entire enterprise has unfolded gradually for Gahagan. Not only is he new to owning a business — he’s fairly new to baking in general. But his background, one based in the precision of chemical engineering, laid a solid, if unforeseen, connection. 

“I lost my job ... they had a ‘reduction in force’ so I started looking at other jobs. I kept thinking that the things I didn’t like about that job would probably be the same thing that I didn’t like about other jobs,” he said. “After about six months of looking at what was available, I thought I just need to do something different.” 

His wife agreed and offered an unexpected suggestion — open a bakery. While the couple cooked together, baking was not exactly his forte. 

“I said ‘are you kidding?’ I put it in the back of my head. Now people always ask me ‘do you like cooking ... and I say no I like eating,’” he said with a laugh. “But I was working with a career coach and working on a business plan ... it just began to take shape.” 

His former career had landed him in Europe for one week a year where he enjoyed the local bakeries dotting the streets of “Old World” cities. It inspired him to create an Americanized version downtown. 

“I really loved those places and the pace of life. I thought I try could couple foods that aren’t totally unfamiliar here,” he said. 

Gahagan has since been turning out more recognizable items like scones, Belgian waffles and pastries. He has also created a lunch menu with a variety of sandwiches and quiches. 

But one of his focal points is homemade bread. Purchasing freshly baked breads is common in Europe but is not something done often in America. 

“You just kind of hope they buy a sandwich and then buy the (loaf of) bread,” he said. 

Since starting the bakery, however, Gahagan has become a bit of bread master, trying his hand at a number of recipes unit he found what works best. There are endless styles, recipes, tips and tricks when it comes to crafting bread. 

“There is a process. The hardest thing about bread at home is that the ovens don’t reheat quickly enough,” he said. 

“You have these big (oven) doors at home ... big enough to put a turkey in so when you heat it up, then open it to put the bread it, the heat escapes.” 

That quick little movement can decrease the oven’s temperature by 100 to 150 degrees. Gahagan said the newer ovens also won’t recover that heat fast enough. 

“They have made ovens really well insulated so they need really small elements to get them hot. They will hold the heat but they are slow to reheat,” he said. 

“The best thing to do is to heat it all the way up ... as high as it will go. Then once you get the bread in, set it back to main temperature.” 

He also suggests using a baking stone or even metals to help maintain a high heat. 

“You can put your stone in the oven even if you don’t bake the bread on it. It helps hold heat. Other people use ironware, skillets or other things. I tried that and it didn’t help me all that much, but you can try it.” 

Moisture, he says, is key, however. 

“You need moisture right at the beginning of the baking process. Some people like to put pans with water in the oven but ... it doesn’t work very well,” he said. 

Gahagan has found that putting the water directly into the bottom of the oven is useful, provided the design of the oven cooperates. 

“Some ovens have those curved, sealed bottoms so I would put the water directly into that. Put your bread in, put half cup of water in the bottom of the oven and it will immediately vaporize,” he said. 

“If you have an oven where that won’t work, put a cast-iron skillet in the bottom and preheat it when you’re heating the oven up. Heat the skillet too. Put the bread in and put the water in the skillet and shut the door. Keep the door closed as much as possible.” 

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