If you've ever fantasized about baked goods—well, join the club. But while most of us indulge in gastronomic reveries from time to time, it takes special devotion to dream up a whole new recipe. That's just what Louisville, Kentucky, Baker Deanna Rushing did. "When I was working with Kathy Cary at Lilly's, I had a dream about lavender bread. I had all the ingredients in the dream, and I went to work the next day and baked it." More than 20 years later, this baker's vision has proven its staying power through several incarnations.
Pick up a Rushing lavender loaf from Wiltshire Pantry Bakery and Cafe these days and you get a bread that's fragrant and crusty, with a complexity of flavor and a toothsome chew that can only be achieved through artisan methods. This wasn't always the case. "I've been making lavender bread the whole time I've been baking, and it's changed quite a bit," she says. "I sold the old version of it at the market and people went crazy for it." She's graduated from her original soft milk-honey-and-clove-enriched dough to a carefully crafted baguette-style version in which the lavender acts as a subtle aromatic backdrop for the complexity of the bread itself. "You don't really taste the lavender, you smell it."
Fresh loaves at Wiltshire Pantry Bakery and Cafe
Lavender for the lavender loaves
Making the dough
Ready for the oven
Baker Deanna Rushing and Owner Susan Hershberg of Wiltshire Pantry – Louisville, KY
It all starts with freshly milled, non-GMO, pesticide-free flour from the folks at nearby Wheat-n-Things. "When I get [the flour] it's still thriving," says Rushing. Spring water (never chlorinated-fluoridated tap water) is the key to nurturing the highly active wild yeast strains naturally present in this wheat, virtually eliminating the need for commercial yeast.
A slow proofing of the levain—made with lavender flour-infused water—develops that distinctive sourdough tang and depth of flavor. And ample resting time allows the dough to autolyse, or properly hydrate. "By using the first 40 minutes to let the flour absorb the water on a microscopic level, you eliminate the need for all that kneading," she says. Gently encouraging gluten development lays the groundwork for the dough-folding method, ultimately creating a more beautiful, chewy crumb. "I love to show my apprentices this technique. They can't believe that within an hour and a half, with no kneading, the bread goes from a shaggy mess to a pillow-y mass."
It may sound simple, but this kind of fine-tuned technique is a far cry from Rushing's start. As a beginner cook in the early 1980's, she learned industrial production methods typical of mid-century American foodways: copious quantities of bland homogenized commercial yeasts helped bakers achieve a fast and consistent rise, while intensive mixing was used to forcefully speed hydration and gluten development. The trade off was flavor and texture in favor of uniformity and reliability. But throughout the 1990s, a few intrepid souls began questioning the value of foods produced at such a cost. Rushing took note, educating herself on the new (old) methods being championed by the likes of food scientist Raymond Calvel, Bread Alone's Dan Leader, and later Sullivan Street Bakery's Jim Lahey and Tartine's Chad Robertson.
Rushing was soon ready to make the leap herself. Her moment came in Susan Hershberg's catering kitchen pre-Wiltshire, when her faithful turquoise 1947 Blakeslee mixer fell apart in the middle of a batch of dough. Rushing balked at the idea of replacing the beloved machine. "I became obstinate and decided, 'If I can't have my Blakeslee, I'm just going to mix my bread by hand.'" Rushing abandoned industrial methods and her defunct mixer, wholeheartedly embracing wild yeast cultivation and hand-folding—and a new world of flavors and textures opened up. "The baguettes and breads I do with this technique are real chewy on the inside and crusty on the outside. The flavors are deeper ... it makes sense."
While she has acquired another mixer, Rushing's new approach is here to stay. And the breads she's producing these days, lavender and otherwise, are dreamier than ever before.