While chatting with Now You’re Cooking Owner Mike Fear one afternoon, the conversation segued to the art of bread making. The immediate excitement in his voice said “passion” grounded in experience and depth of knowledge.
Seasoned bread makers and novices as well will appreciate Mike’s perspective, shared here, along with his recommendations on ways to hone your bread baking skills.
Above: Mike Fear with Mike Fear and three loaves of his famous sourdough.
You were born and raised in a small village near Bath, England, by a mom who was an excellent cook. What were some of your favorite dishes and a few of her favored expressions?
My Mum cooked on a farm, and often had a lot of mouths to feed. We raised much of the food we ate, including milk, lamb, beef, vegetables and fruit. My mother ran our strawberry operation, which would produce several tons of fruit each week at the height of the season. How she was able to do her daily tasks and still have breakfast, dinner and tea for the “menfolk” is hard to imagine. I suppose my favorite foods were for the storied English tea. She would make scones, meringues, brandy snaps and eclairs to die for. On top of which, she would make the strawberry jam and clotted cream! She was so self-effacing and often claimed it was “not very exciting,” when it was, in fact, fantastic.
Did her cooking influence the opening of Now You’re Cooking?
Mum would always be willing to let me help her with baking, and would let me cook simple things on my own when I was little. When I was seven years old, I bought my first cookbook and I was off to the races: rock cakes with buttercream were my specialty. From then on, I enjoyed cooking for myself and friends, and over the years, I frequented a great many cooking shops all over the world. My very patient wife, Betsy, said it was inevitable that I would open my own cookware store.
How did you become interested in bread making?
Growing up in Europe you got used to eating amazing bread. Bread in France with some lovely cheese is so good. Even in England, we had really lovely bread, and a staple on a farm was bread and cheese. Living in the Cheddar Valley, we ate the best Cheddar cheese, and we had a baker nearby with an amazing steam oven to crank out beautiful bread for the region. Ever since moving to the States I wanted to eat good bread, and it could be a bit hit and miss. So, I decided I could make it!
Your experience didn’t start off too well. “A failed bread maker,” was how you put it. What turned failure into passion?
I’d like to say persistence, but it was no-knead bread that started me on the road after years of making bread bricks. No-knead Bread was made popular in the New York Times about 15 years ago, and it is no fail and really delicious. After my successes with No Knead, I found Flour Water Salt Yeast by Ken Forkish. He gives comprehendible information on how to make a variety of breads, especially sourdough, and suddenly I took to it like a duck to water.
What advice would you offer to those who would like to try their hand at bread making?
Talk to other breadmakers, like me, or Joel, who works in our wine department. There’s a lot of information on the web, probably too much; plus, it’s not curated. There are some super bread books out there, especially Flour Water Salt Yeast.
Does Now You’re Cooking offer classes in bread making?
Jim Amaral of Borealis Breads has done a number of bread classes in our kitchen, and we hope to bring him back as soon as we get some semblance of normalcy. The most important reinforcement he gave me was “stretch and fold”—the bread dough, that is!
How does the love of cooking shared by you and your staff translate into great customer service?
We always strive to give good service. I think over the past 20 years the Now You’re Cooking staff has demonstrated this not only with great products, but also with really good practical information. We can demonstrate many of our products in our in-store kitchen. For the past few months, we have been doing a live demo on Facebook every Thursday night. We really have a lot of years of cooking experience in the Now You’re Cooking fold.
. . .
Wow, I have so many! I think I have to say cream. Whipped cream, clotted cream, double cream, crème fraiche. I often look for foods that lend themselves to a dollop of cream. In England, when the dessert tray comes around, I respond with a simple “yes please” when they ask if I want pouring cream or clotted cream on my sticky toffee pudding!
Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast by Ken Forkish
My favorite bread baking cookbook. A great gift for someone just starting on their bread baking journey, or someone who’s already proficient but wants to take their loaves to the next level.
OXO Instant Read Thermometer
Water at the right temperature for the yeast is critical. The Instant Read is reliable, intelligently designed with easy to read large digits. The head tilts so you can see the temperature reading even when it’s vertical.
Mrs. Anderson’s Bread Lamé
Slashing the bread will help it to expand predictably in the oven. Also, a way to personalize your loaves with fun designs and names for gifts.
Progressive Bash ’N Chop
A workhorse in the kitchen. Divide dough, cube cold butter for pastry, or scrape counters clean. Essentially a bench knife, often used for working with bread and cutting the dough into smaller portions. The ruler on the side makes measuring dough thickness so easy. Great, as well, for bashing garlic and ginger.
Staub 4-Quart Cocotte
This Staub enameled cast-iron pot holds steam in during cooking, which creates a crusty bread exterior while leaving the inside nice and pillowy. Plus, it’s the perfect size to for making beef stew during cold Maine winters.
British Delights PVC Union Jack Apron
Something fun I like to wear to keep myself free of flour while paying homage to my heritage! I had my first when I was a kid.
Escali Arti Glass Scale
Essential for accurately measuring ingredients, especially flour whose weight is affected by humidity. I also weigh the water. These glass scales come in a variety of bright colors—I leave mine on the kitchen counter when not in use.
OXO Stainless Steel Insulated Mixing Bowls (set of 3)
These bowls have a wonderful grip on the bottom that keeps them solidly in place while you’re mixing.
Zassenhaus Magnetic Retro 60 Minute Kitchen Timer
In bread making, timing is essential, no wiggle room. Keeping time never looked so good.
Cultivated Thread Handwoven Kitchen Towels
The Cultivated Thread is a small-batch weaving studio located right here in Bath, Maine. They work exclusively with natural fibers and source organic and/or U.S.–produced materials as much as possible. They add a beautiful pop of color to your kitchen and are highly functional, too!
OXO Silicone Baking Mat
These mats have replaced parchment in our Now You’re Cooking demo kitchen and in our homes. They have a nonstick surface that can be baked on and then easily wiped clean. They make a great surface for the counter, so I don’t have to use as much flour and the dough won’t stick. If I’m making a pavlova—a meringue-based dessert or shell filled with whipped cream and fruit and named after the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova—I put it on a mat and it peels right off.
Frieling Proofing Basket
Made of natural cane, these baskets give a better rise to produce crustier bread. They also leave the famous ringed markings on the finished loaves that are a signature of European breads. I always use these to proof my bread dough. Often I use them in the refrigerator when I proof my hybrid sourdough overnight.
Breville Temperature Select Electric Kettle
Stay energized through all of your fall baking projects with coffee and teas made with this electric kettle. Boasting five temperature settings for tea and coffee, making it simple to attain the perfect temperature for black, green, white, oolong teas or French press coffee.
Food Huggers Flexible Silicone and Glass Stackable Lids
These are the only flexible-fit lids with the strength to stack. The tempered glass lens lets you see what’s inside. I find them helpful for keeping a lid on the sourdough starter.
Emile Henry Bread Cloche
This ceramic bread baker not only helps to yield crusty bread with a soft interior, it can be used for roasting vegetables or meat. Also, it makes a beautiful tray for serving and storing your bread.
Zwilling Pro 9-inch Bread Knife
A comfortable knife with a sharp blade to slice through even the crustiest of breads.