Old Dog Baking offers delicious new tricks

BAR HARBOR — In the wee hours of the morning, Steve Anastasia is hard at work in the kitchen at Sweet Pea Farm Café. Doing business as Old Dog Baking Company, he uses the wood-fired oven when it’s not in use by the café to make a variety of naturally leavened breads. The “naturally-leavened” part means they all have a native yeast ferment, otherwise known as a starter or levain. Sourdough bread is one classic made this way, but Old Dog also offers baguettes, ciabatta, semolina, rye and Maine-grown whole wheat.

He uses King Arthur white flour, which is produced in Vermont. Whole wheat and other flours come from Maine Grains in Skowhegan and Aurora Mills and Farm in Aroostook County. “I like trying to keep our money local, in the state and in small businesses, because that’s where the greatest multiplying effect exists,” he said. “Also, wheat that’s being grown locally has a different profile to it. The farmers are using varieties that thrive in Maine rather than the more homogeneous stuff grown elsewhere.”

Steve Anastasia uses a wooden tool called a peel to remove loaves of bread from the wood-fired oven at Sweet Pea Farm. He sells the bread to “subscribers” through his company, Old Dog Baking. PHOTO BY LIZ GRAVES

Steve Anastasia uses a wooden tool called a peel to remove loaves of bread from the wood-fired oven at Sweet Pea Farm. He sells the bread to “subscribers” through his company, Old Dog Baking.

Naturally-leavened breads taste better than those made with quick-acting commercial yeast, he said. They also have a longer shelf (or pantry) life, because fermentation of the yeast as it digests the starches and sugars slows down mold growth. Naturally occurring yeast is an airborne organism that breaks down the flour. It’s what you would get if you made your own starter by leaving a water-flour mixture out in the open. Anything that would be harmful to eat gets killed off by the acidity created in the fermentation process. “It’s the stuff people have been using in breads from the beginning of bread,” he said.

Anastasia created Old Dog in March of this year, after spending much of the winter experimenting with the oven. “I was trying to understand this particular oven and how it behaves, he said. “Ovens all have their own behaviors, every time you bake it’s a little different. There’s variation in each day’s bread. It’s fun to have it that way.”

Sweet Pea owner Matt Gerald has been very supportive, Anastasia said. “He’s kind of incubating my business. He has gone out of his way to encourage me and help me get started.”

This time of year, he’ll start work between 1 and 2 a.m. to be done by 6, when the café staff arrives for the breakfast shift. He’ll bake 60-70 loaves in a typical day. “Some breads and some days I start from flour and leaven and go all the way to finished product, but often while I’m baking I’m preparing the next day’s bread. I’ll get it through the first rise or first proofing, form and shape it and cool it in a walk-in so 24 hours later it’s ready to bake.”

After many years as a home baker, Anastasia was introduced to this kind of artisan bread when working as a lighthouse caretaker at Point Reyes in California. He got to know a builder of wood-fired ovens and the folks at Brick Maiden Breads in Point Reyes Station. “That turned me on to wood-fired ovens and baking in this manner.”

The ovens are very versatile. “I use the heat of the oven to bake hearth breads,” he said, “but at different temperatures you could be roasting vegetables, making yogurt, the list goes on and on.”

Most of his customers have a “bread subscription.” It works like a share in a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm: they pick up their bread at a dropoff point, or for a fee, he’ll deliver.

The structure has worked well so far, he said. “It allows me to know what I’m selling and leave less waste. Plus, it’s fun to see the people I’m selling bread to. You get immediate feedback and build relationships that way. I love having this mix of bread strengthening community.”

He hopes to bake bread year-round. Limited supplies of Old Dog bread are available at A&B and Peekytoe Provisions in Bar Harbor, Mrs. Brown’s in Northeast Harbor and the farm stand at Beech Hill Farm.

He named the company for the dog his family had when they lived at the lighthouse, a shepherd/Samoyed mix named Jello. “She was big, white and fluffy, she blended in with the fog sometimes,” he said. “When you have an old dog you generally have a really strong relationship with it.”

Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander reporter and editor Liz Graves grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor.

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