The year was 2005 when the world understood how dignified the American baking industry had emerged. For the second time in three occasions, the US team had triumphed in the world’s most prestigious event for craft bakers, winning the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie in Paris. Today, the three US team members – William Leaman in artistic design, Jeffrey Yankellow in baguette & specialty breads, and Jory Downer in viennoiserie – are among the most prominent bakery experts in the country.

At the 2019 International Baking Industry Exposition (IBIE), Downer shared pleasant memories when he demonstrated an award-winning pastry that he and The Bread Bakers Guild of America Team USA produced. “We did a dulce de leche crémeux that we cast in a Flexipan and popped out and put in the center of the pastry. We added slices of fresh mango, papaya, and red currents for color.”

Viennoiserie now ranks among the most recognized categories of French pastry, thanks to its flagship baked good, the croissant, according to the Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. The word “viennoiserie” – French for “things from Vienna” – describes a whole category of pastry that includes croissants, pain au raisins and brioche.

Bennison’s Bakery has been a Chicago North Shore institution since 1938, earning a reputation as a popular full-line bakery that specializes in European-style pastries, cookies and custom-decorated cakes. In 1975, Jory Downer followed in his father’s footsteps to join the bakery after learning the craft from his father, Guy, and attending culinary school and classes to improve his skill, eventually achieving the position of Certified Master Baker.

Like many retail bakeries, Bennison’s evolved with changing times. Similarly, Randy George started Red Hen Baking Company in September 1999 on Route 100 in Duxbury, Vermont. George had been baking bread for several years, both in his home state of Maine as well as in Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington. When Randy and his (future) wife Eliza Cain decided to move back to Liza’s home turf in the Mad River Valley of Vermont, they did so with the intention of opening a bakery.

“We don’t really gain a clear picture of the times we are living in until we have the perspective of distance,” George says today. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot ever since we crossed the two-decade mark in our business a couple of years ago. In many ways, it seems like just yesterday that we hung out our shingle in September of ‘99. But when I think about other periods in history, I’m reminded that a lot happens in 20 years. Take 1945 to 1965, for instance. We can all think of huge changes that happened in those two decades. When you think about it, we probably have seen similarly world-altering changes in the last 20 years.”

Consider these factual nuggets, the baker recalls about the year they first opened:

  • Bill Clinton was President.
  • No one knew who Osama Bin Laden was.
  • Cronuts were not even a twinkle in Dominique Ansel’s eye.
  • The Bread Baker’s Guild of America was six years old.
  • There was one option available to the bakery for flour milled from local wheat. It was whole wheat flour milled by the farmer who grew it and there was no available data on it.

“If I was to guess, I’d say that the protein percentage was 9 at most,” George recalls. “My guess is that most years, this flour had a falling number of 200 or perhaps, less. In other words, as many bakers these days know, it wasn’t much use if it made up more than about 20% of a bread formula.

“Today, we all know what has transpired in the first four areas I listed,” he continues. “Many of us have also witnessed the transformation that has taken place across the country when it comes to bakers connecting with the source of our main ingredient. Twenty years ago, most bakers gave very little thought to where their flour came from. They would buy the type that worked for what they were making. Enthusiastic bakers might know the protein percentages of the flour they worked with, but many didn’t even think about that… and almost no one thought about things like ash content, wheat types and varieties, or where the wheat was grown.”

Today, from field to hearth and everywhere in between, people have thrown themselves into the work of educating themselves about grain growing, harvesting, and milling. It’s not entirely unusual these days to find bakers discussing such esoteric topics as the differences between Red Fife and Benatka wheat or how they dressed their millstones and adjusted the screens on their bolter to get a really silky high extraction flour, George points out.

“In the early 2000s, I recall being so excited when we bought flour from a large organic mill that listed the name and location of the farmer (usually in Nebraska or Kansas) on each load of flour. We supplemented that flour by buying a small amount of that aforementioned whole wheat flour. That was about as good as it got back then. Today, we buy all but a tiny fraction of our grain and flour from three farmers. All of that grain is grown within 150 miles of the bakery. We stone mill several hundred pounds of whole wheat, rye and corn every week on our locally made mill.”

If you told George in 2001 that this would be the bakery’s reality in 2021, he never would have believed it. And the story of Red Hen is not entirely unusual. The list of university-based researchers doing groundbreaking work on growing, processing and baking with local grain is long and covers all regions of the country.

“We have Steve Jones’ Bread Lab in Washington State,” George says. “In Vermont, it’s Heather Darby and the Northern Grain Growers Association, but that’s only the beginning. These days, it seems that every corner of the U.S. has a team of agronomists and bakers working to advance the production of top-quality grain that is well-suited to that particular area. In each of these areas, there is a list of bakeries putting this new knowledge to use by creating great bread that is an expression of the new agricultural economy that continues to develop in response to the enthusiasm for local grain.”

Advent of technology

Likewise, in the all-important cake sector, similar advances have taken place over the past two decades, particularly in the adoption of new technology and design.

“The most significant single change that has happened to the industry in the last 20 years is the advent of technology, particularly the tremendous development of the Internet and social media,” points out Mark Seaman, a Certified Master Sugar Artist and Culinary Applications Chef for Barry Callebaut. He has owned two successful businesses in the Chicago area: an exclusive wedding cake boutique, and a separate retail bakery. 

When Seaman first started his wedding cake business in the early 2000s, the only real way to showcase your work was through wedding magazines. Running an ad was an expensive ordeal, he recalls, and there was no way to really know how many people you were reaching. 

“Today you can share as many visuals of your work as you like and know instantly which ones are most popular among your followers,” he says.

Technology has afforded cake shops across the country an amazing ability to connect with consumers in engaging ways. Freed’s Bakery in Las Vegas, a national leader in the wedding cake industry, has taken another step forward with its latest creation by announcing that it has developed the world’s first non-fungible token (NFT) wedding cake. It features a GIF of a handcrafted, digitized spinning wedding cake. The NFT is a token that can be used to represent ownership of a unique item.

Freed’s NFT was made available through auction in September. The bidding started at 0.1 of the cryptocurrency Ethereum, equal to $370.06. More NFT cake auctions are underway, including a rainbow cake and a pink pour sunset cake. They can be viewed at the OpenSea website.

Home delivery is another important option for the cake shop.

“We offer local delivery across the Vegas Valley, and pricing is based on the zip code for the delivery address. We ask for a three-hour window in which someone will be able to accept the cake,” according to Freed’s.

Lack of fiber

“Quality of life is the No. 1 priority, and our bread is one of the most amazing things ever to eat,” says Craig Ponsford, head baker and owner at Ponsford’s Place in San Rafael, California.

The challenge for him is dealing with what he calls “the good, the bad, and the ugly” of current affairs in America. There is a huge population that is “very undereducated about food,” and the cost is staggering.

“It still boils down to the same thing. The lack of fiber in our diets is mind boggling,” he says. “I’m very frustrated – more than any time in history. What’s happening now is 100 times worse than what happened when the Atkins diet was popular years ago.”

A decade ago, Ponsford proved to be a pioneer in using 100% whole grains in everything he made. While this practice is gaining popularity, it is but a small fraction of overall bread consumption in America. Ponsford strongly believes this needs to change.

“The message is, ‘eat your whole grains,’ but there is a disconnect,” the experienced bread baker says. “People aren’t understanding, and many still feel the need to buy bread with a tablespoon of sugar in it.”

Mike Zakowski, owner of The Bejkr in Sonoma, California, points out that grain quality can vary a lot from season to season, even plot to plot, “as all soils are different and have different needs for replacing nutrients into the soil. For example, if it’s a hard red wheat that is weak or has a low protein that won’t develop into good bread structure, maybe it can be used for sprouting, crackers, dog biscuits and possibly countless other uses.”

Speaking at the 2017 International Bread Symposium at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, North Carolina, Chad Robertson of the acclaimed Tartine Bakery in San Francisco said he’s learned plenty of valuable lessons since working with local and ancient grains for more than a decade.

“I want to get back to using lots of fresh milled stuff. There’s no other way to get that flavor,” Robertson said. “But I have learned that for me to mill everything myself is too much. So why not work with fresh millers nearby?”

Specialization takes hold

Once the Cronut was born at New York City’s Dominique Ansel Bakery on May 10, 2013, Cronut fans spanned the world from Berlin to Singapore, making it the most virally talked about dessert item of the year. Time magazine proclaimed the Cronut as one of the 25 best innovations of 2013.

“I never thought it was going to go that big,” recalls Ansel, who won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2014. “The second day we made 100 Cronuts and we sold out in one hour.”

While the Cronut is perhaps Ansel’s most famous item, the DKA remains a popular seller. Short for “Dominique’s Kouign Amann,” it is best described as a “caramelized croissant” with a crispy sugary crust and tender flaky layers within.

What followed was a trend toward hybrid baked goods becoming the “in” thing. There are hybrid cars, hybrid breeds of dogs, and now hybrid pastries. A hybrid pastry combines one type of pastry or baked item with another. Starbucks once introduced a muffin-donut hybrid called the “duffin” in the United Kingdom. What followed from other bakeries across the country was a list of pastry-mashup names like Kreegals, Cruise-nuts and Krönums.

Asian flavor

As America’s population has grown, so has its diversity. At Keefer Court Bakery & Café in Minneapolis, Sunny and Paulina Kwan started the first Chinese bakery in Minnesota, serving traditional Cantonese food, pastries, and fortune cookies since 1983. The Kwan family remains at their original location off Cedar Ave and Riverside Ave near the University of Minnesota West Bank.

In 2017, they sold their fortune cookie division, and after 35 years of hard work, Sunny and Paulina passed the torch to their daughter, Michelle, to carry on the family legacy. Michelle is excited to continue serving the Twin Cities with their newest line of Chinese and Hong Kong style menu items, including a new line of vegan options.

Kabocha congee is one example. First, they boil down large pieces of Kobocha squash, water-soaked shiitake mushrooms and rice for several hours, until the mixture becomes more like a soup. They top it off with kimchi.

“It prompted me to realize we are becoming known in the vegan community,” Kwan says of the endeavor. “My family is from Hong Kong, but I was born here. This bakery was my playground growing up.”

Online selling

For Janice Jucker, who runs noted Houston bakery Three Brothers Bakery with her husband Bobby Jucker, their shop has experienced so much more competition in the past two decades, including Walmart and Amazon. She points out their P&L chart of accounts is three times as big, since the bakery opened in 1949.

What else has changed? Social media, websites, blogging, search-engine SEO, data security, etc.

“Online selling and offering different ways of shopping through third party sellers,” Jucker exclaims. “Climate change – because we have been hit by so many disasters (Houston, of late, suffers hurricane flooding nearly every year).”

You can't just come to work, work hard and be successful, she emphasizes. “The business is so much more than that - how to keep the team happy and feeling wanted, government policies, commodity prices and more.”

Baking obsession

Founded by James Beard award-winning pastry chef Christina Tosi, Milk Bar first opened its doors in NYC’s East Village, and soon developed a loyal fanbase. Recently profiled on Netflix’s docu-series Chef’s Table, Tosi is known for combining her formal culinary training and her informal obsession with home baking, grocery store staples and classic American sweets, with menu items like the Compost Cookie®, layer cakes with unfrosted sides, Cereal Milk™ Soft Serve, Milk Bar Pie and more.

“We are not just saying, “Mix to light and fluffy.’ We are writing measurable, comprehensible steps — using precise instructions,” Tosi explains. “We spend a lot of time in our R&D kitchens in New York and Los Angeles. If we are making a big batch, we’ll test a dough ball from the top of the mixer and one from the bottom. These types of steps help connect the team with what makes this cookie so special.”

This year, Milk Bar has been bringing its treats to customers in new cities this summer through “virtual” pop-ups. The bakery is showing up in various major American cities through popular delivery platforms including Postmates, Uber Eats, Caviar, DoorDash and Grubhub.

Among the items featured on these platforms for a limited time are a three-tiered birthday cake, Milk Bar Pie, a S’mores cookie cake and strawberry shortcake truffles. Prices range from $22 to $59 per item (before delivery fees) and quantities are limited.

These pop-ups have already taken place in various cities across the country, including Chicago, Atlanta, Minneapolis and Dallas.

In Northern California, Avery Ruzicka mills 90% of the—primarily local—grains in house; sources high-quality artisanal ingredients; employs time-honored baking techniques; and uses natural fermentation processes to create a rotating selection of sourdough loaves and sweet and savory pastries. 

Ruzicka’s new “Bake with Manresa Bread” mixes are available for nationwide shipping and local pick-up, either individually or as a bundle—making them a fun and interactive way to enjoy the bakery’s favorites at home. Each mix features house-milled flours and includes directions for conventional or vegan preparations. Featured mixes are sold individually or as a bundle ($45) and include House Milled Whole Grain Einkorn Waffle Mix, House Milled Rye Mocha Brownie Mix, and House Milled Whole Wheat Chocolate Chip Cookie Mix.