This story begins at Grand Central, in downtown Palm Springs, where I ordered avocado toast one Saturday morning. It was good. In fact, it was damn good. Was it the silky avocado, the panko-crusted egg, the light sprinkling of dukkah? No. It was the bread. Chewy, crusty, sour, earthy — everything I love (and seldom find) in good sourdough bread. So when the restaurant’s co-owner, John Diskin, stopped by my table to ask how everything was, I told him it was the best damn avocado toast I’d ever had in my life. “The bread is amazing.” He laughed, thanked me, and said, “But that’s not our bread. It’s from Bread and Flours. You know them? Mark and Kristin? She’s bringing us a delivery right now. Would you like to talk to her?”
I bake my own sourdough bread, but it’s nothing like this — of course I wanted to talk to her. Kristin comes over and we chat for a few minutes. She tells me about the breads her husband bakes and the jams she makes to go with them. I want to hear more. So she sits down. I order her a coffee and we chat for 10 or 15 minutes — about the sourdough (made with local grains from the Imperial Valley that her husband grinds by hand), about her former job (as a professional wine rep), about bees (she’s also a beekeeper). The whole story sounds, well, crazy. “It kind of is,” she says. “But we love it. If you saw Mark baking, you’d understand.”
Can I really do that, I ask. Sure, she says. “Mark bakes a couple hundred loaves every week out of our little kitchen. It’s a little chaotic but definitely entertaining. Come on by Thursday morning if you’re really interested.” So I do.
Still, he considers the risk worth it. He knows he could buy bags of pre-ground, pre-mixed bread dough from any one of a number of sales reps who regularly contact him, trying to make his job easier and safer, as they tell him, but that’s not what he’s about. “For me, freshness is the most important thing,” he says, dumping some wheat berries into the mill. “Everything has to be at its peak. I don’t use pre-ground flour or dough softeners or preservatives or any of those things the big boys use. I want to know where my wheat berries come from because the bread gets its flavor from the soil, the terroir, just like in wine grapes.”
Mark would know about terroir. Until he started baking bread a few years ago, he, like his wife, Kristin, was a wine rep. They lived in a high-rise apartment overlooking Lake Michigan in Chicago, had six-figure incomes, and traveled more than six months out of the year to France, Italy, Spain, New Zealand, Argentina, and Chile. “We were living the high life,” he says. Then, in 2014, his father died and everything changed. He and Kristin came to the desert to help his mom, who was struggling with her new life, and ended up staying. But it wasn’t a straight line from hosting wine tasting dinners at Charlie Trotter’s to spending his mornings milling wheat berries. First, there was running a cleaning franchise (which was successful enough that he was bought out by a larger company in West Virginia three years later), followed by a brief stint in real estate, which, he says, “wasn’t really my thing.”
Thursday, 11 a.m. Outside, it’s 93 degrees and 27 percent humidity; inside, though the air conditioner is on, it feels even hotter. Maybe it’s because Mark spends long hours mostly alone futzing with tubs of bread dough and cranky baking equipment. (This morning, he’s trying to unjam his noisy bread slicer.) Mark likes to name everything in his kitchen. He has no helpers or apprentices, but there’s his constant companion, Lupia, the tub of sourdough starter who sits like a silent buddha in a clear tub atop one of his ovens. There’s Roxie, the commercial stand mixer, and, of course, Jumbo, the stone mill. Now, it’s time for Mr. Poolish to rise — the bread leaven made from just-milled flour, spring water, and a heaping helping of Lupia.
Mr. Poolish, who has been rising and bubbling away for several hours, is now mixed with Desert Durum, from low-desert farms in Arizona and California, and Methow Hard Red Wheat from Washington, into dough, which then begins a long, slow fermentation process that includes folding the dough every 30 minutes or so for several hours until it has become airy and easy to handle and almost double in size.
There are, of course, much easier ways to make bread, but Mark isn’t interested in the easy way. “I’m anti-easy when it comes to making my loaves. There’s a reason why I do everything the way I do. Like it would be easy to just bake a loaf of bread and stick it in a plastic bag but if you do that, the bread can’t breathe. And plastic is a petroleum, so your food is going in to a petroleum container. Which is why we hand-wrap our bread in paper — so the bread can breathe.”
After the fermentation process, which lasts all afternoon, Mark cuts the dough in to 1,050-gram balls (a little over 2 pounds), plops them in to bannetons, and stacks them in commercial refrigerators, set to 45 degrees, where they will go through a second fermentation overnight. Then, he starts an hours-long process of cleaning up and sanitizing all of his equipment. “Sixty percent of the work of baking bread,” he says, “is cleaning up.”
Friday, 2 p.m. Mark has been baking bread all morning long. Dozens of loaves sit cooling on stainless steel racks. Meanwhile, he’s mixing up a batch of his banana bread, which doesn’t need to rise but gets the same attention to detail as his other loaves. It’s made with maple syrup, olive oil, cinnamon, fresh ginger and all-spice, which he grinds by hand, pink Himalayan sea salt, baking powder, baking soda, and lots of bananas, which he adds to Roxie, the stand mixer, along with the flour. “I like my bananas a little chunky, so I don’t mash them.”
While she stirs down the blueberries, I ask her a question I’ve been dying to ask: Why are they making artisanal bread and jam in a hot little house in Palm Springs when they could be sitting on the balcony of their Chicago apartment catching the breeze from Lake Michigan and sipping a lightly chilled Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand?
Kristin laughs and says, “I guess it’s my fault.” Mark, she notes, was just baking bread as a hobby but everyone was telling him it was really good bread. “After maybe a few too many glasses of wine, I thought it would be a cute idea to order him a professional baking oven. The next morning, I had buyer’s remorse and was going to cancel the order, but Mark said, No! You can’t cancel it. So we got the oven. From there, it became clear that baking bread was Mark’s calling. It was something he felt so compelled to do. You can’t stand in the way of your partner’s happiness, can you?”
Saturday, 8:30 a.m. Every Saturday morning, Mark and Kristin drive from Palm Springs to La Quinta making at-home deliveries. They load their separate cars with brown paper bags filled with hand-wrapped loaves of bread, coolers of sourdough pizza dough, and locally produced items from their online pantry: Aziz Farm Medjool dates, Hellenic Farms fig salami, Imperial olive oil, sun-ripened Mojave gold raisins on the vine, Wild Goose coffee beans, Mark’s granola, and Kristin’s jams and preserves.
“I went down a deep rabbit hole. I just kept experimenting and learning everything I could.”
Kristin is heading up Gene Autry Trail toward Interstate 10 for her first delivery but stops at Vista Chino because the road is closed due to blowing sand. She mutters the S word and says, “Well, that’s going to mess up my morning.” She flips through her stack of orders and calls her client, Tatiana, and they agree to meet at the Palm Springs Farmers Market in the parking lot of the Palm Springs Cultural Center.
“I’m anti-easy when it comes to making my loaves. There’s a reason I do everything the way I do.”
At every stop, Kristin inevitably ends up chatting with her customers. They love to tell her what they do with the bread — the BLT sandwiches, the French toast, the grilled pan con tomate. They tell her about their pets, landscaping chores, house painting projects.
Many of the deliveries are for a single loaf of bread, but Kristin is cheerful, upbeat, and enjoys talking to their customers. At one stop at an apartment complex, she has to climb three flights of stairs and trudge to the very back corner of the complex in 100-degree heat to deliver four loaves of Sourdough Sammie.
There are more deliveries of pizza dough, raspberry jam, loaves of Seed You Sammie and SoCal Sourdough, two boxes of granola, some Wild Goose espresso beans, and a loaf or two of banana bread. The final delivery, in the Araby neighborhood, is for sliced sandwich bread and a loaf of Mark’s sprouted Emmer sourdough loaf. It’s a little after 1 p.m. on a hot Saturday afternoon, and Kristin and Mark’s week is finally done. Tomorrow, they have the day off and plan to sleep late and maybe play with their two hairless cats.
On Monday morning, they’ll start all over again.
Bread and Flours sells its breads and assorted pantry items, including Kristin’s jams, at the Indian Wells Farmers Market on Thursdays. Their products are also available online, at breadandflours.com, for Saturday home delivery.
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