By Diana Williams Whitney, PGFC Founding Member Volunteer
In a wide-ranging interview with Eric Sorensen, proprietor of Pullman’s Clumsy Crow Baking, he shared the science and alchemy of bread, his new effort to meet community need during the health and economic crises, the benefit of the honor system, his grain and eggs sources, and a poem involving a crow that became the inspiration for Clumsy Crow Baking’s name.
The Beginning. A recently retired science writer at WSU, who well understands the chemical and physical processes involved fermentation and baking, Eric describes his enjoyment of the “magic “of bread baking as a kind “alchemy.” In our conversation he spoke purposefully of how with the “simple combination of static materials plus time” you end up with a “beautiful, tangible, aromatic, edible thing crackling on your well-worn counter.” Though he had baked using yeast since his college years, his “obsession” with baking naturally leavened (sourdough) breads came many years later, after visiting The Bread Lab at the WSU-Mount Vernon Research Center to cover a grain conference in the mid-2000s. He recalls, “I asked a grain scientist to recommend a book, and the book, “Tartine” by Chad Robertson, had me baking two loaves at a time. I started giving one of them away and realized I could scale up the process to sell bread with a Community Supported Baking subscription model.” He noted that finding good, authentic bread was, and still is, difficult in our community and that he takes joy in seeing other’s take their “first bite of real bread.” By 2017, Clumsy Crow Baking was licensed under Washington State’s Cottage Food Law and selling out mountains of fresh bread at the Pullman Farmers Market.
The Bread. At the heart of Clumsy Crow Baking are the naturally leavened (sourdough) batards and boules that are crafted in Eric’s home kitchen, a state licensed Cottage Bakery “crowded with baking equipment” and, after a decade of baking, very “worn countertops.” The batards (small baguette shaped loaves) and boules (larger round loaves) are allowed to ferment and rise overnight before being baked in a “small three-deck hearth oven.” From start to finish the process takes about 36 hours. “If I’m baking several products, I’m pretty much on my feet the whole time, ticking off a running mental spreadsheet of mixing, folding, shaping, baking, and bagging,” says Eric. A feat of kitchen choreography. “It’s intense and physically demanding, but very satisfying.”
The results are also very satisfying. A crispy dark gold loaf (with dark brown at the peaks) and a soft, somewhat “holey”, but firm interior. Perfect for eating on its own, with butter, cheese, or spread, as French toast, broiled for garlic bread, or baked into croutons.
In addition to artisan breads, Clumsy Crow Baking makes bagels, authentic German pretzels, baguettes, Danish seeded rye, a few pastries, and is planning on introducing cookies, focaccia, ciabatta, and cakes to the lineup.
Local Grain and Eggs. When asked about how he sources the grains and other supplies used in his baking, he replies, “I like to use Northwest grown and milled grains sold by Shepherd’s Grain and Cairnspring Mills. I also mill grain that I get from local farmers like Palouse Heritage in Endicott and Moon Family Farm in Prosser. I’ve been getting my eggs lately from Link’d Hearts Ranch” located just north of Pullman.
Clumsy Crow Bread Club. At present Clumsy Crow Baking is not selling at the Pullman Farmers Market due to the need for social distancing, but featured goods are available by prior arrangement most Saturdays at “Pop-Up Driveway Sales.” Each week, Eric sends out an email to members of the “Clumsy Crow Bread Club” detailing what he is baking that week. Members reserve their selections by email then walk, bike, or drive to his home near Kruegel Park where they pick up their order from tables located on his driveway. There is a cash jar for payment on the honor system, which has never “come up short” in over two years. People can also pay online via Venmo. According to Eric, “The best way for people to get my bread is by sending me their email address, the sole price of admission to the Clumsy Crow Bread Club.”
Palouse Neighbor Loaves. In response to the current pandemic and the economic crisis many are experiencing, Eric has started an effort called Palouse Neighbor Loaves as a way Clumsy Crow Baking can donate fresh bread to area food pantries. Similar to a pay-it-forward campaign, people purchasing bread have the option of donating the cost of a half boule ($4.00) once a month. Donations are then used to purchase supplies to be used in baking additional loaves, which are then donated to the Palouse and Albion Food Pantries. In its inaugural month, the Palouse Neighbor Loaves project was able to donate six dozen loaves of fresh, healthy bread to those in need.
The Future. Throughout our conversation, Eric was clear that despite its popularity, he has no desire to make Clumsy Crow Baking a full time, “plastic wrapped/on the shelf” commercial enterprise with the financial risk and time commitment that would involve. Not to mention all the “heavy lifting!” He summarizes, “A great benefit of my small size and low overhead is that I can bake – or not bake – when I want. I have no plans to start a large, capitalized operation.”
However, once PGFC opens its doors, keep an eye out for Clumsy Crow Baking Pop-Up Sales from time to time, and possibly even the opportunity of taking a bread baking class or two from a stellar baker who signs his emails, “Yours in Good Bread, Eric.”
To join the Bread Club or donate to the Palouse Neighbor Loaves project, email email@example.com or visit them on Facebook or Instagram.
Night Crow by Theodore Roethke
When I saw that clumsy crow
Flap from a wasted tree,
A shape in the mind rose up:
Over the gulfs of dream
Flew a tremendous bird
Further and further away
Into a moonless black,
Deep in the brain, far back.