A&E

Going against the grain

Mountain View's The Midwife and the Baker's devotion to fresh-milled, whole-grain breads

Flour is everywhere at The Midwife and the Baker in Mountain View.

It dusts the tiled floor and baker Mac McConnell's Birkenstock sandals. Pounds of fresh-milled whole-grain flour sit in bags and trash cans repurposed into storage bins, awaiting their next life phase: dough for the bakery's insanely popular sourdough breads and pastries.

Flour -- specifically, fresh-milled whole-grain flour -- is the heart and soul of The Midwife and the Baker, where McConnell is working to elevate grains like kamut, rye, wheat berry, spelt and Khorasan by proving they can taste just as good, if not better, than their white wheat flour counterparts. He sneaks whole grains into everything he makes, from baguettes and ciabatta to even croissants.

"We want our whole grains to eat like white bread -- fluffier, lighter," McConnell said.

The Midwife and the Baker started with McConnell selling loaves out of his wife Jaime's midwife practice in San Francisco. A West Virginia native and former mechanical engineer, he "ended up out here because of bread" -- namely, to attend the San Francisco Baking Institute. After graduating he worked at a Massachusetts bakery that specializes in whole-grain sourdough breads. He then returned to the West Coast to become a bread instructor at the San Francisco Baking Institute.

McConnell eventually left his teaching post to focus on The Midwife and the Baker full time. They drew a loyal following at Bay Area farmers markets before moving in 2018 into the large Mountain View baking facility at 846 Independence Ave., which they took over from Acme Bread.

Shortly after, Blue Bottle Coffee started selling The Midwife and the Baker's pastries in all of its Bay Area cafes, a major coup for a mom-and-pop baking operation. Other cafes, restaurants and grocery stores steadily followed.

McConnell now employs a staff of 35 that mills 3,000 pounds of flour every week in Mountain View, delivering loaves and pastries throughout the Bay Area.

The bakery kicks into gear at 3 a.m., when McConnell arrives to fold dough around sheets of butter for croissant dough while William Van Dusen weighs out flours for that day's dough, following a color-coded spreadsheet detailed down to the gram for every single loaf they sell.

Nearby, a 40-inch stone mill the bakery acquired last fall processes fresh grains. Made by a baker in Vermont, the massive mill is more than twice the size of their old one. It's producing whole-grain flour as fine as pastry flour, making their breads loftier and lighter than ever before, McConnell said, sifting the almost ethereal flour through his palms.

The "whitest" bread they make is the baguette, whose dough is 25% kamut, an ancient grain grown in Montana. Their most popular breads are 100% whole wheat. Madera, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Menlo Park, recently changed its account with the bakery from both country white bread (which is still nearly half whole grain) and 100% whole wheat bread to solely the latter, McConnell said.

Other staff arrive around 5 a.m. and the facility becomes a flour-dusted hive of activity. Some staff prep hundreds of twice-baked almond croissants -- slicing already baked croissants in half, adding a layer of frangipane inside, a dollop on top and a flurry of sliced almonds -- while others roll refrigerated dough for plain croissants. They have to shape it quickly before the dough warms up too much but with careful finesse to preserve the "shoulders," or edges of the dough that give croissants their trademark layers. Beyond the classic viennoiserie, bakers get creative with pastries like cardamom snails, currant-orange scones and caramelized shallot danishes.

The bakers have been experimenting with a whole grain croissant, playing around with lamination, leavening and yeast to create an equivalent pastry. (A recent picture on Instagram of its honeycomb-like interior elicited an enthusiastic "yaaaaassssssssssss" from none other than Josey Baker, who also mills his own grains at Josey Baker Bread in San Francisco.) The challenge, McConnell said, is that the whole-grain version can turn out tough, and whole-grain flour has less leeway than white flour.

"It's a tighter band for perfection," he said.

It's no secret that you can go into the Mountain View facility to buy fresh bread and pastries Monday through Saturday from 6:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., but it would not be obvious to anyone passing by the industrial, warehouse-like building that has no signage or seating. (An employee once likened it to going to a speakeasy.) McConnell intends to open a full-fledged retail bakery there at some point, serving coffee and other items, but likely not until next year.

For a full list of where to find The Midwife and the Baker's goods, go to themidwifeandthebaker.com/where.

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