The past few years have been hard on Sweet Touch Cafe & Bakery owner Olga Mikhalets. She received a multiple sclerosis diagnosis. The pandemic hit. Russia invaded her native Ukraine, where her father still lives. International upheaval snarled supply chains for butter, wheat, yeast and other items essential to her business.
These hardships led Mikhalets to a renewal — one that began with 10 grams of sourdough starter.
Mikhalets, 48, had dreamed of owning a bakery ever since her grandmother taught her to knead and shape loaves when she was a child growing up outside Kyiv, Ukraine. In 1996, she immigrated to the United States with her grandparents and her mother.
Mikhalets and her husband, Yaroslav, opened Svitoch Deli with a small bakery in 2002. In 2009, they expanded into the space next door with a larger bakery, Sweet Touch, where shiny rows of glass cases displayed a rainbow of macarons and elegantly decorated pastries.
After Mikhalets learned she had multiple sclerosis four years ago, she sought treatment and stayed home to recover. She couldn’t meet the physical demands of a bakery, but she wasn’t ready to give it up.
When supply disruptions cut off the bakery’s supply of frozen bread dough from Germany, Mikhalets searched for a solution. She found that people all over the world, cooped up at home with hours on their hands, had rediscovered the ancient craft of making bread with wild yeast. It’s the method that was used for thousands of years before commercial baker’s yeast became commonly available in the 19th century.
“I think everything happens for a reason,” Mikhalets said. “My hands weren’t working, so I was at home for three months looking for sourdough recipes on Instagram. I began following people from Australia that were making this bread and then I made it. It’s like a new life to me.”
Food isn’t normally considered a living thing. But anyone who has set out flour and water and found it bubbling the next day realizes that there are places in this world where science and magic collide. A sourdough starter is fueled by tiny microbes that create bubbles by converting sugars into ethanol, carbon dioxide and organic acids. These invisible bits of life come from the air in the bakery, the flour, but mostly from the hands of the baker.
A young woman from Mikhalets’ church offered her 10 grams of sourdough starter. Mikhalets carefully looked after it, but it was fickle and refused to properly froth. She had to restart it after five days of feeding it. She got it going again, but a few days later it seemed dead again.
Finally, the starter began to bubble.
“I called the starter Patience, because I almost gave up,” Mikhalets said.
With Patience finally cooperating, Mikhalets made her bread at home, a round loaf baked in a Dutch oven. When it finished baking, she opened the lid and cut into the hot bread. Steam rippled through the web of dough in the center. The crust shattered like an eggshell.
Bread baking took over the house.
“You open our fridge and it’s filled with starter,” said Angela, Mikhalets’ 20-year-old daughter who runs Sweet Touch’s front counter.
Mikhalets knew it was time to get back to the bakery and start a new bread program. She gathered the circle of women who have baked for her for 17 years. Adding a whole new product to an already bustling bakery is a difficult proposition, but the bread from Germany wasn’t coming anymore. Sweet Touch needed a predictable supply of good bread.
Patience, the starter, grew into a large active mass of flour, water and microbes. She’s fed every three hours to give the loaves a mild flavor. Creating loaves from this natural leavening is a long process. Bakers mix flour, water and salt with the starter and leave it overnight to rise in rattan bread-proofing baskets. The next morning, staff turn the loaves onto a table and score them to create ornate designs, and then bake them until they’re a deep caramel color.
The bakery sells these loaves, along with sourdough baguettes (with or without sesame seeds), for $5-$10 each. This new bread program is only a few weeks old. Mikhalets and her crew are working to scale up so they can use the bread for avocado toast in the cafe.
Sweet Touch’s sourdough bread has a subtle tang, not the deep bite associated with San Francisco sourdough breads. It’s nutty and a bit sweet. Fresh from the oven, steam billows from the web of nooks and crannies at its center. Even several days later, the bread is easily revived by toasting it.
In the morning before Sweet Touch opens, the back kitchen of the bakery buzzes with activity. Bakers braid challahs and score loaves of sourdough while the phone begins to ring with orders.
Mikhalets has returned to the center of this bustle.
“I’m so happy with this sourdough bread,” she said. “It’s like healing for me.”
Rachel Pinsky: firstname.lastname@example.org