Food & Drink: Menlo Park bread maker rising


By Andrea Gemmet

Tian Mayimin's days revolve around bread. During the workday, she bakes naturally leavened bread in her kitchen in Menlo Park's Willows neighborhood. In the evening, she drives around Menlo Park and Palo Alto delivering freshly baked loaves and rolls ordered through her Little Sky Bakery website.

While she uses a starter that has reportedly been nurtured by monks for more than a hundred years, she's relatively new to baking.

She started her career as a criminal defense attorney in Washington, D.C., then moved to Shanghai and became an entrepreneur, spending five years introducing cold-pressed juice to the Chinese market, she said.

Her bakery business evolved after she and her new husband, after years of a long-distance courtship, decided to move to California a year and a half ago.

"It's totally unexpected for me that I am now a baker," she said. "I couldn't have imagined it even several months ago."

Wanting to stay in the food business, she began exploring concepts. She had experience baking with her grandmother, who hailed from the wheat-loving northern China city of Xi'an, but wasn't very familiar with naturally leavened breads. Baking every day for house guests led her to realize that she loved making bread and wanted to turn it into a business.

"Baked goods are fascinating as a product. A lot of them look good, but don't taste good," she said.

She saw an opening in the local market for high-quality, naturally leavened bread, and decided to fill it. She fine-tuned her recipes, got certified by San Mateo County's health department and opened Little Sky Bakery.

Only a few months old, the bakery has grown by word-of-mouth and in response to the 800 postcards she distributed around town. She offers free delivery in time for dinner, and in May, she started selling her bread at Palo Alto's seasonal downtown farmers market.

"Showing up on a person's doorstep and handing them a loaf is one of my favorite parts (of the job)," she said.

Little Sky's offerings range from a brioche-like challah made with olive oil and fresh-squeezed orange juice to a decadent chocolate-cherry-pecan loaf and to a country bread with a slight tang and satisfyingly chewy crust. The country bread and her raisin-walnut loaves are the most popular, she said. The black sesame bread is the loaf she wishes more people would try.

Ms. Mayimin continues to experiment with new recipes that aren't yet on the menu, such as saffron bread, avocado bread and a spicy bread using Chinese lazi peppers.

She said her recipes are the result of "micro-innovation," experimenting and improving on what already works, and incorporating new ingredients.

"I think there's a surprising amount of this that can still be done in the bread area, even though bread has been around for thousands of years," she said. "I find myself thinking a lot about new flavors, and then it's really fun to try them out and see what works." (The chocolate-cherry-pecan bread, for example, went through several iterations, to the delight of her husband.)

She credits her rapid entry into artisan bread-making to a combination of factors the expert advice and detailed instruction borne of centuries of experience that's readily available in cookbooks, and modern technology like thermometers that make it easy to be precise.

"I could not have accomplished this in several months if I had not been standing on the shoulders of giants," she said.

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