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Artisan breads are just the beginning for the Back Alley Bakery
by Phil Soreide, Betty Sayers and Pam Soreide
Technologically speaking, retained-heat brick ovens are way dark ages, in use by ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans thousands of years B.C. So why, in an age of microwave Hot Pockets and dough-in-a-can, do people still make bread this way?
Oh, you poor creature. If you have to ask, for the sake of your culinary soul, schedule a trip immediately if not sooner to the Back Alley Bakery in Hastings.
There, in 2003, John and Charlotte Hamburger and Todd and Cody Carson Brown bought an old commercial building and, among other things, built an authentic retained-heat brick oven. And today, the Back Alley Bakery is making some of the tastiest artisan sourdough breads you’ll find in Nebraska.
How it works
When the Rural Foodies recently visited the Back Alley Bakery — which now includes a stylish restaurant on busy Second Street — Manager Jamey Hamburger showed us the oven and explained the process: Late in the afternoon each day, he said, a large wood fire is built inside the oven. It burns through the night, and in the morning, the remaining ash and coals are raked into an ash bin. The oven will then retain this heat through the day – we saw it at past 1:00 in the afternoon, and the digital thermometer (a small nod to modern technology) still indicated the temperature at 506 degrees Fahrenheit.
Here’s where the “artisan” part of artisan bread baking comes in – each loaf is not only “crafted” in terms of the recipe and preparation of the dough, the artisan baker — John and Charlotte Hamburger’s daughter Ellen, in this case — must also know from instinct and long practice where to place it in the oven and how long to leave it there. For example, Jamey mentioned that something relatively delicate, such as the quiche on today’s menu, has to be placed near the opening where the temperature isn’t quite so high.
A humble beginning
The Back Alley Bakery began selling bread literally from the back alley.
The Hamburgers and the Browns – both with contracting experience – bought a two-story building from the Hastings Redevelopment Authority, intending to renovate three loft apartments above and a retail store at street level. The single-story building at the alley side had been condemned. Todd and John gutted the space, and their mutual interest in handcrafted bread led them to design and construct a wood-fired brick oven in the brick wall, add a roof, and start a bakery. The entrance to the bakery faced the alley behind Second Street, hence the name, the Back Alley Bakery.
For many years, they sold wonderful bread from this humble storefront, attracting a larger and larger following of loyal customers almost exclusively through word of mouth. When the adjacent retail space finally came available, they renovated it and opened the perfect restaurant for a placed called the Back Alley Bakery, where the rustic and the funky combine with the stylish and sophisticated to create an experience in Hastings you wouldn’t expect to find outside of, say, Santa Barbara or Charleston.
The décor is eclectic. The walls are painted in a pale honey gold and accented by old brick, natural oak flooring and tables and chairs all painted in a rich Venetian red. Original art by local artists, a grand piano, outdoor seating, and fresh lilacs on every table add to its old world charm, although the Back Alley Bakery is connected to the world minute by minute via a website, Facebook, and Twitter.
“Nearly all of the tables and the chairs were destined for the junk heap,” Jamey told us. “The Hamburgers rescued and restored each one. ’Recover, restore and reuse’ speaks to our values.”
A ‘green’ restaurant
There’s a big “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” sign over the counter, and the restaurant does buy locally and at the farmer’s market during the season and does its best to buy locally or do without the rest of the year. They use recycled everything and recycle everything they use. The grain for the bread is milled in the bakery, and the wheat berries are grown organically in the region. They bake and cook with honey from a local apiary, they compost the vegetable waste, and, no, they don’t have a deep fat fryer or grill, and they don’t serve hamburgers in spite of their name. (Interesting fact: The Hamburger family and Jamey Hamburger, the manager, aren’t related – at least not in any way they’ve been able to determine so far.)
Their signature loaf is a hand crafted sour dough bread of many different flavors. This day, sweet raisin, walnut raisin, roasted garlic cheese, olive, and sweet potato bread were in the display case, still warm from the brick oven, although the selection varies daily.
Let’s eat already
Reminded at last of the menus, we look over Thursday’s menu sheet. The menus are printed daily because the selections vary depending on what they can find that’s fresh and local, and what the chef’s in the mood for. We selected the Showboat Road, a turkey breast and gruyere Panini; Mulligatawny, an Indian soup spiced with turmeric and curry; Ellen’s Classic Quiche; and the March Hare salad, a chopped vegetable salad in a creamy cottage cheese.
It was all fabulous. The Panini crisp outside and gooey inside; the soup rich and satisfying; the quiche a fine example of an old favorite; and the March Hare salad wonderfully crisp and creamy.
The Back Alley Bakery also offers an interesting variety of drink selections including hot teas from the Tea Smith, sparkling waters, organic fruit juices, spritzers, “Mexican Coke”, made with sugar cane instead of corn syrup; Reed’s Brewed Ginger Ale; and Blue Sky All-Natural Soda.
Dessert selections are updated every day, and we asked our server for the day’s dessert. He brought out a generous slice of a dark, spicy carrot cake, and our lunch experience in the city center of Hastings was complete and completely satisfying.
Our daily bread
We don’t live in Hastings, so we can only envy people who live close enough to get a regular supply of crisp-crunchy-chewy artisan sourdough from the Back Alley Bakery. It’s the kind of thing that — even if you’re an expert baker — is hard to duplicate in a conventional oven, so you either have it...or you don’t.
We saw no point in begging a bread recipe from Jamey Hamburger, but he did leave us with one for the restaurant’s March Hare Salad.
March Hare Salad
2 cups cottage cheese
1 carrot, peeled and shave slices with a potato peeler and chop
4 sugar snap pea pods, diced
1 tablespoon red pepper, diced
1 tablespoon celery, diced
2 tablespoons toasted sunflower seeds
1 tsp. lemon juice, freshly squeezed
Freshly ground pepper to taste
Who to Contact
Back Alley Bakery
609 West 2nd St.
Hastings, NE 68901
Hours: Mon.– Fri. 7:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m., Saturday 7:30 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.
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