At Rustic Hearth Bakery, attention to detail keeps fresh bread rising in Cedar Rapids

 

CEDAR RAPIDS — Tom Schmitt has a name for his sourdough starter: “The Beast.”

The Beast is the fermented wild yeast-filled dough Schmitt uses as the base for every loaf of sourdough bread he bakes at Rustic Hearth Bakery. Over the years he’s kept it alive, the Beast, which is responsible for the signature flavor of his bread, has required regular feeding with fresh flour and water. Schmitt frets about what would happen if someone accidentally disposed of the plastic tub he keeps it in, and he has even taken it on vacation with him, the better to tend to it.

“The Beast and I have been together every day for 15 years,” he said. “Bread is just flour, water and salt. The flavor profile comes from the yeast cultures.”

 
 
 

Schmitt started Rustic Hearth almost four years ago in NewBo City Market, then relocated to small storefront on Mount Vernon Road at the end of March. The new location has allowed him to expand his hours and add coffee, espresso and tea along with a cozy seating area to his repertoire of breads and pastries.

Schmitt grinds his own flour, and has six different varieties he can combine in his breads to create different flavor profiles. He said he arrives at the bakery between 2 and 3 a.m. each day to bake breads, including sourdough, whole wheat, rye, baguettes and sandwich loaves.

Those looking for a sweet treat can try items like croissants, cinnamon rolls and cookies

He takes those just as seriously as the bread. Making croissants is a four-day process, with time for the dough to rise and ferment between each step. His process includes rolling out and folding dough over a large slab of butter, continuing to roll and fold over and over again to create a flaky, buttery layers.

“We use butter from a local farmer, which has higher fat content,” he said. “Fat equals flavor.”

 
 
 

Schmitt didn’t start out as a baker. He previously worked as a machinist at Rockwell Collins, now Collins Aerospace, and he would bring in rolls or scones to the breakroom, which led to people asking him to make rolls or pies for their Thanksgiving meals. Then, about six years ago, he was laid off. He saw an ad for a baking job, and he wondered if his hobby could become a profession, so he applied and got the job.

“I kind of fell in love with it,” he said. “I fell in love with the work itself — with working with the dough. It is quiet. It is basically you and the doughs and the ovens. It’s kind of like a dance in the mornings. If you mess up one detail, it impacts the product.”

 
 

He said, at the end of the day, baking has similarities to being a machinist — he gets to work with his hands and it requires attention to detail and the science behind the product he’s working with. Things like the humidity level in the kitchen can impact the dough, so he has a special temperature controlled chamber for the bread to rise in, protected from variables that occur when the buildings doors open and close.

He said a lot of bakeries are moving to being mechanized, but he prefers to roll out and shape each loaf by hand.

“I think it’s vital we keep these kind of things going and pass them on to the next generation,” he said.

 

If you go

 

• What: Rustic Hearth Bakery

• Where: 3531 Mount Vernon Rd. SE, Cedar Rapids

• Hours: 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday, 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday

• Details: (319) 200-4008, rustichearthbakery.com

l Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com