By CRISTINA JANNEY
Cathy Drabkin of Hays took a long-time hobby of baking and has turned it into a what she calls a home-based micro-bakery.
Drabkin bakes anywhere from 35 baked items on a slow week to 185 baked goods during the busy holiday season for local residents she says appreciate what their bread tastes like.
"They want it to have character," Drabkin said of her customers expectations of their bread, "and to really reflect the ingredients it is coming from and are interested in locally sourced, organic products."
She hosted a holiday tasting party a Regeena's Flowers in November. She had so many orders, she had to hire a recent college graduate to help her part-time with the orders over the holiday season.
Drabkin, 57, started baking 30 years ago after she got married. She really didn't come from a line of bakers. She remembers "sugar cookie extravaganzas” with her mother and brother and sister decorating "ugly" sugar cookies during the holiday season when she was a child. She said it was more about having fun with family than the finished product.
She built her bread skills over time cooking for her family, friends and potlucks. Eventually, she was getting requests, "You're bringing the bread aren't you?"
"You graduate form college and get married and suddenly you have a kitchen," she said. "I started off with things such as cookies and muffins.
"I had this cookbook that had this bread recipe in it. It was like this is a revelation. This was bread. This wasn't what I normally buy at the grocery store."
About 10 years ago she started to teach lessons through the Hays Recreation Commission. She also started selling bread at the Downtown Hays Market when it started in 2014.
Drabkin spends about half her week on her bread business. She also teaches cello lessons in addition to participating in various volunteer activities in the community.
Drabkin's baked goods are artisan-style breads and hand-crafted sweets. She sends out a menu of what baked items she will make each week on Saturday mornings. Orders are due by 10 a.m. Tuesdays.
Drabkin started her business with a subscription service. Customers committed to a set number of baked items in a 15-week baking season.
As her customer base has grown, she has opened her service for single loaves or baked goods. However, she retains her subscription service to offer a discount for regular customers. Subscribers also have the option of home delivery.
For everyone else, pickup is between 3 and 5:30 p.m. Fridays at Drabkin's home on Elm Street. Pickup is the dining room of the family home. An antique wooden dining table is spread weekly with beautifully browned breads. The smell is heavenly as happy neighbors patiently wait for Drabkin to carefully bag their handcrafted works of crusty art.
Drabkin said her favorite time of the week is pickup day when she sees all of the people who have ordered her breads and sweet treats.
"I love the pickup time, partly because I work by myself, so its pretty quiet all week" she said. "Then suddenly there is this group of people who are all excited about picking up what I have spent all week working on."
In addition to interacting with her customers, Drabkin said she really enjoys planning her baking menu.
"I love testing recipes and thinking how would this taste differently if I adjusted this or I have a bunch of pears in the house and how can I use these with my croissant dough," she said. "What new thing can I do to create a new product?"
Drabkin said she finds inspiration from following other professional bakers on Instagram. She also occasionally picks up a cookbook from a professional baker who has modified their recipes for home cooks.
Drabkin's favorite baked good is her croissants. Although Drabkin offers variations on her croissants on her weekly menu, her preferred breakfast is a plain croissant and a really strong cup of coffee.
However, she has found her orchard loaf is most popular with her customers, which is on her menu every week, as well as her smoked gouda with walnut loaf.
Drabkin presented a free baking demonstration at the Hays Public Library on Thursday. She demonstrated the steps in baking a basic artisan bread as well as some shaping techniques.
Her advice to novice bakers is to persist and be OK with failures. She also encouraged bakers to be aware of their recipes.
A certain amount of precision is necessary in baking, she said. Drabkin uses a scale to weigh all of her solid ingredients in grams. She said a scale is well worth the investment.
"I don't want to make it sound too hard," she said, "because people have been baking bread for thousands of years. It should not be considered a difficult art — maybe a little bit of a lost art for your average home baker."
Drabkin said baking is both a science and an art. It's helpful for instance for bakers to understand the role of the living organism yeast in the baking process and the necessity of the fermentation process in the bread rising.
"Then I also think there is a little bit of art involved in it or luck even," Drabkin said," especially if you are working with a sourdough bread, because you are working with bacteria and yeast and you are counting on things that affect those."
There is also an aspect of baking that mimics sculpture. There is braiding and scoring that makes a bread the show piece of the table.
Even when Drabkin was working a 9-to-5 job, she was always daydreaming about menus and planning dinner parties in her mind — some of which never happened. Now her passion pays for the Hays pallet.
"Baking and cooking has been in the background of everything I have done," she said. "I love cooking too. You have to feed yourself day to day."
Cathy's Breads first menu of the season will be e-mailed on Saturday, Jan. 18. Her first bread pickup day will be Friday, Jan. 24.
You can email Drabkin at [email protected], call her at 785-623-4187 or find her website at www.cathysbreads.com. She can also be found on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/cathysbreads/.