Dec 112011
 
Authors: Colleen Canty

Last year, Anna McLean, 20, found herself in an affair that begged her to choose between a degree and a lover.

The object of her affection? Bread.

McLean chose to surrender her textbooks and pencils to pursue a career, and ultimately a lifetime, of baking. The young woman, a former honors student who attended CSU during the 2010-2011 school year, turned in a job application to Littlebird Bakeshop when a sign for the upcoming store caught her eye during a stroll through Old Town.

“I saw a big sign that read ‘Butter’ and I thought to myself, ‘that’s the place for me,‘” she said.

Shortly after, McLean received “the greatest phone call of (her) life.” According to her, the moment the phone rang changed everything.

On the other end of the line was Amy Wyatt, owner and head pastry chef of Littlebird Bakeshop in Old Town. Wyatt opened the shop, now a well-established destination for pursuers of pastries, soup, coffee and more, in December of last year.

“Anna really stood out among the other job applicants; she had a very professional manner, with a cover letter and manilla envelope and everything,” Wyatt said. “She sent me a thank you note for interviewing her, she came in a few times and was enthusiastic and positive. She obviously really wanted to be here.”

After only a few months of employment, McLean wanted to be at the bakeshop so much, she made the decision to give up school for the job. But it wasn’t until a sweltering summer night, during a heated argument with her mother, that she decided to break the news to her parents, who come from a long line of teachers with high regards for university education.

“Education is a big deal in my family; it was daunting telling my parents I wanted to leave school,” McLean said. “I sat them down and all in that night I explained how I couldn’t spend as much time at Littlebird as I wanted to if I was going to school. It’s a lot of money to spend if you don’t actually want to be there.”

Although some may not understand the allure of waking at 5 a.m. and biking in sub-zero temperatures to work five and sometimes six days a week, her fervent passion for and insistence on making bread has led her to the kitchen of the bakeshop.

And that’s exactly where McLean wants to be.

“When I was a counter girl, I would bring Amy recipes and bars that I made at home; eventually she asked me to come back in the kitchen,” McLean said. “I am eternally thankful to Amy for giving me the single greatest opportunity I could have ever asked for.”

For the untrained eye, pastries of varying flavors, shapes and nearly impossibly-pronounced French names have an attraction that McLean recognizes, but to this aspiring food artisan, the magic is in the bread.

“At first, (making) bread was intimidating,” she said. “You either have the hands for it, or you don’t. I happen to have the hands for it.”

Wyatt has ultimately “handed the bread reigns” to her young apprentice, and according to McLean, she fell “a lot in love” with it.

McLean will arrive at the bakeshop most days at around 5 a.m. and start working the bread dough around 6:30 a.m. The “finicky dough” requires a dexterous balance between forcefulness to work the gluten and gentleness to maintain the softness, intricacies McLean said pastries just don’t demand.

“The standard recipes for pastries don’t allow for a lot of variation,” she explained. “With bread, there is a lot of room for experimentation; it never ceases to surprise me.”

It’s in this moment that McLean finds the irresistible attraction of bread making.

“Your head is in constant turmoil until you start baking bread,” she said. “Working the dough is calm and soothing. It’s the only time of day I have one single thing on my mind.”

While McLean “has yet to wake up and not want to go to work,” her growing love for the art of bread is taking her on some international adventures next year. In August, she will be moving to Austria to shadow a bread maker, in pursuit of the European secret to dark and flavorful rye and pumpernickel, followed by a few months in Paris “just to eat good food in Europe for a while.”

She will then be attending the French Culinary Institute outside of San Francisco in January 2013, taking classes such as custards, chocolate work and bread. By the time she’s constructed a resume of cultural and academic experience in pastries and bread 10 or so years down the road, she hopes Longmont, where she grew up, will be “cool enough to support a bakery.”

“I already have my bakery – the menu, the name, everything – planned out,” McLean said. “It would be nice if my parents could do my dishes in exchange for pastries.”

The best moment of the day has come again. As she slices into the bread each afternoon, the sound of the knife breaking the crust reaches her ears and McLean is reminded of why she has chosen the unusual path she has.

“I can’t imagine being back in school and not being there (Littlebird) all day, every day,” she said. “Amy is one of my best friends in the whole world; it’s never felt like work. I’m living the life.”

Collegian writer Colleen Canty can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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