Baking is Rhoda Gordon's passion. Creativity is one of her main ingredients.
Her small home bakery, where she goes to create her edible masterpieces, may as well be an art studio.
Out the back door of her childhood home in North Bend, it's just a few short steps across the driveway to “work.” Tall double-doors lead to a spotless sanctuary. From the inside, you'd never know it was a converted garage.
The walls are lined with shiny stainless steel appliances. On one wall, there is an ancient dougnut fryer that has been converted into a bagel maker. Next to it are a large convection oven, a giant freezer and reach-in refrigerator. The sink and cooling rack take up the wall that looks out over what used to be the family cranberry bog. An industrial-sized mixer and a large work island inhabit the rest of the space.
Over the years, Gordon has made millions of bagels. In fact one local chef referred to her affectionately as “The Bagel Lady.”
“I've always loved (baking). I think I was born loving it. My mother didn't really like to, so she was thrilled when I did and encouraged me,” Gordon said.
Gordon started in Denver, taking baking classes.
“Back then, all the big restaurants had cooking classes,” Gordon said.
She won a local baking contest for her croissants, and gained the attention of author Lynne Rosseto Kasper.
“She is a regular contributor to ‘Bon Appetit,” Gordon said. “She liked my recipe.”
That led to one of two articles Gordon had in the magazine. The other was on danishes.
“That sort of got me launched,” Gordon said. “I started teaching classes in Denver.”
A move to Los Angeles helped her perfect her bagel technique.
“When I was in L.A. - at La Brea Bakery - I was interning one night a week. I found out there was an old man in his late 70s who made their bagels. He came in on Friday night to make the bagels for Saturday morning.
“I asked if I could start coming in on that night, and started making bagels. I had been (making bagels) on my own, but he really showed me how. That was fun.”
Gordon has now taken bagels to an art form. She was putting so many different flavors in them, that she's had to rename a few of them - thus the creation of “bunzels” and “starzels.”
“It seemed I was getting too far out of the bagel world,” she said about the many tasty temptations she put into those old basics of the breakfast world.
Bunzels start with bagel dough and are formed into buns or rolls with the tops sliced and pulled open. When baked, they take on a sort of shell shape. While the selection of flavors could be nearly limitless, the ones she makes the most are cranberry-orange, apple-carrot-walnut, golden raisin and apricot-pineapple.
Starzels again start with the bagel dough, but then bake up into a lighter pastry.
“It could be because I open them up more,” Gordon said of the difference in texture. “And it may be the fat in the cheese. The bunzels don't have any cheese.”
After years of wholesale baking here in the Bay Area, Gordon nearly gave up the trade.
“I got burned out on wholesale,” Gordon said. “It's a very thin (profit) margin.”
So after a short sabbatical, Gordon wanted to get back into baking, but not the world of wholesale again.
“We almost sold all that stuff,” she said of the fixtures in her backyard bakery. “I just couldn't quite do it. I just wanted to bake.”
Now she has what she calls a “boutique bakery,” doing specialty orders, mostly for caterers or people who have kept in touch since her wholesaling days.
So while she still makes cookies, cinnamon rolls, scones, danishes, muffins and her beloved bagels, what is her favorite?
“Hearth breads,” she said. “That's my favorite thing.”
A bread batch was rising on the table. She was baking six loaves of kalamata olive, rosemary and thyme hearth bread.
She recounted a story of spending a day baking in a shop in Paris. She was visiting her daughter there and went into one of the bakeries.
“In one, you could see through the glass and see the bakers,” she said. “They had a big wood-burning oven. He invited me to bake with him for the day.”
So she spent the day helping and watching as the baguettes and breads of all sizes were shuffled in and out of the oven.
“It was a huge oven,” she said. “It was not very wide, but you were looking into this yaw. They had to hang a light in it to see everything. How they get it all out at the right time is incredible.”
“I need a big wood-burning oven,” she dreamed out loud. “And a steam-injected oven.”
She uses the finest ingredients in her baking.
“I use all organic flours,” she said. “Then I use the freshest ingredients I can get. If I can get it close to home, I love that. I'm always out at the farmers' markets in Coos Bay and Coquille.”
Not every recipe works, though.
“When I was doing wholesale, I tried doing a green bagel for St. Patrick's Day. I thought, ‘What can I use that's green?' I peeled a bunch of kiwis and tried pureed kiwis and pistachio.
“It must of have been something in the kiwi that killed the yeast. I ended up with a big bowl of Play-Doh.”
Gordon's next big project is a wine and cheese show March 15 at Seven Feathers Casino in Canyonville.
She will be making bread sculptures for the tables.
“I'm doing the showpieces,” she said. “I'll probably do a cornucopia made of bread dough with sheaths of wheat also made of dough with little bread rolls coming out of the cornucopia.”
The creativity never ends.