James Beard Award-winning baker Greg Wade got his start in the kitchen baking cookies with his grandmother.
“My grandmother would look after us when we were really young and my parents would come home and there were little floury handprints all over the cabinets,” says Wade, head baker for Publican Quality Bread, which launched its first public-facing bakery in West Town in June, and co-author of a forthcoming cookbook, Bread Head: Baking for the Road Less Traveled.
When he was 12 or 13, he adds, he and his dad were looking for something to bond over.
“We had my grandmother’s old bread machine and the recipe book that went with it, so we started making rye bread and some other things on the weekends together,” says Wade.
Those fond memories helped drive Wade to the Illinois Institute of Art’s Culinary Program. Though he only took one baking and pastry class there, bread remained his passion project as he went to work at restaurants. He finally got the chance to bake bread full-time as part of the opening team for Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard’s Girl & the Goat.
“That experience was pretty wild because I had to bake everything out of the wood-fired oven, which was an amazing experience,” Wade says. “They would run their oven really hot all night, cooking their goat shanks. Then, in the morning, I would mix my dough and try to time the dough rising with the oven dropping in temperature enough to be able to bake in it.”
Izard wanted her bread menu to focus on unusual flavor combinations incorporating leftover ingredients used elsewhere in the restaurant, but Wade longed to make more traditional breads with a focus on sour fermentation and grains from local farms. That led him to One Off Hospitality Group partner and executive chef Paul Kahan, who brought Wade onboard to start Publican Quality Bread.
Initially designed to supply One Off’s locations from the basement of Publican Quality Meats, the wholesale business rapidly expanded. Publican Quality Bread’s brand new 4,200-square-foot warehouse bakery at 1759 W. Grand Ave. allows the business to supply dozens of restaurants in addition to the customers who can now visit the retail counter for a pastry or sandwich.
The retail offerings change throughout the day, depending on what has just come out of the oven. Mornings bring ham & cheese croissants and a breakfast sandwich inspired by Wade’s time in Copenhagen. The latter are made with a sesame hard roll, plenty of butter, and cheese. Baguettes show up around 1 p.m., with demi baguettes turned into sandwiches with butter, Comté cheese, ham, and mustard. When breakfast pastries sell out by late morning, cookies take their place.
Wade says the retail space gives him more room for experimentation. “When we want to bake our crust dark, or we want to make a specialty bread or things like that, it’s easier to do in the retail arena rather than get a hundred chefs on board in the wholesale arena.”
He has also come up with plenty of new recipes for Bread Head, his first cookbook, which he wrote with Rachel Holtzman, who previously worked with Kahan on his two cookbooks. Releasing on Sept. 27, the book will showcase Wade’s passion for heritage grains grown by local organic farms, which add novel flavor to breads while also helping the environment.
“If you’ve driven around anywhere in Illinois, you know that it’s all corn and soy,” he says. “It’s really all we grow. But adding a third crop in the rotation, especially if you do winter wheat, where you’ll have plants in the ground over winter, really provides an astounding benefit to the health and quality of the soil and carbon sequestration.”
That love of lesser known grains is behind the recipe for buckwheat brownies that Wade shared with WTTW. (See below).
“Buckwheat for me is this funky, barnyard, dusty guy that really pairs well with chocolate,” he says. “It provides starch, but it doesn’t provide gluten or structure. A brownie is just fine being fudgey and kind of crumbly. You want to use the right grain for the right activity.”
The cookbook has been in the works for about five years, and Wade believes it will have a bigger audience than it might have before the COVID-19 pandemic. Publican Quality Bread also caters to home bakers by offering sourdough starters and organic flours from Janie’s Mill in the new retail space.
“While (baking) may have been a COVID hobby for a lot of folks, it still sparked a lot of interest and people being engaged in their own food,” Wade says.
Head Baker Greg Wade, Publican Quality Bread, from Bread Head: Baking for the Road Less Traveled
1 3/4 cups buckwheat flour
1 cup plus 2 tbsp all-purpose flour
Cooking spray for greasing
4 1/4 cups sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp ground cardamom
2 1/3 cups bittersweet chocolate (60-70%)
1 1/2 cups unsalted butter
8 whole large eggs
1 tbsp vanilla bean paste or extract
1. Preheat the oven to 325°. Coat a half-sheet tray with cooking spray, line with parchment, and spray the parchment
2. In a medium bowl, add the sugar, buckwheat flour, all-purpose flour, baking powder, and cardamom. Whisk briefly to combine.
3. Pour about an inch of water into a medium saucepan. Set a larger, heat-safe bowl over the pot and bring the water to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low and add the chocolate and butter to the bowl. Melt the chocolate and butter together, stirring occasionally.
4. Remove the bowl from the pot and let the chocolate mixture cool slightly. Whisk in the eggs and vanilla, beating until thoroughly combined
5. Add a third of the flour mixture to the chocolate mixture. Use a spatula to scoop up from underneath the batter and fold it up over the flour to combine. Rotate the bowl as you go and make sure the flour is completely incorporated. Repeat this with the remaining thirds of the flour mixture.
6. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for about 30 minutes, until the tops are crackly but do not spring back like a cake does when pressed. In my opinion, brownies are best just slightly underbaked and fudgy. Let cool before slicing and serving.