- Associated Press
Sunday, May 31, 2020

LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) - One hundred and fifty pounds of flour, two Dutch ovens and one sourdough starter named Gracie.

Alex Kascak, a PhD Biology student at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, started to make so much bread, he and his partner Eric Tobin couldn’t eat it all. So they decided to give some away to their upstairs neighbors.

When the neighbors had their fill, the two expanded to their friend group. But this only increased their demands for bread and friends started to offer money for consistent loaves. Thus, the two formed a quarantine-made bakery out of their home called Bears Baking Bread.

“I didn’t bake with the intention of selling,” he said.

The 29-year-old has always had a love of baking, but quarantine created the at-home time he needed to perfect his skills.

In February, once he was regularly making bread, he realized it would be easier to have a sourdough starter than to fight over yeast in the grocery store, where he would buy a pound at a time to maintain his baking habit. So he created his own sourdough starter lovingly named after one of his cats, Gracie.


Baking bread has become a popular past time during quarantine. Once a baker has a technique down, it’s easy to pop out a few loaves in a day. Kascak’s method involves no kneading. In between Zoom meetings, reading scientific journals to wrap up his PhD, and petting his cats, he can dish out daily bread.

“It’s like five minutes here or there, so it’s very easy to fit it in if I’m at home and it doesn’t take that much time,” he said. “It’s just a nice little break.”

Baking bread has helped bring structure and calm into Kascak’s life during the pandemic. He has one customer who gets bread on a weekly basis. On the day of her order he has a routine of feeding his starter Gracie, creating the dough, letting it sit and checking on it in the oven every few hours. It helps break up the day and peels his eyes off the computer screen.

One trick he has learned so far is letting the water and flour mixture sit for half an hour to an hour before folding.

“It’s just incredible the difference,” he said. “Everything is just automatically much stretchier already, it’s just much more of a dough.”


Kascak makes mostly sourdough, where he’ll add fruits and nuts. But he also makes fluffy pizza dough, hardy bagels and savory focaccia. He’ll add cheddar and bacon, or create a cinnamon raisin loaf. He’s even experimented with dessert sourdoughs, adding cocoa powder or chocolate chips with the intention of making French toast.

His customers have made some requests as well, like French bread.

“I tell people to say what they want and I’ll let them know either if I can do it or what’s closest to what I can do,” he said.

But the requests haven’t been out of the ordinary. Kascak figures people are caught off guard by having the ability to create personalized bread. His favorite bread to make, besides sourdough, is naan. He has considered adding that to his list of options because the recipe is simple but rolling out each individual piece is time consuming.

In order for sourdough to get that doughy, bubble-filled center with a crunchy crust, there needs to be steam in the oven. Since Kascak’s oven doesn’t have a steam feature, he creates moisture with a Dutch oven. The lid stays on until about halfway, creating steam. Once the lid is removed, the delectable crispy crust is formed.

There have been failures though, mainly before quarantine started when time wasn’t as readily available. Forming a happy sourdough starter was Kascak’s biggest endeavor, trying both wild and store-bought yeast. The store-bought yeast, named George after another cat, didn’t survive.

“Gracie is the wild yeast. I just mixed flour and water in our kitchen,” he said. “She’s a Lafayette yeast.”

It can take people up to three weeks to get their starter going, but Kascak was able to make a loaf five days after creating her. He thinks the secret is living in Louisiana, where it’s always humid and warm.

So far, he hasn’t had any mishaps with Gracie. She stays in a yogurt container, avoiding any broken glass jars, popped lids, or overflow when the starter expands.


While bread is mainly Kascak’s hobby, his fiance Tobin has spent quarantine creating another type of yeast colony - kombucha. He created his SCOBY, acronym for “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast,” in March.

SCOBY is like a coral reef for the bacteria and yeast to create kombucha. Their SCOBY is named Vivacious after the stage name of Osmond Vacious a drag performer on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Vivacious has been so productive they’ve been able to give some layers of it to friends.

“I think we make about a gallon at a time now,” Kascak said. “It like takes about a week to make and we just drink it throughout the week. It’s a good system.”’

Although Kascak and Tobin are both working toward their PhDs and don’t want to derail a six-year endeavor, the couple has always had a dream of opening their own café. The positive reception from their friends about Bears Baking Bread has only encouraged this fantasy.

“I think I’ll probably try to continue after all this. Probably nothing huge because right now, I mean, I only have two Dutch ovens, I can’t do that many in a day,” he said with a laugh.

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