By M.J. Ellington
Nostalgia for a taste of home may be the simplest explanation for how a classical pianist – who was completely at home on a Ukrainian concert stage – re-molded herself into a cottage industry European bread baker who now sells her artisanal creations to customers in central Alabama.
During holiday season every year, Wild Yeast Kitchen bakery owner Yuliya Childers creates baked goods half a world away from her birth country. But for her own family’s special occasions, she likes to include special desserts from her childhood not readily available here.
“My holiday table is a complex question,” says Childers, who grew up in Odessa, a cosmopolitan city on the Black Sea. Her family didn’t celebrate Christmas when she was growing up, but “made a huge deal out of New Year.”
For Thanksgiving 2018, instead of a turkey, Childers made “a traditional English hot water crust pie” filled with a variety of meats and vegetables. “A whole holiday menu under one crust,” she says. “I was very proud of it.”
For New Year’s celebrations growing up, Childers said her mom always made two desserts, one a custard-filled 8-12 layer crust Napoleon cake that is moist and not heavy with sugar.“I still make it occasionally for my family’s most special events. It’s a several hours feat, which is totally worth the time,” she says. The other cake was usually a walnut meringue cake, her grandmother’s recipe.
Childers said her exploration of traditional European baking began because she missed European bread, and “I wanted to see if I could replicate it.” At the time, she lived in Atlanta and worked in information technology, first on the Sports Illustrated website and later on PGA and NBA website
sfor Turner Broadcasting Co.
Childers could not find the kind of bread she remembered growing up. Relatives and friends suggested ways to find the right flours and other supplies to make the bread she wanted to replicate. When she decided to bake her breads professionally, she named her business Wild Yeast Kitchen after the naturally occurring leavening in the grain that causes the dough to rise slowly. The process gives complex flavors and robust texture to her breads, much like the ones she remembers from Odessa.When Childers was growing up, she said, she went on frequent shopping trips to local bakeries near her home. Her family would leave the bakery with bread so fresh it was still warm, fragrant and ready to share at a meal.
Childers began baking for her husband and daughter while they were in Atlanta. She brought her passion for baking when the family moved to Prattville in 2011 and began selling her breads in 2016.
She bakes breads, scones, croissants and specialty items – including chocolate babka, and breads resembling works of art – that she sells on Saturdays at Montgomery Curb Market. She does home delivery to customers who order ahead in Prattville and Millbrook areas.
Her long-termgoal is to establish a commercial kitchen with a large commercial oven so she can bake much more at once. Such a kitchen could put an end to the 20-hour workday she spends without sleep now before her weekly bread sales day in Montgomery. She wants to expand to other farmer’s markets.
“Yuliya has a passion for safe, good food that is part of her baking,” said Kathy Quinn, a registered pharmacist and trained herbalist whose Lost Creek Herbs booth is next to Childers’ booth at the curb market. “I’m on the same trajectory as Yuliya,” Quinn says. “I try not to eat any bread other than Yuliya’s and I try to know the source of where my food comes from. People who aren’t familiar with European bread have missed a different, complex taste that they will not forget.”
Seeking a better life
Childers, her mother and sister fled Odessa for hopes of a better life in the U.S. in a period of Ukrainian governmental conflict and depression, with little job opportunity and dwindling supplies in stores. Once in the U.S., they lived first in Maryland, near Washington, D.C. There, Childers gave some classical piano performances and worked as an accompanist, using the skills she’d studied in Odessa from age 5 through 24. She also worked as a computer programmer for a communications firm.
While music had been her passion in Odessa, computers provided her main livelihood here while she took steps to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. Classical music continues to be part of her life, asshe still plays piano and sings in her church choir in Prattville and in the Montgomery Chorale.
As Childers’ baking business continues to evolve, she describes the careful steps she took to studythe best baking supplies and recipes. Like the process involved in allowing breads to rise slowly, Childers takes her business development one small step at a time.
In summer 2018, she spent 11 weeks at the San Francisco Baking Institute, earning a diploma in the Bread and Viennoiserie Professional Training Program in recognition of her skill in baking artisan bread and pastry using yeast-leavened dough. “I wanted to see if I could live a baker’s hours,” Childers said of the very early morning baking schedules kept by most small bakeries. She found that she could and saved money for the course and the weeks living on the West Coast. She said her husband and 12-year-old daughter have been very supportive about her developing business.
The next long-term step will be to establish the commercial kitchen. She hopes the commercial kitchen will effectively take the business out of the house, enabling her to scale up production while “taking the bread quality to the next level.”Childers’ careful, deliberate small steps for an evolving career are characteristic of the way she approaches life’s challenges, Quinn says. “We have a gem in Alabama.”
Oatmeal and Molasses Muffins
1 ½ cups white whole wheat or all-purpose flour
¾ cup cracked or rolled oats
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup molasses
2 large eggs
½ cup coconut oil (butter)
1/3 cup raisins
1/3 cup seeds (I used a blend of sunflower and pumpkin)
zest of ½ orange
1 cup (or a bit more) whole milkPreheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease muffin tin thoroughly. Sift flour and add all dry ingredients to it in a bowl. Mix well. Add molasses, lightly beaten eggs and melted coconut oil or butter. Add ½ cup of milk at first and stir very thoroughly until batter is smooth and non-lumpy. Add raisins, seeds and orange zest at this point and stir again. Now keep adding milk in small quantities until batter reaches the consistency of pancake batter (thick buttermilk or thin yogurt). Distribute batter evenly between muffin tin cups. It should fill the cups to about 2/3 or ¾ capacity. Sprinkle additional seeds on top of the batter just for looks. Bake for about 20-25 minutes, or until knife or toothpick inserted into a muffin come out clean.
Recipe courtesy of Yuliya Childers