Two Dough Artisans in West Virginia: The Crazy Baker & Jeff of Jeff’s Breads
Rural environment provides inspiration and wholesome ingredients for two country bakers – a pastry chef and a bread maker
Text and Photos by Karin Leperi
Wild and wonderful West Virginia is a haven for country flavor as well as country character. And nowhere is this truer than in the Greenbrier Valley of West Virginia. Two dough-makers and bakers in the rural town of Renik have developed a reputation locally as well as nationally for making flavors and sweets evocative of country memories.
Shared Bakery and Shared Passions
Hall Hitzig (aka The Crazy Baker) and Jeff Kessler of Jeff’s Breads are not only best of friends, they are also professional bakers who share a working store front and bakery in the country – in the rolling verdant hills of West Virginia. Here they produce pastries and bake a variety of breads on a daily basis, while enjoying the benefits of country living. And both share a passion for baking and a commitment to quality that continues to grow their business. Customers clamor for their baked goods in increasingly greater numbers, year by year.
The Crazy Baker
Hall is a soft-spoken, mild-mannered man with a slight frame that belies his current profession as pastry chef. He started out majoring in photography at the Art Center College of Design and then became an aviation mechanic for 20 years before embracing his current passion – pastries. Today he is known as “The Crazy Baker” – a name his wife and partner Amy says came about when they started questioning the sanity of his mid-life career change.
“I love and respect what I bake,” says Hall. “My goal is to create delicious foods using the very best ingredients that I can purchase. I look for the freshest and most local products first, including organically raised ingredients.” Some of the locally purchased ingredients he uses include honey (a main-stay for his poplar granola), fresh farm eggs, and seasonal fruits and vegetables. “These provide my basic palette. Combining these with an array of other select natural and organic ingredients, I make everything by hand.”
As a young child in New York City, Hall would often find himself being treated by his mother to the very best neighborhood bakeries. He admits he was smitten and has baked all his life – either part time or full time – as a result. He furthered his training by attending L’Academie de Cuisine, where he graduated with honors, and enhanced his skills with additional training at hotels and restaurants in the United State and overseas. Then, when his friend Jeff Kessler, an artisan bread baker, found a store front and purchased it, he agreed to share space. Thus gave birth to his business in 2002 as the Crazy Baker, focusing on premium desserts and confectionary.
His best-seller is a Sticky Toffee Pudding Cake, a recipe he brought back from England where it is a traditional favorite, especially during the holidays. The pudding, which is just another name for dessert in England, is a luscious date cake ladled with hot toffee sauce, preferably served with a dollop of heavy whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The pudding ships in an insulated golden box tied with ribbon, befitting of its elegantly sweet flavor and moist texture.
Another best-seller is his granola, which was launched as a direct result of surveying customers and finding out that they wanted healthy and wholesome options, too. Because of this, he offers a Crazy Baker Granola made with rolled oats and West Virginia honey, along with a blend of walnuts and almonds and pumpkin, sunflower and sesame seeds. One version features cranberries while another version features organic raisins. Both have proven to be best-sellers and popular with all age groups.
While pudding and granola may be the most popular items in his bakery, Hall’s favorite is Panforte, an Italian confection that dates back to medieval times, and is traditional to the Siena region of Northern Italy. (There are even stories about the Crusaders carrying this durable confection with them on their quests!) A unique flat cake, Panforte was traditionally made with whole almonds, select spices and candied citrus, and then specially packaged with distinctive wrappings that came to be identified with the village bakers.
The Crazy Baker has his own special interpretation of Panforte that includes organic sugar and flour, spiced with a complex spice blend, and completed with a citrus combination of candied orange and lemon zest along with natural almonds. He then ships his Panforte in a rustic banana paper packaging, secured with linen twine and artfully closed with a red wax seal. Small slices are served and enjoyed with coffee, espresso, or dessert wine.
Jeff of “Jeff’s Breads”
A raven-haired, dark-eyed man, with a small yet sturdy dancer’s frame, Jeff sports a black chef’s skull cap as he kneads a mound of dough for his daily bread baking. With more than 25 years of professional baking experience, he has developed a loyal following for his hand-crafted breads. So much so that he says from the time he first started baking, he baked part time: now he bakes double time.
By using only traditional European techniques, Jeff’s breads are known for their delectable crust, unique texture, and vibrant taste. “A lot of my breads – say about 75% – are naturally leavened,” says Jeff. “This is a process that’s centuries old and requires a high degree of skill for the breads to turn out just right.” Jeff’s leavened breads are unique because he uses a starter for his breads that is reputedly over 400 years old, thus imparting the trademark flavors and unique texture that are coveted by bread-lovers. (Before the advent of commercially packaged yeast, all bread was leavened with a sourdough starter that imparts a sour tang and unique texture to breads made this traditional way.) Add to this a leavening process that lasts more than 24 hours, a dose of experienced artisan hands, then bake in a French hearth oven and you get some of the best bread ever.
“I use only the highest quality grains and flours along with pure West Virginia water and sea salt to make my breads,” says Jeff as he continues kneading dough for the next batch of Cracked Pepper Parmesan Bread. He hand crafts and shapes each loaf of bread, then loads his masterpieces onto a jumbo wooden baker’s peel, carefully inserting the loaves in the center of a temperature-controlled French hearth oven.
He makes a combination of naturally leavened breads that are fat-free, nutritious and easy to digest as well as breads that are leavened with small amounts of commercial yeast. “Our European style breads are crafted and baked daily in Greenbriar County in West Virginia,” Jeff notes. “Our breads range from naturally leavened breads such as Country Sourdough, Multi-grain Levain, Organic Wheat Free Spelt, Olive Thyme, and German Style Pumpernickel to breads leavened with small amounts of commercial yeast such as Italian Rustica, Semolina Rustica, Ciabatta, and Chocolate-Cherry Bliss. And don’t forget our specialty and seasonal breads such as Mediterranean Rolls, Italian Antipasto Rolls, Arugula Feta Rolls and Native Hickory Nut Demi Loaf.”
Jeff views bread in much the same fashion as he views life – as both a staple and a staff of life. He recites a favorite Italian proverb that says, “Without bread we would all be orphans.” But he admits that his all time favorite is a Russian proverb that captures some of his mixed heritage and outlook on life: “Eat bread and salt and speak the truth.”