On the last Saturday in July, I found a brown paper bag on my doorstep. Inside was a fresh loaf of bread in a foil baking pan called a chocolate babka, rivers of chocolate twisting through soft brioche-like cake. Chocolate babka is a complicated undertaking with Eastern European roots. It takes time to let the yeast work its magic, to whip together a perfect chocolate streusel, to roll chocolate and dough together into a perfect coil. It was ready and delivered in time for my morning coffee.
During the COVID-19 shutdown, professional baker and chef Uma Iyer has launched BreadEx, a subscription service that delivers one loaf of artisanal bread a week—or more—right to your doorstep. It’s contactless, effortless for the subscriber, and best of all, every week’s offering is going to be different.
“I’ve been wanting to do bread for a long time but didn’t get time to invest in it,” says Iyer, who is also the founder and baker behind Tartilicious, a Plano-based pastry shop responsible for possibly the best bite-sized French tarts in the metroplex.
When COVID-19 swept the nation, she explains, it gave her the time she needed. “Bread is such a basic thing. It is a neighborhood thing. Let’s bake some bread and distribute it to our neighbors during COVID,” she says.
Originally, Iyer noticed businesses were donating baked goods to hospitals and nonprofits that provided meals to people impacted by quarantine in the restaurant industry. And for the month of May, Iyer baked bread solely as a donation.
“Bread For All,” she says. “The whole month of May and June, we did pro bono.”
By that point, more customers were hearing about the project and as interest grew, so did her list of subscribers. Soon, she and her staff were baking 180 loafs a week, so she converted Bread for All into BreadEx as it is today.
I received BreadEx for the month of July, each week, a new loaf of bread arrived. The opening number was familiar to me, a delicate Italian focaccia, dotted with cherry tomatoes. Focaccia is recognizable by its dimpled surface, and there are infinite ways to dress it up, since at its heart, it’s basically pizza dough with an incredibly soft center and crisp edges. This focaccia gets its intense flavor from the brush of olive oil and fresh herbs sprinkled across the top. It’s wonderfully executed, with the proper balance of textures, and clear flavors.
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The four hefty ciabatta rolls that arrive next are another Italian bread. Unlike focaccia, ciabatta is meant to be chewy and substantial, making it the perfect base bread for sandwiches, particularly with Italian cold cuts and freshly-sliced mozzarella cheese. Each roll, dusted with flour, is pillowy and soft without sacrificing its crisp crust.
On the third week, BreadEx delivered a loaf that would be difficult to find at Kroger: Hokkaido milk bread. Open the wrapping and immediately, faintly sweet, milky aroma of the bread reaches you. Milk bread is a cloud-like Japanese white bread that has been lightly sweetened. Almost supernaturally, it seems to remain soft for days, perfect for egg salad or chicken salad. For a sweeter take, it can also be turned into a particularly decadent French toast.
The chocolate babka was the grand finale for the month, a taste of the mid-twentieth century, when chocolate was first rolled into the traditional loaf, usually along with nuts and spices. Iyer has omitted the nuts in hers, because it’s such a common allergy, but they aren’t necessary. Her babka doesn’t feel like it’s missing anything at all.
As the business grows, Iyer hopes to implement more ways to specialize orders. She can accommodate some allergies, like nuts and berries, and while she isn’t ready for gluten-free customers, she hopes to soon expand and would like to do a month of gluten-free breads sometime in the future.
“It is a lot of work,” Iyer admits. Every bread must be tested multiple times before it can be offered, and the weeks are busy perfecting recipes in bulk quantities. She has a team of three in the kitchen, and another team out on delivery, and BreadEx is only growing in popularity.
“I have a lot of favorites, but I want to keep it exciting. I’m trying not to repeat breads.” She estimates that she has the menu for the next four months of BreadEx planned and not one loaf will be repeated.
The August line-up included challah, pan de coco, a classic Honduran bread, sourdough olive brioche, and a surprise “baker’s choice” loaf. Iyer hasn’t yet announced the September lineup, but she says it’ll all be new.
For Iyer, it’s exciting to be so innovative, and to be able to take inspiration from all over the world.
“We have bread in every culture, but every bread has its unique things,” she says. “[By eating it] you can virtually travel the world.”
Sign up for monthly subscriptions at tartalicious.com/breadex/breadex