The Little Bakery That Could
Story by Jenna Kashou
Photography by Joe Laedtke
At 10:30 AM, I was already too late for the coveted morning rolls, cinnamon buns and scones. They’ve been plucked up and devoured by some other lucky early riser, ready when the doors opened at 7 AM.
People continue to enter the door in a steady stream—this must be the lunch crowd. Apparently everybody except me knows when to arrive to score exactly what he or she is craving. Bakers carry out trays of savory brioche, bubbling over with artichoke, red pepper and goat cheese, and sweet tarts with overlapping, glazed pear slices fanned out in a perfect circle.
Amaranth Bakery and Cafe, named after the ubiquitous red flower in gardens and the ancient grain, is located on a sparse stretch of Lisbon Avenue. The cafe itself is not much more than a handful of a mismatched tables, chairs and a few overflowing bookshelves. The menu changes daily, but the quality and “wow” factor is consistent. However, the spectacular and coveted food isn’t owners David Boucher and Stephanie Shipley’s only objective.
“Our reason to be is less about us and more about the people that walk through the door. Our intention was to have as many people as possible experience being together and having something good to eat,” said Shipley. “That’s what grounds us.”
The husband and wife team opened the bakery in 2006. Shipley bought a dilapidated house in 2000 and converted it to a bakery, complete with community gardens surrounding the building, over the course of six years. Shipley and Boucher met as community organizers in a nearby neighborhood, so they were intentional about the location. They also live nearby.
“I became very interested in leading a healthy lifestyle and I love creating,” said Shipley. She had always been an avid gardener. “I became really interested in fermentation and cultivating, and I’ve always loved bread. Plus, naturally fermented bread is so much healthier,” she continued.
You would never guess that Shipley is a self-taught baker and that she’s only been at it for 10 years, in conjunction with opening the cafe. She calls her craft “a work in progress” and admits that her naivety about being a business owner has helped her tremendously.
Amaranth employs nine people, including two part-time bakers to assist Shipley with the grueling hours. A typical day for her starts anywhere between 12-2 AM and she works straight through until 11 AM. She’ll take a midday break and return to work from 3-6 PM. She reduces her hours in the summer to focus on a community farmer’s market and catch up on regular sleep.
Beyond the bakery, the community impact is evident, as is the passion and care put into the products. Though Shipley admits, “This will be my first and last bakery.”
Amaranth has continued to grow every year and Shipley refuses to take the easy road. For example, it’s hard for a small bakery to buy organic flour, so Shipley and Boucher realized it was more cost-effective to buy their own truck and drive out to New York to pick up a ton of flour every quarter. Also, each pastry is rolled out by hand, which Shipley calls a different kind of intimacy for bakers.
There are so few other bakeries in Milwaukee using organic flour and the variety of whole grains that Amaranth does. The natural fermentation process of sourdough allows the breads to proof longer, adding more depth to their flavor. The yeast has more time to break down the grain’s complex carbohydrate by the fermentation process, making it easier to digest.
Shipley is constantly trying to improve, creating different doughs for each pastry, shaping breads, trying her hand at ethnic desserts and testing new soups. Rather than formal training, she relies on instinct and experimentation.
She also relies on local purveyors for quality ingredients like cultured European butter, farm-fresh eggs and produce from Pinehold Gardens in Oak Creek.
Shipley’s scones are one of the most popular items, but they look different than most. She starts with whole grains and allows the sugars to caramelize, which gives it instant flavor and a darker hue. Shipley has also been developing a Swedish cardamom bun and perfecting her traditional French Kouign-Amann, a rich butter cake made with bread dough.
Back to that idea of food bringing people together—the true meaning of the holidays. Amaranth is happy to take a big part in that. It’s often one of the busiest times for them and allows Shipley to experiment even more.
The German Stollen, a nut and fruit bread soaked in brandy, is a hot seller, as is the traditional English steamed pudding that fills up her kitchen with the sweet smell of cranberry during the three-hour steaming process.
Amaranth’s devoted regulars rely on the sweet potato brioche, braided variations of favorite breads and traditional European desserts for their holiday gatherings.
To feed your stomach and your soul this holiday season (or, really, anytime), visit Amaranth.
Amaranth Bakery and Cafe
3329 W. Lisbon Ave. • 414-934-0587
Jenna Kashou is a Milwaukee native and probably a lifer. She loves to travel, but appreciates coming home to the comforts this city has to offer. A graduate of Marquette University’s digital storytelling program, Kashou is thrilled to meet new people and honored to tell their stories. She served as the Pfister’s 5th Narrator-in-Residence and also contributes regularly to Milwaukee Magazine and the Milwaukee Business Journal. Coming from family of Mediterranean descent where every event is centered on food, she knows a thing or two about eating good meals.