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 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 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- to 12-layer 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 using 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 websites for 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 ingredients to replicate the bread. When she decided to bake her breads professionally, she named her business Wild Yeast Kitchen after the naturally occurring leavening in grain that causes dough to rise slowly. The process gives complex flavors and robust textures to her breads, much like what she remembers from Odessa. When Childers was growing up, she went on frequent shopping trips to bakeries near her home. Her family would leave the bakeries 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 makes home deliveries to customers who order ahead in Prattville and Millbrook.
Her long-term goal is to have a commercial kitchen with a large oven so she can bake larger quantities. 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 farmers 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. 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 in hope of a better life in the U.S. They left during a period of Ukrainian governmental conflict and depression, with little job opportunity and dwindling supplies in stores. 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 was her passion in Odessa, computers provided her livelihood here as she took steps to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. Classical music continues to be part of her life, as she plays piano and sings in a church choir in Prattville and in the Montgomery Chorale.
As Childers’ baking business continues to evolve, she is taking 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.
“I wanted to see if I could live a baker’s hours,” Childers said of the early morning baking schedules kept at most small bakeries. Her husband and 12-year-old daughter have been supportive of the developing business.
The next long-term step is to establish the commercial kitchen. Childers hopes it will take her business out of their house, enabling her to take “the bread quality to the next level.” Her careful, deliberate steps for an evolving career are characteristic of the way she approaches life’s challenges, Quinn says. “We have a gem in Alabama.”
This story originally appeared in Alabama Living magazine.
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 (a blend of sunflower and pumpkin)
zest of ½ orange
1 cup (or a bit more) whole milk. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. 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. 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 comes out clean.
Recipe courtesy of Yuliya Childers