Through the craft and science of fresh bread, a home baker in Kansas discovers a new career. Meet her—and her no-knead dough that can do it all.
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fresh baked bread
Credit: Carson Downing

Forming dough into baguettes, Cathy Drabkin uses her hands like a Swiss army knife, each anatomical feature a practiced tool. Her fingertips lift, stretch and fold. The straight side of her hand presses a trench. The heel of her palm flattens a seam. Her forearm coaxes each rope of dough from linen to balsa board to pan. Every move is quick, intuitive and gentle.

Since starting Cathy's Breads, her home-based microbakery in Hays, Kansas, nine years ago, Drabkin has seen her weeks fall into a similar well-tuned rhythm. Customers place orders by Tuesday morning, choosing from loaves, rolls, croissants, pies, cookies and more. That day, Drabkin tallies lists and buys groceries. On Wednesday, she preps: Toasting nuts. Weighing fruit. Making glazes. On Thursday, she mixes doughs, which will proof overnight, before a Friday fervor of dividing, shaping, rising and baking. Saturday morning, Drabkin hangs an Open sign on her front door (and releases next week's menu).

wooden rolling pins
Cathy Drabkin baked bread
baking books collection
Left: A collection of rolling pins serves equal parts art and function. | Credit: Carson Downing
Center: Cathy Drabkin launched her licensed home bakery in 2013; each Saturday, neighbors from Hays, Kansas, and surrounding towns swing by her dining room to pick up their orders. As the business has grown, she has renovated her historic home's kitchen, adding a small Rofco stone-hearth oven. | Credit: Carson Downing
Right: Dog-eared wisdom and inspiration crowd a bookshelf. | Credit: Carson Downing

For years, Drabkin baked for fun in her free time. She taught rec center classes, but opening a bakery felt daunting. Then in 2013, somewhat impulsively, she registered for the town's new farmers market. Her 30 loaves, including a wheat-white-rye blend studded with dried fruit, sold out. Hays is a little college town dropped 180 miles from Wichita in the flat expanse of cattle country—surrounded by wheat, yet suffering for good bread. Drabkin had, quite literally, delivered manna. "The wonderful thing about small towns is that you can have an impact," she says. "There's a lot of opportunity to create change."

When market season ended, Drabkin kept going, selling preorders from her home. A year later, she dropped her stall, opting to bake fall through spring and enjoy summers off with her husband, a professor. She has hired an assistant but doesn't see growing more: "I've been approached about a cafe-bakery, and I come close, but I know that's more work and commitment than I am ready for at my age. Had it been 30 years ago? I might have. But this suits me." And it seems to suit the lucky citizens of Hays too.

One Artisan Bread Dough Recipe, Infinite Possibilities

A serial experimenter, Drabkin makes a huge variety of breads, including more complicated sourdoughs. But everything shown in this story is a variation on one recipe—a four-ingredient dough that you can stir together with a spoon and adapt with different flours, flavors and fillings. Here are a few favorites. 

Get the Dough Recipe

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assorted baked breads
Credit: Carson Downing

Pita, Seed Rolls and Pan Loaf

Made with white or wheat flour, pita puffs up quickly in a super-hot oven.

These crusty seed rolls, made here with honey-wheat dough, pair happily with soup.

Baking bread in a pan yields a softer crust and even slices for toast or sandwiches. This loaf features light rye dough with caraway seeds.

baguette loafs
Credit: Carson Downing

Baguette

One batch of Do-Anything Artisan Bread dough yields three crisp baguettes to eat, freeze or share.

baguette loafs
Credit: Carson Downing

Focaccia

Adding olive oil tenderizes the dough, yielding a soft pillow that's a blank canvas for toppings like rosemary, red onion and sea salt.

cheddar jalapeno pinwheels
Credit: Carson Downing

Cheddar- Jalapeno Pinwheels

Drabkin says cheesy anything is always a top seller. These jumbo rolls taste scrumptious alone or in an egg sandwich.

fruit and nut bread
Credit: Carson Downing

Fruit and Nut Bread

A variation on Drabkin's first-ever
bread, made here with a touch of whole wheat, plus cranberries, apricots and walnuts.

Cottage Style

In places where cottage laws permit selling food made in home kitchens, microbakeries have flourished during the pandemic. Four more to explore:

Pie Bird Pies

In Des Moines, married couple Kristen Daily and Andrea Piekarczyk turned a furlough into a dream. They sling pies in flavors like Apple-Cherry-Cardamom at farmers markets and pop-ups.

Upper Crust Bread

Customers arrive each Saturday at Jeffrey Moll Jr.'s St. Louis apartment to pick up naturally fermented sourdough. Try a traditional Country Loaf or smoky Paprika and Rosemary.

Butter Cream Flour

Chicago-area attorney Laura Riff petitioned her municipality, River Forest, to permit home bakeries in 2020. She takes special orders for her artfully decorated cakes and cupcakes.

The Cottage Bagel

In Grand Rapids, Michigan, Angela and Tony Ochoa hand-roll and boil bagels that marry Montreal and New York styles, in all the classic flavors, including a lineup of gluten-free options.