The McGee household has been a busy place Thursdays this summer.
Blake rose at 5 a.m. last week to begin working on whole-wheat and mixed-grain sourdough loaves, which spent the morning rising. He then prepared baguettes, pain rustique and croissants.
For a loaf named Laramie levain, Blake mixed fresh-ground wheat and rye with white flour. A seeded multigrain loaf contained sunflower seeds, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, oats and corn grown on the McGee property.
Countertops across the kitchen in their house on the eastern side of Laramie were covered with flour and mounds of dough by midday, when the baking began.
Blake carried ready-to-bake dough outside to the backyard, where a hand-built, wood-fired masonry oven was waiting, its internal temperature sitting just below 500 degrees Fahrenheit. The McGees heated the oven the night before to close to 1,000 degrees so it would be ready.
Working quickly, Blake used a knife to slash the tops of about a dozen loaves, then slid them into the oven with a large paddle. He sprayed the inside ceiling of the oven with a fine mist out of a hose, creating a wave of steam, then shut the door.
Back inside the kitchen, he shaped another batch of loaves, his fingers working quickly as the dough turned beneath his hands. On a nearby table, golden-brown baguettes with crackly crusts formed a pile that was ready for the market.
“It’s very rewarding,” Blake said of the bread-baking process. “It’s slow, and you get a great loaf at the end. It’s satisfying, it’s really beautiful, and it feels good to work with dough.”
The loaves piling up on the McGee family table would arrive at the Thursday Local Market a few hours later, where Blake and his wife Katrina, along with sons Liam and Everett, would sell them through their budding bakery, Solstice Acre Breads.
A small line of customers is usually waiting as they start selling at 3 p.m., and loaves are usually sold out by 4:30 p.m., Katrina said. A dozen hours after the baking started, about 40 loaves have come and gone.
“It’s a nice family activity,” she said.
The McGees started Solstice Acre Breads this summer as a family activity and a way to introduce their children to commerce and philanthropy. They plan to donate proceeds from the summer’s efforts to Feeding Laramie Valley in the fall.
Blake began baking bread about 15 years ago, when they lived in Oregon. He learned the ins and outs from a friend, who also gave him a sourdough starter from San Francisco.
He brought his know-how and his starter to Laramie in 2010 to work as an associate professor of clarinet and music history at the University of Wyoming. Katrina works on foundation development for the UW Foundation.
They bought an acre of land east of Laramie, on which they built their oven throughout several years. At its base is a 6-inch slab of concrete, which sits atop insulating foam to keep it from cracking in the cold.
“It took a year just to get the foundation done,” Blake said.
Inside the oven, masonry bricks store heat for several days. The first night they build the fire, they eat quick-cooking pizzas for dinner.
“Every time we open it up, it’s a little cooler than the time before,” Katrina said.
A day or so later, after three rounds of bread, as the temperature drops to 200 degrees or so, they’ll stick in a slow-cooking meal, such as a roast.
“We will use the oven for several days,” she said.
Elsewhere on the property, goats and chickens vie for shade, bees pollinate nearby flowers and wine grapes grow in tidy rows. Katrina said they’re interested in growing their own grains, but they haven’t perfected a good threshing method yet.
“The kids know where their food comes from,” Katrina said. “They know what it’s like to make food.”
They named their slice of land Solstice Acre Farm, in honor of the fact Blake and Katrina met on the winter solstice and were married on the summer solstice. Their older son, Liam, was also born on the summer solstice four years later.
“It seems like solstice keeps coming up in our personal lives in good ways, so that’s how the name stuck,” Blake said.
Blake, who is on a nine-month contract at UW and has summers off, said expanding the bread-baking operation has long been a dream. This year, they felt their sons were old enough to absorb some of the lessons of making, selling and giving, so they jumped in.
Peggy McCrackin, who manages the Thursday market, said the market is a good way for emerging entrepreneurs to get their products into the commercial arena.
“You just come, set up shop, and people get to see your products and try your products,” she said. “It’s an easy, fairly inexpensive way to put your toe in the water.”
The McGees plan to operate Solstice Acre Breads through the end of August, except for Thursday and Aug. 10. Blake said he plans to continue the operation in summer 2017 as well.
“It’s a fun summer challenge for me, to see how much I can bake at one time and get it all done by 2 p.m. so I can get it to the market in time,” he said.
Go to www.solsticebread.com for more information.