City Bakery's Caitlin Mandigo: "I've never really understood cake pops"

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Caitlin Mandigo City Bakery 5454 Washington Street 303-292-3989 citybakerydenver.com

This is part one of my interview with Caitlin Mandigo, bread baker at City Bakery; part two of our conversation will run tomorrow.

Food "is in my family's blood," says Caitlin Mandigo, the bread production manager at City Bakery. Born and raised in St. Joseph, Michigan, Mandigo spent her early years hanging out in the kitchen. "My brother is a chef, and my dad is a great home cook -- cooking came naturally to them -- and when I was young, I looked up to them both and always wanted to be right next to them in the kitchen," explains Mandigo, who began working in professional kitchens when she was just thirteen, first as a dish monkey and then as a prep cook for a steak-and-seafood restaurant in her home town.

See also: Baker Michael Bortz opening City Bakery Cafe in the former Lenny's Sub Shop on Lincoln

When she was in her late teens, her family moved to Minnesota, and Mandigo continued to cook, although a fascination with teeth briefly derailed that career. "I graduated from high school and decided to go to Albuquerque to pursue a degree in dental assisting -- I have this obsession with teeth -- but I was like, ick: The classes were boring, I was used to having high-energy jobs in the kitchen, and I missed the fast pace and adrenaline rush of working in restaurants, so I dropped out, moved to Wyoming to be with my boyfriend -- now fiancé -- and went to culinary school instead," she recalls.

And that's how she ended up in Denver -- and in the bread-baking business. "I enrolled in the Art Institute in Denver to get a degree in baking and pastry, and while I initially wanted to concentrate on wedding cakes, I realized I didn't have the creativity or patience to do precise design work," she says. But bread was everything cake-decorating wasn't -- and more. "I took one bread class, and absolutely fell in love with everything about it," says Mandigo. "I knew that after than one class, I wanted to explore baking; I loved how I could control how bread proofs, the crumb and the texture and how light or dark it is." And that class taught her something else, too: "While I was always around great food when I was young, I still grew up on regular sandwich bread -- white and wheat from the grocery store -- and when I took the bread class, it was such a revelation, because I realized that there were so many different styles of bread and so many different ingredients you could add. It was really an amazing experience, and I knew that bread baking was the direction I wanted to go."

A classmate introduced her to Michael Bortz, the owner of City Bakery, and after a successful stage, Bortz hired Mandigo in 2012. And Bortz has been nothing but patient with the novice bread maker. "He's never once gotten mad at me, and believe me, I've messed up a lot of stuff -- but rather than yelling, he'll stop what he's doing and come over and help. I've never had a better boss, plus he's funny and makes us breakfast every day," says Mandigo, who in the following interview gives a shout-out to her favorite local bakery, admits that she doesn't get the allure of cake pops and reveals that she never skips the bread basket.

Lori Midson: What's your first food memory? Caitlin Mandigo: When I was growing up, I was introduced to food and cooking by my oldest brother, who's now a chef in Albuquerque. He would always have me help prepare meals for dinner for the rest of our family, and that's something I'll always be fond of. Just learning the basics of cooking, and what ingredients mix well with others, was a great learning experience. My family has always enjoyed cooking and sitting around the dinner table -- that was the time where we could all bond and talk about our day. My family also loved to vacation, and for one of our vacations, we went to Korea and Hong Kong to visit my other brother, who was in the Air Force at the time. What a culture shock. I saw so many amazing places, and one of the things I thought was most fascinating was the differences in food between the U.S. and there. Deep-fried bugs and octopus jerky were just two of the items that I thought were a little different. We're so lucky here in America for all the amazing options to choose from. For me, being younger at the time and seeing these people eat these things that I would never try made me realize how grateful I really am.

Ten words to describe you: Hardworking, early riser (pun intended), fun, honest, motivated, confident, reliable, sarcastic, upbeat and laid-back.

Five words to describe your bread: Artisan, crusty, chewy, rustic and delicious.

What are your ingredient obsessions? We have four main ingredients that we use every day: flour, yeast, salt and water. They're simple ingredients, but there are endless possibilities. It's all about technique as we guide the bread through the fermentation and the rise. We can adjust things like hydration, bench time and heat to have large or small crumb, crunchy or soft crust, and dense or soft texture.

Favorite piece of kitchen equipment: When I first started working at the bakery, I was so impressed with the ovens. During my old jobs working in kitchens, I was used to working with the standard convection ovens that you find in any restaurant, but the ovens we have at City Bakery are large enough for a person to stand in, and they can heat up to about 600 degrees in about two minutes. I've also never worked with any ovens that can inject steam, which is what gives our bread, especially our signature sourdough, its beautiful crust. It's such a great feeling when I take out the bread from the oven. I'm always so proud to say that I've made it.

What's your favorite smell in the kitchen? The smell of our biga -- a bread starter -- after it's been fermenting in the cooler overnight is an especially unique smell. It has a sweet and tangy scent and the texture of a soft sponge. We use the biga for our ciabatta dough -- it's what gives the ciabatta its depth and flavor, just like our starter that we use in our sour and rye loaves. I also really enjoy the smell of fresh-baked bread in the morning. One of the most consistent compliments that we get from bakery visitors is, "Wow, it smells so great in here."

What's your favorite ingredient to work with? All the nuts, berries and seeds we use in our multigrain bread. I have a newfound appreciation for working with healthier and all-natural ingredients; it's what gives our wheat bread its amazing flavor and texture.

One ingredient that you won't touch: We're very conscientious here about the ingredients we put in our bread, so if it's not necessary, we don't want a person eating it, and that means no fillers and no preservatives.

One ingredient in baking that's way overused: Everything used in our bread is essential to the outcome. Although the ingredients are mostly the same, there really are an endless variety of outcomes. Depending on if you want sweet or savory bread, it's fun to add certain ingredients like olives or dried fruit.

Food trend you'd like to see in 2014: I moved to Colorado a few years ago from Wyoming, and I love how people here really care about what's in their food, and how it's prepared. I believe it's so important that everyone become more involved and educated about the foods they're putting into their bodies. That's one thing that impressed me with City Bakery: Everything is all-natural, and we don't add any chemicals.

Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2014: One thing I've never really understood is cake pops. I just don't understand the attraction to them. I guess the only logical reasoning would be if you're on the go and want a quick bite of cake, but then what's the point of decorating them? I wouldn't miss them if they were gone.

Are there any current trends or innovators in the bread world that you find particularly interesting? The way that we eat bread now is something I find interesting. When I was growing up, bread was something that just held the main product together -- and it was either white or wheat. Bread is now being served as a side dish, which I never used to see, and there are so many different options to choose from and so many different ways to eat or prepare it.

If you could train under any bread baker in the world, who would it be? There are so many great chefs out there, but I truly feel blessed to be a part of the City Bakery team. Michael Bortz is such a great chef and leader, not to mention an amazing baker. I've already learned so much from him. Working under Michael is great because I get to experiment and try new ideas. It's so inspiring to see how much he truly loves what he does.

What piece of advice would you give a young baker? I've only been doing this for about a year and a half, so I consider myself a young baker, but for anyone who's just starting out, it's always important to listen and pay attention. Take in as much as knowledge as you can, and always ask questions, because if you don't ask, you'll never know.

Best bread-baking tip for a home cook: Be patient. It's going to take a few times to get it right, because when you're cooking at home, you typically don't have all the right equipment. Just make sure you've added all the right ingredients and didn't leave anything out. Jotting notes down will also help improve your outcome for the times to come.

What's been your worst baking disaster in the kitchen? Every time I've forgotten to add an ingredient to the mix; every ingredient is an essential part of the bread. I've done it all: forgotten the yeast, salt and water, and I've even added too much or not enough flour. When this happens, it's very rare that the dough can be saved. I try not to beat myself up, but instead look at it as a learning experience. Everyone makes mistakes, but it's what you get out of your mistakes that's important.

If you hadn't become a baker, what would you be doing right now? Before I attended the Art Institute in Denver, I attended a community college in Albuquerque to become a dental assistant. I got about halfway through the program and realized it wasn't for me. I felt that I needed a job that was going to give me more satisfaction. I truly believe that the person I am today is a result of the jobs I've had. Working in the food industry can be so exhausting at times, so you have to be motivated and a hard worker, especially as a baker.

What's one thing people would be surprised to know about you? Everyone who meets me thinks I'm shy, but in reality, I'm loud, feisty and sarcastic.

Last meal before you die: Steak and mashed potatoes. I'm pretty simple when it comes to food. I do like to try new things, but you just can't go wrong with a medium-rare filet and garlic mashed potatoes.

What's in the pipeline? City Bakery will be opening up a new cafe in the Golden Triangle in just a few months, and we're expanding at the bakery every day and taking on new restaurant clients, which is keeping everyone busy.

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