Small Oven, Big Dream
Two Women (and a Village) Build a Better Bakery
By Lynne Bertrand, photographs by Georgia Teensma
I was surprised to be—well, directed to meet a pair of new young bakers this summer by Kevin Sahagian, the chef-owner of the cult seafood shack Captain Jack’s on Route 10 in Easthampton. Sahagian pulled me aside (I was ordering a mountain of sweet fried clams) and said I had to get over to Union Street to the new Small Oven bakery, where, he said, “They make everything from scratch. And they work really hard.”
I don’t know anyone in food who works harder than the Captain, so this news caught my attention.
I found Small Oven at 36 Union: a sunlit storefront with thick wooden tables inside and jars full of wildflowers; racks full of buttery, high-loft croissants; and brioche egg baskets topped with fried eggs, chives, and caramelized fennel. Crusty five-grain loaves. Éclairs with thick smears of bittersweet chocolate. Muffins jammed with fresh fruit. Cookies, meringues, cakes, scones, bars, Danishes—all of it full of the produce of local farms and dairies, much of it organic.
Amanda Milazzo was arranging fresh tarts with a mother lode of peaches and blueberries that had just come in. Julie Copoulos rolled baguettes for the afternoon run on bread. Milazzo, 35, and Copoulos, 26, are the co-owners of Small Oven. Their workbenches abut and face each other, so they can work out recipes and techniques, dispute ingredients with extreme passion, and entertain each other for the long hours they work.
“When we first opened we worked from 4 in the morning to 11 o’clock at night,” said Milazzo. “We had no idea how much we needed of anything. We were sold out that first day by 11am. It took us a week to figure out how much we really needed to make.”
“We were literally home for five hours a day, that whole first month,” said Copoulos.
It is tempting to notice Copoulos’ fascinations with wild yeast fermentation and the complex biology of, say, rye bread, and assume she is the bread baker; Milazzo’s tendency toward cake perfection and her valedictory status in culinary school for pastry making set her up as pastry chef. But actually the partners share equally in the day’s work, which, since March, has grown from breads and pastries (and a coffee bar with local roasts and tea merchants) to include quiches, soups, and sandwiches.
“You hone the pastries till they’re perfect,” said Milazzo, “then keep them there while you introduce new things like sandwiches. It’s long hours till you get sandwiches right. When we bring a new item on the menu, it’s like a mini opening. Meaning, it’s crazy.”
Small Oven’s errand list sounds like a Tolkien shire map: Mountain View, Ravenswold, Four Star, Bear Farm, Round Hill and Park Hill Orchards, Riverside, Mapleline. These are mainly Hampshire County farms and dairies; Milazzo and Copoulos source further afield for organic flour (at Nitty Gritty Grains in Vermont, for example) and cheeses (Cabot).
With a friend, they are building a permaculture ecosystem behind their shop, where ingredients will get even more local.
Local and community are the underpinnings of Small Oven (which, by the way, is a translation of the French confection, Petit Four), familiar ideals for Milazzo and Copoulos, who were raised in hard-driving, festive, communal food cultures themselves. Milazzo comes from Italian stock by way of Syracuse, where Feasts of the Seven Fish vigils stretched from Christmas Eve into Christmas. Copoulos is one of a Greek tribe in Westfield, where racks of lamb roasted all day and night in her grandfather’s—her Papou’s—ovens.
Milazzo and Copoulos have built a work ethic around this idea of community. A community of friends supported them in the winter of 2013 when “the gals,” as they call themselves, started a bread-share program in Easthampton: bread and pastries baked in borrowed restaurant ovens, delivered to people’s houses every Friday. That same core community of 30 burgeoned into 216 donors who put in over $17,000 for the Kickstarter campaign that funded the opening of Small Oven in March.
A community of mentors, chefs, and teachers are a constant source of phone and Instagram advice (and even used kitchen equipment) for Milazzo and Copoulos. And now restaurants are buying their goods, wholesale. Two partners at home—Milazzo’s husband, Jeff, and Copoulos’ boyfriend, Ian—have been the strongest supports, lugging dough and scrubbing sheet pans when days and nights run together in an endless pile of work. And community is what you feel when you’re in the shop, where customers are greeted by name and conversation is festive.
Festive, yes. But still so much work to do. And yet, “The more normal our schedule gets, the more time I have,” said Milazzo. “Tonight? I can go to the farmers market after work. Pick out beautiful things. Go home and cook. I love it.”
Tue-Sat 7am-3pm, Sun 8am-2pm, Closed Mondays
36 Union St.
Lynne Bertrand is a freelance writer who lives in Williamsburg. Georgia Teensma is a freelance photographer and a second-year student at Hampshire College.