KUALA LUMPUR, Jan1 — “Now, I am literally putting bread on the table!” says Nordinie bin Mahat, or Dinie, in his newly-renovated home kitchen that is the base of The Bread Fox, a micro bakery he started up with his wife Almasruza Putri binti Mohamad Jajuli (Ruza) that specialises in organic sourdough breads.
The name has no particular meaning, although Ruza admits to being a fan of television series The X-Files’ main character, Fox Mulder.
Just a few months old, The Bread Fox currently only has a few items on their menu — bagels (besides plain ones, there are four variants), cranberry raisin scones and brioche.
As they continuously experiment with new recipes, they occasionally offer other baked goods such as quiches, flatbread, and bialys, a Polish bun with sautéed onions and poppy seeds.
From selling among friends and online, they have now moved to setting up stall at Taman Rekreasi Lembah Kiara in Taman Tun Dr Ismail four days a week, including weekends.
As a micro bakery, their production is on a very small scale and because it’s just the two of them running the entire outfit, there is really no way to rush things.
But The Bread Fox’s progress has actually been quite quick, considering neither of them had any experience in bread-making prior to this — although Dinie had always enjoyed baking pies and other delights.
This bakery is a huge departure from what the couple used to do: Dinie was an Art Director of television commercials while Ruza owned a production house. When Ruza got pregnant with twins in 2012, she had to stop working as it took a toll on her. “I couldn’t work, couldn’t even drive without throwing up!”
Dinie quit his job to take care of her, and the couple ended up not working for a whole year. “It didn’t get better after I gave birth,” Ruza reveals, “because then we had to take care of the twins. Neither of us barely slept... it came to a point where I had to throw pillows or even a water bottle at him to wake him up when it was his turn to feed the babies!”
In 2014, the couple were approached to take on a photography assignment for a hotel chain’s properties around Malaysia, which they enjoyed at first but then realised it wasn’t practical as they couldn’t bring the twins everywhere.
“The final straw was when we had to spend two days doing a food photoshoot. We had to leave the twins with my mum, and she nearly went crazy!” Ruza recalls.
That prompted them to reconsider everything, and to look for other means of sustaining themselves. “We thought hard about what we really loved or wanted to do. Food is an essential — everyone needs to eat, whereas not everyone NEEDS to have their photos taken. Also, we had our third child about two and a half years ago... with three kids, we wanted something that we could do from home so we could watch them at the same time.”
It was bagels that came to mind first, as the couple found it difficult to find good, fresh ones locally. Their early attempts at making bagels didn’t turn out well, so they decided to learn from a professional baker.
The couple had met Mustaffa Abdullah, the owner of popular artisanal bakery White Brick Oven in Sungai Buloh, through friends and approached him to seek an apprenticeship for Dinie.
“It was a very intensive course... for several weeks, I would drive to his place every day. He taught me the basics of bread making and told me that once I understood that, I can explore on my own,” says Dinie of his sifu, whom he credits with teaching him everything he needed to know, including introducing him to a software that helps bakers determine their selling prices.
After Dinie “graduated” and was ready to start selling breads, he had one other problem: A suitable kitchen and the necessary equipment. He rented Mustaffa’s kitchen at first, producing bagels that he and Ruza would deliver upon order.
“It would take me about an hour to drive to Sungai Buloh, and I would be there from around midnight till about 5am. After a while, we realised the arrangement just wasn’t working for us as it required too much commute time and additional expenses.”
The couple decided that it was more feasible to build their own kitchen, and so they converted a room in their house that was actually meant for the twins. It’s still a work in progress; the kitchen is sparse but practical for their needs.
White tiled walls act as a wrap-around notice board where recipes, fermentation schedule, shopping lists and orders are written using marker pens. There’s also a cold room that’s a walk-in freezer and where they can carry out cold fermentation, a technique that yields more concentrated flavours.
Dinie handles the baking while Ruza handles the rest of the operations, such as taking note of orders and updating their social media platforms, besides overseeing quality control. “If my boss says no, we won’t sell it,” says Dinie lovingly as he gestures to his wife.
The jovial couple are clearly enjoying this new venture of theirs, even though it’s not without its challenges and risks.
For one, they’ve moved away from using commercial yeast and replaced it with sourdough that they ferment themselves. Sourdough, says Ruza, is kinder on the gut so most people don’t have trouble digesting it. “My mother-in-law can’t take commercial breads, they cause bloating and other issues. But she has no trouble eating the breads that we bake,” Dinie adds.
But the making of sourdough itself can be a temperamental process, and means having to spend more time and effort to ensure consistency. The technical details involved, such as fermentation time, must be adhered to precisely in order to have stable results.
Dinie thus needs to watch the clock carefully and set alarms for every step. “At first, it was difficult to wake up on time in the mornings. But if we miss the timing, then everything goes down the drain!”
The Bread Fox uses only organic flour, organic sugar and organic salt in all their breads. “We started eating organic food after we had our twins,” says Ruza. “When we first started baking, we used regular flour but were not happy with the taste. Then we tried organic flour and we’ve stuck to it since.”
The trouble with using organic flour, however, is that supply is not reliable. “The ones that are available in Malaysia are imported from Turkey, Australia and India. There is currently a shortage, so prices are going up,” Ruza reveals.
“Also, the flours do differ from each country. India, for example, describes their atta flour as whole wheat but they don’t contain bran.” Some bakers may consider this a small shortcoming, but Ruza is particular about being honest and upfront. “If it’s not whole wheat flour, then we can’t call our breads whole wheat!”
Even when recipes are diligently followed and the ingredients are the same, other variables could affect the outcome too, such as the temperature in the kitchen and the quality of water. “A lot of people who learn to bake bagels with Mustaffa will say that when they replicate the recipe at home, they can’t achieve the same flavour or texture. That’s because Mustaffa uses well water,” Dinie reveals.
He has since perfected his bagel recipe, committing the ratio of ingredients into his ‘Master Memory.’ “Our bagels are not like New York style, which are chewy. Some customers have commented that they are more European as they have a thin crust.”
There is no egg wash used, making the bagels suitable for vegans. Instead, the crust, Dinie explains, comes from boiling the dough in a mixture of bicarbonate of soda and malt before baking, which makes the skin gelatinous and thicker.
The insides are soft enough that you can enjoy the bagels right away without toasting. In fact, Ruza and Dinie both advocate eating the bagels straight from the oven. “They have a different texture compared to toasted bagels, and are really the best way to enjoy bagels,” says Ruza.
Which is why, when they first started, they would time the baking and delivery such that the breads were still warm when they reached customers. Obviously, the logistics of that wore them out quickly.
Their stall at Taman Rekreasi Lembah Kiara, which started in October, is proving to be a better arrangement. Their breads are reaching the right audience, and it gives them the opportunity to interact directly with customers.
“Initially I was shy about it and didn’t know how to approach people to buy our breads. Then I realised that when we tell them they’re organic breads, people are immediately interested. Now I enjoy meeting people at our stall,” says Dinie.
Ultimately, the couple hopes to not only have their own full-fledged bakery but a flour mill as well, where they can have freshly milled flour to bake with or to sell. Until then, they won’t stop growing their repertoire and hope to introduce more scone variants (ginger and lemon are on the cards), hearth bread and Turkish simit, among others.
The Bread Fox may be just a cub now, but it’s just a matter of time before it reaches its full potential.
Catch The Bread Fox at Taman Rekreasi Lembah Kiara in Taman Tun Dr Ismail on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays (8am-10am), Saturdays and Sundays (8am-10am and 5.30pm-6.30pm).
You can also order online at http://thebreadfox.com/ or by calling 011-3300 6272 or 03-2011 3063.
Follow them on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/TheBreadFox) and Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/thebreadfox/) for updates.
Vivian Chong is a freelance writer-editor and long-time bread lover. Follow her adventures at http://thisbunnyhops.com/