Brainerd woman turns tragedy into triumph with sourdough starter

“Denise puts a lot of time and effort and love into every single thing that she crafts. She does it with such passion that she’s not just handing somebody like myself a loaf of bread. She’s handing me like fresh-baked love because she puts that much effort into It.” -- Julie Host of Brainerd

Denise Sundquist cuts a loaf of her sourdough bread Wednesday, Dec. 1, at her Brainerd home. After l losing her job during the early month's of the pandemic, Sundquist began to devote her early morning hours to baking her specialty sourdough breads as gifts for others. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Denise Sundquist kneaded to do something.

The former Brainerd Public Schools employee took up baking when she found herself without a job during the pandemic and with time on her hands while her husband bicycles.

“I bake really early in the morning on weekdays, but I also bake during my husband’s adventure rides during the weekend,” said Sundquist, community activist and volunteer.

The 54-year-old resident of Brainerd decided to try her hand at sourdough baking and has developed a sizable following on her Facebook page “Biker’s Wife Bread.”

“It's tied into heartbreak and frustration and loss,” Sundquist said of her experimental edible hobby. “But it’s also about hope and transformation.”


Comfort food

Like many other Americans working from home, staying at home or without a job, Sundquist turned to baking to find purpose in the kitchen and solace with the comfort food she created.

“I got laid off at the Brainerd School District after 16 years,” Sundquist said. “And one of my friends gave me some sourdough bread starter … and it was through a job loss, I started baking sourdough bread and just trying to get better and better and better at it.”

Denise Sundquist pours flour into a mixing bowl, Wednesday, Dec. 2, before making another batch of her sourdough Swedish rolls. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Some of her sourdough-based creations, of which she posts lovingly detailed photos on Facebook, include English muffins, wild rice cranberry bread, pancakes, cinnamon raisin bread, rye bread and Mediterranean olive sourdough with basil, oregano, thyme and rosemary.

“I can bake pretty much anything or at least I’ll try!” Sundquist said. “It’s very technical. It’s, you know, you don’t have a control panel. It’s just salt, water and flour. It’s a starter that you make and it’s just a huge learning curve.”

No longer in between jobs, Sundquist is now employed as a safety professional for a manufacturing company.


“It was a time-filler,” Sundquist said of baking, which she does 4:30-7:30 a.m. before work and when her husband Matt rides. “And I was waiting for the next great opportunity.”

Denise Sundquist's fresh sourdough bread loaves are arranged on her kitchen counter Wednesday, Dec. 2, at her Brainerd home. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Sundquist said one of her more in-demand sourdough creations from her kitchen is her jalapeno cheddar with “the cheddar cheese bubbling out along with jalapenos and a hint of chives.”

“In our diets, everything is so highly processed with additives and preservatives. And this is the way bread was made over 2,000 years ago,” she said. “And when you can’t add sugar or commercial yeast, you’re really relying on the natural yeast and the bacteria in the environment to leaven the bread.”

Sundquist graduated from the University of Wisconsin with an undergraduate degree in dietetics, so she said she has always had a fascination with nutrition and eating “real” food.

The texture of a loaf of Denise Sundquist's sourdough bread shows up after being sliced on her breadboard. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch


“I’ve got many things in my mind that I want to bake and want to perfect … but the birds and squirrels are well fed in our backyard because I have a lot of failures, too. People never see the failures,” Sundquist said.

Sundquist said she uses recipes from the internet and there is a community of like-minded sourdough bakers out there just like herself.

“Because I have this hobby and this fascination with baking all different kinds of sourdough and photographing it, I share it. I don’t normally sell it. I just share it,” Sundquist said.

Sharing the love

Michelle Andres is a 43-year-old physical education teacher in Brainerd. The online instructor is also a triathlete who is fortunate enough to sample Sundquist’s baked goods.

“Denise has always been this amazing baker, and she would bring me like treats and stuff,” said Andres, who jokingly attributes her speediness to eating Sundquist’s sourdough bread.

Sundquist twists sourdough into ribbons before tying into knots Wednesday, Dec. 2, while making Swedish cinnamon rolls. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Sundquist said of sharing with friends, family and her Facebook followers or fans, “I give it away, so if people want something, I tend to just make it and bring it to them so that they can also enjoy this healthy, healthy kind of bread. … My love language is sharing food.”


The health-conscious Andres said she only eats sourdough bread and volunteers to be a taste-tester for whatever Sundquist cooks something up in her kitchen.

“Her bread — it’s like if you go and pick fresh fruit or fresh vegetables from your own garden — it just tastes different than if you buy it at the grocery store. And her bread is authentic, it’s full of flavor, and it’s just simply delicious,” Andres said.

Julie Host frequently posts comments on Sundquist’s Biker’s Wife Bread Facebook page. The 52-year-old full-time mom lives in Brainerd.

Sprinkling special sugar on her Swedish cinnamon rolls, Sundquist tries to supply her friends with sourdough bread and rolls as gifts during the pandemic. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

“I am so fortunate to be one of her taste-testers. My family and I absolutely adore when she delivers her goods to us,” Host said. “Usually, I don’t know what I’m getting … but having, say, fresh-baked caramel rolls sitting on your doorstep for you is kind of a nice surprise.”

Host said Sundquist was one of her first friends when Host moved to the Brainerd lakes area.

“Denise puts a lot of time and effort and love into every single thing that she crafts. She does it with such passion that she’s not just handing somebody like myself a loaf of bread. She’s handing me like fresh-baked love because she puts that much effort into It,” Host said.


Applying an egg wash to her sourdough Swedish rolls, Denise Sundquist prepares another batch of rolls Wednesday, Dec. 2, to give away. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Sundquist said, “I am all about fitness. I’m all about healthy eating. And I’m all about sharing my time and talent with other people that appreciate it. And giving people homemade bread gives me immense joy and satisfaction.”

Sundquist said she does not plan to turn her hobby into a business, but if she does she would likely have customers with almost 200 people who like and follow her on Facebook.

“I don’t have the setup and I don’t have the license and I don’t have the kitchen,” Sundquist said. “The story is more about maybe, ‘What do you do when you lose your job? How can you give back to the community and how do you connect with the community with your gifts?’”

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at . Follow him on Twitter at .


I cover the community of Wadena, Minn., and write features stories for the Wadena Pioneer Journal. The weekly newspaper is owned by Forum Communications Co.
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