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 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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
“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 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.
“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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL .