Tofte native draws on lifetime of experiences, opens bakeryNo one would have pegged Solveig Tofte as a baker, least of all her.
By: Janna Goerdt, for the News Tribune
MINNEAPOLIS — No one would have pegged Solveig Tofte as a baker, least of all her.
While growing up along the North Shore in Tofte — year-round population about 300 and named after her great-grandfather, one of the town’s founders — Tofte described herself as “hopeless” in a kitchen.
“I just couldn’t do anything; even macaroni and cheese out of a box didn’t work,” she said.
Solveig’s younger sister, Karina, was making pudding from scratch when she was little more than a toddler. But Solveig … no.
“Mac and cheese would have been beyond her,” agrees her father, Orton Tofte Jr.
But today when Tofte opens her Sun Street Breads bakery and breakfast joint in Minneapolis, she is beyond mac and cheese. Tofte has worked her way from dabbling in bakery work while living in San Francisco to becoming the head baker at the Turtle Bread Co. in Minneapolis, to competing in international baking competitions and now to opening her own bakery.
“It’s easy to slap together flour and water and yeast and make a loaf of bread,” said Harvey McLain, owner of the Turtle Bread Co. and Tofte’s former employer. “But if you understand the components of baking … you can strive to be great, you can strive to be extraordinary. Solveig promoted herself [to head baker] by attacking all our breads, all our pies, all our cakes, and making them better.”
“Attack” is not the word that immediately comes to mind when visiting with Tofte. She has a quick, wide, warm smile and a ready laugh, and is filled with stories about family and food. In February, as she strolled about the bright space at 4600 Nicollet Ave. — her husband, Martin, designed the clean, Scandinavian blue, white, and wood interior — that was becoming Sun Street Breads, she began talking about it all.
How her father was born and raised in Tofte, and how she was surrounded by home-baked breads during her childhood but still loved sandwiches made with store-bought loaves she got at her grandmother’s house. Tofte started experimenting with baked goods “as a procrastination tool” while she was in college, and took a random job at a wholesale bakery in Berkeley, Calif. After a few baking successes, Tofte began to understand the chemistry of baking, and that was the beginning of her life as a baker.
Changing people’s palates
“I really like something about every step of the process,” Tofte said. While she’s baking one of her revered baguettes, for instance, Tofte is planning what kind of texture, what kind of taste she wants; what kind of flour she will use, what kind of pre-fermenting process, what rising temperature would be best, what kind of hydration temperature she’ll use. Each decision affects the finished product in a way invisible to most casual eaters. They just know it tastes good, McLain said.
“Most people don’t know about, and even fewer know how to make that kind of Solveig baguette,” McLain said. “She’s better than most people know how, and she’s better than most people execute.”
Tofte left a successful career with a software company in California to attend culinary school. When she and her husband wanted to move back to Minnesota, McLain hired her without even conducting an interview — Tofte sent him pictures of her breads as part of her application to Turtle Bread Co. — and she stayed at Turtle Bread for more than a decade. McLain said he will miss Tofte’s warmth and skill, both in a kitchen and as a manager. And though she will be selling breads and baked goods not far from one of the Turtle Bread Co.’s three locations, McLain doesn’t see Tofte as a competitor.
“I consider her someone out there who is helping change people’s palates,” McLain said.
Her experiences inspire menu
Tofte’s new menu will draw somewhat upon her Norwegian heritage, and somewhat upon her Minnesota roots. She has concocted what she believes to be the best pasty in existence, and she’s spent time tinkering with a Norwegian almond royal cake. Tofte said she relies upon an entire life of eating and baking for inspiration.
“It’s everyone I’ve ever known, and everything I’ve ever eaten,” Tofte said.
Her father said Tofte has always loved to mix science and art, and she loves to experiment with food.
“She’ll check out old cookbooks from the Ely Public Library, she’ll go to Zup’s and buy something weird to play with,” Tofte Jr. said. Sometimes those experiments are wonderful, sometimes not, he said.
Lately, she has been gathering as many of her family’s old recipes together as she can.
One is a kind of Norwegian bagel. Another is a certain Norwegian flatbread that combines white flour and buttermilk into a very wet dough, which Tofte remembers her grandmother rolling out and cooking on a griddle. She has been hunting for a rolling pin with just the right pattern to attempt to replicate it.
Then, in a nod to the family’s commercial fishing roots, there’s the “all-holy fish cake,” a glorious concoction of pureed herring, milk and eggs that is whipped together, fried and steamed, and frequently served up by a certain uncle, Tofte said. “This is the glue that keeps the Tofte family together.”
Though most of the “Tofte Toftes” have scattered far and wide — Orton Tofte Jr. moved his family to Minneapolis when Solveig was 9 — the extended family still gathers in Tofte just about every year for a big Fourth of July celebration, family reunion and excuse to eat. Solveig’s grandfather loved to feed people, Orton Tofte Jr. said, and Solveig is the same way.
Succeeding by working hard
In Tofte’s professional baking career, the accolades have piled up and up.
In 2008 Tofte competed with the United States team in the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie competition in Paris — kind of like the World Cup of artisan baking. She prepared a version of her family’s favorite fish cakes. This winter she returned to the country to judge a similar competition. She has been elected as the chair of the Bread Bakers Guild of America, and ranked by Mpls. St. Paul Magazine as one of the top five “tastemakers” in the state for 2011.
“I’ve worked really hard,” Tofte said. “I don’t think there’s much talent involved in this. It’s a job — you work really hard at it, and you develop your skills.”
And you constantly experiment, Tofte’s father might say.
And you never settle for good enough, McLain might add.
And you keep searching for that perfect Norwegian bagel recipe, that perfect flatbread rolling pin, that perfect combination of meat, vegetables and dough for your pasty. You keep on feeding people.