UPDATE: This story has been changed since it was first published. The times for the book signing and the name of the co-author of the book have been corrected.
Next time you’re in a Seattle grocery store, perusing all the exotic loaves of bread in the bakery section, stop for a moment and say a little thanks to Gwenyth Bassetti. She helped to make possible those loaves of olive bread and foccachia and rustic Italian.
Bassetti founded Grand Central Bakery in Pioneer Square in 1989. Prior to that, in the early 1970s, she and two friends opened a little sandwich shop called, simply, The Bakery, also in the Square’s Grand Central Building. At a time when “bread” meant, at best, whole wheat in a plastic bag, she showed us that there was a world of possibilities out there that we hadn’t even dreamed of.
Bassetti and her husband, architect Fred Bassetti, live on a houseboat on Portage Bay. On Thursday, she’ll be signing copies of “The Grand Central Baking Book,” a collection of recipes from the bakery, from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Eastlake Grand Central, 1616 Eastlake Ave. E. Bassetti will be signing books with her daughter, Piper Davis, who co-wrote the book with Portland food writer Ellen Jackson.
While many of the recipes are from the bakery (and quite a few of them were created or influenced by Bassetti), she says others “come out of the tradition” of Grand Central. The book’s gorgeous color photos are guaranteed to make you hungry.
People have asked for the bakery’s recipes for years, Bassetti says, and sometimes she’d oblige. Now seemed like a good time to collect the best ones in a book.
It all started, she recalls, in 1972 with the desire to open a sandwich shop in Pioneer Square with two of her friends. The sandwich shop idea came out of San Francisco, where several such places were operating.
“We didn’t have any idea what we were doing,” she says. “It was a fun, crazy, ’70s, hippie kind of thing to do.”
Bassetti baked the hearty bread for the sandwiches. One day, she made a breakfast pastry. It was a hit. She tried cinnamon rolls. Even bigger hit (they’re they one original item that has continued relatively unchanged, she says). People came back for more and a business success was born.
Eventually, Bassetti left The Bakery, moved to Eastern Washington and settled on a farm near Goldendale with her husband. They raised sheep and “a bunch of kids.” She wrote a food column for the local paper, the Goldendale Sentinel, and ran the office of the state wool growers association.
“I’ve been a latent foodie all my life,” Bassetti says. She grew up in Boston and lived on a family farm. There were big gardens and lots of baking. Her mom (“a good, natural cook”) baked and exposed Bassetti to baking. She says she was more outdoorsy and it wasn’t until her junior year of college that she got serious about food.
She was working at a dude ranch in Wyoming, helping in the kitchen, when the cook had a nervous breakdown. “The woman who owned the ranch was always on her,” Bassetti recalls, complaining that the food wasn’t cook properly. When the cook couldn’t finish the summer, Bassetti took over.
At the time, you didn’t find many women working as professional cooks. That changed and during her career Bassetti saw “an explosion of women in the kitchen.”
After her husband passed away, Bassetti came back to Seattle and to the Bakery’s old space in 1989. A new owner of the Grand Central Building wanted someone in the restaurant space who was qualified to run a restaurant and who could bring a little class, she recalls. She was his choice. By then, she was seeing Fred Bassetti and decided it might be nice to be closer to Seattle.
Inspired by Carol Field’s classic baking book, “The Italian Baker,” Bassetti went to work. She hired Leslie Mackie (who would later found Macrina Bakery) as head baker and changed the name of the business to Grand Central Bakery. After the Seattle Times’ John Hinterberger raved about the bakery’s bread, lines formed to buy the loaves.
The rest is baking history.
Although she never anticipated being in grocery stores, Queen Anne Thriftway (now Metropolitan Market) became the bakery’s first wholesale customer. There are now two bakeries in Seattle and six in Portland. Just being introduced is a line of U-Bake products.
Bassetti is proud of the fact that the family tradition continues at Grand Central. Her son, Ben, and daughter, Piper, own and operate the business along with their friends Bob Kerr, Claire Randall, Gillian Allen-White and Gabrielle Moorhead. Her youngest son, a contractor, made the concrete counters for the Eastlake bakery and a stepson did the woodwork there.
While she doesn’t bake at Grand Central anymore, Bassetti still makes bread and likes to bake for guests. And she and her husband still spend time on the farm in Goldendale. The shoreline by the houseboat is her garden, currently in disarray due to a construction project.
Before I left, I had to ask: Does she have a favorite recipe in the new book? She says she really likes Piper’s take on Tarte Tatin. Piper has “demystified” the dessert, she says.
A traditional French dish, Tarte Tatin is baked like an apple pie but without the bottom crust. When it’s done, you flip it over, exposing the golden, baked apples.
Looking at the photos in the the new book, you can almost smell it. It makes me think about taking up baking.