John Crain bakes every day. He bakes scones, rolls, and all sorts of bread--white and wheat and sourdough and cranberry walnut. Yet he's still amazed by the simple magic formula: a bowl of milk, flour, yeast, and eggs can be transformed into warm, delicious loaves.
"I just like baking bread," he says. "I love the mixing of it. I can sit and watch bread rise and see that growth and know that's something I've created." He never gets tired of the aroma. "It smells good all the time."
At the age of 62, Crain is enjoying a transformation of his own, from bean counter to baker. After a 31-year career working for several state agencies--including eight years as the budget director for the Illinois attorney general's office--he retired to follow his dream of becoming an artisan breadmaker. Now he's the baker at Andiamo, 206 S. 6th Street (523-3262).
Crain works as he talks, pouring eggs, buttermilk, and other ingredients into a mammoth stainless steel bowl. In less than an hour, the yeast in a large batch of sausage-and-cheese bread batter has done its work and doubled the size of the dough.
He makes about 65 loaves a week, including baguettes, maple oatmeal, multigrain, sausage and cheese, and whole wheat with raisins. He favors hearty breads, made with dough requiring a long fermentation time. The bread is sold by the loaf in the restaurant and also used for sandwiches and other dishes. He makes a different breakfast item from scratch each day, such as blueberry and almond scones, brioche, cinnamon rolls, sticky buns, and fougasse, a breakfast pizza made with foccacia dough and topped with nuts. Last year for Thanksgiving he made 50 dozen cloverleaf dinner rolls for eager customers, and this year he plans to make sourdough rolls.
A native of Centralia, Crain moved to the Springfield area in 1977. After retiring two years ago, he wanted to follow his love for baking bread, but he didn't realize it would lead to a new full-time career. While still working for the state, he had taken classes at Lincoln Land Community College, through the hospitality program and the "Great Young Chefs" series. He credits the hospitality program and its director Jay Kitterman with providing the encouragement and training he needed. "They have been a boon to me personally and to the restaurant industry in this area," he says. Crain is now slated to teach a baking class at LLCC this fall.
"I knew that when I retired I wouldn't be able to just sit around," he says. Three weeks after retiring, he began working part-time at the LLCC cafeteria. When that contract ended, he went to work at Andiamo.
Crain begins his day in the kitchen at 5 a.m., mixing and baking batches of muffins, scones, bagels, homemade bread, and other sweet treats. "I feel like I've died and gone to heaven," he says. "This is as good as it gets. People look at me like I'm crazy for getting up at 4 a.m.," but he wouldn't have it any other way. In fact, he thinks maybe he should start coming in an hour earlier.
"I've cooked and baked for 30 years," he says. "My mom was an excellent cook." After returning from a stint in the military, he went back to college at St. Louis University, where he "lived on hamburgers and eggs for two months." Fed up, he purchased his first cookbook, the Fanny Farmer Cookbook, and started experimenting. Though he currently has more than 225 cookbooks, he still keeps that first one on hand--its faded red cover is held together with masking tape.
Many of Crain's recipes are creative takes on standard bread recipes. He's always looking for new ways to add flavor. He's currently experimenting with a white bread recipe using a sourdough starter and perfecting a variety using a natural leavening agent. The love of baking is a family affair. His wife, Sheila, a speech therapist at Little Flower Grade School, bakes 20 varieties of cookies each Christmas to give to friends. His son, Joshua, who attended the Culinary Institute of America, now works as a chef in California's Napa Valley. Even his daughter, Sarah, a junior at Sacred Heart-Griffin, has expressed interest in cooking.
Homemade bread is making a comeback, and high-end bakeries have become prevalent in larger cities, he says. "People want the flavor. Anybody who has been around homemade bread will never forget that taste. I can remember the first loaf of white bread I made. I made four loaves and one of them was gone in the first hour and a half. Nothing's better than butter on homemade bread."
He doesn't have time to make loaves of bread for friends anymore, though occasionally he'll bake a few loaves of white bread at home just for fun. Most of his baking now is just for work. "My wife still has to remind me to bring home a loaf of bread," he says with a laugh.