BUTTERMILK BAKING COMPANY
PHOTOS BY MICHAEL PIAZZA
When the summer sun shines through the window facing Liberty Street and the ovens are running inside the Buttermilk Baking Company, the Newburyport bakery’s cozy space heats up fast. In the warmer months, working with chocolate becomes a race against time, so the menu tends to feature other main ingredients like fresh, locally grown strawberries and peaches. (Devotees of Buttermilk’s roasted peach muffins—this writer among them—have been known to make lengthy pilgrimages during the few weeks they’re available in early September.)
But as temperatures drop and local fresh fruit goes out of season, owner and pastry chef Ashley Bush says her customers crave heartier confections, like her peanut butter brownie mini-pie. She spent months perfecting the recipe, a blind baked pie shell with chocolate and peanut butter brownie filling, topped with homemade caramelized marshmallows. Ashley says it’s one of her two-year-old bakery’s biggest cold weather crowd pleasers. “When I tried it for the first time, I could have locked the door and eaten all of them by myself.”
Ashley’s sweet tooth is what first drew her into the kitchen. She grew up on New York’s Long Island in a family of cooks who made dinner from scratch every day, but no one baked. “As a kid I always wanted sweets,” she remembers. “You’re not so excited about the meatloaf portion of the meal. So I guess that’s kind of how it started. We never had any boxed mixes so I remember pulling out cookbooks, turning to the dessert section and reading the recipes, and figuring I could handle them."
By age thirteen she was working at a bakery in New York City. “I was counter help, but I was so interested in what was happening in the back of the house that I’d always find my way back there, hoping to learn hands-on how things were really made, things I couldn’t get out of a book.” In high school she felt pressure to get a “grown up job” so she went to college and majored in hospitality management.
Along the way, Ashley got an internship with a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, who encouraged her to apply for its two-year program. She was accepted and says the pastry track was an easy choice. “I think I would have been a pretty good savory chef but I did not want to pick chicken guts out of the sink drain at the end of the day, so I went for pastry.”
After graduating from the CIA Ashley spent two years in Florida before returning to the Northeast to find a place to settle down and start her own business. She had family in New England, including a sister who lived in Newburyport, where a small commercial kitchen had opened up just off Market Square. Ashley moved in and launched Buttermilk in June of 2012. “It was sink or swim,” she says. “Someone I worked for once told me that sometimes you just do things with blinders on and figure it out later. I guess there was a little bit of that.”
A few other bakeries had come and gone from the same space so she knew she had to rebuild a customer base. “We opened and we’re like, ‘It’s going to be different!’ But you have to win over the public and that takes time. You just put your head down and get to work and keep making a quality product, day in and day out, even if you have days when you don’t see a lot of customers.”
The bakery’s name is a nod to her love of Southern cooking, but she says her Italian heritage and French training also influence Buttermilk’s menu. Ashley uses local ingredients as much as the small business’s bottom line allows, including King Arthur flour and Cabot butter from Vermont, milk and cream from Hatchland Dairy in New Hampshire, wild Maine blueberries and apples from Cider Hill Farm in Amesbury, among other locally grown fruit when it’s available.
Winter is the bakery’s busiest season, thanks mostly to holiday orders for Buttermilk’s bestselling apple pie and other customer favorites, including bourbon pecan, pumpkin, and chocolate mousse pies. Over the next year Ashley plans to scale up her pie-making operation so she can start filling orders from out of state. “Newburyport is a touristy town and customers always ask how to get our products when they go home. I’d love to see our pie business grow, but the bakeshop will always remain what it is. It has that small town New England feel when you walk in, and I don’t want to lose that.”
Ashley is committed to keeping Buttermilk a scratch bakery, with its products made by hand in small batches. In order to do this, depending on the season, she has up to five employees and bakes nearly every day herself. “That feel of flour on your hands, I just love it. I’ve heard people talk about gardening and they have that same glimmer in their eye. That’s how I feel with my hands in the flour bin or rolling out pie dough. I can’t get enough of it.”
Buttermilk Baking Company buttermilkbaking.com 3 Liberty St, Newburyport 978.499.8278
Shannon Mullen is a film producer and freelance public radio reporter whose work airs regularly on Marketplace, All Things Considered, and other national programs. Her culinary experience includes stints as chef aboard a 1929 wooden motor yacht based in Newport, RI and as garde manger in the kitchen of a French bistro in Portsmouth, NH.