Kathleen Purvis

Tara Jensen teaches art of the crust

Tara Jensen’s baking class created pies with all kinds of decorations.
Tara Jensen’s baking class created pies with all kinds of decorations. JENNIFER LOVER

For Tara Jensen, it’s about the crust.

It’s also about the flour, the oven and the hands-on nature of baking. And the art. Don’t forget the art.

Jensen, 33, is a baker and farmer in Marshall, north of Asheville on the edge of the Pisgah National Forest. She farms 5 acres and operates a wood-oven bakery called Smoke Signals.

“Think ‘Cold Mountain,’” she says. “We’re deep in the holler.”

Last weekend, she left the holler and drove 140 miles for her first visit to Charlotte, where she spent the weekend teaching pie-baking classes at the Myers Park home of Betty Lee. Lee is an obsessive cook and baker who has a kitchen big enough for a half-dozen women and a crucial item Jensen needs – a wood-fired oven.

“I don’t use any equipment other than my hands at the bakery,” Jensen says. Even her bread and crusts are made by hand.

Jensen was an artist in her 20s, but she felt drawn to baking as a way to earn a living. But she couldn’t resist the pull of art. So she puts the two together, using paper-cut techniques to work designs into her pies.

“You can’t deny the thing that makes you who you are,” she says.

On the photo-sharing website Instagram, she has more than 42,000 followers for posts under the name @bakerhands, with lush, crusty breads and intricately decorated pies.

Part of Jensen’s mission is to spread the word on stone-ground flours milled from heirloom wheats. The 14 or so women who came to the weekend classes paid $85 for hands-on lessons, but they also got lectures on the intricacies of wheat.

Working with heirloom wheat comes with a few problems. It’s often lower in protein than hybrid wheats. That’s great for pies and biscuits, but tougher for bread, which needs more protein to create gluten for structure. Stone-ground bakers adapt, says Jensen. She lets bread rise for 14 hours and bakes it in a very hot oven.

It’s also lower in yield: She showed the women a Mason jar of an old variety, turkey wheat, that she grew and threshed herself. A 1/2 acre yielded maybe 3 cups of wheat. It was so much work, she’s never been able to bring herself to grind it.

At her bakery, she teaches pizza and bread workshops. If you happen to be near Marshall, get details on those at smokesignalsbaking.com. For the classes in Charlotte, she focused on apple pie, “about as simple and elemental as it gets.” But she really focused on getting people’s hands in flour and their art on crusts.

The pies that came out of the wood-fired oven in Betty Lee’s den sported tulips, stars, swirls and fleur-de-lis. Even a shamrock.

“I love seeing people express themselves and see that spark,” Jensen said. “No two pies were alike at all, out of all the women.”

Purvis: 704-358-5236

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