“You are a guest at my table.” This is how Karsten Haigis, the West Chester-based baker and fruit spread maker behind Haigis Fine Foods, envisions each of his customers. Like the best dinner party host’s menu, his product line takes shape based on what he loves and values. Like a host planning the meal of a lifetime, he has looked far and wide for the finest and purest ingredients.
And like those invited to a feast, his guests appreciate what they have experienced. “Where does all this taste come from?” some of them want to know after sampling his authentic sourdough bread. Or after tasting a bite of mango-lime spread, they ask, “What did I eat all these years, thinking it was jam?”
These are gratifying expressions for any host to hear, and the answers lie in the way Karsten Haigis uses simple recipes to showcase high quality ingredients.
Baking has been a tradition in Karsten’s family for 350 years. Long ago in German villages, townships diminished the risk of kitchen fires by running one bakery oven where all the townspeople could come and bake their bread. Karsten’s great-grandmother ran this oven for her township. She was a good baker, and a good teacher, and she passed down to Karsten her skills, her love of baking, and her sourdough starter. He still makes bread from that starter today.
Since he’s worked with sourdough starter for so much of his life, he knows its ways. “It’s a diva,” he says. Every day with the diva will be different: the bread will taste different and will take a different length of time to prepare.
If you order bread to be ready at 9 a.m., Karsten will say, “Okay, it’ll be ready between 7 and 11.” You can’t rush the diva. If you’re aiming for the richest flavor and best consistency, you have to let the dough do its thing. He starts letting it do its thing early, making the dough on Wednesday and letting it rise and ferment until Fridays and Saturdays, when he opens the dough container, breathes in its pungent vinegary smell and begins to bake.
Even though the vinegar will bake out, leaving a rich sourdough flavor, the vinegar smell signals authenticity. Grocery store sourdough varieties often add acid later in the process.
Allowing the dough to sit for three or four days takes up space, and it also means that Karsten only bakes on weekends. But for quality control, Karsten appreciates how small his numbers are. He keeps his output in the low hundreds instead of the thousands.
As Karsten mixes the dough, he makes sure he uses flour of “the highest of high quality,” he says. The wheat flour and rye flour are both sourced locally, with the rye coming from a stone mill in Doylestown. The rye flour, he says, is “a revelation.”
When the bread has baked, it’s ready for its close-up. Karsten’s phone is full of pictures of his beloved bread, pretzels and rolls. And while he saves the images for later, he doesn’t let the details of the moment slip by, either. “Nothing beats the smell of fresh bread,” says Karsten.
Jam & Bread
We all know from The Sound of Music that tea is “a drink with jam and bread,” but even though we associate the two foods, we might not expect to find a baker hard at work making jam.
But Karsten points out that in the days before commercial jam production, every bakery would produce its own jams to use as layers in their cakes. And Karsten’s family of expert bakers always made jams at home from the fruits and vegetables growing in their garden. The difference, he says, is that before the days of commercial pectin, home cooks would often have to “boil the life out of the fruit.”
A quest for fine pectin has been central to the quality of Haigis fruit spreads, even though it is only 1% of the total product. “There’s a lot of crappy pectin out there,” he says. It’s “crappy” because a lot of it–even a “low sugar” variety– is mostly sugar, or requires the fruit spread to contain a lot of sugar.
Good pectin makes such a difference that he imports it from Germany. He wants the final product to be fruit, some sugar, and pectin, and maybe some high quality cocoa or espresso thrown in for good measure. But never anything artificial.
And how about the fruit?
Karsten uses the freshest fruit possible. He avoids “supermarket ripe” fruit, which has generally been picked green and allowed to ripen en route. This, Karsten would say to his guests, is where all that taste comes from, and the color as well–which he wants to be “as vibrant as humanly possible.”
When it comes to flavor combinations, Karsten says he can imagine what they will taste like before he mixes up the ingredients. Indeed, he knows his ingredients well. He knows, for instance, that many strawberry-rhubarb recipes err on the side of too much rhubarb, and then the resulting sourness makes cooks add more sugar. He knows that red currant is “a jealous fruit” and won’t stand for combinations at all. He was even able to predict that tart cherry and espresso would go well together. “Everyone will love it!” he insisted to his wife while the product was in its early stages, and it was true–the seasonal fruit spread “When Cherry Met Giacomo” has a strong following.
With each type of fruit, Karsten respects its integrity and will not strain the fruit to create a jelly. “This stuff is in there for a reason,” he insists. “I don’t have the right to take it out.”
After being diagnosed with diabetes in 2011, Karsten looked even more closely at what he had been eating. He had lived in the United States since 2009, and the trend of very sugary food in the U.S. really began to hit home. The sugar content, even in “healthy” food like fruit jam, astounded him. He would soon learn that to be labeled a jam, the final product must be over 50% sugar.
Haigis fruit spreads, on the other hand, are usually 20% sugar or less. He wants them to be “sweet without the high impact of sugar.”
Reducing the sugar comes at a cost. Because it is sugar that preserves those fruit preserves, his products have a shorter shelf life than high-sugar varieties. (Oh, darn. Guess we’ll just have to eat that mango-lime fruit spread today!)
A Bonus Feature That Says It All
One of the delightful traits of Haigis Fine Foods’ fruit spreads is their names. A lot of thought goes into naming the product, and it’s intentional. Karsten wants people to use their heads to figure out what’s in the fruit spread. He knows that with names like “Man, Go to the Keys and Get Me Some Limes” the joke might not crystalize until people take the fruit spread home. (Yup, I just found the pun in that one today.)
This maker and appreciator of fine foods wants to draw his guests’ attention to the label. Not many of us are used to reading labels carefully. We see a photo of a fresh strawberry and let that be the final word. We need to investigate the labels and laws behind what is allowed in products because not everyone who provides food for us is such a conscientious host.