It started with an edible green called Amaranth. With a burst of purplish-red at the center of each leaf, amaranth is found at markets across New York’s many Chinatowns, and its nutrient-dense seeds are cooked and eaten like a grain. The green is also the name of a sourdough starter — a living mixture of yeast, flour, and water – that has been a crucial source of livelihood for a Brooklyn couple, Brian Villanueva and Autumn Moultrie, for the last few months.
Moultrie, who loves combing Manhattan’s Chinatown for new-to-her ingredients, was so drawn to the plant’s striking color palette – and shared first initial — that she and Villanueva plan to give the name to their future daughter, if, or when, they have one. For now, the name refers only to the starter, which currently lives in Moultrie and Villanueva’s Ditmas Park kitchen, giving their loaves of freshly-baked bread both rise and tanginess. Two varieties — a classic sourdough, made with a blend of hard red spring wheat, spelt, and rye, and a whole wheat, with a higher ratio of whole wheat flour– get hand-delivered the moment they leave the oven.
Before their living room became a bakery, and until 2018, Moultrie worked as a line cook for Major Food Group’s meat-forward spot The Grill, located in Midtown. After New York Times food critic Pete Wells gave the restaurant a three-star review – the highest possible – in 2017, reservations started stacking up, and Moultrie said she quickly got burnt out.
“It just consumed everything.”
She’d come from a job as a line cook at the Las Vegas outpost of Carbone, also under Major Food Group. The work there was intense. Still, it was nothing compared to New York kitchens like The Grill, where every plate that left the kitchen was checked by multiple people, including Mario Carbone himself.
“I could never imagine that we would be operating at such a high level,” she said. She was covered in duck blood and grease much of the time, she recalled.
While Moultrie eventually left the world of professional cooking to pursue freelance food styling, a job she held up until March, her time as a line cook permanently shaped how she looks at food.
“It really taught me about quality control, you know — checking things before they go out,” she said. “It was really, really influential.”
Villanueva started out West as well, climbing to the role of sous chef after five years at the Los Angeles Italian spot Osteria Mozza. He moved to New York and started as a line cook at the restaurant Blue Hill in Manhattan, and then at Blue Hill Stone Barns in Tarrytown, where he worked until March.
The couple met in 2017 while working at a pasta pop-up at Chef’s Club in Manhattan. The two had grown up fifteen minutes from each other in Southern California, attending rival middle schools, high schools, and colleges – and eventually living walking distance from each other in Brooklyn — without ever meeting.
“At first, Brian just completely rubbed me the wrong way,” Moultrie said, laughing. They eventually managed to become friends, however, and started dating after about a year.
The pandemic hit, and with no work, Moultrie and Villanueva lost themselves in baking. Moultrie had started Amaranth a few weeks prior to the pandemic, hoping to incorporate the flavor of sourdough into a donut recipe – and maybe even try her hand at a loaf of bread. The timing was impeccable.
“I was so lucky because literally two weeks after I made the starter, the pandemic hit, and you couldn’t find yeast anywhere!” she said.
Moultrie had always used baking, and developing recipes for new treats, as a means of relieving stress after cooking for hours on the line. Using her food styling skills, she would shoot photos of her creations for fun, using the backdrop of a brick wall – the one leading to the back alley behind their apartment.
“We kind of jokingly said, ‘we might have to start selling baked goods out of the back alley,’” Villanueva said with a laugh.
As Moultrie developed new pastry recipes, Villanueva got into making bread. They began sending samples of their products — and deli containers full of starter — to people in their building, and eventually started selling bread and pastries through their Instagram page, @backalleybread.
Their customer base quickly grew, and they now do ten to 15 sales per day, Moultrie estimated. While their neighbors constitute much of their customer base, they also sell to people in nearby neighborhoods of Flatbush and Kensington, and even Carroll Gardens.
While a love for baking is what got them into the business, Moultrie and Villanueva said, they take it as seriously as they would any other job.
“We have this mindset where we can’t fail,” Villanueva said. “There’s nothing beyond the horizon. There’s this uncertainty with this pandemic – we might not have an industry to return to, that’s kind of the stark reality of it.”
Back Alley Bread operates less like a bakery and more like a restaurant. The couple’s living room is set up with a “pass,” the term for the long, flat surface in a professional kitchen where food gets plated and finished, often by the head chef. And, though it’s just Moultrie and Villanueva, they hold each other to the same standards as the ones in the kitchens they trained in.
“Brian will be like ‘you need a little more color on these donuts’ or I’ll see his bread and be like ‘I think you should have gotten it a little darker,” Moultrie said.“It’s really stressful!”
One standout item is the ‘Angel Donut,’ a donut-biscuit hybrid that Moultrie invented. Moultrie found a recipe for a treat called ‘Angel Biscuits’ – a yeast leavened-biscuit found in the American South — while leafing through her great aunt’s recipe book.
“It’s the first biscuit that I ever got good at making,” Moultrie said.
She decided to cut the biscuit dough in the shape of a beignet – another classic Southern treat – and finish it with cinnamon sugar and a glaze made from deep brown Seke honey, which a coworker of hers sources from his father’s farm in Sierra Leone. The same honey forms the glaze for their Honey Bun, which bears only a vague resemblance to the plastic-wrapped snack cake of the same name, and which Moultrie’s mother often left for her to eat after school.
“They were delicious when I was little,” Moultrie said. “Like, the best thing I ever ate!”
Also on the menu are items like sourdough bagels, homemade pop tarts, and an oatmeal cookie-inspired donut – all, of course, baked immediately before being sent off to the customer (Villanueva does all the deliveries). Everything – even the dough for the Angel Donuts – gets a slow, overnight fermentation, a process that builds layers of flavor in each product, Moultrie explained.
With the business growing, Moultrie isn’t sure if she’ll go back to cooking in restaurant kitchens.
“I don’t know – that’s a good question,” she said. “I really don’t know what’s going to happen to that whole world, after this pandemic. I love that world, I love fine dining, but it’s just – it’s really an uncertainty, with what’s going on.”
For now, she and Villanueva will keep baking. They’ve even begun delivering free loaves of bread to some of their elderly neighbors, many of whom haven’t left their homes in months. One day, they might even open an all-day café with a dinner menu, along with freshly baked bread and pastries, Villanueva said.
A freshly baked loaf or pastry adds a bit of joy to people’s days, Villanueva explained – especially now, when things seem bleak.
“It’s what we can do at this point – as much as we can do.”
Back Alley Bread delivers to neighborhoods in the Prospect Park South Area, including: Flatbush; Carroll Gardens; Midwood; Kensington; Borough Park; Windsor Terrace; Park Slope; Prospect-Lefferts Gardens; Gowanus; and Ditmas Park. All orders require 24 hours notice and can be placed online through their eHungry page. To request a free loaf of bread for yourself, or for someone you know over 65, you can message Moultrie and Villanueva directly through Instagram.