The long lines begin early for Grace's Pastries at the Falls Church Farmers' Market. Even before Grace Kumah's three-table stand opens at 8 a.m., more than a dozen shoppers wait patiently to buy her light tasty yeast breads, moist flavorful tea loaves and melt-in-your-mouth cookies.
JoAnn Stonebraker of Arlington makes Grace's Pastries her first stop, quickly gathering three loaves of bread before joining a line 20-people deep where she then waits for more than 20 minutes to pay. "This is my first stop because she sells out quickly," says Stonebraker.
Indeed, by 8:30, the oatmeal bread and apple turnovers have disappeared, and the dill bread, cheese bread, apple spice walnut tea loaf and crullers are going fast. By 11 o'clock, the stand is practically empty. The lines are gone but so too is the bread. Only a few tea loaves remain.
Kumah's popularity is the same wherever the 41-year-old Ghana native goes. The seven employees at the Herndon Florist shop, for example, eagerly await each Thursday morning when Kumah and a dozen other vendors set up their stands in a closed-off downtown street at the Herndon Farmers' Market.
Right off, the employees decide who gets to make the first one-block walk to Kumah's stand, set up behind the small converted school bus, now painted bright white, that she uses to haul her goods. Then, one by one, the seven take turns buying sourdough bread, cinnamon buns and lemon pound cake.
"I run over every single week and get my baked goods" from Kumah, says florist employee Patti Bondi. When the seasonal market opened in late May, "we sampled all the different pastries the first day and felt like hers were the best of the bunch -- in taste and in price," Bondi says. Now, she adds, "every Thursday night, the first thing my husband says when I come through the door is, 'Where's the sourdough bread?' "
The delicious discovery of Kumah is not without a price, however. As Bondi's colleague Arlene Cates notes, "We've all gained 10 pounds."
Kumah bakes her magic out of her split-level Herndon home where the smell of baked goods greets visitors even before the front door is open. A basement laundry room has been converted to a small commercial kitchen; a portable Formica top sits on top of a washing machine and dryer and serves as one of the two counters that are constantly full of greased loaf pans waiting to be filled with dough. A large 60-quart mixer sits on the floor and whirs away as a commercial oven waits to bake three dozen pound cakes, the first of many batches that will be made in a day.
Except for some daily clean-up help, Kumah does all the baking for the six farmers' markets where her goods are sold. "Someone can put it in the oven and take it out, but I'd rather do the cooking myself," she says. Her husband Alex, however, helps with the selling. He also makes most of the family's meals. "I love to cook for big parties but when it comes to cooking for the family, I don't really like to do it," says Grace Kumah, who has four sons, aged 4, 12, 13 and 17.
Putting in 12- to 13-hour days, Kumah begins her cooking week on Tuesday at 9 a.m., starting with pound cake. Wearing a white apron over a T-shirt and knit pants, she puts the mixer to work. For more than half an hour, it whips up the pound cake batter while she chats with a visitor and greases the loaf pans with a large paint brush that she repeatedly dips into a mixture of oil and flour.
She discovered this mixture herself. "It saves time; you don't have to handle the pans two times, first to grease them and then to flour them."
Every so often, Kumah looks at the dough and feels it with her hand. She adds a little water, then squirts in large streams of vanilla extract and lemon flavoring. Some fresh lemon juice and rind are added as well as a handful of ground nutmeg.
With the exception of baking soda in her tea loaves, nothing is measured precisely. Nor does she sample the dough to make sure it has the right amount of flavorings. "Oh, it's good," Kumah says assuredly. "I've done this for so long that I don't have to taste or measure."
Kumah has always baked. "It was a hobby ever since I was a little girl," she says. When she arrived in the United States in 1972, she continued to bake, first doing it for friends. Gradually, it became a business, as she sold her goods to friends and friends of friends and ultimately, four years ago, at her first farmers' market.
Reticent to talk about herself, Kumah says that although she took a cooking class "here and there" and occasionally browses through a cookbook, all of her recipes are her own creations. "I guess it's just a gift," she says of her cooking talents.
With the pound cake batter starting to spill over the sides of the mixing bowl, Kumah stops the mixer and carefully starts to scoop the dough into the loaf pans, using her hands as the ladle and leveler.
The day's first batch is done; now it's on to the apple spice walnut bread. Kumah quickly weighs out some brown sugar and flour, then tosses two large handfuls of ground cloves mixed with ground cinnamon, one small scoop of ground nutmeg and a large fistful of cocoa into the mixing bowl. (The cocoa is one of her secret ingredients, she admits; although you can't taste it, she says it enhances the flavor.)
After adding eggs and turning the mixer on, Kumah begins to chop a large bowlful of apples.
And so it goes for the rest of the day. Before it is finished, Kumah will have made carrot, banana and zucchini bread as well as several different kinds of cookies.
On Wednesday, it will be yeast breads -- to many, her pie`ce de re'sistance because of their full-flavored lightness: an airy oatmeal bread flavored with molasses, a speckled green dill bread with subtle herb flavoring and a savory but delicate cheese bread. Those who have bought her bread are not ashamed to admit that it rarely lasts more than a day, if even that long.
On Thursday, the first market day of the week, Kumah is up at 5 a.m. to make raspberry tarts, a heavy cake topped with raspberry jam, which she will bring to the Herndon and Manassas markets.
Friday is another big baking day as Kumah once again prepares yeast breads, this time for her best-selling markets: Falls Church and Olde Towne Alexandria, which are both held on Saturday morning. Saturday afternoon, more yeast breads are made for the Eastern Loudoun County and Dale City markets that are open on Sunday.
By week's end, Kumah figures she has made at least 500 tea breads and 200 yeast breads. But, she says, those are not precise figures. "I'm too busy to figure it out."
Just as she doesn't like to talk about herself, she also doesn't like to disclose any details about her business, saying only that "it's profitable or else I wouldn't be doing it."
She is equally reluctant to give shoppers advice on what to buy. Faced with a dizzying array of delicious-looking, aromatic breads, shoppers frequently ask her what they should buy. Her answer: "It depends what you like."
"What are your best sellers?" shoppers then inquire. "All of it," she responds.
Up to now, Kumah has liked selling at the farmers' markets because of their seasonality. "I get a break in the fall and don't have to work so hard," she says. Yet, having just ordered a larger mixer and two larger ovens, she now hopes to sell her breads, cakes and cookies year-round at area produce stands that are open most of the winter. Already, her goods are available at Morning Glory Farm in Arlington.
For now, however, Kumah shudders at the thought of opening her own bakery. "You have to be there all the time," she says, as she begins chopping apples for her apple spice walnut bread. For the moment, Kumah prefers to work by herself in her own home kitchen.