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Stollen the season: Black Cat Bakery - a sellout at summer market - comes out of hibernation for December tradition
Baker Jack Wich butters loaves of stollen at the Black Cat Bakery kitchen Thursday afternoon. The small Missoula business kicks into high gear during the holiday season, sending loaves to every state in the union as well as overseas.
Photo by LINDA THOMPSON/Missoulian

The intoxicating aroma of rich buttery dough, cardamom, toasted almonds and vanilla wafts through the two-story home of Jack and Christy Wich.

It's confusing at first when you enter their South Hills abode.

For on the main floor, the home reflects a busy, orderly family - family photos hang on the walls, comfy chairs fill the living room. The kitchen is tidy, and shoes line the front entry.

But no one's there.

From the floor below, a voice shouts out a greeting. There, in the daylight basement, Jack is elbow-deep in stollen dough, pulling out generous chunks and forming it into the traditional football-like shape. Several giant mixers whir steadily, beating the next batch before it's manhandled.

In another area, several ovens chirp and hum, carefully baking several dozen treats at once.

While Jack dashes from station to station - mixing, measuring, pouring and decorating - Christy asks about supplies while scrutinizing the inventory.

This is a bona fide commercial kitchen hard at work, and this is where you'll find Missoula's elusive, near-mythical Black Cat Bakery.

"We make it as difficult as possible for people to find us," Jack says, laughing half-heartedly. "We don't mean to be that way.

"I would like to have a stand-alone shop for this. But going into debt to do it scares me to death."

In the meantime, says Jack - who trained with a White House pastry chef - he'll keep his job decorating cakes at Wal-Mart.

This well-known 11-year-old Missoula bakery doesn't have a storefront. It's not listed in the phone book. The Wiches don't advertise and they don't have a Web site.

In their case, the proof is in the pudding, so to speak, and people line up each Saturday to buy out the Black Cat Bakery stand during the Missoula Farmers Market.

Aside from the May to October market season, the only other time people can buy Black Cat breads and pastries is during the month of December.

This is when the Wiches are in full-tilt special-order production, making two different kinds of holiday stollen, and their popular huckleberry sour cream coffee cake.

Jack begins baking at 3:30 a.m., and pushes on until near midnight, taking only catnaps, in order to get the work done.

Wal-Mart, he explains, is a great employer. The big box store lets him go from full time to part-time hours during his two baking seasons.

The bakery's reputation has grown solely by word of mouth, Christy says. And those words have traveled far.

The few dozen holiday orders that launched Black Cat's December baking season nine years ago have ballooned into the thousands.

Each successive year brings a whole new legion of fans.

"It's been a total domino effect," Christy says. "People taste this stollen and they want more of it. They want to give it as gifts.

"We now ship out orders all over the United States. We hit all 50 states. Occasionally we ship overseas and 85 percent of our shipping is out of state."

Quietly, the Black Cat stollen has generated a cultlike following.

"We have a woman who calls every year with a $1,000 order," Christy says. "We have others who have $500 to $600 orders."

To prove the point, Christy reaches into her desk and pulls out piles of letters - fan mail from customers over the years.

One letter simply states, "Wow." Another reads, "Here in San Francisco we have so many great bakers and artisans who work with food … but nothing approximates the perfect blend of fruit, texture and spices your stollen captures."

Coating a stollen in sugar, Jack smiles and admits to the secret ingredients: citron - candied bits of orange and lemon - specially ordered from Switzerland "and a lot of butter."

Everything is done by hand, even the accounting, he says.

"We've done a lot of orders on the honor system," Jack explains. "People call in wanting to order one or 100 cakes - it doesn't matter. And because we don't take credit cards I tell them to put the check in the mail.

"People are floored by that."

"In all these years, we've never gotten stiffed once," Christy says. "We've only gotten more orders."

It's no coincidence this 50-year-old Wal-Mart cake decorator receives rave reviews for his baked goods.

Formally trained at Johnson & Wales University's culinary arts program, L'Academie de Cuisine and the Notter School of Pastry Arts, Jack apprenticed with Chef Wolfgang Frederick and with former White House Executive Pastry Chef Roland Mesnier.

Before moving to Montana to be near Christy's family, Jack was the executive pastry chef for the luxurious Mayflower Hotel, an iconic Washington, D.C., landmark that traditionally hosts inaugural balls.

Here he's learned there's little demand for his marzipan-making skills or any of his other elevated baking techniques.

And so he bakes for himself, and he bakes part time for the public.

"I love this," Jack says, checking on his 40 batches of stollen in the oven. "I love baking.

"You can do something from start to finish.

"It's a lot of hours and it isn't the best pay, but I love it. It's what I've always wanted to do."

Christy, meanwhile, hopes the Black Cat will move out of the house and have its very own storefront window.

"That's the goal in 2009," she says. "To find the Black Cat a new home."

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