Ashley Bush enjoys the hours just before dawn, when most people are still fast asleep but the first hints of a new day are stirring—so much that even when her bakery, Buttermilk Baking Co. in Newburyport, doesn’t require her to prepare the day’s offerings, she’s still awake.
“There is something about the four o’clock hour that I love,” says Bush, who opened Buttermilk in 2012. “Just before daylight, it’s quiet—like a Zen hour. It’s one of my most favorite times to bake alone.”
Bush enjoys that predawn vibe even more since moving into her new space this spring—just a few doors down from her old bakery and triple the size, giving Bush more room to express her personal style, as well as to expand her
“In some ways this feels more like a home,” Bush says of the new location, which formerly housed New England Ice Lollies. “I always felt like we didn’t quite belong in the old space.” Cramped, with barely elbow room for a foursome of staff and customers combined, the tight quarters didn’t stop Bush from turning out an astonishing array of delectable treats, from cheerful cupcakes and cookies to deep, dark chocolate brownies and savory quiches.
The new shop, with barn-board trim along the glass-fronted counters and hanging light fixtures encased in big whisks, is warm and welcoming, just like the charming Bush herself, who spent rainy summer days as a kid reading cookbooks and scavenging the cupboard for ingredients to whip up something delicious.
“People cooked in my family, but no one was a baker,” Bush says, adding that she decided to fill the void. “Pies and cookies had to be made for the holidays, but there was no joy around it.”
Joy—and lots of butter—are the key ingredients at Buttermilk, from the chalkboards displaying tongue-in-cheek sayings like “Skinny people are easier to kidnap. Stay safe—eat pie.” to the brightly colored cookies in the display case. And Bush’s pies are legendary—burnished, with a crisp, tender crust, and packed with local seasonal ingredients from apples to peaches to blueberries.
Baking pies is a perennial favorite for the Culinary Institute of America graduate. “I love handling dough,” Bush says. “It’s the same thing people who garden feel about dirt—it’s calming.” But the rewards go beyond the baking itself, reaching into the way a perfect treat can improve someone’s day.
“I love watching people’s faces light up when they walk though my door,” Bush says simply. And patrons don’t even have to walk through her door to get a lift—on a recent day, 20 pounds of roasting bacon, destined for scones and quiches, perfumed the air surrounding the store for blocks. And scents of everything from homemade preserves to sophisticated rosemary lemon shortbread are likely to entice people through the door, attracting first-timers and regulars alike. Bush’s fans are legion, including the BONS award committee here at Northshore magazine and Nancy Batista-Caswell, proprietor of Ceia Kitchen + Bar just down the street, who made a call to Bush when a last-minute guest revealed they were allergic to everything.
“She didn’t want to just give them a piece of fruit,” says Bush, who has been enjoying experimenting with special diets like gluten-free, dairy-free, and vegan lately, and finding that pumpkin is an especially useful substitute. “It can stand in for eggs, it can stand in for fat…it’s really versatile,” she says.
That isn’t to say Bush will be neglecting the gluten- and butter-loving masses; plans for adding lacquered dough—perhaps croissants or the suddenly ubiquitous kouign-amann pastry—are in the works.
“There is always something new to try,” Bush says, adding that her favorite treat changes weekly and seasonally, but there’s one staple that got her through a hard time recently: the Peanut Butter Fluff Bar. When a late June fire destroyed Abraham’s Bagels next door, shuttering Buttermilk’s new space just weeks after opening, the only thing Bush saved from the wreckage on the day of the fire was a tub of those bars: a delectable base of oat cookies topped with a layer of peanut butter and Marshmallow Fluff and adorned with melty marshmallows and a crumb top, served in sinfully large squares.
“My husband and I ate all of them,” Bush says, noting that they had to toss out thousands of dollars’ worth of inventory prepped for the July 4th holiday. “It was surreal,” Bush says, adding that it took a few days for the extent of the damage to her own newly opened spot to sink in. “It just looked dirty at first—I thought, ‘We’ll just clean it up and reopen.’” But it took some three weeks—with eager fans checking Facebook daily, and then swamping the bakery on the day they reopened.
While the fire allowed Bush to take off her first July 4th holiday in years, she’d really rather be working. The upcoming holidays mean 18-hour-plus days, but Bush loves the rush—so much so that she’s squeezed in a slate of holiday baking classes to further spread the joy of baking. Check her website for details. And look for some new holiday sweet surprises as well—intended to bring joy to customers and staff alike.
“When we receive positive feedback [on a new product], no joke, our kitchen staff breaks out dancing!” Bush says. “That’s Buttermilk: baked goods and people so excited to share with you [that] they’re dancing.”
Buttermilk Baking Co.
9 Liberty St. Newburyport