By Diane Weintraub Pohl
Photography by Michael Polito
Barring recent carbophobia, bread is something most of us don’t give much thought to. It’s always there, like water, like air. It’s something that sustains us, we learn as children, not something to which we dedicate our lives.
Well, some would beg to differ. You’ll meet several of them here, bakers devoted to making bread slowly and naturally, loaves with crackling crusts whose interiors may be airy or dense, but always remarkable. Their buzzwords are gluten and fermentation, proofing and retarding. Their tools are natural starters, fine-quality flour, stone-floored hearth ovens, their own hands, and a reverence for the old ways. More than one showed me dated photos of European country folk beside an outdoor hearth oven. Though the bakers here are turning out hundreds of loaves, not three or four, the fundamentals are the same. It’s just flour, salt, and water, they all said, yet that simple combination yields complexities of texture, color, size, and taste that continually intrigue and inspire them. From such simplicity comes their great challenge—and our great fortune.
The Kneaded Bread
181 N. Main St. â€¢ Port Chester
I expected the bread bakers I spoke with to BE passionate, but Jennifer and Jeffrey Kohn border on obsessive. Their bread comes with written instructions. “To refresh the loaf,” we’re directed, “sprinkle or mist lightly with water and place it in a 400-degree oven for six to eight minutes, or until crusty.” And, they advise, cut bread should be left cut-side down, so the “crust will stay firm and the inside soft.” Sounds obvious, but the underlying premise isn’t. Like love, it’s all in the chemistry. The Kohns’ chemistry involves unbleached and unbromated flour, natural starters, minimal commercial yeast, two-day-long fermentations, and never any shortening, which is great for shelf life but death for crustiness. “A crisp crust acts as a natural preservative,” Jennifer explains, crustiness being the raison d’Ãªtre of artisan bread bakers’ steam-injected, stone-floor hearth ovens. The Kohns’ oven, like those of all the bakers I spoke with, is European, with several tiers, or decks, for accurate temperature control.
The Kneaded Bread is the culmination of the Kohns’ lifelong culinary passion. Jeffrey was weaned on his Austrian grandmother’s pastries, devoured tarts and kugelhopf in Alsace during one semester of college, and refined it all at the Culinary Institute of America. Jennifer’s grandma may have baked challah, not strudel, and Jennifer may have worked in the publicity department of a record label, but the end result was the same. Seven years ago, they pooled their futures and their resources, launched a culinary expedition across Europe, and opened The Kneaded Bread within a year. “We’re passionate about what we do,” Jennifer says.
I find that passion evident in the French sea salt infusing their piquant potato-rosemary bread, in the kalamata olives studding their robust rosemary-olive loaf, in the pungent intoxication of their aged provolone boule—voted a Westchester Magazine 2004 “Best” for very good reason. Every hand-shaped loaf screams artisanal, right down to the ridges in the sourdough boule, formed by the same wicker proofing baskets Europeans have used for centuries. With their breads’ two-day-long fermentation, the process is labor-intensive and time-consuming, which, the Kohns insist, is exactly as it should be. “We want to educate people about good food,” Jennifer says. “We’ll only serve what we’ll eat ourselves.”
Nearby establishments Sonora, Aux Delices, and Hosteria Mazzei serve it as well, as does the Kohns’ brand-new restaurant Q, a Southern barbecue place, just down the block. Why barbecue? The Kohns’ bread might reflect centuries-old tradition, but their business sense is pure modern-day marketing. “There’s nothing like Q in Port Chester,” Jennifer says. “It fills a niche.”
The Bread Factory
30 Grove Ave. â€¢ New Rochelle
Driving by, It’s easy to miss this squat, beige building on its nondescript block. But, open the car door, and there’s the sensory assault. First, the exterior mural of a village baker reaching his wooden peel deep inside a blazing hearth oven. Then, there’s the scent, the primal alchemy of dough, water, and heat. I’m lured into the Bread Factory’s bustling retail shop and barraged by rosemary-studded focaccias, kalamata-parmesan flatbreads, Irish soda boules, donut-shaped pizza loaves and, everywhere, trays of rolls, baguettes, and brioche.
There’s other treasures, too: a row of photos, old black-and-white portraits of bakers in starched aprons in front of gleaming industrial ovens. It’s the immigrant Orza family in their original Yonkers bakery, still up and running after almost a century. The skinny young man in the middle is Sonny Orza, the Bread Factory’s irrepressible owner. The ancestral photos are a link to his past and muse to his present.
“We lived upstairs from that bakery,” he tells me. “My grandmother made our aprons and bed sheets from the 100-pound poplin sacks the flour came in.” He grins. “Today they’re burlap: wouldn’t be too comfortable to sleep on.”
There are plenty of other changes Grandma wouldn’t recognize. Ingredients, for one. Cranberries, walnuts, olives, coconut, and cocoa had no place in the original Orza bakery. Bread then was about sustenance, not sophistication. Today’s fancy artisan breads, Orza says, sprang from the heightened culinary consciousness that has swept this country during the past few decades. “They’re a yuppie invention,” he claims. But it was an invention that intrigued him. “I wanted a shot at creating artisan bread before retiring.”
So four years ago, Orza imported an Italian hearth deck oven and a couple of Swedish ovens, and the Bread Factory was born. Today, they produce 500 bread and cake varieties from about 20 different dough recipes, supplying prestigious restaurant kitchens from Manhattan to Connecticut. And though his former partner has recently left, the business is thriving. (Restaurants and shops that offer Orza’s bread include Marshall’s Cheese Store in Dobbs Ferry, Kraft Bistro in Bronxville, and La CrÃ©maillÃ¨re in Banksville.) About two years ago, the adjoining retail shop debuted. “People come in and say it’s the best bread they’ve ever eaten,” Orza beams. “That’s what motivates me.” Sampling the vibrant, dense chew of a cranberry-raisin-walnut baguette and, later, the ethereal, yeasty crumb of a sourdough baguette, I’m a convert.
33 New Broad St. â€¢ Port Chester
After 32 years in the advertising production business, Jordan Kalfus was ready for a change. “I had my fill of corporate life,” he says. “Making an honest piece of bread really appealed to me.” He reaches behind his desk to show me a period photograph of a peasant family laboring at their garden’s hearth oven. “This is what it’s about,” he says. “A little flour, a little salt, a little waterâ€¦” He smiles. “Simple.” Right.
His sparse but soaring 5,000-square-foot industrial baking facility resembles nothing in that photograph, but the loaves cooling on the rolling racks could just have been pulled from that backyard oven. Well, at least the unadorned ones, the plain baguettes and bastones. Many of the others come fruited, herbed, and multi-grained: cranberry-walnut pullmans, tomato-rosemary foccaccia, cinnamon brioche, semolina rolls with anise and raisins. Good Bread makes many varieties from nine basic doughs, each hand-shaped, long-fermented, and mostly hearth-oven baked, though Kalfus’s hearth is three ovens that can bake more than 100 loaves at a time.
“I love this place. I love what we do,” he says. “We have a lot of talented people here making a wonderful product.” True enough, I find, upon sampling a lush seven-grain pullman with honey. Kalfus leads me to a tray of baguettes and breaks one open. “See?” he says. “You want a crisp, thin crust and an open crumb.” I bite through the crackling shard of crust into the airy sponge inside and am immediately strolling the Seventh Arrondissement.
We walk past trays mounded with loaves of all geometries and amber hues, then come upon baskets cradling wafer-thin walnut-raisin crisps from loaves sliced then baked again. Kalfus must notice my yearning gaze and hands me a few. I crunch, and the jolt of tangy, sweet, and nutty is electric.
200 Central Ave., White Plains
125 Westchester Ave., White Plains
(in The Westchester)
135 Harvard Ave., Stamford, CT
Remember those S.A.T. analogies? Here’s one for you: City Limits is to diner like Everest is to hill. Its tuna isn’t Bumble Bee; it’s sashimi-grade yellowfin. Its chocolate isn’t Hershey’s; it’s Valhrona. And its bread isn’t sliced white; it’s rosemary focaccia flecked with fleur de sel.
Anyone who has ever passed the diners’ bake shelves en route to his table without ogling must be either blind or a monk. The pastries are dazzling. Between the hazelnut rocher tortes and pecan bourbon pies, it’s easy to miss the brown breads huddled in their brown baskets. The inequity of it all makes pastry chef Tracy Kamperdyk-Assue sigh. Fondant appliquÃ©s and ganache glazes might be glamorous, but it’s bread that excites her. “It’s the simplicity,” she says. “You’ve got just a handful of basic ingredients, but the array of products they yield is tremendous. When you’ve just got flour, salt, and water, a baker has to bring a lot to the table.”
As supervisor of City Limits’ entire baking operation, she brings a bounty. There were years as a pastry chef at New York City restaurants like the River CafÃ©, Aureole and Lespinasse, and guidance from bread master Amy Scherber of Amy’s Bread. She and her husband, Peter Assue, City Limits’ executive chef, have been with the organization for 10 years, and it took eight of those to get the bread production rolling. In 2002, the Stamford location opened with sufficient bread production, and in came a French hearth deck oven and the baking staff to attend it.
These days, Kamperdyk-Assue and Walter Luque, previously of the French Culinary Institute, bake up to 400 loaves each day for the three City Limits locations as well as Hartsdale sibling CafÃ© Meze. “They’re my recipes, but my bakers are the artisans.” She motions to a tray of mahogany raisin-walnut sourdough loaves. “Look at the uniformity of color, of shape.” She picks up a whole-wheat batarde by a high ridge of crust. “If a bread is scored well, you can lift it by the heel,” she says, pointing to the ridge, then turns the loaf over. “And you want this deep caramelization.” She nods to the kitchen. “Their craftsmanship is amazing.”
Those craftsmen certainly have the right tools to work with. Organic flours, sea salt, coddled natural starters. The starters are “fed” three times a day for the right balance of acidity between fermentations, Kamperdyk-Assue explains. After 12 hours, they’re ready to be mixed into dough. Then it’s the dough that’s coddled. “We under-mix it,” she says. “The less mixing, the less oxidation, the better taste.” Then, every hour for four hours, the dough is hand-folded, as you would puff pastry.
But ultimately, it comes down to taste. Inside its dusky crust, that raisin walnut bread is bright with fruit and nuts. A Bordelais peasant boule is a dense mesh of rye, wheat, and whole-wheat flours. There’s a garlic-parmesan baguette that lasted about five minutes once I got it home and the school bus arrived. An herb-studded, pretzel-like focaccia, crunchy with sea salt, was gone before the table was set for dinner.
Dinner? Let’s just say it was minimal that night.
For more artisanal breads:
660 Saw Mill River Rd., Ardsley
Bread menu: oatmeal-onion-dill pullman, challah, ciabatta rolls, dinner rolls
26 N. Greeley Ave., Chappaqua
Bread menu: Spinach-tomato braid, GruyÃ¨re-garlic boule, sourdough, multi-grain pullman,
77 Purchase St., Rye
Bread menu: multi-grain pullman, whole-wheat baguette, sourdough boule, olive boule
208 Mamaroneck Ave., White Plains
Bread menu: sourdough baguette, multi-grain rolls, brioche rolls, croissants, danishes.
Food writer Diane Weintraub Pohl is a contributing writer at the magazine whose last feature profiled recreational cooking programs.