21 January 2010

Thumbs Up

I had the good fortune of visiting Sullivan Street Bakery yesterday.  Jim Lahey, of no-knead fame, is the owner of Sullivan Street.  He invited me to stay and watch how his operation works.  Of course I couldn't just stand by and watch so I jumped in and helped mix, divide and shape his bread.  The bakery is different from anywhere I've baked before yet still remains very much the same.  My afternoon started with Antonio, the mixer.  As far as I could tell, he is the longest running baker there.  After twelve years, he can do it all.  Every bakery has an anchor.  The anchor tends to be the person who mixes the dough.  The mixer has to be trusted above all others.  Yesterday, Antonio was mixing 200 kilo batches of dough...that's about 500 pounds.  Imagine if he forgot the salt or worse yet, added too much salt and he ruined 500 pounds of inventory in one swoop.  If the dough is properly mixed, it easily lends itself to shaping and it will have the flavor and structure that Jim, in this case, is striving for.  I tend to get a little bored with mixing (unless it's mixing brioche), shaping is more my game.  I don't know how these anchors can do what they do, day in and day out.

At Bread Alone, Alex was the mixer.  He came in at 5am every day and mixed away.  That was his only responsibility but he knew it well.  He knew when to add ice to the water and how much to add.  He knew when the flour was a little young and what to do to improve the dough.    Amy's Bread has several mixers.  There is actually a mixing team.  Amy mixes more varieties of dough than Sullivan Street or Bread Alone.  The mixing team is very strong and they too have an anchor.  Orlando has been at Amy's Bread for at least 10 years though I can't remember exactly.  He is the head mixer.   He mixes 6, sometimes 7, days a week as the mixers often do.  The mixing team works in the early morning.  Orlando was always the 'go to' guy if I had any problems over night.  Brioche didn't rise properly, challah was too cold, potato over-proofed....no problem, Orlando would fix it!

After I got to know Antonio, the first shift of bakers arrived to start shaping and dividing the dough.  A couple days ago, Jim had a contest to see if anyone on his team could divide dough faster and with more accuracy than he could.  The prize was $100 to match and $200 to beat.  Antonio's brother, Oscar became a very rich baker that day and Jim seemed pretty bummed that he let his speed slip.  Jim's method of dividing was totally different from mine and it difficult for me to get the hang of.  Oscar divides in much the same way in which I was taught.  Who knew there were so many different ways to achieve the same results?  When dividing the dough by hand, a balance scale is used to make sure all the pieces are the same weight.  It is important to try to get the proper weight on the first cut because it is easier to shape a whole, rectangular lump of dough than to try and shape lots of small bits that occur when the piece is too heavy or too light.  Jim told me the bits signify doubt.  If you doubt your ability to feel the correct weight of the dough, you end up with bits.

Once the pieces were divided, Jim showed me his shaping technique.  Again, this was new to me.  It's been a long time since someone showed me something new in terms of the baking process.  It was total brain candy!  I fumbled with Jim's method of shaping.  Normally, I loosely shape the interior of the loaf and tightly seal the outside.  Jim shapes the exact opposite way.  I use the outside edge of my hands, the lines created by my pinky fingers to my palms, to fold the dough over.  Jim uses the line created by his thumbs.  That being said, I was all thumbs and not in a good way, when I tried to shape like Jim.  It took a lot of effort and I loved it.  My hands had to think for the first time in years.  I didn't get to stay long enough to master the new-to-me technique but I did get to hang around and talk theory with Jim Lahey.  I dorked out with one of the biggest baking geeks in the business!  What a great day.

20 January 2010


'What Artisan Bread Means to Me' by Rachel Renee Wyman....

Just kidding.  When conceptualizing this piece it just seemed to have that elementary feel to it.  I imagined myself back in middle school being instructed to write about manatees or democracy.  The difference now is that this word truly means something to me and I feel it is being misused left and right.  I started thinking about this essay a couple years ago when a Wendy's commercial touted the use of artisan bread for their new sandwich.  I must have let out an audible gasp the first time I saw the ad.  There is no way Wendy's is employing bakers to hand shape each roll before it is sent out to their franchises.  It is equally unlikely that each store has a craft bakery in the back, behind the microwaves and deep fryers, baking off crusty bread.  Wendy's ad was the first I noticed.  There were several to follow and they continually pop up here and there.  Subway uses artisan sub rolls, Panera sells artisan bread, Dunkin' Dounuts makes artisan flat breads....it's everywhere.

In France there are laws that determine how certain food products can be marketed.  If any part of the bread making process is automated, save the mixing, the store that sells the finished product can not be called a "patisserie" or bakery.  Sure people can call it that but the law states that the sign on the store front can not contain the word patisserie.  The same laws denote the weight, shape, length and scoring of a baguette.  The Food and Drug Administration issues laws about packaging and ingredients but in a different way.  Did you know that it is illegal to package a product as "whole" wheat unless it is 100% whole wheat?  Sellers get around this by using terms like 'honey wheat' and 'soft wheat.'  Maybe they'll move on to 'wheat-like' in the coming years.  The FDA also regulates the terms 'good source of', low fat, fat free and light.

The bread baking community is split on what can be called artisan bread.  Technically, artisan refers to the crafter not the craft itself.  I am an artisan baker who bakes artisanal bread, to use the proper grammar/semantics.  What makes an artisan baker?  If an industrial mixer is used and the rest of the process is done by hand, is the bread an artisan product?  What if the dough is divided by machine, then shaped by hand?  What about using a mechanized roller to shape the loaves but individually, hand loading the bread into the oven?  What if the dough is loaded into the oven on a conveyor belt but a baker scores each loaf before it bakes?  There are several lines that can be drawn and there really isn't any end all be all to categorize artisanal bread. 

Wikipedia feels artisan bread is defined by the water content in the dough, 60-75%.  This seems odd but somewhat understandable.  High water content makes for a more fragile dough that is much harder to work with.  This hydration level would make for a more open, airy inside or crumb and it could make for more fermentation which makes for more flavor.  It would be interesting to know how wikipedia came up with this standard.

My line is drawn after the dough is divided.  I don't think using a mechanized divider as opposed to hand weighing on a balance scale, takes away from the quality or outcome of the bread.  Mechanized dividers come in several forms.   I've used a 20-pocket hydrolic divider that gentley presses and cuts large masses of dough into 20 equal portions.  This one is best used for baguettes and loaves.   I've also used a 36 peice divider/rounder that cuts smaller lumps of dough into 36 equal portions and it can round them into rolls.  Both of these machines are quite common in the industry and from my experience, they both like to break down a lot making for very trying production.  I feel shaping the dough by hand is essential in the artisan process.  It is a difficult skill to master which makes it a defining part of the baking process.  If the dough is improperly shaped it will tell on the baker who shaped it.  Have you ever cut into a loaf of bread and found a hole running down the center of the whole loaf?  This is called a 'baker's grave;'  it happens when too much flour is used when shaping and the dough can't surge to itself.  If the loaf isn't shaped tight enough, it will loose its shape before going into the oven or if it is shaped too tight, the dough may start to pull apart and break open.  There are different ways to shape dough to yield different outcomes in the finished product.  It takes an artisan baker to know these rules and to consistently create beautiful bread.  Shaping bread by machine takes the soul out of the process.  For me, shaping loaf after loaf, baguette after baguette, is very cathartic.  Even though it seems monotonous at times, there's a whole lotta love going into each loaf I shape which puts my name, my mark on the bread I sell.

There is definitely an increased awareness of bread in America in much the way there is an increased awareness of organic, natural products.  As educated consumers, we have to be cautious about which products to believe in.  Is it labeled as artisan or organic or both to sell a product or is it labeled that way because it truly is organic artisan bread?

18 January 2010

Josie's Bread

The night before Josie was born

When I was pregnant with Josie, I switched from an OB to a midwife with only three months to go.  My husband and I saw the documentary "The Business of Being Born," and it made me change my mind about everything I thought I wanted as far as the birthing process was concerned.  My family is very traditional in terms of doctors and medicine.  I didn't know that there were so many options available for having babies until my lamaze instructor clued me in.  (On a side note, I have remained very close with said lamaze instructor and because of my experience, Lamaze International has asked me to be a spokes person for them.  I have to do a video bit and tell my story...how cool!)

It took me a week of constant calls to find a midwife who would take me on at six months pregnant.  Finally I found Barbara Charles in Long Island.  She delivers babies in a birthing center operated out of a hospital.  It was exactly what I wanted.  Barbara is a little wacko in a good way.  If there was a Saturday Night Live sketch or a sitcom portraying a midwife, she would be the one for the job.  She's a little hippie, a little granny and a lot of love.

When Barbara told me I had to drastically change my diet because I had gained too much weight, I was sad.  When she told me I couldn't eat any more bread, I was devistated.  I'm a baker; how can I give up bread?  Not even whole wheat or multi-grain, I asked.  She said she'd allow one slice of toast a week.  Yikes!  What was on my plate?  Mostly veggies, no fruit (too sugary), some meats were included on the list.  It was impossible.  There were some things she mentioned that sparked my interest.  Nettle is good for milk production and quinoa supposedly helps fortify the breast milk.  Hemp seeds are high in omegas (brain power) and flax seeds contain B-vitamins.

I decided to create an homage to Barbara and to the my unborn baby in the form of a loaf.  I would create a bread I could eat.  Grains, in general, are hard for your body to process.  They have to be denatured in order to be processed at all.  Denaturing can be accomplished by soaking, cooking, grinding, etc.  A lot of times this is done without being realized.  Think about preparing rice or baking with whole wheat flour.  I decided to sprout the grains for the bread.  Sprouting is just what it sounds like.  I give the grains just enough water for them to sprout.  It's like starting a garden.   By sprouting the grains before grinding them into a paste, enzymes are released and the grains are sort of predigested and changed from carbohydrate to protein.  All this means is the body can easily absorb ALL the vitamins and minerals contained in the grain and the calorie and carb content is drastically decreased.  This is the basic idea behind the raw food diet craze.

I played with a lot of different techniques in terms of sprouting and baking.  For instance, when flax seeds are hydrated, they release a gooey substance, in much the same way okra does when it's cooked.  This stuff prevents the other grains from sprouting if they are all sprouted together.  In the end, it took almost a year to come up with an optimal product.  Obviously, Josie was part of the family and Keegan was on his way but without Josie, this bread wouldn't be.

The Final Product

Josie's bread is made from sprouted wheat berries and quinoa.  Wheat berries are the grain that is ground to make wheat and white flour.  Using the whole berry instead of just the milled portion is packing in the nutrients.  Quinoa is a 'super food'.  It is the only grain to form a complete protein by itself.  Normally, grains have to be combined with legumes to form a protein, beans and ricefor example.  Three days prior to baking, I start sprouting the grains.  Once they all have shoots coming from them, I grind them into a paste.  On the day of the bake, I mix the paste with rye flour, spelt flour, whole wheat flour, local honey (which helps ward off allergies to local pollen), dried nettle leaf, whole flax seeds, hulled hemp seeds, oats, water, yeast and salt.  This unconventional dough is shaped into loaves and allowed to rise.  It is then baked yeilding a dense product akin to a german black rye.  The flavors are very earthy.  It smells almost like a fresh cut lawn and tastes of the complex blend of seeds and grains.

The benefits of this bread stretch beyond pregnancy.  Diabetics have found it has a low glycemic index on account of the reduced carbs.  Customers with a gluten intolerance have been able to partake in a loaf because rye and spelt flour contain little to no gluten.  The bread is also fiber rich thus stimulating digestion.  I'm trying not to say 'it keeps you regular' but it keeps you regular.  It stores remarkably well both at room temperature and frozen.  Also, it is yummy... the best byproduct of all!

Send me an email, crampsey@gmail.com,  if you're interested in ordering a loaf of Josie's Bread.  Due to it's natural ability to last a long time, it ships well too.  That being said, I bet it won't last a long time once you try a slice!

14 January 2010


Sometimes it is hard to be a culinary school graduate.  I'm sure it's much the same as having a "Dr." in front of your name.  One of my college professors said that she hated dating because the men would inevitably ask what she does for a living.

"I'm a teacher," she'd say, playing down her status.

"Where do you teach," they'd ask.

"At the university," she'd admit, revealing the "Dr."  It moved her up the ranks and took away the casualness of the conversation.  She was then expected to be smart or stuffy or name-your-adjective associated with college profs.

I too, try to down play my profession especially when I'm invited to a home cooked meal. I get a lot of "I don't know if it's up to your standards," and "I'm sure you could do much better."  Everyone is always apologizing when they cook for me.  Sometimes I think I'm not given an invite because my friends and aquaintances are afraid I'm going to poo poo their handy work.  Little do they know how much I appreciate someone else's effort.

I certainly know CIA grads who are snobby enough to not enjoy a home cooked meal.  They're the type who will avoid home cooking and claim to not eat meatloaf and mashed potatoes unless they came from Thomas Keller's kitchen.  Who are these people?  Don't they have grandmas?  I bet their grandmas would kick their asses if they witnessed the snobbery.

Speaking of grandmas, mine was the first person who didn't want to cook for me.  I had a break from culinary school and I came home to stay with her.  She couldn't stop talking about how her food probably wasn't up to my standards.  What she didn't realize was that she set my standards.  It's exhausting eating restaurant food for every meal.  You get to the point where you're dying for Mommom's meatloaf.  I like to make restaurant excursions special.  Consuming that kind of food every day, takes away from the allure.

[My daughter recently renamed my Mommom...she is now 'Mom-bo', Mom-bo lets her eat whatever she wants whenever she wants which has caused a marshmallow, 'mallo' in Josie-speak, obsession]

Breakfast at the CIA was yummy but difficult.  Everyday there was a different student cooking my eggs.  I am totally grossed out by runny yolks in much the same way I'm grossed out by hollandaise sauce.  My husband eats his eggs sunny side up, as in never flipped over.  I can't watch him eat breakfast or I'll loose mine.  Anyway, at school the students are graded on their ability to cook a perfect egg every time.  An A+ egg doesn't have any browning; the whites stay white.   At first I would ask for my eggs over hard.  This would give me a hard (though most of the time still soft) bulbous yolk, not what I wanted.  Then I would ask for over hard, broken yolk.  They were so afraid to break the yolk that it often wasn't broken and I still got runny eggs.  Finally I started asking for my egg 'fried crispy, over hard, broken yolk, just like my grandma used to make' and I got the desired results.

Now it's confession time.  I love it when I don't have to cook.  I don't care if it's foie gras or pot pie.  My all time favorite cake is the strawberry box mix cake with cream cheese frosting.  My great grandma's carrot cake comes in close second.  Trying to recreate the box cake using natural, home made ingredients doesn't work.  As a matter of fact, my daughter and I get a rash from eating strawberries and this cake does not contain any trace of real strawberries.  How's that for high class?  My favorite savory meal is anything that I didn't cook.  Beef stew, Mom-bo's cabbage rolls, and chicken and dumplings are on the top of my list.  Campbell's Tomato soup is the best tomato soup out there.  Sure, home made tomato is fantastic when the tomatos are in season but it just isn't the same.  There's nothing better on a cold day than grilled cheese and Campbell's Tomato soup (I use milk instead of water).

Occasionally there are ingredients I won't compromise on.  I use whole milk all the time.  I use real butter, the best I can find.  I keep heavy cream on hand for sweet and savory applications.  High quality olive oil is a staple in my kitchen.  Pure vanilla, not the imitation, is essential.  These are all things I didn't grow up with but I now have a learned respect for.  They make food taste better.

There is a time and place for everything.  Last week when I was staying with Mom-bo, she made meatloaf and mashed potatoes.  The next morning (yes morning), I ate a cold meatloaf sandwich, with mayo, on Wonder bread.  Later that week, we had hot roast beef sandwiches, smothered in gravy, on squishy white Wonder bread.  I bake great bread with lots of nutrients, character and class but this was the time and place for Wonder bread.  It was so yummy.  I missed the way my fingers left imprints on the sandwich while I was eating it.  The gummy, smushy interior stuck to the roof of my mouth when I took a bite.  Sure, I would never buy Wonder bread or keep it in my house but I enjoy taking a peek back at my childhood through my tastebuds.  Really, a meatloaf sandwich on anything but squishy white just isn't the same.

13 January 2010

The Magic of Baking

A couple years ago, Mark Bittman from the NY Times ran an article about "no-knead" bread featuring Jim Lahey, creator of Sullivan St. Bakery.  Lahey claimed he created a revolutionary method for baking bread at home.  Every time I teach a baking class, someone asks me what I think about this concept.  I often tell the students that I think it's cleaver but not revolutionary.  For thousands of years, this is how bread has been made in Europe.  Lahey uses a Dutch oven, the French use a cloche (a bell shaped clay pot that traps steam).  Then I did what I never thought I would do...I ordered Jim Lahey's new book, My Bread.

My grandmother bought me a Dutch oven for Christmas.  It was the only thing I really wanted.  I've never owned one and I often wish I had one for making stews and such.  Along with Lahey's technique, I do not find crock pots revolutionary.  I see them as one more thing to find a storage space for.  My Dad is the crock pot king (when he's not making kebabs on the grill).  He can't understand why I don't have one.  Any self respecting cook should own a crock pot, right?  I love slow cooking but I use the oven to roast or the stove top to stew.  Why add one more thing to my already crammed kitchen?  That being said, I am willing to add the Dutch oven because it serves multiple purposes.  It works as a pot for the stove, a pan for the oven, a really heavy brick when you need to press something flat, a torture device (have you seen the inside lid of the Lodge brand pot?)...

While I was relaxing at my grandmother's house in Maryland, I read Jim Lahey's book cover to cover.  There are two big ideas in  My Bread.  First, it is centered around the use of the Dutch oven as a vessel to bake bread.   The pot can hold the high temperatures needed to bake crusty bread and it traps the steam naturally released by the dough during the baking process.  Second, the "no-knead" technique is explained.  Basically, the ingredients are stirred together, not mixed, in a bowl.  12-18 hours later the mixture is turned out onto the table, folded and roughly shaped into a boule.  This rests for another hour or two and is then turned into the pre-heated pot and baked.  While the flour and water are getting friendly, the long fermentation time allows the gluten molecules to find each other and join together.  This is creating the gluten network that kneading the dough or mixing on a machine would.  Lahey believes letting time do the work creates more flavor and greater texture in the final product.

Not only did I read the book, I followed his basic recipe and I did another unthinkable...I baked bread at home.  I never bake bread at home because I know it won't be the same as the bread I bake in a steam injected, stone deck oven.  Here comes the revolution:  The boule I pulled from the pot, nearly a day after starting the process, was incredible.  The crumb was open and airy.   The crust was thin and crisp.  I'm sold!  Though what Jim Lahey is preaching may have been done before (and he is quick to say this in his book), the revolution comes from the idea that great bread is now accessible for the home baker.  Yes, I know the history of baking and how the modern technology came to be but I went to school for this and it is my business to know this.  Lahey brought these ideas down to an undertandable, easy to grasp level.  Baking his bread was so easy.  Around 7pm, I dumped the ingredients into the bowl and gently combined them with my hands.  The next morning, I turned the mix out and did the folding described in the book.  I let the dough rise, baked it and would have had a nice specimen to go with dinner but it didn't last that long.  I couldn't get over how great the outcome was and I ate the whole loaf.

Where's the magic?  I see Jim Lahey's technique as revolutionary not because of the way he is baking bread but because of the way he has gotten people into baking.  Millions read Bittman's article  and they tried the recipe at home.  It is one of the most downloaded articles in NY Times history.  Jim Lahey did for baking what J.K. Rowling did for reading.  Sure Harry Potter is just another fantasy series.  There are lots of critics that say some older series books, like the Tolkien trilogy, are much better.  They say there is nothing revolutionary about her books.  The only reason I am mentioning Rowling is because I have been a huge Potter fan since day one.  I'm one of the nutty adults who stood in line at midnight, with all the kids, when a new book was released.  I cried when Dumbledore died.  That is all to say that I always defend the books not because I believe in the stories but because I believe Rowling single-handedly got kids reading again.  The video game generation suddenly began to pick up books.

Jim Lahey is single-handedly getting a generation of fast food, microwave junkies to get back to the basics and to bake bread at home.  He has made it so easy that people who have always been afraid to bake are trying his method and they are getting great results.  As soon as my bread came out of the oven, my mind quickly jumped to J.K. Rowling.  The only difference is, I saw her vision from the begining.  It took reading Lahey's book and trying his formula but now I see his vision too.