Ana, my bread-loving friend from a small town near Seattle, called one recent afternoon. Her boyfriend's 9-year old son had had a bread epiphany. ''He came home from a friend’s house, and told me he had eaten the most wonderful bread. It was velvety soft and he had it with peanut butter and jelly. He was so excited,'' she said, amused. Turns out little Ezra had had his first taste of Wonderbread. Compared to the crisp baguettes and chewy multi-grain loaves Ana picks up at her local Thriftway, to Ezra, sliced white was pure heaven.
Now rewind fifty years. In 1956, my father graduated from college. The cafeteria served sliced white loaves with pasty centers surrounded by crusts evident by the color only. On dates, he took my mother to fancy restaurants, where they had biscuits and Parker House rolls. It never occurred to either one of them that bread wasn’t necessarily soft enough to gum. Their bread epiphany took place in 1960 in Paris. To them, a brittle-shelled baguette that pulled apart to reveal a fragrant, yeasty heart was pure heaven. That a slice of Wonderbread was as exotic to Ezra as a baguette was to my dad in 1960 shows just how far American bread culture has come in the past 50 years.
In 1956, my grandmother’s Brooklyn supermarket gave her the choice between fresh sliced white at full price, and day-old loaves at half price. On Fridays, she got challah, and sometimes seeded rye, at the local bakery. In terms of choice, that was that. Of course, the selection in the bread aisle these days would probably make her go weak in the knees. Would she even know what to think of the sun-dried tomato and Kalamata olive foccaccia and the flour-dusted ciabatta? The nubby seven-grain health loaves with oatmeal tops and the hearth-baked country breads with their dense beige crumb? She could possibly relate to the Portuguese egg bread (which might remind her of challah). But probably not the naturally leavened sourdough ryes with thick dark crusts and moist, seedless interiors that bear little resemblance to what she spread with mustard for my dad’s salami sandwiches.
Clearly, in the past 50 years, there’s been a revolution in the bread aisle. What looks like a sudden explosion of bakery choices to the average consumer however, was really a long, slow process from the perspective of the artisan bread baker. As folks like Daniel Leader of Bread Alone in Boiceville, New York, Steve Sullivan of the Acme Bread Company in Berkeley, Nancy Silverton of LaBrea Bakery in Los Angeles, and Thom Leonard of Wheatfields in Kansas, and Amy Scherber of Amy’s Bread of New York City will all tell you, they labored long and hard to bring us a veritable cornucopia of very good bread. And when I say good bread, I mean, the kind that yields epiphanies with every bite (well, excluding Ezra’s epiphany). I mean handcrafted loaves with unique shapes, rich, tangy interiors, and browned, crunchy crusts; bread that is hearty and full-flavored enough to be the meal, or the building blocks of a meal, as in the recipes here.
Until fairly recently, you could find these breads only on a European vacation, which is where many of this country’s best bakers first encountered them. Thus enlightened, their mission was clear. “In the beginning, we didn’t know what we were doing,” Amy Scherber recalled, “The only thing we knew was that we were completely hooked on good bread and wanted to figure out how to make it. But there really wasn’t anyone to teach us.” Because they were spread out all over the country and of their vampire-ish hours, there was not much of a community among them, and at the time, no easy way to share information. As Scherber remembers, each kitchen was its own laboratory, and each batch of dough was an ongoing experiment. “Basically, we were reinventing the wheel. Going to Europe to learn was our only option,” she said.
She went to France, like most bread bakers at the time. Nancy Silverton also chose France as her training ground. She had opened LaBrea Bakery in 1989, and at the time, only knew how to make two breads, an olive country loaf and multi-grain bread she baked as pastry chef at Spago. “But you can’t open a bakery with only two breads,” she told me, “So I went to France. The problem was that I don’t speak French, so even though I came back with a notebook full of recipes, I lost the nuances of the instruction. Nothing really worked. Those first breads were terrible!” she said laughing. At the time it wasn’t very funny.
For an American, the hardest part of translating what the European bakers were doing, said Daniel Leader, was learning to give up commercial baker’s yeast, which was the backbone of the sliced white bread industry. “It’s impossible to get that same depth of flavor from commercial yeast that you can get from wild yeasts,” he told me, explaining that the American dependence on the commercial stuff was a relatively new development in the history of bread baking, which dates back at least to the ancient Egyptians. Developed in the mid 19th century from a by-product of beer brewing, commercial baker’s yeast reliably and quickly rose dough so that bakers could put out a uniform product. The overlooked downside was that much of the complex, yeasty flavor, and dense earthy scent characteristic of European loaves, and of San Francisco sourdough, comes from the long slow rise you get from wild yeasts--or sometimes, a combination of wild yeasts (for flavor), and commercial yeasts (for dependability).
Working with wild yeasts was a relatively uncharted territory for postwar American bakers, who let the knowledge slip away during those white bread decades. What rekindled the desire for old-world, naturally leavened bread— even before the would-be artisan bakers of the early 1980s—was the macrobiotic movement of the 1960s and ‘70s. Peter Berley, author of The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen (which I co-authored) and a one-time macrobiotic devotee, remembers his first forays into bread baking. He began with the bread bible of the natural foods movement, the Tassajara Bread Book. Published in 1970, it gave recipes for dense, whole grain loaves risen with commercial yeast. When he got into macrobiotics, though, he realized his yeast-risen loaves would have to go. Industrialized yeasts were a no-no on a macrobiotic diet. “The first macrobiotic bread I made was a combination of five whole-grain flours mixed with water and baked into a brick. You could barely cut it,” he said. That’s when he and others following macrobiotic diets started trying out natural sourdough starters.
The one recipe that the new generation of artisan bakers had in common with the macrobiotic set was the desem bread from Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book, published in 1984. Made with desem (a Belgium-style natural starter) and whole grain flour, it was a several-day endeavor that resulted in a somewhat heavy but hearty, chewy loaf that was about as far from sliced white as you could get while still calling it bread. Nancy Silverton recalled, “If you were interested in learning about natural starters, Laurel’s Bread Book was pretty much all you had.” Armed with the rediscovered knowledge of wild yeast, early artisan bakers gradually acquired the other necessary tools—specialized brick ovens and organic, artisanal flours.
Now, after years of experimentation, artisan bread bakers have it easy. Not only are there a slew of books explaining how to make old-world style bread, there are also societies and schools dedicated to teaching the craft. As for the quality of the bread, all of the bread bakers I asked agree: It’s just getting better—and easier to find. “The standard for what’s considered good bread just keeps getting higher,” Silverton said, “Too many people have had good bread for the trend to diminish. Good bread is here to stay.”