Baking bread involves so many variables. There are the tangible ones that determine texture and taste: flour, water, salt, levain, and the fermentation of the dough. And then there are the intangible ones: judgment and intuition, experience and flexibility, common sense and skill. A good baker is a juggler, balancing the temperature of the air and the flour and water before feeding the levain, and then testing the dough after the levain has been fed. A good baker knows when to stop, when the fermentation is almost-but-not-quite too much, and when the loaf is baked to a perfect crust but never beyond.
My ideal bread has no figs, seeds, nuts, garlic, fruit, or cheese. It begins with great flour (a blend of several different kinds), water, salt, levain, and maybe a little baker’s yeast. The yeast is in the air and in the levain culture that comes from just flour and water, with no apples, grapes, pears, or honey to jumpstart it. I bake the bread until the crust is as dark as it can get without turning black. Complete fermentation of a levain dough creates a complex flavor in a fully baked crust.
Photograph by Alan Weiner © 2006
When I opened Ken’s Artisan Bakery in November 2001, I intended to replicate many of the products I had enjoyed at the boulangeries and pâtisseries of France. After learning French methods for baking breads, croissants, and the boulanger‘s rustic pastries, I felt ready to run my own bakery and café. But my first effort to launch a wood-fired-oven bakery in Eugene, Oregon, failed when the neighborhood successfully (if bizarrely) argued that the smell of bread baking every day would be detrimental to the community. I ultimately found a perfect spot in northwest Portland, where the bakery has been ever since. The first few years of operation involved many one-hundred-hour workweeks, and despite frequent praise I nearly went broke. Still, we never lost sight of our original philosophy: use seasonal, farm-bought produce, always use the best ingredients, and try to get it perfect every time. Our signature products include levain breads and baguettes, croissants, cannelés, and tarts made with fresh fruits delivered by local farmers year round.
As long as I was the sole baker at Ken’s, I could tinker with times and proportions, mixing, kneading, shaping, and baking in a way that felt intuitively right. But after I hired four bread bakers, that process had to change. I had to find a way to translate intuition into formula, so that my bakers could get the results I wanted. Like every good chef or head baker, I had to devise a way of getting other people to do things the way I would do them myself. So I developed and documented a system for feeding the levain, mixing the doughs, fermenting and dividing and shaping them, and for baking the breads. The bread actually came out more consistent that way, which was a good thing.
But there were still the variables. And they still required judgment. I had to teach my bakers to be bakers—that is, to recognize when something in the air or water or flour had changed and the bread-making process had to be adjusted accordingly. No bakery that turns out hundreds of loaves a day can function without established mixing formulas or set baking times, but a baker has to look at a bread in the oven and understand that it needs a few more minutes for color—but only a few, or it will turn black. The good baker learns what the limits are, and then stops just short of them. And the good manager empowers his staff to make good decisions. Otherwise, the production becomes totally formulaic, the bread itself bland and characterless.
We make the same kinds of demands on our staff at Ken’s Artisan Pizza, which I opened in July 2006 with Alan Maniscalco, head baker at Ken’s Artisan Bakery and now chef and partner at the pizzeria. With a wood-fired oven in a very busy establishment, baking to get the perfect pizza crust takes endurance and constant attention, especially when the staff turns out 175 pizzas and 100 appetizers in a five-hour time period. I have the easy job: I get to hang out at the oven, encourage the pizzaiolo (pizza-baker), and comment on how the fire is burning (different woods yield different intensities, for different lengths of time). The pizzaiolo has the tough job: four or five pies in the oven at once (along with some pans of appetizers), each baking in two to three minutes, each needing to be turned and turned again to face the flame evenly until reaching the moment of perfection, when top and bottom are crisp but not burnt, the ideal canvas for the toppings awaiting their bed.
In both my bakery and my pizzeria, I use organic flour. I myself don’t want to eat wheat grown with pesticides, nor do I want to support farms that produce harmful runoff into our local rivers and streams. Years ago an article by Rob Sinskey, who converted his vineyards from conventionally farmed to organic, persuaded me that pesticides destroy healthy soil and cause higher cancer rates in farming communities. I don’t want to abet that process. Besides, I think organic flour makes better-tasting bread and pizza. But any flour—organic even more than others—is a living substance. It changes. One week’s delivery tastes different and behaves differently in the dough. We may need to add or subtract yeast or water. This week’s dough may turn out softer or firmer; it may lack body or feel tough. Or maybe it just doesn’t spring as much in the oven. We need to be on top of the changes and make adjustments so that our customers don’t notice, even if we do.
In this business, you live with questions 24/7. A new batch of flour might produce spongier dough, but not uniformly: each type of bread made from it will require a different adjustment. What’s going on? Our Valrhona chocolate croissants tasted fabulous for months; then one day they turned out too flat and not flaky enough. On that very day, a customer appeared who had abandoned her South Beach diet for one of these luxuriant pastries. We knew we’d have to wait for the next week’s flour delivery to get back to the results we liked, but that didn’t make up for our feeling that we had let our customer down by offering something less than the best. At other times, the 134 kilos we just baked are over-fermented, and there’s not a damn thing we can do until we start tomorrow’s batch. On the business side, customers line up outside the door, but the numbers don’t always add up: after making payroll, paying purveyors, utilities, taxes, rent, and repairs, I don’t seem to have earned anything, even though I worked 345 hours the last month.
These days the bakery and pizzeria are both doing fine. More important, there’s the five-year-old who proudly showed me his pizza menu, on which he’d scrawled “I love Ken’s,” the Swiss couple who prefer my croissants even to those back home, and the Frenchman who declared our pear tart the best he had ever had. There is the roomful of French master chefs at a special dinner last year, yelling “Who baked the bread?!!” And then there are the people outside the pizzeria door on Saturday at 4:59 p.m., a full house even before we open our doors.
In the end, it’s the people who make it all worthwhile.