Saturday, July 24, 2010

My Bread is Garbage

I am lucky enough to be in New York City on a job, with a little time off.
And so, on one not so sunny but still very hot morning I decided to make a bread pilgrimage to search out the bakery of my favorite baker, bread guru, Jim Lahey. I have been cooking my way through Lahey's revolutionary bread cookbook, My Bread, since James bought it for me last Christmas. I wanted to see what the real thing was like. And here -- very far from Sullivan Street, behind this unassuming facade (hardly the exterior one expects for a true king of the bread world) I came face to face with Lahey's creations.
I selected a small multigrain roll (paninetto as the bakery says). The minute I bit into the thick crisp crust and felt it shatter like beautiful toasty glass one thought popped into my head. "My bread is garbage."How does he do it? What am I doing wrong?
As I walked the nearly 4 miles back to my hotel in Soho (very near Sullivan street and the bakery's original location) I pondered on the more than 35 years that, somewhat halfheartedly, I have been playing with and have been taunted by homemade bread. I've done quick breads, biscuits, yeast cakes, eggs breads, whole wheat loaves, parkerhouse rolls practically bathed in melted butter but until Lahey's no-knead recipe convinced me to just let the dough sit I can't say homemade bread was a regular treat at our house, or that I was very proud of the results. I was proud that is -- until I took a bite of the real thing. One bite and it was over.
Though I rarely detail it, sometimes I have trouble getting Lahey's recipes to rise or the loaves are flat and sad. The original recipe and the whole wheat are pretty much no-fail but the more exotic flavors, carrot bread and walnut I wasn't sure about, until today. I wondered if my bread came out like the master's, now I know, sadly, it does not.
As I wandered home, flush with this new reality I thought, " there is one more pilgrimage to make."
About two years ago Lahey opened Co (pronounced Company) specializing in wood fired pizza with the baker's justly famous dough. I wandered in, a little worse for the sudden summer rainstorm that hit more somewhere around 34th street, and was met by a cheerful waiter who suggested I sit at the bar thinking it would be more fun than one of the long tables. "The bartender is really chill," he said.
I saddled up the the small marble bar in full view of the Co packaged salt and olive oil and a gleaming espresso machine.
Seemingly seconds later Siri, more charming than "chill", came to tell me about the specials of the day. I immediately fell for the raw vegetables with anchovy dip. A bagna calda I thought, until out came a superbly creamy concoction surrounded by crisp baby vegetables. Salty, savory, with an anchovy flavor so mild it seemed vaguely like the best caesar salad dressing ever. If not for the polite company I'd have been tempted to dive into this small bowl and lick it clean. Spectacular and simple -- I'm hoping My Bread has the recipe, this could be a new party regular at our house.
Sensing my interest (well maybe obsession) with the kitchen -- I could see the beautiful Earthstone oven from my perch at the bar -- Siri, bartender supreme, wrangled me an invitation to visit the kitchen, where Brendan, the man at the oven filled me in on the finer points of pizza cookery.
900 degrees of deliciousness -- Co's wood-fired oven hard at work. A finished pie takes about 5 minutes.
These are no ordinary pizzas. Sure there are Margherita and a meatball versions but Co is justly famous for it's Popeye -- gruyere, pecorino and mozzarella cheese topped with fresh spinach which toasts in the intense heat. Other pies feature fresh arugula, ham and cheese, and, the diet buster Flambé, a combination of lardons, caramelized onions, cheeses, and super-rich béchamel sauce. The menu is simple ( 9 pizzas, some salads, "toast" (crostini with a choice of toppings), and soups thickened with Lahey's delicious bread crumbs) and I suspect changes with the availability of the best ingredients.
Counseled by my new friend the bartender I went with the day's special. Corn purée topped with mozzarella and parmesan cheeses, fresh Italian kale, and sweet juicy golden cherry tomatoes, added after the pie had baked.
Lahey's crust is at once crisp and chewy. The breadmaker's holy grail.
One bite in I swooned for the combination of sweet and yet savory corn and crisp, not quite bitter leaves. Two bites in I started to wonder what a purée so delicious was costing my diet. Three bites in a slight panic set in but I kept going.
Relief set in when my new friends in the Co kitchen shared the recipe with me: fresh corn kernels pureed in the "robocoup" -- the French original that inspired the Cuisinart home version -- and strained through a "China cap." That'll make a few dirty dishes at home but two of James favorite flavors on one crust is worth a home oven try.
While I'm happily munching, Siri tells me that Lahey is working on a pizza cookbook -- have to put that on a future Christmas list.
Better than dessert, after a few minutes of chatting at the bar, Siri knows a groupie when she sees one, and brings the man himself, Jim Lahey, over to say hello. We chat about crust and LA and my problems with some breads. Lahey offers to look at pictures of my home loaves to give some personalized direction (I'll update on that one). A doughy dream come true -- hero worship at the marble bar.
Thank you Siri, my fairy bread godmother!

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