Cooking

Creative Loafing

A one-on-one bread-making master class with Bien Cuit's Zachary Golper
Bourbon Bread
Photos: Tasting Table

I have yet to reach that particular level of adulthood wherein one is capable of maintaining a sourdough starter. Every little bubbly pet I've kept in my refrigerator has flatlined after a few weeks due to my neglect, my faulty parenting. I tell myself I'll get there someday, but, really, who's to say.

You can imagine my relief then when I flipped through Bien Cuit: The Art of Bread ($50), the new cookbook out this November from one of Brooklyn's most widely respected and beloved bakeries and its chef/owner, Zachary Golper; many of his recipes call for only an ad hoc starter, something you mix up the day before you start baking. If a full-on sourdough starter requires parenting, this technique is more like babysitting. You have to be responsible for only a day or two total, then you can go back to being negligent while enjoying the wonders of home-baked bread, resting on your yeasted laurels.

Golper developed and adapted all of these recipes in his own Brooklyn kitchen, writing them so that home bakers with only a few square feet of counter space could still make a good loaf. So I hatched a plan: Convince him to come to my tiny Brooklyn kitchen, walk me through a loaf and prove that—despite the dense bricks and gummy disappointments of my past—it really can be done.

He shows up bearing a baking sheet and holding an in-process loaf, tucked into a kitchen towel like a swaddled baby. We go with the bourbon bread (see the recipe), because everyone needs an excuse to open a bottle of bourbon while baking. It's the baker's version of uncorking a bottle of wine for risotto and drinking the rest of it.

Many of the recipes in Golper's book, like the one for bourbon bread, call for grains—like cornmeal—other than traditional white and whole wheat. When you're baking year-round with a variety of grains and flours, you're promoting crop rotation. "And that's the first step to sustainable farming," Golper says. Conveniently, it also means deeper flavor. His main objective with these recipes is to "maximize the flavor of the ingredients"—through technique, quality ingredients and a cold, slow fermentation.

Golper and the author in her home kitchen

The fermentation is what develops the bread's sweet, rich flavor. "You can make bread in five hours," Golper tells me, "but it won't taste anywhere near as good as bread that takes 70 hours. And for those longer times, you need a cold fermentation." With time, the nuances in the grains become more available to the yeasts, and the gases they emit—a big factor in the bread's flavor—become more nuanced as well.

Golper walks me through each step, and I try my hand at all of it, most importantly, the tuck-and-fold kneading technique he developed while testing the recipes for this book. I watch him and then try on my own, watch and then try again. Golper has an attentive sort of calmness and the comfort and assertiveness around dough that you'd expect from an award-winning baker. My hands are a bit more awkward when I work it, the dough thick and grainy from cornmeal, becoming more and more pillowy with each rest in the fridge. There's a tidiness to the tuck-and-fold technique, more like a math equation than the generic act of "kneading" that so many recipes call for. I'd argue that kneading is the most mystifying step, aside maybe from actual baking, in any bread recipe; this technique takes the guesswork out of it all.

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Golper left me with a still-fermenting loaf in my fridge, and I was able to finish it on my own, setting my own timers, pulling it out for a tuck-and-fold before ducking out for drinks, setting the timer again when I got home, staying up past my bedtime waiting for bread to bake, going to sleep in an apartment full of bread smells and then springing out of bed in the morning for toast.

There's enough waxing poetic out there about the romance of bread baking, about the intoxicating smells it produces, about the pride that a fresh loaf can instill in the home baker. The most surprising comfort for me though was being on someone (er, something) else's schedule, doing a little logistical dance. One of Golper's first mentors told him that "the bread is the boss"—and though these recipes are written to arm you with as much power as possible in this relationship, it's nice to let your bread do most of the work.

I recommend that you give it a few test runs to get to know the process, and then put it on the table at Thanksgiving. Sure, a yeasted bread adds work to an already-stressful holiday, but look at it this way: It can be ready the day before you eat and will make your kitchen smell marvelous. A homemade bourbon bread is an elegant alternative to corn bread (no offense, corn bread) and gives you an excuse to crack open the bourbon early. Your family will thank you on all accounts.

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