It's Baking Month: Switch your oven on and get warm, cozy and festive with us this December.
During these conflicted times of gluten-free everything coexisting with demands for the return of the bread-and-butter basket, the quality of artisanal breads has never been more on the rise. Home bakers and pros are challenging themselves to push the elasticity of how bread should take form.
On tasting menus around NYC, including Blanca and Semilla, slices of porridge bread are being thrust into the spotlight. With their custard-like crumb, porridge breads are creamier, richer and more complex in flavor than other breads (see the recipe). And as its name suggests, the beating heart of the loaf begins with slow-cooking a variety of grains, such as oats.
The rotating seasonal breads at Roberta's in Brooklyn are an integral part of the bread program, along with its bâtards and sourdoughs. For winter, head baker Nina Subhas's bread of choice is porridge bread, because it retains lots of moisture, resulting in a longer shelf life. Last winter, Subhas ran a polenta porridge bread, denser and creamier than the seasonal breads Roberta's offers during the spring and summer. "I found this really great coarse polenta that's grown in Lancaster, Pennsylvania," she says. "I cooked the polenta with bay leaves, cracked pepper and water, and folded it into a whole-wheat crust. Polenta is really great at trapping and holding moisture, and it kept the bread moist for three to four days."
While many other varieties of bread grow stale after a day, porridge bread stays moist and retains texture for a long time, making it the perfect toast to serve with a soup or stew. Richard Hart, head baker at Tartine Bakery in NYC, advises to treat a slice of porridge bread as you would searing a piece of meat. "Quite often you can take a fresh loaf, and then panfry it in a hot skillet with a little bit of oil almost like searing a steak, and you end up with an amazing texture."
In the third installment of his cookbook, Tartine, Chad Robertson experimented with different kinds of ancient and heritage grains. From there, porridge breads surfaced. "Most bakers think of whole grains as flour," Hart says. "We decided we wanted to think outside the box. It made sense to start with oats. Oats are filled with fat, making a silkier bread."
And because porridge is the backbone to this loaf, it acts as a blank canvas for bakers to get creative. "It added different kinds of varieties to the kinds of breads that we could cook. We were able to start baking breads that we normally wouldn't make bread out of," Hart says. He's currently experimenting with Peruvian black corn and other corn varieties, and the result is a beautiful loaf that's somewhere between Gothic and psychedelic in appearance.
"At Tartine, the signature loaf has been our country loaf," Hart says. "The new classic has become the oat porridge loaf."
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