The three-day artisan bread conference in Chicago reinforced the importance of idea sharing and community building in the bakery industry.
Darting in and out of the hands-on classes, demonstrations and lectures during the Bread Bakers Guild of America’s WheatStalk conference at Kendall College in Chicago was like getting 100 little jolts of baker’s adrenaline. All 28 instructors offered tidbits of information before a captive audience of bakery owners, allied professionals and home bakers. I’d linger near the back, drinking in descriptions of how to laminate whole grain dough; the perfect ratio of rice flour, potato starch and tapioca starch for gluten-free products; how to save an over-risen levain; and how to rehydrate Scandanavian harring kake. It was perfectly acceptable to be an unapologetic nerd.
The instructors were selected because of their individual expertise, but the common thread that joined the 259 attendees, instructors and volunteers was a passion for the craft and an insatiable hunger for knowledge.
As I snuck from classroom to classroom, I spotted Johnson & Wales instructor Cyril Hitz, CMB, who taught a class on savory breads, in the back of San Francisco Baking Institute’s Frank Sally’s ancient grain bread class. I whispered, “I didn’t think you had anything else to learn!” to which he replied, “This stuff is still foreign to me, and I find it fascinating.”
Volker Baumann (pictured, right), CMB, who taught a hands-on class on easy rye breads, sat in the crowd during Solveig Tofte’s demonstration of Scandanavian bakery products, smiling bashfully when she mentioned how much she’d learned from him. And nearly everyone trickled into Harry Peemoeler’s demonstration of decorative breads based on his showpiece at the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie, which was the last class before the closing celebration on June 30. The theater filled up with awestruck instructors and students, who crept up close to ask questions and snap photos as Peemoeler dashed from one side of the massive, teetering showpiece to the other. Apparently even those who seem to know everything still find more to learn.
Troubleshooting in real life
In baking, certain cardinal rules are held fast in the hope of creating some kind of standard. But then variables beyond our control force us to toss those rules out the window. In the case of WheatStalk, that variable was the incredibly hot and humid weather that descended on Chicago June 28 to 30, which made the instructors jumpy about fermentation times, dough temperatures during production and even oven usage.
Jeffrey Hammelman (pictured, below left)–who taught bagels, bialys and pretzels–ran into the issue of heat and humidity as he was preparing his pretzel levain for his class. He shared a fascinating trick that seemed almost counterintuitive while simultaneously making perfect sense.
“If it’s hot and humid, it’s likely your levain will over-rise during a 16-hour fermentation,” he said. “So I added a bit of salt to slow down the fermentation.”
“How much is a bit?” I blurted out.
He patted me on the shoulder and smiled. “Don’t worry, don’t worry,” he said, sensing my surprise. “Two percent salt, taken from your overall formula.” He went on: “The microorganisms in sourdough can coexist with salt because if not, we wouldn’t be able to make naturally leavened bread. So it’s okay to have a little salt hanging out with your levain.”
He noted that he was no stranger to unpredictable conditions in the production kitchen, emphasizing the importance of some basic adjustments to temperature so as not to waste product. “Sometimes your levain is too ripe or underripe. So what should you do if this happens? The first and most important thing is to not beat yourself up,” he said. In addition to taking a little salt from the overall formula and adding it to the levain, he recommended chilling the flour and water before mixing with an overripe levain to help lower the overall dough temperature by a couple degrees Fahrenheit and slow down fermentation. Conversely, for underripe levain, bumping up the dough temperature will help boost fermentation.
For Hitz, unpredictable conditions are practically a given, so he keeps close tabs on changes in temperature and how they affect dough performance. “It’s all a matter of collecting data on a daily basis so you learn to understand your environment,” he said, when one student asked about the correct working temperatures for dough. “My ultimate fantasy in mixing dough? A 75- to 78-degree working environment, with ingredients at 60 to 65. But that’s rarely the case, as you can see in the kitchens this week.”
What stuck with me long after the event were the priceless nuggets of information that can only come from bakers who’ve worked in the industry for many years.
While demonstrating laminated dough with hard red winter wheat flour, Craig Ponsford dismissed concerns about dough temperature, crocodiling (when the butter shatters inside the dough), and small cracks in the dough given its stiffness. “Lamination is an amazing skill set–it’s harder than doing bread. But I am more relaxed when I’m laminating whole grain doughs because it doesn’t function like white flour. I get really good results without total accuracy.”
Amy Scherber of Amy’s Bread in New York City, discussed the nuances of sourdough. “Yeast makes dough more tender, more mild and creates a crispier crust. A pure sourdough is chewier and more elastic. So if you’re making a 10-kg batch, just about 30 g of yeast will give you a little boost in dough consistency.”
Pierre Zimmermann, French Pastry School instructor, talked about the importance of maintaining authenticity in bread showpieces. “You want to keep the baker’s spirit in bread showpieces–don’t try to make it look like chocolate or sugar,” he said. “I am absolutely allergic to artificial colors in bread. Everything is possible with paprika, cocoa, coffee and saffron. We have to keep decorative bread authentic.”
Food photographer Eric Futran took the trepidation out of photographing bread with a few simple tips. “Never use hard, direct sunlight–you want malleable, soft light. You can buy a fillcard, which is silver foil with white on the back, at an art supply store for a few bucks. Use that as ‘kicker’ light, which is daylight plus artificial light, to soften the lighting,” he said.
At the closing celebration on Saturday evening, the Guild recognized four former members of its board of directors with awards: Craig Ponsford, former Guild chairman and owner of bakery/innovation center Ponsford’s Place, San Rafael, Calif.; Abe Faber, Guild steering committee member and co-owner of Clear Flour Bread, Brookline, Mass.; Ann F. Burgunder, regional events chair and former board member, and general manager of Amy’s Bread, New York; and Richard Miscovich, regional events chair and former board member, and associate professor at Johnson & Wales, Providence, R.I.
And in a surprising twist, the Guild gave the Professor Raymond Calvel Award to both Faber and Ponsford for their service to the artisan baking community. The last Calvel Award recipient was Christian Vabret in 2007.
“We haven’t given the award in awhile so we thought we’d give it to two people this time. We told [Craig and Abe] that they would be presenting it to the other one,” Guild board member Jeff Yankellow joked.
Ponsford and Faber have been involved with the Guild since 1994. Faber served on the Guild’s board of directors for 12 years, six years as vice chairman. He and his wife Christy Timon opened Clear Flour Bread in 1982, and specialize in European bread and pastry.
“We couldn’t have kept Tom McMahon’s vision for the Guild clear without Abe,” Ponsford said, fighting back tears. “He understands the economics of what we do for a living, and he’s always been defending our rights as the bakers.”
Ponsford served on the Guild’s board of directors from 1995 to 2010 and was chairman from 2002 to 2010. He currently teaches at the Culinary Institute of America, St. Helena, Calif., and has his own bakery and innovation center.
“By giving [the award] to Craig, we’re giving you that push and responsibility to do something with it, like when Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize after he was president,” Faber said. “Craig, you’re a lifelong educator and lifelong learner. You’re concerned with quality and standards but also the health and nutrition of your customers and friends. You have always upheld what was central about the Guild for me.”
At the end of the day, Faber and Ponsford’s emotional words summed up the mission of WheatStalk–it’s about pausing to recognize those who’ve impacted bakery, but more importantly pushing them and other bakers to continue learning, innovating and challenging themselves to be better.