This week we’d like to introduce you to a true crisis: the search for some good BREAD in NYC. It’s a problem that is intercultural, because once you’ve tasted French bread and tasted the central role it plays in everyday life, its hard to go back. Sometimes, American bread just never seems to get the job done anymore, and as two bread enthusiasts we’re on the search to find the best Boulangerie near us! Here’s a little anecdote to explain our sorrows:
Girl Meets and Leaves Bread: A Tale of Two Countries
Jeanne: A Girl meets cracker and cheese first time.
“Last week, I went to a conference where they had a classy buffet with wine and cheese (I swear I didn’t know, that’s not why I attended this lecture). There, I had one of those moments when you hold on for a second, put your whole life in perspective, and ask the metaphysical question, where am I? In my case, the answer was: you’re in a country where they serve crackers with cheese. That’s right – crackers, not bread. My whole system of beliefs was shaken down. So, yes, writing this article was a kind of self-therapy for me.”
One of my first realizations upon arriving in France was that le “cracker” doesn’t exist. This was quite problematic especially when I found myself with an urge to consume large amounts of French cheese. So where did my American instincts lead me? I tried to replace the cracker’s duty with that of the rather bland, brioche toasts found in French supermarkets. Warning: this results in a very unpleasant combination. However, contrarily to what we may think, the cracker is somewhat of a fake in its relationship to cheese, as it actually has an original predecessor. Turns out, cheese’s true lover is that of bread and always has been across the Atlantic.
Point in case, French bread has had an immense impact upon both of us and we’re facing a “struggle” of finding good bread in the USA, nevertheless the culinary hub of NYC. So what is one to do?
“Finding good bread is totally possible in NYC because the city has so many various culinary resources. The only thing though is that, you have to work for it: literally it’s expensive and you have to do some research (or lucky you, just read this article!) to find a good place. Coming from France, I naively went to the first top-quality supermarket in the area and discovered that their “French baguette” was neither French or a real baguette. Go to a proper bakery that is known for its bread and be prepared to spend some money.”
First, let’s go back a few steps here: why do we care about bread and how is it any different from Whole Foods 12 grains pre-sliced loaf?
Bread, amongst its food compatriots requires a very precise & mathematical precision that sometimes, like meringue-whisperers, is mastered by baker’s special techniques based on experience and tricky intuition. It’s a lot more than just its ingredients – flour, water, salt, and yeast – its a PROCESS! Basically, there is first the “pre-fermentation” starter, ou en français le “poolish,” where ingredients are weighed to specific measurement, combined, and the “leavening” process begins – this is where we make or break the bread because it’s all about the natural yeast we’re creating here. This is where those luscious bubbles and sourdough/any sort of flavor are going to be created, and without it the bread won’t develop its shape, texture or flavor. The poolish becomes your pet as you have to keep feeding it before you can start to use the damn thing (trust me the smelly jar occupies a seemingly permanent place on my countertop it seems.) Here, some bakers even “cheat” and add malt powder to speed this “feeding” process up.
Next, poolish + exact dry ingredients are going to finally get you a dough, where once again things get tricky. Now many of you may be familiar with a bread machine or dough hook- but here’s the thing, lots of bread bakers emphasize the key in “hand- kneading.” A good bread maker has “kneading instinct” – that is hand kneading ensures that air bubbles are not destroyed, the bread’s pigments might possibly change, and while its putting the “art” back in ensuring tasty “artisanal quality.”
Fast forward through a lengthy – sometimes 16 hours – rising process, where bakers adjust exact temperatures, “knocking” processes (that is deflating risen dough), and intricate shaping processes. And finally, a PIPING hot oven completes this delicate process (450 degrees & above) where the loaf finally takes shape and achieves its crispy crust and rich color. So bread is an odd one because unlike cooking you can’t “eyeball” any ingredients here and similar to baking, innovation and perfected skill are part of intense familiarity with exact measurements of ingredients and temperatures that must work in certain ways.
Ok so now we get it: bread is really complicated to make an requires a real professional skill. BUT why are we freaking out about FRENCH bread withdrawals?
America has some really great bread bakers too, just read about what some of those sourdough guys over in San Francisco right now – America isn’t totally off the bread wagon right? While here, like the cracker, we’ve come into the food story a little bit late. French bread is and has been a pretty special deal, after all UNESCO Heritage even protects French baguettes as “intangible cultural heritage”! Bread places a quintessential role in the French person’s daily life – rather than getting their morning “coffee-run” in (which no worry they too are caffeine addicts!), everyone has to get their morning boulangerie run in for fresh baked baguettes!
In America do we really have distinct cultural conception of bread? Doesn’t a bagel, pizza dough, or for some even, the cracker, come to mind when you think of bread? Why are we carbohydrate-fearing people today when we’re like sandwich capital? Health conscious eaters we are today, we’ve been scared by preservative & chemical breads like the classic “Wonder bread” of the 50’s. It seems that today in America, we have a fear negative conception of “white bread.”
Q: French “Daily Bread”, Fact or Fiction? JEANNE PARLE:
“Bread is really important from breakfast (even crucial in this case) to dinner. Someone has to “acheter le pain.” When, for some reason, there is no bread on the table, you have to argue about whose fault it is and in most cases, the youngest have to run to the corner bakery and buy whatever is left there. Storing bread is also an issue, because a baguette can be the most delicious thing on Monday, on Tuesday evening you won’t be happy with it if it’s still there… That’s one of the reasons why I gave up proper bread this year and opted for classic sandwich bread instead. It’s way more simple and honestly, it’s not the same thing at all, but it does the trick (N.B: any French person reading this would want to hurt me for having said that).
Maison Kayser. 1800 Broadway, Columbus Circle
*Top Parisian baker, found in various NYC locations. Just hop on down to Columbus Circle for some quality pain! New location to even open on 89th soon!
Here we’re going to leave you with our suggestion of NYC’s best “French boulanger.” Kayser, takes pride in its ingredients- a secret poolish recipe- and traditional craft! You can just SPOT a crusty good baguette through Kayser’s flour stacked shelves and he’s currently offering some delicious savory Fall flavors like nutty pumpkin, a must try! We sampled a traditional baguette en epis (perfect for ripping off portioned rolls amongst friends!) and a baguette sarasin (buckwheat flour).
His traditional baguettes are highly recommended, the sarasin we can’t say the same for, but his baguette aux ceréales (grains) is INFALLIBLE! Crisp, crunchy, soft but pliable, enormous air bubbles, not sour. Look, taste, texture, Kayser gives you a loaf you can eat without any sandwich accompagnements, delicious on its own, and even better spooned with simple honey and tea on a Fall afternoon. They’re recreating parisian prices and snarky service but hey its part of the experience!
Fun fact: Le Demi-Baguette Option- Did you know in France, you can buy HALF a baguette! How much should a Baguette cost in France? About 1 euro.
The Solution to Good Bread:
1. It’s pricey but keep it Artisan based, bread is a tricky business – especially when it comes to Baguettes!
2. You CAN spot a “good baguette” – crisp, weighty texture, even dispersion of large (hand created) air bubbles, light & slightly chewy, and rich color. How to train your expertise? Go to France and eat LOTS OF BREAD!
3. Never forget, bread was meant for cheese. It is versatile in its many uses that we sandwich lovers sometimes forget. Vive le pain!
4. There’s a lot of hype around the “baguette” mania- there’s some truth to that obsession but moreover keep in mind that the French place so much emphasis around their bread for a quite obvious reason; IT’S DELICIOUS!
PARIS BOULANGERIE SUGGESTIONS:
Polâine, the GOD of Sourdough…and you can even carry these tasty loaves right back on your way through customs back on home to America!
Paris Baguette Tips:
Great Bread Cookbooks:
Dough: Simple Contemporary Breads, Richard Bertinet
(seriously probably the BEST French to English boulanger!)