Baking Bread for Alice Waters


Photo by Samuel Fromartz

I was leaving the gym when I checked my messages. Alice Waters's office at Chez Panisse was calling—yeah, right. Who was this really?

When I called back, it turned out Waters was calling and looking for a baker for her charity dinner in Washington, to replace one who had dropped out. Barton Seaver, a friend and chef at Blue Ridge, suggested me. "We hear you make the best baguette in DC," said Sarah Weiner, Waters's assistant. "Well, yeah, I won a contest," I stammered, "but I just bake at home. The most I've baked was for Thanksgiving dinner."

Now the magic began—the first rise, the source of all flavor.

They needed to feed 40—at a $500-a-plate dinner at Bob Woodward's house. Could it be done in my home ovens? I said I'd call back. I went home to figure out how much bread I needed to bake and realized I could probably do it—five big loaves and several baguettes. I then called Peter Reinhart—a renowned baker and author I've known for a couple of years—to see what he thought. "That's not a lot of bread," he said, and he encouraged me to give it a whirl.

So began my first gig as a professional baker—at an Alice Waters dinner.

I quickly settled on breads I've made time and again to eat at home—a pain au levain made with sourdough starter and a mix of white, whole wheat, and rye flours; a pane casareccio di Genzano, a big, airy white loaf crusted with wheat bran that I picked up from Dan Leader's Local Breads; and of course, my baguettes.

I've never baked this much bread before, so I worked out a timeline—and good thing too, since I needed to begin Friday to have the breads ready on Sunday. I started by feeding 50 grams (about a quarter-cup) of sourdough starter Friday morning, building it to 150 grams. On Friday night, I fed it again to take it up to 450 grams. Saturday morning, I refreshed it a third time. By Saturday evening, when I needed the ripe starter to make my doughs, I had over 1500 grams (3.3 pounds) of the stuff. With that steady feeding every eight to 12 hours, the starter was bubbling, itching to impregnate the dough. It's pictured at left, and below, in the big bin on the right.


Photo by Samuel Fromartz

I measured out the flours and began mixing the dough. I don't really knead or use a mixer. Rather, I combine the ingredients by hand until they come together. I let the shaggy mass rest so the flour slowly soaks up the water, then fold it over every hour or so to develop the gluten. By the end of the process, the dough glistens with moisture. If you pull away a small piece and stretch it, you should be almost able to see through it—the so-called windowpane test that shows when a dough is done. This folding technique is a cousin to the no-knead method, since you just fold over the dough and let time do its work. It works beautifully, especially since my home mixer couldn't handle the volume of dough I made.

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Samuel Fromartz is a Washington-based writer focusing on food, the environment, and business. He is the author of Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew and is currently working on a book about bakers and bread.

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