Like any true artisan, Zachary Golper says he believes there’s beauty in handmade imperfection; “With every individual roll, every individual baguette, there’s no exact uniformity — ever. So many bakeries out there have robots make the food. There’s way more of those bakeries than us.”
It’s been more than four years since Golper opened his Brooklyn bakery Bien Cuit (120 Smith Street, Brooklyn; 718-852-0200) with his wife and partner Kate Wheatcroft, where he approaches the practice of old-world bread baking with the passion of a dedicated craftsman. The spot has become a favored destination, for both the Boerum Hill locals who stop in throughout the day for espresso, inspired pastries and tartine sandwiches, as well as bread pilgrims paying homage to the art of cold, slow fermentation, who come from further afield to get their hands on Golper’s burnished-brown “well baked” crusty loaves.
We caught up with Golper during a gathering in the back courtyard of the bakery, where the baker was celebrating the launch of a new cookbook titled Bien Cuit: The Art of Bread, along with co-author Peter Kaminsky and photographer Thomas Schauer.
The overall design of the book is stunning, with the classy looks of an art book, but the usability of a treasured kitchen friend; it has lacquered black-stained paper edges and an unusual exposed-spine binding that not only looks super distinctive, but allows the book to open fully flat on a counter. Schauer’s photographs elevate their humble subject, gorgeously light-filled and earthy at the same time. A user-friendly section in the back of the book demonstrates special techniques with step-by-step photos. (One qualm — much of the text in the book is printed on black matte paper, which can be hard on the eyes after a while).
The volume has fifty recipes, including some of the bakery’s signature breads, like its legendary three-pound sourdough miche, a “killer” loaf that takes about 60 hours to make (don’t be afraid — most of that time is hands-off), and the pane dolce, a buttery-sweet laminated bread made with croissant dough.
Other recipes, no doubt developed with home cooks in mind, feature one for a basic sourdough, a “simple loaf” (which Golper writes “is among the easiest of my breads to make”) and quick breads like biscuits and scones.
While researching and developing, Golper and Kaminsky hit on the idea to go on “bread quests”, which turned into an extended series of field trips centered on New York City’s rich variety of traditional bakeries and breads. As a result, there are recipes in the book that explore the stories behind some of the city’s quintessential specialties, like Italian lard (a/k/a prosciutto) bread, old-world Jewish rye, Kaiser rolls, and “real” bagels.
Some of that brainstorming culminated in the creation of brand new “flights of fancy,” like a European-inspired, parsnip-studded, fresh corn and cornmeal bread they called “kørntüberbrot”, the name of which the authors say was “just something silly we made up. Hey, it worked for Häagen-Dazs.”
Golpers own personal bread journey evolved from time spent living and working in the Pacific Northwest, Vegas, and Philadelphia and traveling throughout Latin America before he landed in New York.
But he says the guy who started it all for him, whose name he won’t even mention, is “a hermitish-type person who lives in the hills on an organic farm – he was the first to show me the old way of making bread, the way it’s been done for thousands of years.”
When Golper and Wheatcroft made the move to Brooklyn with just enough money to get the door open, they saw an opportunity to bring another level of bread making to NYC; “I knew who the big bakers were in New York, but I didn’t see anyone doing what I was doing,” Golper says.”Now there’s Runner and Stone, Arcade Bakery, She Wolf — there’s really good stuff out there, part of the new generation of bakers.”
“It’s exciting to be a part of it – to know that I’m a part of it. And the book is proof.”
Zachary Golper will be talking bread and signing copies of his new book at Book Court (163 Court Street, Brooklyn; 718-875-3677) on Saturday, November 21 at 4 p.m.
BASIC BUTTERMILK BISCUITS
EXCERPTED FROM BIEN CUIT: THE ART OF BREAD BY ZACHARY GOLPER AND PETER KAMINSKY. COPYRIGHT © 2015 BY ZACHARY GOLPER. EXCERPTED WITH PERMISSION BY REGAN ARTS
Thank you, Jane Gibson, originally from Arkansas by way of Seattle. When I met Jane, she was a short-order cook in Seattle, but she soon became a truly elite pastry chef. At her home, she was a damn fine Southern cook. Flash-forward a few years to my time Las Vegas, during which I was tasked with coming up with a good biscuit for the M Resort, so I called up Jane. She was tickled that out of all the things I could have asked— and she’s a font of knowledge when it comes to French pastry—the one thing I wanted was a biscuit. She took great pains to describe how to make the dough and how it should feel, but somehow the right words eluded her. She said it was important to develop the gluten, but not too much—which didn’t throw a whole lot of light on the subject. Finally, she tossed in the towel on trying to explain it with delicacy and said, “I don’t know a better way to describe than to tell you the dough is right when it feels like a nice ass.” Not your usual baking descriptor. . . but very apt.
makes 8 biscuits
300 grams (2 c + 2 tbsp) white flour, plus additional for the work surface
20 grams (1 tbsp + 1 tsp) baking powder
7 grams (11?8 tsp) fine sea salt
120 grams (81/2 tbsp) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch (6 mm) pieces
125 grams (1/2 c) cold whole milk
125 grams (1/2 c) cold buttermilk, plus additional for brushing the top of the biscuits)
1 Position a rack in the upper third of the oven, then preheat the oven to 400°F (205°C). Line a half sheet pan with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper. Dust a work surface with flour.
2 Stir together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Add the butter, tossing the pieces to coat them in the flour mixture. Working quickly and using just your fingertips, squeeze the pieces of butter until flattened while continuing to toss them in the flour, then break the pieces up a bit more. Pour in the milk and buttermilk. Using a plastic bowl scraper, fold the flour mixture over the milk a few times to combine, just until the mixture has almost come together; the dough might be slightly shaggy at this point.
3 Using the plastic bowl scraper, turn the dough out onto the work surface. Bring together then flatten with a plastic bowl scraper. Gently pat the dough out until about 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick. Using the scraper and your hands, fold the dough into thirds. Repeat the folding until the dough is firm, but not tough.
4 Press the dough into a 4 by 12-inch (10 by 30 cm) rectangle about 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick. Using a bench scraper, cut the dough into eight equal squares (two rows of four). Using a spatula, transfer the biscuits to the lined pan and brush with buttermilk.
5 Bake, rotating the pan about two-thirds of the way through baking, until golden brown, about 18 minutes.
6 The biscuits are best if eaten within 1 hour of baking, but once completely cooled they can be stored (uncut) in a paper bag or cardboard box for up to 24 hours.