Discovering The Love & Labor Of Artisan Breadmaking at Fleet Street Kitchen

The Bread Table at Fleet Street Kitchen

This blog post comes from Megan Parker, the new General Manager of The Bagby Group’s upcoming Cunningham’s Cafe & Bakery. On her own volition, she wanted to learn more about the artisan bread that will be offered this fall at the new Towson cafe. This was her experience with Bagby Head Baker John Aversa…

“Few things are as ordinary as a loaf of bread, yet the process by which it is made is extraordinary” – Michael Pollan, Cooked.

During my years as a restaurant manager, 10pm used to be the middle of my workday; a whirling medley of food, wine, servers, guests, plates, glasses, and silverware. Thus it felt strange – though also calming – to arrive at Fleet Street Kitchen at that hour to begin an all-night shift baking bread.

Baking bread for a living is not easy work; the long, odd hours – times when most of us are fast asleep – is just one of the hardships bakers endure.  The heat is another. Difficult even today, for centuries bakers worked in their underwear, straining amid the torrid calidity of their bakeshops. (Don’t worry folks – everyone at Fleet Street Kitchen is fully clothed!)

Bakers have also been the targets of violence during times of political strife. During the French Revolution, accused of cheating their customers on weight, some were quite literally thrown into their ovens.  Responding to the violence, some bakers began including an extra loaf in their orders to ensure their customers were happy and that they would live to bake another day! This has come to be known as the “baker’s dozen.”

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Facing such hardships, the artisan baker is an increasingly rare breed. Truly it is a lot to balance: the technical knowledge to understand and execute complicated formulas, the patience to oblige and respect the organic processes that take place on their own schedule, the strength to deftly manipulate fifty pounds of slippery dough as well as the artistic ability to hand form the dough into countless different styles and score it perfectly to produce a beautiful and flavorful loaf. We eat first with our eyes, after all.

On the evening I arrived, I joined our Head Baker, John Aversa, and Michelle, his young assistant.  Enthusiastic and eager, I expected to jump into things, but was immediately impressed by the meticulous care that went into every step of the baking process; artisan bread is laborious and never easy. We began by gathering supplies, ingredients were weighed and put in the cavernous mixer at specific intervals and then the heavy, cumbersome dough that resulted was placed into large containers to rise until the “first turn.” Different breads, I would discover have different rise times, depending on the amount and type of starters they use.  The levain and pouliche we use in our breads are natural starters, which allow the breads to rise without the use of commercial yeasts.  John has adapted his formulas throughout the years and while he relies on them to an extent, much of the dough making process was a matter of him “feeling” the other variables, such as temperature and timing.  Ultimately, he would know when the dough was ready by knowing what to look for.  Bakers sometimes judge dough by the window test – stretching the dough so that it’s thin enough to see through, without breaking.  This is one way to see if enough gluten has developed to strengthen the dough.

While John is a baker with a reverence and deep respect for tradition, he also has his own methods and approach. This was made evident when we began our brioche, a notoriously difficult dough to work with due to the amount of butter that’s called for.  Butter, while a common topping to bread, is rarely used in the dough – none of the other breads we made that night used any. Traditional French bakers have a very particular way of making brioche, keeping the butter very cold and adding it in very small amounts to the mix.  While John keeps his butter chilled right up until he needs it, he deviates by beating the butter until it’s thoroughly whipped, and then adds it to the dough all at once.  This break from convention would engage many a traditionalist but I’m here to tell you that the finished product rivals the brioche I can clearly remember savoring in Paris.

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By 1:00 am, all the dough was mixed:  pain complet, sesame semolina, baguette, ciabatta, Italian, focaccia, multi grain, and brioche.  The times for turning each type of dough were determined and recorded in Michelle’s notebook.   We moved to the next kitchen for our first lesson in forming.  We started with the most difficult of all of the breads, the iconic baguette.  “Palms on the table please,” John reminds us as we’re rolling out the delicate portions.  My competitive nature was my downfall here, as I discovered you couldn’t actually beat dough into submission.  It’s alive and unforgiving at this stage. I was disappointed in the fat ends of my baguettes in comparison with John’s beautifully tapered forms.

At this point, I realized just how many factors are crucial to crafting exquisite bread:  the frequency and temperature at which you feed your starter (which will ultimately determine if it’s mild or strongly flavored bread) , the timing and number of turns, the preform, shaping, proofing, scoring, steaming, bake time and a myriad of factors that I can’t comprehend, all have a significant effect on the appearance and taste of the end product.  I could truly appreciate what it meant to be an artisan baker and it could not be boiled down to an exact science.  It was the sum of many skills and an artistry that is not learned in a few years of school or apprenticeship, but achieved through a lifetime of passion and commitment to the craft of bread making.

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Back to forming…..we moved from baguettes to batards, which proved to be slightly easier for me to handle.  At this point, I started talking to the dough and asking it to cooperate and forgive me because it was my first time.  Next we did boules and finally brioche rolls, which were the simplest to shape, and I actually attempted rolling 1 in each hand.  The brioche is always the most difficult to work with because of the amount of fat in it’s make up, but we were able to braid them and then make some brioche à tête just for fun.  This gave me a small amount of confidence for my forming abilities and when they came out of their molds in the oven, I tasted victory.

Ultimately, at 6:30am, I gave in to my exhaustion, and left just before the last loaves were to come out of the ovens.  John and Michelle were jovial and optimistic about the evening’s work and I thanked them for allowing me a window into their world.  The most significant thing I gained from my all night baking experience was the ability to gauge a loaf of bread by looking at it – the height, the shape, the color and the cell structure of the crumb (interior) reveal much about what it will taste like and the amount of care that was taken in creating it.

The next time you eat at any of The Bagby Group’s restaurants (Bagby Pizza Company, Ten Ten American Bistro, Fleet Street Kitchen or, this fall in Towson, Cunningham’s and Cunningham’s Café & Bakery), take notice of the bread and you’ll taste what I mean. The flavor and soul of these breads are much more than just the sum of their parts.

The Bagby Kitchen New Year’s Eve Highlights

Wow! What an incredible experience! Thank you to all that attended our New Year’s Eve dinners at TEN TEN American Bistro and Fleet Street Kitchen. It truly was an indulgent, amazing meal that we had the pleasure of serving you.

For those of you who had other plans or for those who want to revisit their amazing meal. Here are some highlights…

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FSK kitchen staff getting ready for the big night

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NYE amouse – Dairyless apple fennel soup / split pea panisse with yogurt, carrot purée / local cheddar grougére

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Lobster-Pumpkin Soup with Pumpkin mousse, puffed wild rice, lobster claw

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Fois Gras Torchon with a carrot purée,
saffron-vanilla froth, shortbread crumble, honey cake (FSK)z

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Fluke Crudo with citrus purées, pickled ramps, black tea tapioca, mint, chili (FSK)

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Seared Domestic Black Bass with Rose finn potatoes, kale, pine nuts, marinated golden raisins, house bacon, fresh herbs (FSK)

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Seared Black Cod with Daikon, bouillon japonaise, cashew, chili (FSK)

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Brown Butter Poached Lobster with roasted sweet potato,
lemongrass-lobster nage, curry granola (FSK)

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Roasted Elysian Fields Farm Lamb Saddle with Lamb tortellini, big city farms romaine, chanterelle mushrooms, cauliflower purée (FSK)

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Seared Scallops with black-eyed peas, prosciutto, and autumn vegetables (TEN TEN)

A Bagby Recipe – FSK Pumpkin Soup

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Originally featured in the Slow Food Baltimore newsletter, we thought we’d share this ambitious, yet absolutely delicious Fleet Street Kitchen recipe with our followers. If you haven’t checked out Slow Food Baltimore, they are a fantastic organization that hosts many events promoting local farms and the “slow food” movement. Now on to the recipe…

For a novice cook, this recipe may be a bit daunting. But don’t hesitate to just try it out. Learning how to cook is a process and many of the chefs in our kitchen are still learning new things about the art of cooking. They learned by doing, so don’t worry and have fun. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to leave a comment on this post and we’ll do our best to answer.

For those who aren’t inclined to cook, we hope this recipe will give you a further appreciation of the time and precision that we spend on our food. Of course, if you’ve ever had this soup, you’ll know it’s completely worth it!

Fleet Street Kitchen Pumpkin Soup with Nutmeg Marshmallow and Pumpernickel Crumble

  • 4 oz  butter
  • 1 leek, julienned
  • 3 cups peeled and chopped Cheese Pumpkin *
  • 1 Butternut Squash, peeled and diced
  • Local Honey *
  • 1 ½ quarts vegetable stock
  • 1 ½ pints fresh pumpkin juice (or additional vegetable or chicken stock)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

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In a stainless steel pot over medium heat, add butter and let melt. Add leeks and pumpkin; cover with a lid set slightly ajar.  Sweat slowly for 15-20 minutes add honey and continue to sweat for an additional (pumpkin should not develop any color and should be 75% cooked at the point). Season with salt; add stock. Simmer for about 20 minutes or until the pumpkin is fully cooked. Cool slightly, then transfer half the soup to a blender. Puree, while adding half the juice or stock, until very smooth. Repeat with remaining soup and juice or stock. Season with salt, white pepper, and butter to taste.

We also add sauteed butternut squash to our soup. To prepare the squash, heat a tablespoon of oil and butter in a 10-inch straight-sided sauté pan over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot and the butter has melted, add the squash, 1 tsp. salt, and 1/2 tsp. pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the squash is lightly browned and tender, 8 to 10 minutes.

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*Pumpkin Juice: We create our own at Fleet Street Kitchen by juicing raw pumpkin. If you don’t have a juicer, you could blend and then strain with a fine mesh strainer. By adding additional liquid while pureeing, you get a nice velvet texture to your soup.

*Pumpkins sourced from Pine Grove Farms, located at the Waverly and Fallsway farmers market.

*Honey sourced from Triangular Apiary, located at the Fallsway farmers market.

Spiced Marshmallow

  • 7 oz grams water
  • 6 oz sugar
  • 1 tsp corn syrup
  • 1 oz egg whites
  • 3 sheets gelatin
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon

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In a saucepot, bring ½ of the water, sugar and corn syrup to 248ºF. When this mixture reaches 230ºF, start whipping the egg whites in a standing mixer until foamy. Bloom the gelatin in ice-cold water. When the sugar syrup reaches 248ºF, remove from the heat and stir the gelatin in, until it is fully dissolved. While the mixer is on medium, slowly and carefully pour the sugar syrup into the egg whites.

Once the syrup is added, pour in the remaining water, vanilla extract and cinnamon. Increase the speed of the standing mixer to 9 and whip for about 12 minutes, or until the mixture is at the stiff ribbon stage. Once this texture is achieved, fill a pastry bag fitted with a large circle tip and pipe circles onto a parchment-lined sheet tray that are 3 inches in diameter. (You can use a ziploc bag with a corner cut out if you do not have a pastry bag at home.) Place in refrigerator so marshmallows can set, about 2 hours.

Pumpernickel Crumble

To create the pumpernickel crumble, process toasted dark pumpernickel bread finely in a food processer.

To Serve:

Add micro greens, pumpernickel crumble, pumpkin seed oil and grated nutmeg to bowl. Pour heated soup over ingredients.

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