ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

Salt, sugar and a Berlin farmers' market

Just a few days ago, Wal-Mart announced that it would push to cut the salt and sugar content of its processed food products. In the debate over this announcement -- was it enough? -- Jane Black hit the right note. Cutting sugar and salt from foods too quickly won't work because people are hooked on them. The effort will take time and the five-year timetable doesn't seem unreasonable. However, as Tom Laskawy points out, it makes no sense to leave national nutrition policy up to companies.  

Which brings me to Berlin, where I happened to be this past week on research for my book on bread. A chef I met told me that when he visited the U.S. he found food exceedingly salty. Made me think of those restaurants which rely on specialty salts to season their dishes right before they're served: the bright note highlights certain flavors ... or does it? Salt can also be a culinary crutch, a quick fix to entice the palate. And I've got to say, in eating around Berlin, in take-away joints, pubs and sit down restaurants, the food is less salty and no one seems to have a problem with it. 

Now, back in DC, I eat most of my meals at home and don't rely on processed foods. I try to be rather judicious with salt, but even so, I've had food here that tasted under-seasoned. I had a wonderful split pea soup at the farmers' market in Prenzlauer Berg in East Berlin, for example, and found it very mildly seasoned, but it was richly flavored with spices and dill. Instead of salt there was vinegar at the tables where people stood and ate and it did the trick when I added a few drops. (Soup at a farmers' market? Actually there were few farmers here -- mostly venders selling prepared foods and drinks, from wine to olives, soups, bread and handmade Turkish flatbread with fillings). 


Smoked fish is also usually very salty when you buy it in the states but I've found it less so here (he said, just having consumed a bagel, frischkase und lachs -- cream cheese and lox). It's not that they avoid salt, but people appear to use less of it. I'm finding the same thing with sweets too. Though I haven't consumed many, the afternoon cakes I've had were not cloyingly sweet.

The thing that doesn't seem to be in short supply is fat -- butter, of course, and the fat in meat-based products like sausages and brots that are extremely popular. What doesn't seem to be served much are greens and salads. I miss them. I've had enough cabbage and root veggies for awhile.

The bread -- or, rather, I should say, the hand-made artisan breads -- are also wholly different. They are filled with hefty whole grains, which is why I'm here. Eating a slice or two in the morning (with a bit of butter) will keep you going for a long time. This isn't like the airy baguettes or ciabattas everyone seems to like these days but exceedingly dense loaves spotted with coarse grain and seeds. Mixing these doughs at the bakery where I worked was eye-opening, since they hardly appeared like wheat-flour doughs. They were like whole grain breakfast cereals shaped into loaves. In fact, my idea when I get home is to try making them with a seven-grain mix and whole grain flour and see how they turn out.

We have gotten used to a lot of sugar, salt and refined flour in the U.S. -- which contribute to many diseases. But it doesn't have to be that way. And it doesn't mean the food will be bad, or lacking in taste, if we shift away from them. But it will be different and it takes time to get used to the change. But here's the thing -- once you do change, the old stuff just doesn't taste the same any longer. Once you've crossed over, highly refined carbs taste like what they are: treats not staples, and ones that are often too salty.

- Samuel Fromartz 

What to Do When Alice Waters Calls, Seeking Bread

By Samuel Fromartz

I was leaving the gym when I checked my messages. Alice Waters' 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' assistant. "Well, yeah, I won a contest," I stammered, "but I just bake at home. The most I've baked was for Thanksgiving dinner." 

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 -- 5 big loaves and several baguettes. I then called Peter Reinhart -- the 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 made time and again and eat at home -- a pain au levain made with sourdough and a mix of white, whole wheat and rye flours; a pane casareccio di Genzano, an airy white big 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 would need 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 8-12 hours, the starter was bubbling, itching to impregnate the dough. It's pictured at left, and below, in the big bin on the right.

Levain and flour 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. Then I let the shaggy mass rest so the flour slowly soaks in 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. 

Now the magic began -- the first rise, the source of all flavor -- and luckily it was a chilly night. Why was that important? Because I let my sourdoughs rise in an unheated basement storage room that is about 55F. That's the perfect temperature for a languid fermentation, when the sugars in the bread develop. Bakers buy proofing cabinets that cost thousands of dollars to get this temperature with refrigeration. My solution was less precise, but it worked fine. The genzano and baguette doughs rose in the refrigerator, since they contained instant yeast as well as sourdough and I wanted a slower fermentation.

At 7 the next morning, I took the pain au levain dough out and let it warm up for about an hour. I then shaped three boules, letting them rise for 2-1/2 hours. In the meantime, I heated up the baking stones in my double-oven. Then I repeated this with the Genzano loaf, about an hour later, and then the baguette. 

The rise went well, full of oven spring. I attribute that to the levain, which you'll recall had built over a 52-hour period with successive refreshments, including the last one in the dough. (Pictured below are the pane casareccio di Genzano - Genzano Country Bread).

Pane di Genzano

I finished baking at about 2 p.m. and let the breads cool, then delivered the loaves for the dinner. Jean-Pierre Moullé, the chef at Chez Panisse, was there to greet me. We talked briefly about the breads and I mentioned I was a home baker, not a professional.

"I know, but you did not bake these at home," he said.

"Yes, I did," I countered -- and I noticed his eyebrow rise a bit.

Later that evening, at a party preceding the dinner, Alice Waters took me aside, bread lover that she is, and thanked me warmly. It was a nice moment.

For a home baker, there's always the moment of anticipation when the bread comes out of the oven and you wait for it to cool before tearing into it. Alas, with these loaves, I didn't get a chance to cut into them, to evaluate the flavor and aromas or assess the interior crumb or the density of the crust -- all crucial to a decent loaf. But I trust they were fine. 

The thing is, I don't bake for a living. There is no daily pressure, no waking at 1 a.m. to get to the ovens, no staff, no orders. It's just me and the bread. And until yesterday, I've only given my breads away to friends. Now I've donated them for a worthwhile cause. Maybe I've just widened the circle of people who eat my bread. And that's just fine.

Dinner bread

Bread Baking Posts