Home baker Samuel Fromartz has the 2008 recession to thank for launching him on a four-year quest to learn to make the perfect baguette, an adventure that ultimately took him to bakeries in Paris, Berlin, California, and Vermont, and resulted in his beating out a number of professional bakers to win the title “Best Baguette of D.C.”
After two of the freelance writer’s regular writing jobs disappeared in the same day, he seized an opportunity to write an article on learning to bake bread in France for a new travel magazine. “It was spur of the moment that I came up with that. I always wanted to work in a bakery and learn next to a master baker,” Fromartz says. “But I didn’t expect to go to Paris to learn to make baguette.”
Fromartz spent time mastering the secrets of the notoriously difficult bread in the baking rooms of Boulangerie Pichard and Arnaud Delmontel in Paris. The author continued to interview bakers, farmers, millers, wheat geneticists, and sourdough biochemists throughout Europe and the United States to understand what goes into a great loaf. The Washington-based author, 56, has collected his experiences, research, and baking insights in “In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey.” The work also includes nine bread recipes including sourdough, rye, flatbread, and of course, baguette.
Q. What makes a good loaf?
A. The look, the crunch, the crust. It should be kind of dark in color so you get the caramelized flavor. The interior of the loaf should have a pronounced flavor. The sweetness of the wheat should come through. This is really distinct from sugar that is often added to bread, which I think is a real mistake. Then there’s the texture when you bite in and the aroma.
Q. How did you start baking?
A. It was entirely accidental. I wanted good bread in my home. I’d grown up with it in New York so I figured I’d try my hands at baking. A lot of the loaves I made early on weren’t that good. But they were good enough that I wanted to continue. For me it was a stress reliever. I liked to take that break, go downstairs, and slap dough on the counter. It was doing something tactile with my hands that didn’t involve the thinking mind.
Q. Why are baguettes so difficult to bake at home?
A. Even today I still have bad days with it. The funny thing for home bakers is that it’s the first bread they want to tackle. It’s just the wrong recipe to start with. There are too many variables involved to get it right. It really takes a lot of skills. If you’re a home baker and you do try to bake it, you will probably fail, but you will learn.
Q. What will you learn?
A. One important thing is understanding fermentation and the benefits of a really long rise for dough. That’s the key for all flavor. You can’t short cut that process. The other thing that you really learn is shaping because it’s this weird combination of getting the skin of the dough really tight like a stretched rubber band, but the interior of the dough has to be soft so that the holes can expand without destroying the whole shape.
Q. What is a good recipe to start with?
A. The flatbread recipe in the book is very easy to make and doesn’t require any fermentation. It’s just flour, water, and salt. You let it sit and knead it every so often and later just roll it out and put it in a cast iron pan. I often make it for lunch. And I would recommend starting with the stirato, the easy baguette that I did. That requires mixing the dough at about 9:30 or 10 in the morning and making the loaves at around 3 or 4 in the afternoon. I think it’s a pretty easy recipe.
Q. Even bakeries seem to have a hard time producing good baguettes. Why is that?
A. A really good baguette has a shelf life of four or six hours max. Most bakers are wholesalers and are making this stuff in the middle of the night. You’re going to eat it at dinner 12 or 14 hours later and it’s shot by then. In France, a boulangerie is baking bread throughout the day.
Q. What mistakes do new bakers make?
A. I think that rushing it is a big issue. Starting at 3 o’clock in the afternoon and wanting a loaf for dinner, you’re going to get something, but it’s not going to be very good. You have to be willing to make mistakes. I think there’s a real value that modern culture has kind of lost, the value of attention to craft and what you can get out of it.