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Entries in levain (2)

Monday
Nov142011

Tartine Bakery – My Epicurian Pilgrimmage

By now, you all know that I'm a little strange. I do strange things. For example, I make pie charts out of cookie shapes, have let bread rise in the bathroom, take photos of restaurant bathrooms, and repeatedly forget my pants.

You should not be surprised when this behavior spills over into my vacations. I plan vacations around food. Other people want to see things (the Eiffel Tower, the Grand Canyon....), I want to eat them.

I had Tartine Bakery in my gastronomical cross hairs for quite sometime. i love a good bakery. Even think of run-of-the-mill bakeries have something going for them: the smell. I get so distracted by the smell of baking bread. Scented candles be damned! Baking bread is a Top 5 food smell. It ranks number 1 amongst the following:

1. Baking Bread

2. Caramelizing Onions

3. Sauteing onions in butter

4. Bacon cooking in a frying pan

Tartine Bakery, as you may know, is in San Francisco. I live in New York. This is quite a distance to travel for bread. But it's not just any kind of bread! It's old school bread using naturally grown leavens and starters. At least it says so in their book, which I bought and then subsequently made flat (ish) bread from their expert instructions.

But my baking mishaps did not shake my belief that the Tartine bakers knew what they were talking about. They could make this bread that I wanted to master (and have not to date). And I wanted to go there and eat it.

And so I did. I went to Tartine, one sunny fall morning with my friend Kaz who diligently stood on the long line snaking out the store and around the block while I ordered us Four Barrel cappuccinos and stared at the pastry counter weighing my options.

There were a few things that I needed to try, as I had heard much gabber about them.

1. The Gougere: (I believe this is pronounced "goo-jhay" with a soft-ish "j" sound). A gougere is made from choux dough mixed with cheese (traditionally gruyere or similar).

What the bleep is a choux dough? It's a light pastry dough used to make fabulous eatables like profiteroles and eclairs. A bloke named Panterelli invented it way back in 1540 (what did I tell you about old school?) when he took off from Florence with Catherine de Medici. The name evolved, and finally became "choux" because of the cabbage-looking buns it was used to create. Choux means "cabbage" in French.

This particular gougere was the size of a softball, but weighed hardly a few ounces. Gently ripping it open revealed a hallow center, with pockets for air. The gruyere cheese flavor was prominent but not overwhelming. Interspersed with cracked pepper for a little bite, the whole ball was moist and chewy encased in a thin and crispy outer shell that was perfectly golden brown.

2. The Morning Buns: And speaking of buns, I was advised that these were pure perfection. Light, flaky, buttery and with a hint of orange essence in the sticky sweetness that topped the swirling layers of bread. I take issue with being named "morning" buns, as I was more than happy to eat them at all hours of the day. I took to keeping a spare in my purse as I wandered around San Francisco. Just in case...you never know when you need a morning bun.

The gougere was for Kaz (although I ordered an extra for myself to try later) and the buns were for the table to share (we were meeting a few people), so what to order for myself?

I pulled my new favorite food-advice move and demanded a decision out of the Tartine employee behind the counter, "I've never been here before and it's likely I won't be back for a very long time. What should I eat?" Without missing a beat, he said, "The ham and cheese croissant," and popped it in their toaster to be warmed.

Regular eaters take warning: This ham and cheese croissant is not for the faint of heart, small of stomach or the Lipitor taker. If you fall into any one of these categories, you may want to call in reinforcements in the form of "helper eaters", as it's a monster. I scoff at helper eaters. If you are eating from my plate it's because I've invited you to do so as I would like for you to sample the wonderfulness that is there. It's not because I need your help, because I don't.

Therefore, you should be unsurprised that I made short work of the ham and cheese croissant. After eating it in its entirety, I turned to Kaz who was sitting beside me and said, "I am perfectly happy right now." She smiled knowingly.

The pastry is expertly flaky. By which I mean it is not dry, but layered in such a way that the top browned outer shell crunches away, revealing the softer, buttery underbelly layers in a way that makes you feel like you are uncovering buried treasure.

In this case, the buried treasure is a thick slice of Niman Ranch ham and gruyere cheese. The cheese blended so well with the buttery pastry that the sweet and salty-gooey combination seemed to become one. It was difficult to tell cheese from buttery layer, and I was blissfully happy to let that happen. Thick with flavor, the ham provided an extra punch of salt and was intertwined evenly around the pastry so that there was never a hamless bite.

A trip to the bathroom revealed a simple and clean facility with lots of extra supplies and gentle planet-oriented reminders:

I know I indicated to the helpful man behind the Tartine counter that I wouldn't be back for a very long time. I had, however, lied. I returned two days later on my birthday for birthday Morning Buns and Four Barrel lattes.

I was recovering from a Chinese food and wine pairing meal at Mission Chinese of epic proportions (see the photos below), so I couldn't handle the Ham and Cheese.

In addition to the buns I sampled the bread pudding which was wonderfully rich and custardy and topped with endless amounts of giant blackberries. I also bought an Almond Frangipane Croissant, which I stored in my purse for the plane ride home later that day:

Overall pastry eating experience: The Godfather.

Tartine Bakery
600 Guerrero Street San Francisco, CA 94110
t. 415 487 2600 / f. 415 487 2605

Monday
Nov072011

Two Standouts from Levain Bakery

Lately, we have been feasting on a conglomeration of pumpkin-related foodstuffs. This will (may?) be the last pumpkin-related post until I post the PUMPKINS OF GLORY online magazine with bonus recipes.

Because who doesn't want bonus recipes? And pumpkins of glory?

But to eeeeease us back into normal food, I am going to report on a bakery. A bakery in my new neighborhood, the Upper West Side. A bakery called Levain Bakery.

"Levain" is a leavaning agent used in place of yeast to make dough rise. Do you remember when I experimented (and failed) in trying to grow my own? Levain is old school. This is what bakers did before they could buy mini packets of "Active Dry Yeast" on the shelves on Fairway. Thank goodness I was not one of those bakers. I'd have to find new employment as a blacksmith or a tallow maker. Although why I think I'd have better luck with tallow is beyond me.

Anyway! We were talking about a bakery named after a bacteria culture, so let's get back to it.

Old school bread making using levain seems like it should taste better. And bakeries that rely upon these techniques should in my opinion produce tastier bread. Levain Bakery is successful in this regard.

I walked into their tiny 74th Street location and was immediately overwhelmed by the appetizing selection. The kind attendant behind the counter asked if he could help me. My response, "I need a minute."

In fact, I needed a minute to wipe the tears of carbohydrate desire from my eyes as I perused the options behind the glass which included oversized puffy brioche, thickly sliced pumpkin bread, cinnamon rolls, chocolate stuffed brioche, powdered sugar thingies, and etc. Holy levain!

The attendant approached me apprehensively once more, "Do you need another minute?" I couldn't tell if he was making fun of me (likely), so I rattled off my request for two plain brioche and 2 slices of pumpkin bread.

These days I always get two: one for photographing and one for eating.

I thought the brioche would pair nicely with the pumpkin butter, and I was correct. The slightly sweet taste and ever so light and fluffy texture was a perfect match for the hearty sweet and spicy butter (you can read more about that here with recipes).

As for the pumpkin bread, I thought smearing pumpkin on pumpkin might be a little much - even for me. So I chose a cream and raspberry jam combination, which when you mush them together make a lovely pink color. This raspberry creaminess was an excellent topper for the the dense bread.

This pumpkin bread was thick – about an inch and a half. It was moist – no dry crumbling here! And it was spiced just right with a hint of clove (I'm guessing, but I think I'm correct) that I happened to love with pumpkin flavor.

I may have a new favorite bakery. But just to be sure, I'm going to have to eat through the rest of their admirable options. And of course, tell you about them. In the meantime, if you can, take the 1,2 or 3 train up to 72nd, and walk on over the Levain Bakery. I'll meet you there, but I might need a minute. Or two.

Levain Bakery
167 West 74th Street  New York, NY 10023
(212) 874-6080