You can divide New York's bakeries into two camps: those inspired by national traditions (French, Italian, Russian, Portuguese, and the like), and those baking so-called "health" breads full of nuts and seeds.
Then there's SCRATCHbread in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bed-Stuy, where bakers throw out most of the rules and create their own loaves from, well, scratch. Time after time, SCRATCHbread's ovens have produced many of New York's most original loaves—breads with utterly original flavors layered with serious technique.
Rather than look to the past, or some nutritional profile, SCRATCHbread bakers make their products to both fulfill a task—making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, for example—and have enough flavor, texture, and aroma to stand on their own. For New Yorkers, they're breads well worth the subway trip. For everyone else, they offer a surprising insight into bread-making technique.
A case in point is SCRATCH's Bourbon Wheat, one of the city's iconic loaves. It emerges from the oven looking like a flattened football that's been rolled in oats; inside, it's simultaneously dense, moist, fluffy, nutty, and crunchy, with a bit of bourbon punch.
For most bakeries, the recipe for whole grain bread is a simple one: flour, water, salt, leavening, and whole grains, with perhaps a bit of added oil. But you can't make a bread of Bourbon Wheat's complexity with just those ingredients. Instead, the SCRATCHbread bakers add groups of ingredients at different stages of baking to help develop the loaf's flavor and texture profile. It may seem like a lot of steps, but it doesn't require advanced baking technique. From start to finish, the whole process takes less than four hours to produce hot, aromatic loaves.
Like all professional bakeries, SCRATCHbread uses bakers' formulas rather than recipes. These are based on weight—volume is too imprecise—and are expressed in percentages to make it easier for bakers to scale up or down the batch. According to SCRATCHbread founder Matthew Tilden, the Bourbon Wheat recipe was created to make a loaf that was moist and fluffy, yet "packed with stuff," and could be used as a sophisticated base for a cheese plate or peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
For a batch of 24 loaves, the process begins with weighing and mixing the flours—whole wheat and high gluten—as well as adding a bran mix made from flax seed, rolled oats, and wheat bran. So far, it's a pretty normal recipe. But then the baker adds a bit of Anson Mills rice flour, which adds a delicate crackly texture to the crust.
Next, the baker mixes the wet ingredients, which include water, cane sugar, and malt syrup. The sugar contributes a bit of fruitiness, but in the SCRATCHbread kitchen, it's the malt that's the star. Says Matthew: "Malt to me is one of the greatest things on earth. It's a sweetener, but it isn't sweet. It's umami; it reminds me of some slightly sweetened mushroom funk barley love syrup. For the yeasts, it's like eating a bowl of brown rice in the morning; it gives them sustainable energy."
The baker then adds a block of SCRATCHbread "mash" into the mixing bowl. This is a blend of rolled oats, wheat berries, and steel cut oats that have been softened in hot water overnight, like a raw porridge. For Matthew, the mash was the innovation that helped make the Bourbon Wheat unique: "To me it was a game changer that allowed me to pump more moisture into the bread and also give it structure so the gluten could bind onto these oats and steam internally, giving it a little extra push in its final rise in the oven." Finally, the baker scrapes in chunks of baker's yeast, which instantly begin feeding on the sugars in the water.
Now the baker pours the wet ingredients into the bowl of a big floor model dough mixer and adds the dry ingredients bit by bit as the dough hook whirls around. At first the dough is rough and pulls apart easily.
As it kneads, the dry ingredients hydrate and wheat flour forms gluten, and after 10 to 15 minutes the dough begins to smooth out. The baker then adds more high gluten flour to strengthen the dough. It's done when it stretches but doesn't break when pulled.
To keep the yeast from going overboard and over-rising the dough, the baker mixes in salt, as well as chopped pecans (for texture and a bit of nutty flavor) and a couple of handfuls of currants that have been soaked overnight in bourbon. In the original version of the bread, the boozy fruit was rum-soaked sour cherries. That fit the loaf's original profile as the perfect cheese bread, but Matthew wanted to transform it into a showcase for peanut butter and jelly, ergo bourbon soaked currants.
Finally, the baker adds a bit of olive oil to the dough in order to soften the bread's crumb and help it hold moisture.
From here, the dough is wrestled into a large plastic container for the first stage of fermentation. The length depends on the season; in summer, it only lasts about an hour, during which the dough is pushed down only once (cooler temperatures in winter mean a longer rise).
When it has roughly doubled in bulk, the dough is dumped onto a floured worktable. It emanates a faint aroma of wheat mixed with a slightly wine-y, boozy tang.
Using a dough cutter, the baker divides the dough into 700-gram blobs.
The baker now spreads the table with more of the dry bran mix and pumpkin seeds. He then flattens each section of dough into an elongated oval, rolls it up the long way, turns it 45 degrees, smashes it flat, and rolls it up again.
If these ingredients had been added during mixing, they would turn soft and mushy; added at this stage, they retain a distinctive crunch.
The shaped loaves now are left to rise for 20 to 25 minutes, a stage known in the trade as "proofing," the second part of the fermentation process.
Finally, the bread goes into the oven—15 minutes at 500 degrees, then 20 minutes at 425. These are only estimates; for the baker, the bread isn't done until the crust is dark, the loaves feel light, and they make a hollow sound when the bottom is tapped. Like all loaves, I wouldn't eat it hot from the oven, because heat masks the flavor. As soon as it's just warm, however, I reach for the (crunchy) peanut butter and (Concord) grape jam. Not that the bread needs it.