For 91 years, the Orwasher family baked good European breads in their basement oven on East 78th Street. This was the heart of the city's Hungarian neighborhood, where they found a steady clientele for their kosher ryes, pumpernickels, and challahs.
Unlike most neighborhood bakers, Orwasher's Bakery weathered the competition from supermarkets and big institutional bakeries. But the neighborhood gentrified, and bit by bit their business dribbled away. In 2007, the family sold to Keith Cohen, a baker who started his career at Tribeca Oven. Keith kept the old ryes and pumpernickels and developed his own line of delicious artisan breads. Today Orwasher's loaves still lure the remaining Hungarians but can compete with any bread in the city for texture, aroma, and general tastiness.
A good place to start eating our way through Orwasher's is with its Old World breads, which line the left wall of the store. With the resurgence (at last!) of Mittel-European cuisine in the city, they're suddenly chic.
The seeded rye is a fat caterpillar of a loaf, with a crisp crust and enough caraway seeds to add bite but not numb the tongue. It's lighter-textured than the typical Old World rye, but its full flavor still makes it a perfect counterpoint to a thick and fatty smear of Schaller & Weber goose liver pate.
The lumpy-crusted raisin walnut pumpernickel is dark and dense with a faint caramel sweetness (this isn't a sour European pumpernickel) that turns it into an excellent breakfast bread.
The baskets along the bakery's back wall are filled with Keith Cohen's artisanal bread creations, and every one of them is worth a chew. Keith first made his name with "wine breads." These aren't wine-flavored but leavened with yeasts naturally occurring on wine grapes from Channing Daughters Vineyard out in Bridgehampton. His Chardonnay Miche is delicious fresh, when it's rich with warm and yeasty aromas.
The most intriguing of the wine loaves is the Cabernet Sesamo, which is absolutely encrusted with sesame seeds. I initially resisted, thinking that the sesame would overpower, but Keith browns his loaves so that the seeds are well-toasted and their flavor mellow. The toasted sesame also adds crunch to the crust and helps seal moisture into the chewy, flavorsome crumb.
If you're looking for a more truly alcoholic bread go for the Beer Bread, made with dark stout from Six Point Craft Ale and decorated with floury tiger stripes along its back. For Keith, this is primal bread, tracing its roots back to the brewers and bakers of Ancient Egypt. For me, this is simply a great, all-around loaf, with a crisp crust and moist and tasty interior.
Finally, for a more contemporary version of health bread, the Ultimate Whole Wheat is made from 100% Cayuga Pure Organics flour, grown and milled Upstate. It's dense, moist, and unlike most health breads, has a lovely texture that hides its high fiber content.
Unlike most bakers content to rest on their loaves, Keith is constantly tinkering with his ferments and his recipes. We will keep watching his shelves (and at Dean & DeLuca's and the New Amsterdam Market) to see what's next.