At Bien Cuit, his new Smith Street bakery, Zachary Golper is assembling a team of top-notch "bread hands." By that, he means workers with hands that are "delicate but strong and dexterous" and with an instinct for shaping dough. Serious Eats has already documented his lovely tarts, croissants, and sandwiches. Here we're going to celebrate Bien Cuit's breads. They are the embodiment of an obsession that began when Zachary was 10 years old. Fittingly, the setting was France. "I had my first croissant in Paris when I was 10," he says. "It transformed me. From then on, there was kind of a spotlight on bread in my life."
"Bien cuit" means "well cooked," a sign that the French bread-making tradition is the strongest influence on Zachary's breads. His other inspiration is the artisan bread movement on the West Coast where he got his start. Zachary's long and winding road took him to Taos, Portland, Seattle, Las Vegas, and Philadelphia, before landing him on Smith Street. "I always had my sights on New York," he says. "I saw that there was a market for my style of bread, bien cuit, mostly French, with good colorization, and local, high quality ingredients."
A good way to understand what bread hands can do is by sampling Bien Cuit's miche. Visually, it's a gorgeous bread, a big round disk with crescent-shaped slices around the top. It's made from sourdough levain and rye, whole wheat, and white flours. The dough ferments for up to 68 hours. Zachary says: "It's like a meditating ninja quietly waiting its moment." That time comes when it's slid into the oven, and the action begins. The baking produces a loaf with a chewy, moisture-retaining crust and a light brown crumb with good hole structure and a lovely aroma.
Another eye-catching bread is Bien Cuit's rye sunflower. This is a flattened oval decorated with sinuous slashes resembling the throat grooves on a baleen whale. It's made from roasted sunflower seeds and a mix of rye, wheat, and white flours. In most health breads, the sunflower seeds stick out like sore thumbs. Here the seeds are almost invisible, their soft texture and subtly flavored oil adding a rich, faintly nutty tone to the loaf. In contrast, the crust is baked until it's almost dark, giving a welcome bitter-ish bite to the bread. For me, it's a perfect breakfast bread, especially when topped with preserves (also sold at Bien Cuit) from Alsatian jam goddess Christine Ferber.
Bien Cuit's most rustic loaf is the pugliese, which looks kind of like two lumpy footballs jammed together. If you slice it, you'll see little yellow chunks in the crumb, usually next to a hole. Italian peasants sometimes added potatoes to their bread to stretch the flour, so Zachary adds chunks of Yukon gold potatoes to his dough, along with gray sea salt from Normandy. The result is a rich bread that seems to cry out for a slice of juicy steak. Zachary takes it a step farther, suggesting that you brush a thick slice with oil, throw it on the grill, and eat it instead of meat.
Finally, we come to the baguette. Like all serious bakers in the French style, Zachary faces a problem in America. The traditional loaf is meant to last just a few hours out of the oven. Parisians buy it on the way home from work, and eat it with dinner. We want our baguettes to last for days. Zachary compromises, a bit, by baking his baguettes a little heavier and a little darker. It's got the traditional crispy crust and an excellent chewy crumb, but you can buy it at early as lunchtime and still enjoy it that night.