For Amy Scherber, it was the loaf that launched her bakery. Amy started her career as a pastry chef but soon discovered that "working with sugar didn't suit my metabolism." She loved the sensual elements of making bread, so she traveled to France to study baking. Her first bakery job was at Tom Colicchio's Mondrian, where she developed her own bread formulas. In 1992, Amy opened her eponymous bakery on Ninth Avenue. She sold a variety of sourdough, whole wheat, and Italian country-style loaves, all the while playing with flavors back in the kitchen.
She started adding blanched fresh fennel and golden raisins to her semolina bread. Everyone loved it. However, the blanching was too involved so she substituted fennel seeds. She made the bread into rolls, coated them with cornmeal, and handed them out to her wholesale customers. The 1990s became the decade of Amy's fennel and raisin rolls, found in all the city's best bread baskets.
Nearly 20 years after Amy's Bread opened, you can still taste why that bread was so popular--and why Amy's has risen to the top rank of city bakeries. A loaf of her semolina with golden raisins and fennel is pure pleasure from outside to inside. Many competitors have tried to copy it, but they just don't measure up. The crust is thickly coated with cornmeal, giving it an extra crunch. Inside you find plump golden raisins and whole fennel seeds and a dense but moist crumb. The only problem is what to eat it with, because I find the pungent fennel overpowers most fillings. If you're not going to eat it plain--and once you start, you can't stop--I say keep it simple, with a smear of butter and honey or a slice of soft Gouda.
For a less provocative Amy's loaf, I can't resist her walnut whole wheat. Once again, all the elements coalesce into a scrumptious whole. Thanks to a touch of walnut oil, the full flavor of the toasted walnuts blends seamlessly into the whole wheat flour (with none of the bitter tang of poorly picked nuts found in the competition). As usual with Amy's breads, the crust is just crisp enough, while the crumb is a perfect balance between soft and dense. It's a well-crafted, delicious loaf.
Amy's tangy sourdough is a throwback to the days when the city was mad for any bread that was white and sour. (Blame it all on Eli Zabar!) This smallish boule has a tight crust and a densely knit crumb that makes an excellent base for cream cheese and smoked salmon--if you're going to continue the retro dining motif.
For the more adventurous of her customers, Amy likes to play around with stronger tastes. Her pumpernickel is nothing like the German or old school New York loaves; she makes it her own. To pumpernickel and unbleached flours, she adds sunflower and caraway seeds and deepens the flavor with molasses, honey, and cocoa. It doesn't have the sour tang of Old World pumpernickel but makes it up with a richness highlighted by the bite of caraway.
There's not room to extol each of Amy's 23 different bread varieties, except to say that they all show her signature consistency and craftsmanship. (Well, let me just tout one more: her organic miche is one of the best in the city.) But if you want a short course in baking excellence without buying whole loaves, you should try an assortment of Amy's "signature twists." Moist, chewy, and flavored with everything from chocolate to olives to, yes, fennel and golden raisins, these are the gateway morsels, the first steps toward an Amy's Bread addiction.
75 Ninth Avenue, New York NY 10011 (map)
672 Ninth Avenue, New York NY 10036 (map)
250 Bleecker Street, New York NY 10014 (map)
About the author: When he isn't pounding the bakery beat, Andrew Coe can be found eating Chinese food in Queens, Manhattan, and Brooklyn (in that order). He is the author of, among other books, Chop Suey, A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States.