The aroma of good bread wafts from beneath the rumbling commuter trains over Park Avenue in East Harlem. The smell comes from behind the moribund stalls of East Harlem's La Marqueta, where a half dozen bakers hustle loaves in and out of stainless steel ovens. This is the nerve center of Hot Bread Kitchen, the immigrant women's baking collective that produces some of the city's most eclectic and exciting loaves. Serious Eats has already lauded its puffy, scrumptious bialys; now let's look at the rest of its offerings.
Hot Bread Kitchen is the brainchild of Jessamyn Rodriguez, who has a background in social justice and immigration advocacy work. She saw that in most of the world women do the baking, while in Europe and North American men run the ovens. Determined to realize her dream of a women's baking collective, she studied baking at the New School and then interned under Boulud master baker Mark Fiorentino. Hot Bread Kitchen started in her apartment and sold its first loaf in 2007, soon moving to the now-defunct Artisan Baking Center in Queens. A year ago, the bakery moved into its gleaming new quarters behind La Marqueta, where they also host an incubator for new food businesses. Most of its bakers, both immigrant and native-born, are referred by social service agencies. They're generally low income and minority women who are entrepreneurial and passionate about food. The ovens have been tended by women from Korea, Haiti, Bangladesh, Mexico, Morocco, Mali, Chad, the Dominican Republic, Pakistan, Japan, Afghanistan, and on and on.
The Hot Bread Kitchen line-up mixes local staples--challah and whole wheat loaves--and exotic breads like Moroccan m'smen and Persian flatbreads. Fresh tortillas aren't exotic anymore in New York, but tortillas made from freshly ground, nixtamalized corn certainly are. In fact, the only competitor is the excellent Tortilleria Nixtamal out in Queens. Hot Bread Kitchen makes its tortillas from organic New York State and Midwestern corn kernels and cooks them on a California-made tortilla machine. They're thick, almost leathery, with a rich color--they come in yellow and blue corn versions--and an assertive corn flavor. These aren't the daintiest tortillas on the market, but they are one of the best.
Three women from Morocco brought the recipe for m'smen, a Moroccan flatbread, to Hot Bread Kitchen. Unleavened, these rectangles are made with semolina flour, oil, and salt and then griddle-baked in canola oil and butter. Fresh, they're rich, flaky, chewy, and addictive; they taste a lot more sinful than they actually are. If you can wait to get them home, they're meant to be eaten warm, drizzled with honey, and washed down with mint tea.
On the New York side of the menu, the Hot Bread Kitchen version of the traditional challah is one of the best in the city. It has its roots on the rural Ontario farm where Jessamyn grew up: her mother couldn't find adequate challah nearby so baked her own every Friday. The Hot Bread Kitchen loaf is made from New York State eggs and honey, flour oil, sugar, salt, and yeast. Unlike too many dry and cakey local challahs, this version has a moist crumb with a soft yet chewy texture inside the glistening crust. Hot Bread Kitchen also sells raisin, whole wheat, and spiced Sephardic versions of its challah.
These days it seems like every city artisan bakery makes its own organic whole wheat bread with New York State grains. Hot Bread Kitchen's Upstate Multi Grain actually mixes organic (non-New York) King Arthur flour with local wheat and rye berries, rolled oats, cornmeal, brown sugar, salt, and yeast. The result is a loaf that's softer than most yet still retains a rich whole wheat flavor--perfect for sandwiches and toast.
You'd think that the New Yorker Rye would be a light loaf packed with caraway seeds. Actually, it's a dense artisan-style loaf blending half rye flour and half wheat flour with salt and yeast. It has good rye flavor and nice chew, making it a perfect base for salmon or charcuterie. Beyond these breads, Hot Bread Kitchen's product list extends from ciabattas and walnut raisin loaves to rolls, focaccia, lavash crackers, Mexican conchas, and so on. The only limit is the world and the whims of the U.S. Citizens and Immigration Services. Like so much great food in our city, we owe it all to immigrants.
Hot Bread Kitchen products are available at Greenmarkets, Whole Food stores, and many gourmet groceries. Check their website for a complete listing.
About the author: Bread aficionado Andrew Coe wonders if there's a Chinese bakery that rises above the rest.