If you want to judge the state of bread in New York, a good place to start is the bread counter at Dean & DeLuca's main store at Broadway and Prince Street. Here you find a wide selection of great loaves both haute and earthy, from the latest Manhattan artisan sensation to old school breads from the farthest reaches of the outer boroughs.
For the last nine months, this counter has also featured a pyramid display of loaves made at Dean & DeLuca's new in-house bakery. They're different from the rest of the city breads, a little more refined looking and featuring unusual flavor combinations like rye and candied lemon rind or pumpkin with pumpkin seeds. Bite into one and you'll realize that here's a new baking talent who has the skills and creativity to push this town's bread to a new level.
Louis Volle, Dean & DeLuca's head baker, was born in New York but learned his bread-making technique in Paris. After a brief stint at the Cordon Bleu school, he went to work at Fauchon, the famed Parisian tea, pastry, and gourmet food emporium. Louis rose through the ranks and in 1999 was given the job of restarting the bread program at the Paris store. After working at Fauchon's Casablanca shop, he returned to New York to bake at Per Se before coming to Dean & DeLuca last year. Louis's goal is to produce high quality, hand-shaped breads that are as delivered as fresh as possible to the customer. Right now, his loaves are delivered three times a day to Dean & DeLuca's markets and cafes to insure that customers will always be buying bread at its peak.
A good portion of Dean & DeLuca's house breads are sandwich rolls that are filled for the lunch crowd in the cafes. But we're going to focus on Louis's excellent loaves, which are divided between standard breads available year-round and his more creative seasonal offerings. A good place to start is with his pain au levain, a big miche weighing more than four pounds that shows his skill at balancing flavor and texture. From initial mixing to baking, this loaf takes more than three days to make. Its dark, slightly caramelized crust mellows a day or two after baking and contrasts well with the medium-dense crumb with its nice sour tang.
For a more refined sour flavor, go with the sourdough batard. This beautiful loaf has a tight, crackling crust sealing in a surprisingly fluffy crumb. The bread gets its flavor from a touch of rye flour and natural starter made from grape culture that contributes a slight fruitiness. It's crying out for some funky French cheese to compliment the touch of sour.
This column generally steers away from white Pullman loaves, but Dean & DeLuca's pain de mie is anything but humdrum. Visually, it's a beautiful golden-brown bread with a line of diagonal score marks down the back. Cut into it and you immediately smell the secret ingredient: butter. Its crust manages to be soft and crunchy at the same time, while the crumb is so soft and, yes, buttery, that it just manages to hold up under a bread knife. Louis suggests using it for sandwiches and French toast, but to me it's so good that I'll just it eat plain.
What separates Dean & DeLuca from its competitors at the top of the city's bread scene is its commitment to inventive seasonal loaves. More like a chef than a baker, Louis loves to play with flavors and ingredients. Right now, we're at the tail end of his midwinter offerings, including a heart-shaped, extra-rich brioche loaf called a gâche vendéenne made with eggs, cream, butter, and a dash of orange blossom water. Another striking bread is his dense but soft rye loaf with score marks down the back that make it resemble the fossil of some ancient sea creature. The sweetness of the rye flour is set off with shreds of candied lemon peel, the floral notes giving us a hint of spring during these dreary winter days.
Finally, you should grab a loaf of his olive and almond bread before it disappears. This is a sourdough batard, slightly softer than his standard sourdough, make with picholine olives, Marcona almonds, orange zest, and a bit of rosemary. Taste it, and you can almost imagine the Mediterranean breeze wafting through the trees of Provence. I'm torn between letting it go and looking forward to his next seasonal breads, which are going to include a Greek-style sweet Easter bread and, in the summer, a blue corn sourdough. Change is good.