That's exaggerating, but only slightly.
In the Eataly ovens, the bakers seek to recreate the distinctive, slightly sour flavor of Northern Italian breads. Here, big commercial bakeries use yeast as leavening for their bread, while artisan bakers prefer various strains of lactobacillus culture like sourdough starter. However, those don't produce the right Italian tang. Eataly NY head baker Paul Mack spent six weeks at Eataly headquarters in Turin learning the ropes of panificio operations. At the end, he was presented with a liter of the unique lievito madre, or "mother leaven," that was the key to transforming flour and water into Italian bread.
It was only after the living culture was camouflaged in shampoo bottles and snuck past airport security and U.S. Customs that the Eataly bakery could begin to work.
Walking through Eataly NY is as disorienting as visiting a Las Vegas casino. Crowds and gleaming food displays overwhelm; enticements to eat, drink, and spend are everywhere; the exits have disappeared. The easiest way to describe how to find the bakery is: walk toward the back and turn left.
Here you find a display that's as eye-popping as any in the city. Daily Slice has already reported on the delights of Eataly's Genoa-style focaccia. Just to the right of these savory pies, a long glass counter presents 22 different kinds of loaves, from big round ones to baguettes with points so sharp they could put out an eye. As a nod to local tastes, the oven churns out hamburger rolls and challah bread. However, what makes the bakery special are the loaves made from the lievito madre and organic flour ground by Wild Hive Farm up in Clinton Corners. Like any bakery start-up, they're still working out their production system, and quality sometimes varies. Still, this is among the most interesting new bakeries in New York.
Eataly's signature is pane rustico, an elongated football-shaped loaf. The crust is dark, thick, and chewy; inside, the buff-colored crumb is dense and moist, with a touch of sour from the leavening. (Some loaves have had a denser crumb than others, at times too dense; others, however, have been much better.) It's equally suited to dipping in olive oil, covering with prosciutto, or smearing with butter and jam.
Also made from the lievito madre and organic flour are flavored breads, little dense loaves stuffed with sweet or savory ingredients. The walnut and fig breads are the better among them; other choices include olive bread and prosciutto bread, stuffed with diced butt ends left over from Eataly's salumi counter.
And then there's the otto, a heavy round loaf that's best not fresh from the oven but aged like good meat. Just cooked, the otto has a distinct sour, honey-caramel flavor, but after two or three days the sourness dissipates with the moisture and allows the natural richness of flour to emerge. Blanketed with mortadella and washed down with good beer, a slice of otto is a hearty fuel for the long winter days.
On the yeast-risen side of the Eataly bread counter, the attractions are the focaccia, that pointy baguette, and a corn bread coated with crunchy meal. The corn bread's crumb achieves a good balance between denseness and fluffiness, with a rich corn meal flavor. You can divine its secret ingredient by looking at what's staining the bag in which you carried it home: a copious amount of olive oil.
All of Eataly's breads come from the big, brick, wood-fired oven to the right of the counter. Its fires haven't stopped burning since before Eataly opened, churning out up to 3200 loaves and 250 sheets of focaccia a day. Built in Spain, the oven was shipped over in a big container and assembled by a pair of Spanish technicians. Now it's the responsibility of Paul Mack, who often finds himself jury-rigging a repair. When a tile cracked in the floor of the oven, the fires had to keep burning. Paul wrapped his upper body in wet tablecloths and had an assistant push him into the oven on a pizza paddle while two sous-chefs held his legs. As the focaccia baked beside him, his oven-mitted hands picked out the shards and inserted a new tile. Then his aides pulled him out, only slightly toasted.
When Paul isn't watching the oven, he's tending his lievito madre, which now lives in a big French machine called a "fermentolevain" that looks something like a giant ice cream maker. Every now and then he feeds a bit of flour and water to the sour and pungent smelling soup of bacteria and wild yeast, and checks to make sure the machine's paddles are still stirring. God forbid the power should go out, because then he'll have to turn the paddles by hand—anything to keep mother alive.
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