Baker rolls out fresh facts on how to prepare bread

November 10, 1999|By Rob Kasper

IT IS ONE thing to bake a little bread. It is another to live the baker's lifestyle. To do this, you must love heat. You should like night work. And you should be a fanatic about the texture and temperature of your bread dough.

I concluded this after spending a floury evening with Pascal Zeimet, a baker for the eight la Madeleine restaurants in the Baltimore-Washington area. Zeimet has baked bread for 20 of his 36 years. He grew up in Marville, a small town in Northeast France. After working as a baker's apprentice, he bought his own bakery when he was 21.

Then, acting on a dare from his brother-in-law, Zeimet took a job in America. He put his sister in charge of the family bakery, flew to Dallas and began baking for la Madeleine, a restaurant and bakery chain that blends French food and American efficiency. Five years ago, he was transferred to Maryland and began baking his breads here.

At la Madeleine on Route 175 in Columbia, the daily offerings of breads and rolls are baked the night before by Zeimet in a massive, wood-fired oven in downtown Bethesda. Similarly, dishes like croque-monsieur (ham and cheese) and herbed chickens have been prepared by French-born chef Thierry Reboullet in a central kitchen in Rockville. Food from both sites is shipped to Columbia, where it is heated and served cafeteria style.

The idea of workers laboring through the night to prepare fresh food for the morrow struck me as very French. The idea of making the food in a central location and shipping it to suburban restaurants struck me as very American.

On a recent Monday evening, I visited Zeimet in his Bethesda bakery. I wanted to see a wood-fired oven at work, and I wanted to pick up a few tips. There is a difference in the scale of our bread-baking operations. I bake two to four loaves a week. He and his crew bake about 27,000 rolls and loaves of bread a week.

One of the first things I learned is that real bakers wear light clothing. They do that because their ovens -- the central force in their lives -- are virtually always fired up and throwing out heat.

When I met Zeimet, a wiry, dark-haired man, it was a mild fall day. I was wearing a turtleneck and a sports coat and slacks. He was wearing a white short-sleeve T-shirt and white jeans. As chunks of wood were lighted and pushed into the door at the bottom of the oven, I quickly shed my coat. The oven was making its presence felt.

The oven is a massive brick structure that looked like the wall of a medieval fort. It had been built by hand by a crew imported from Spain. It held about 95 1-pound loaves at the time. The only opening was a small rectangular oven door, just tall enough for loaves of bread to fit through.

Inside the bakery, the air was hot. Zeimet checked the thermometer of the oven, a large dial that showed 230 degrees Celsius or 446 degrees Fahrenheit. He wanted the oven even hotter, up to 250 degrees Celsius, or 482 degrees Fahrenheit.

Heat is part of a baker's life, Zeimet explained to me in his distinct French accent. "I can't stand to be cold. When my arms are cold and my neck is cold, I can't think."

While a baker likes his oven hot, he prefers his dough cool, Zeimet said. "Your dough is between 69 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit," he said. To achieve this temperature, you sometimes have to use ice water rather than tap water when mixing your dough, he said.

The dough also should be moist, he said. "It should stick to your fingers," he said, demonstrating by rubbing his finger on olive rolls that were about to go in the oven.

One way to keep the dough moist is to cover it with plastic wrap as it is rising, he said. When I told him I often covered my rising bread dough with a dish towel, he shook his head. Plastic, he said, is much better. When you use a towel, the air dries out the dough, leaving a "crust" on the surface.

In addition to tips on technique, Zeimet also passed along some philosophical observations of a baker's life.

A baker works when the rest of the world sleeps, he said. He has to do this because his bread leads a short, glorious life and must be fresh in the morning.

"A bread that is crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, that is the trick of the baker," Zeimet said. On its first day out the oven, the bread is at its best, he said. By the second day, the crispness begins to suffer. The third day, the flavor is still there, but the texture isn't, he said.

Zeimet said his bread spends only one day in the retail world. After that, it is pulled from the shelf and donated to an area homeless shelter.

He claims to enjoy working at night. "At night, everybody else is sleeping, so it doesn't seem like you are missing anything.

"The night goes by quickly. You bake the bread. Then, it all goes out the door. The sun comes up, and I am ready to be up too."

Being French, he does allow himself a pause in his nocturnal labors. Around 9 each night, when it is time for an evening meal, he drives 30 minutes to his home to have a sit-down meal with his wife, Corrine. Then, he drives back to work.

He would have it no other way. At dinner time, you are supposed to sit down with the ones you love and enjoy good food and good bread. That, he said, is what life is all about.

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