The art of fine bread-making
ZACHARY Golper gets a strange look in his eyes when he talks about his miche.
Mr Golper, who oversees the ovens at Bien Cuit, a bakery in Brooklyn, is part of a starter culture of obsessive, boundary-pushing bread-makers in New York City and around the country.
Connoisseurs consider his miche, a French-style country loaf, something of a crown jewel. But it certainly doesn't shine like one; bulbous and heat-bludgeoned, it looks more like something that might have been used as a shield in a Stone Age skirmish.
But it makes sense - Mr Golper, like many comrades in the revolutionary salt-flour-water brigade, is engaged in an ancient and ceaseless battle: against the whims of working with fermenting dough whose personality can shift on a daily or even hourly basis; against the high costs of making bread in what he considers the purest manner; against decades of commercialisation that have trained the American eye and palate to expect bread that is soft, gummy, pale and tasteless.
"Most people are trying to make bread as quickly as possible," he said. "I don't think there's any reason to make bread fast. I don't think it's healthy."
Instead, the 36-year-old wages a loving blitz on the miche dough, fermenting it for as long as an epic 68 hours and hardening the crust with a bake that goes on for almost double the time (at a slightly lower temperature) than you would find in the average shop. The dough itself contains six types of flour.
The process brings out "nuances that otherwise would not be obtainable if you don't take the time", he said.
Small independent bakers in New York, California, Oregon, Virginia and North Carolina are going to great lengths to approach an ideal of bread that is simultaneously cutting-edge and primordial. They are hunting down heirloom grains, early forms of wheat like emmer and einkorn, and milling their own flour.
Some are travelling to Washington state to meet Stephen Jones, a rogue wheat breeder who runs the Bread Lab, a Wonka-esque wonderland for crusty, airy-crumbed experimentation.
They are using unusually wet dough and stretching out fermentation times. They are trying to conjure up the baker's version of terroir, creating sourdough starter in the classic manner: simply by letting it sit, welcoming the bacteria in the air so the bread presumably tastes like the place where it was made.
Meanwhile, white bread is still venerated at bakeries in Asia, where it has been elevated to "artisan" status with a lofty, feathery crumb, a milk-sweet crust and a naturally long shelf life.
Called shokupan, milk bread, pai bao and by other names, this bread is a miracle of engineering: moist but not gummy, rich but light, balanced between sweet and salty.
At baking chains like Paris Baguette, based in Seoul, this is achieved with industrial proofers and artificial flavours. The key to making it at home is tangzhong, a warm, pudding-like starter quickly made by cooking a small amount of flour with water or milk.
Janice Wong, a pastry chef in Singapore, said tangzhong is a traditional Chinese way of making dough for steamed buns. (The characters mean, roughly, "soup method".)
"Asian doughs tend to have small, fine air bubbles," she said.
The method was applied to white bread by Japanese bakers in the 20th century and became a staple in Asian bakeries.
"About half of Japanese people eat toast for breakfast," said Kimie Kobayashi, the manager of Takahachi Bakery in Lower Manhattan, where shokupan is made daily. "The customers here seem surprised to hear that."
Eminent food scientist Harold McGee said tangzhong is different from other starters - like autolyse, levain, biga and the unappetisingly named poolish - because it hydrates and gels the starches in the flour, giving the bread its characteristic fluff and spring.