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Counter Intelligence: Much adough about bread

By April Hamilton
April Hamilton
Wheat baguettes await customers at Charleston Bread.
April Hamilton Baguettes are removed from the deck oven at Charleston Bread.
April Hamilton Pre-shaped pain de mie rests before final proofing in loaf pans.
April Hamilton Shaped whole-wheat multigrain loaves wait their turn in the steam injection oven.
April Hamilton Coiled cane rising baskets give Charleston Bread's sourdough its signature top crust.
April Hamilton Sourdough loaves await customers in the display case.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- "With bread, all sorrows are less." -- Sancho Panza

This powerful quote from "Don Quixote" rings especially true right here in Charleston.

Step inside Charleston Bread on Capitol Street and aromatherapy ensues. The steamy windows indicate full production in this bustling bakery, and the scent is truly intoxicating.

When you arrive, you are greeted by a friendly face. Oftentimes, you might meet the queen bee herself, Libby Chatfield. Chatfield is a delightful business owner, a lawyer turned baker, and has successfully created a thriving hub in our community. A devoted lover of great bread, she turned her home baking hobby into a flourishing business about eight years ago.

I, personally, am tremendously thankful for Chatfield's career change. I used to bake bread out of necessity. I even taught a few classes on the subject. But now I leave the task to the experts -- Chatfield and her team of talented bakers. Countless others share my gratitude.

During the chaos of holiday preparations, a large crowd of bread-seekers formed in the bakery, awaiting the magical chime of the bread oven, signaling the baguettes were ready.

Waiting for a freshly baked crusty loaf is a worthy expenditure of one's time in my book. I witnessed others' anticipation. There were local dignitaries, doctors, grandmothers and bakery first-timers, each hoping to return home with a baguette or two.

"My daughter is waiting for me at the airport, and she is getting cranky," I heard a woman say. Then she added, "but the bread is worth it." One patron declared her baguette "the best Christmas present ever."

The late American author Henry Miller wrote, "You can travel 50,000 miles in America without once tasting a piece of good bread." He would surely eat those words today if he happened upon Charleston Bread.

Step into the bakery and observe the time-sensitive operation. Ingredients are carefully weighed in advance and stacked in bins for the next day's mixing. What follows is an impressively charted series of steps:

Each dough is scraped from its huge container onto the flour-coated "bench" (a long hardwood table). It is then folded (similar to kneading) and returned to the container to rest. Many intricate steps follow, on an exact schedule. The rested dough is divided into precisely weighed portions. It is pre-shaped and left to rest on a covered speed rack (bakery lingo for a tall shelving unit on wheels). Then the final shaping occurs.

In the case of the baguette, a four-times-a-week feature at Charleston Bread, the stretching and shaping is a dramatic procedure these skilled bakers perform without breaking stride. Once each loaf is hand-shaped, the batch returns to the speed rack for its final rest, awaiting its turn in the massive steam injection oven.

The hum of this hive begins at 4 a.m., five days a week, and the steam oven continues its work until about noon. Batch after batch of crusty bread is carefully loaded by hand into a massive oven and turned out onto the bakery's display racks to cool. Some days there are more than a dozen bread varieties available, each one of authentic character.

Some people boycott bread. In reference to the ultra-refined industrial loaves commonly found on store shelves, I applaud them. The labels on these products display suspicious lists of unpronounceable ingredients.

The ingredient lists on display at Charleston Bread are simple -- unbleached flour, water, yeast, salt. Depending on the loaf, there are additions to this basic formula -- a variety of whole grains, local honey, fresh milk, whole eggs, sugar, butter, perhaps herbs or nuts, sometimes fruits, even locally produced finishing salt.

There are no preservatives in these loaves, and, as they say, the proof is in the pudding. One taste and you'll be hooked. My simple suggestion to you: Do not boycott bread. Follow tradition and break bread with family and friends. Wander into your local bakery and enjoy the bounty put forth by the happy hive.

(If you are among those who have gluten intolerance or allergy, I offer my sincere condolences and apologies. I will repay with an upcoming baking session and column featuring a local gluten-free fabulous home baker -- stay tuned.)

Once you have a fresh baguette in hand, there are numerous ways to enjoy the loaf -- the first and possibly most preferred is "caveman style" where the purchaser immediately begins consuming the bread, beginning with the pointy end, ripping it apart by hand. Depending on the commute and the time of day, a large portion of the baguette might disappear before it reaches its final destination. If you may potentially fall prey to caveman bread enjoyment, you might want to get two baguettes.

Once you have your baguette in your home kitchen, you can make any number of delicious creations. Dip it in soup, press a panini, make the best garlic bread, rustic bruschetta, enviable sandwiches, unparalleled French bread pizza.

You see, once you have a fresh baguette, it is ready to be eaten, enjoyed. If a portion of it remains beyond the day it was baked, the options continue. Make fabulous breadcrumbs, crunchy crostini, memorable croutons. Don't tell Libby, but I say you can freeze a baguette rather than see it go unconsumed. You will be thrilled to have it there in case of bread shortage. I call it bread management -- farmers have harvested, bakers have toiled and you have spent your hard-earned cash for good bread. Savor every last crumb.

Garlic Croutons

TEAR a baguette into bite-size pieces. Place in a large bowl and drizzle with about 2 tablespoons olive oil.

SMASH 3 cloves of peeled garlic and toss with bread. Spread out on a baking sheet and bake at 350° for 10 minutes.

TOSS and turn the croutons carefully and continue baking for 5 to 10 minutes longer, until croutons are crunchy and golden.

April Hamilton has always said, "Cooking is fun!" She shares her easy, practical recipes for delicious food through her cooking classes for kids and families. April's husband and three daughters help with testing and tasting in their Charleston kitchen. April would love to hear from you: Email aprilskitchencounter@gmail.com.


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