M y family’s oven had broken down, and we had to wait more than a week for the replacement parts to arrive.
I was crestfallen. I bake virtually all the family’s bread. Year-round. Even if it means cranking up the oven on a hot afternoon in the middle of summer. During the school year, that might mean a few loaves a week—the wheat flour, potato and milk bread that I devised for the kids’ lunches, plus the two separate sourdough starters I maintain (one spelt and the other rye). When we visit our friends at Riverbank Farm in Roxbury, CT, I get to use their outdoor clay oven, and am looking into building a similar one in our New Haven backyard.
I’ve been baking my own bread for decades now. When I was an overworked office-bound newspaper editor, bread-baking represented solace and tranquility, merely because it meant I’d been able to spend several consecutive hours in my own home. Now that I work at home, it’s still a meditative process. When I get momentarily blocked on a writing project, I wander into the kitchen the way I used to wander over to the office watercooler. There, I stir and knead and leave things to rise.
For me, baking is a type of therapy. Not having an oven for even a week constitutes a psychological crisis. Fortunately, crusty old New Haven had my back. I would simply indulge in the variety of great breads I always see around town, or enjoy in take-out sandwiches, but don’t usually feel the need to buy, for the week.
The mission had unknowingly started even before we knew we’d be ovenless. On a beach vacation in Marshfield, Mass., I bought loaves of Chabaso brand ciabatta bread from a Roche Brothers supermarket. In New Haven, this delectable, chewy loaf, perfectly salty and soured, is inextricably connected to the Atticus Bookstore Café on Chapel Street, where the company’s whole range of breads were developed specifically to complement the café’s menu of soups and salads. From boules to baguettes, Chabaso breads are hearty and strong, able to stand up to juicy sandwich fillings and excellent for dunking in soups. Chabaso, which is carried in markets throughout New England and the New York tri-state area, in such major retailers as Stop & Shop, Trader Joe’s, Costco and A&P. In New Haven, Chabaso has its own retail outlet on James Street. Chabaso gives away many thousands of loaves of its bread for free every year, to dozens of non-profits, soup kitchens, schools. This time of year, Chabaso always distributes free loaves at the New Haven Labor Day Road Race. In November, the civic-minded company distributes bread gratis on Election Day.
The ciabatta may be its signature loaf, but Chabaso also bakes a mean baguette. The defining local form of bread in the area, after pizza crust, of course, may well be French bread. It’s not just a hallmark of the widely known Chabaso but an iconic product of another well-established and revered bakery in town, Judies European Bakery and Café on Grove Street. Judies’ French bread is a singular marvel of local baking. It has the hardest crust you’ll find on any commercially made bread in the area—ideal for soups and sandwiches, and more compelling than a flat cracker when slathered with Brie.
If you want to go Italian rather than French, the familiar yellow/green/red label of Lupi-Legna Bakery shines like a beacon from breadbaskets in markets citywide. The soft innards of Lupi-Legna’s large Italian loaves melt in your mouth, especially when dipped in spaghetti sauce.
To prepare fully for the lull in my home baking, I stopped at Edge of the Woods market on Whalley Avenue. Not only could we get organic microwaveable dinners from the frozen food section to sustain the family during our ovenless existence, but Edge of the Woods sells one of the most lauded local breads to emerge from the city in recent years, Whole G Bread. (The “G” stands both for “grain,” as in whole grain, and for the German origin of many of master baker Andres Corazzini’s recipes.) My daughter Mabel selected a big round sourdough, which heartened me because sourdough can be an acquired taste, with a whole different consistency and integrity than conventional yeast breads. She also chose some distinctive Whole G English muffins, which are slightly larger than typical English muffins, airy and puffy inside, and have a unique aura—a color and feel all their own.
I later made a similar shopping trip on the other end of downtown, at the cooperatively run Elm City Market. Like Edge of the Woods, ECM carries Whole G breads and many other local brands. There, it’s hard not to grab a bag of nearby square donuts, baked around the corner from the market at Orangeside Luncheonette.
On a Sunday afternoon, my daughters and I bicycled over to Edgewood Park for the weekly CitySeed Farmer’s Market. You can find Whole G bread there as well, but we needed a complete lunch, so we got small quiches from the Southington-based Sixpence Pie Company. In my own baking, I’ve never been able to master a truly flaky crust, and this one was wonderfully light, yet sturdy enough to contain the eggplant, tomato, basil and parmesan (and egg) filling.
For the rest of our 10-day homemade bread fast, I continued buying and sampling only the best breads New Haven had to offer. Then a box of metal bits came in the mail from GE appliances, followed by a workman at the door, and soon our oven was up and cooking.
I’m overjoyed to be baking my own bread again. But I realized I really should continue buying local bread as well. New Haven’s blessed to have such a variety of easily available local baked delicacies. They’re delicious, plus they’re inspirational. Chabaso led me to experiment with ciabatta recipes myself, and they’re a long-rising joy to make, though it’ll take much experimentation to make mine have the same flavorful mix of oils, salts and spices as Chabaso’s. From Judies I was reminded of the value of a thick crust, whether working with egg whites or just brushing with water. Whole G’s sourdough is remarkably consistent in texture and taste, whereas my sourdoughs can vary greatly from loaf to loaf.
If, as the saying goes, bread is the staff of life, then New Haven is extremely well staffed for grand glutinous living.
Written by Christopher Arnott. Photographed by Kathleen Cei.