Living Bread with Daniel Leader

BAKE! welcomes baking visionary and first-time Zingerman’s guest

cover of living breadIn his just-released groundbreaking book, Living Bread: Tradition and Innovation in Artisan Bread Making, Daniel Leader, owner of the iconic Catskills bakery Bread Alone, offers a comprehensive picture of his sought-after baking philosophy for the enthusiastic home baker. His book, inspired by a community of millers, farmers, bakers, and scientists in New York, provides a fascinating look into the way artisan bread baking has evolved and continues to change—from wheat farming practices and advances in milling, to sourdough starters and the mechanics of mixing dough.

On November 21st, BAKE! at Zingerman’s Bakehouse invites you to meet Dan for over two hours of baking fun. He will demonstrate several recipes from his newest book: 4-hour baguette, Baguette au Charbon vegetal, Domberger rye, and Pane Altamura. He’ll also tell us stories about his life and sign books. We’ll cap it off with a tasting, so you’ll go home with a full belly and a full mind.

We sat down with Daniel ahead of his upcoming visit to talk about his new book, the role of curiosity in preserving traditions, balancing tradition and innovation, today’s baking landscape, and his advice to novice home bakers.

Congratulations on your new book! It looks stunning. Why were you interested in writing such a multi-faceted book?

I’m interested in baking from the wheat field to the table. I love history and people as well. I did, after all, study philosophy in college!

What role do you think curiosity plays in preserving traditions? 

The scope of my professional training is two weeks. There wasn’t a baking program at the culinary institute—the baking curriculum only took two weeks. Everything I’ve learned is because I’m curious. In my book, I talk about my backdoor baking education, which involves being polite, nice, and asking for a baker’s time. My whole career is based on curiosity.

Why was it important to you to capture stories from your “backdoor baking” education?

daniel leader on a bridgeIt’s the people and my experiences that helped me become who I am. It’s the reality of my life.

How do you balance tradition with innovation? 

It’s interesting—I’m sure at Zingerman’s you have the same challenge. We’re making a traditional product, honoring traditional techniques, and trying to stay true to tradition, but we don’t live in a traditional society. We have to make bread hip and cool, in a modern way, and in some ways, without the tradition. More people are into the words ‘artisan’ and ‘sourdough.’ People like that it’s a fermented food, people like that it’s a whole grain. People aren’t really tied into the fact that it’s a traditionally healthy food.

How are people responding to your book? 

There are whole sections on tradition in the book, and I’m getting emails from people saying they can’t wait to try certain recipes. It’s interesting how people are focused on recipes, the here and now, and things they can do. That’s the opposite of what I expected. I thought people would read the book first and do the recipes second. Even some of the baking blogs that have interviewed me go right to the recipes, and I wasn’t prepared for that.

Because there have been so many bread books the last few years, I asked, “what do I want to say that hasn’t been said?” In addition to baking history and interviews, I included 60 recipes that are new and different; many have never been published before. It’s an eclectic assortment of recipes, including breads like Curry Tomato Ciabatta, Vegan Brioche, and Chocolate Sourdough Babka, as well as traditional recipes.

Why do you think people are attracted to the recipes first? 

I’m just guessing that, because we live in a very complicated time, a very controversial time, with economic stress, political stress, environmental stress, educational stress, people want to do simple, fulfilling activities. There’s something so satisfying in putting the world aside for one moment to focus on making delicious bread. The world needs more of that. We’ll have much more productive discussions in life if people do things that are satisfying.

What are you excited about in today’s baking landscape? 

That people are excited about bread again! I think we’ve come through the peak of people saying wheat is bad; I think it’s waning now. We’re getting a real push back from people who enjoy good bread, who want to make good bread, who are supporting bakeries, who want to support artisanal bread. It’s an exciting time to be baking bread because people are interested.

To support that, there are a lot of nutritionists and agronomists who are making solid scientific arguments about why wheat is good for us and why we should be eating it. There’s a Cornell scientist in my book who talks about the anti-wheat hype. The truth is, 20 percent of the world has been eating wheat for their primary source of protein for the past 9,000 years.

Whenever we have discussions of wheat and gluten sensitivities, it’s really important we talk about scientific truth and not hip headlines. In the book, there’s a chapter on heirloom grains and wheat sensitivities, where I interview experts in the field on what connects to scientific truth. If we’re going to talk about it, we should be knowledgeable.

activated charcoal baguettesWhat advice would you give a novice home baker or someone interested in baking?

First of all, people have been baking bread for thousands of years, but yeast was only invented in 1890. Bread over history has mostly been sourdough. Don’t be intimidated by the process. There are great flours readily available. It’s easy, it doesn’t require special equipment, and you’ll make lots of friends in the process.

What about a more serious baker who’s interested in a “backdoor” training in baking?

Luckily, it’s a lot easier now; it doesn’t have to be backdoor. There are a lot of great baking schools… People don’t have to search as far and wide as I did — there are a lot of really nice facilities and great instructors.

Also, there are so many good books! My book is only one of many good books. It’s a great time to learn how to bake.

Who should attend your class at BAKE!? 

Food lovers. People who like to have good food in their life. Simple, good food.

I don’t mean this in a disrespectful way, but I’m not a “foo foo” baker. I can do the fancy stuff, but mostly, I want bread to taste good.

Save your spot to learn from Dan at his BAKE! Class, “Parisian Bread Baking Demo with Daniel Leader,” on Nov 21, or get a copy of his book, to enhance your home baking adventures and build your knowledge of the tradition, science and art of baking.

By Nicole Pelto, Communications Specialist for Zingerman’s Community of Businesses

Baguette photo by Joerg Lehmann

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Communications Specialist for Zingerman's Community of Businesses

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