By now, bread making is well over 12,000 years old. And for all that time the process has gone down in pretty much the same way it always has. That method has been passed down from baker to baker through all those years, differing a little from region to region as it traveled. Over time and through industrial revolutions, bread making has become more refined and complex (the marvel of the modern baguette, quick brioche), though, sometimes more convoluted (chocolate bacon sourdough, Hotpockets?). Then, what does it mean to be true to bread’s roots?
For baker Claire Kopp McWilliams, who runs the bread program at Chef Justin Bogle’s Avance, it means doing as little as possible to deter from the bread’s natural qualities. What more is bread than its principal four ingredients of flour, water, salt and yeast? Why not celebrate it’s simplicity? Claire does just that with breads like her Smoked Wheat berry Sourdough. Her embellishment of gently smoked wheat berries to her whole wheat sourdough is truly inspired. The bread presents another take on wheat that we don’t generally see in a context we love. Her Rye & Corn loaf is fully flavored and straight forward. You taste the essence of each grain clearly represented in the bread, the presence of each making a substantial appearance in the crumb and giving the bread a wonderful tooth to it.
“I’m really a fundamentalist. I like simplicity and Chef Justin appreciates that. He’s never micromanaging. He allows each bread to be what it is.”
With her Fermented Raisin Red Fife Wheat bread, she plays with alternate themes of fermentation to bring forth different flavors from heritage wheat. The method there is complex, but again she has very few ingredients (the addition of only fermented raisins) producing a wide swath of intense flavor. The flavors that Claire creates are clear and direct. Her ability is to manipulate the ingredients into something simultaneously innovative and grounded. You could say that her bread serves as an anchor for a restaurant that is known for presenting, what some may consider, challenging food.
“I like the idea that my bread can make people feel comfortable… I know that when I first started eating in finer restaurants, I was nervous and felt awkward, I kinda didn’t know what to do. But I feel that if you’re like me and someone hands you bread or a roll with butter, you know what to do. I like to set it up that some of the breads are meant to be torn apart to eat them. There’s a bread that we serve on the plate as a wedge. It’s not a slice, it’s not a roll, so you kind of have to get in to it. I like having people drawn into their meal and let their guard down a bit.”
Certainly, the kind of exciting, modern cuisine being prepared at restaurants like Avance is ushering in a reinvigorated interest in baking and traditional bread-making. In Philadelphia, Claire Kopp McWilliams is definitely at the forefront of the new crop of young bakers in these restaurants who are crafting interesting and delightful new variations on old classics and finding new combinations of ingredients to elevate bread to higher levels.
“It’s a great time to be a baker in Philly, there are so many opportunities for [bakers] right now. I think it’s great that we’re not a city like New York or San Francisco or Seattle where there is this really established bakery scene. There’s lots of room for several new bakeries to come in and change things. It’s really exciting.”
As there becomes more room to grow, bakers like Claire have more room to spread their wings and stretch their minds. If the public lets them, they will nourish, satisfy and delight them with their new take on bread-making and carry the tradition well into the future.