Monday, July 13, 2009

Meet the Baker: James McNamara

Bakeries are my favorite food stores and bakers my favorite artisans in the culinary world. I am sure wine and cheese makers are just as passionate and dedicated but since I haven't (yet) started making my own wine or cheese, I tend to seek them out less, so I can't really tell. What I know for having met with several bakers over the past few months, in and out of school, is that bakers breathe and dream bread, and that, I find very endearing.
They think about it all the time, how to make it good, how to make it better, how to ensure timely delivery of a consistent product to a client base that has come to rely on it. James McNamara, head baker at Wave Hill Breads in Wilton, CT, is no exception. He describes lying awake at night trying to recall where he read something that could apply to a problem he might be encountering, then getting up and going straight to the book or books, taking mental notes and plotting out the best way to implement the solution.
A baker I met last year in Switzerland, told me: "Bakers are basically insomniacs". I think that's true or, at least, that being an insomniac is an asset for the baker as, given the relentless pace, there is no opportunity at the production stage to comb through notes or to just sit back and muse.
Wave Hill Breads makes several kinds of breads, all from the same dough - a creamy and aromatic 3-grain poolish-based beauty (spelt and rye grains are milled daily and added to the wheat flour).
Making multiple batches of the same dough over and over offers a baker an unique opportunity to hone his or her skills, to learn to "read" the dough and stay attuned to its slightest variations. On busy nights, there might be up to 12 batches, 75 minutes apart, at Wave Hill Breads. Each one tells a different story and that makes the task endlessly new. For instance, because of minute changes in temperature or flour characteristics, McNamara is constantly monitoring the dough hydration, adding water or taking some away.

The poolish (which is mixed during the day while the mixing and baking are done at night) is allowed to ferment for 6 hours before being added to the flour and water in the mixer with the tiniest pinch of yeast. After a shaggy dough is formed... rests in the mixer for a while (autolyse), then salt is added and once all the ingredients are incorporated, the mixing starts. It is kept to a minimum (one minute on second speed), then the dough rests for 15 minutes. Another short spin and another resting period. Another spin, then the dough rests in the mixer until it is time for another batch.
It is then transferred to a wooden trough...
...where it ferments some more in a temperature-controlled environment. When it is ready... is taken to the bench...
...and the shapers' work begins.

Kathleen and Beverly at the bench

Bâtards proofing
Tonight Sharon, the other baker, is in charge and she's the one manning the ovens...

...loading, unloading, rotating, constantly assessing the doneness of the loaves.

Not done yet

Baked to perfection
McNamara came to Wave Hill Breads in the summer of 2008. As quite a few other bakers I have had the privilege of meeting (including Sharon, who was an accountant in another life), he didn't set out to be a baker. He was on the premed track in college and graduated with a degree in English. But he went on to attend the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont and became the assistant pastry chef at La Panetière in Rye.
As luck would have it though, a relative gave him a starter from King Arthur Flour as a present as well as the book Bread Alone by Daniel Leader. It is no exageration to say that this serendipitous event changed his life.
He started experimenting with sourdough and baking from the book and soon realized that bread was his true calling ("Bread dough is ALIVE, so much more interesting than butter and chocolate, don't you think?"). He set to training as an apprentice baker by volunteering to work on all his days off at Daniel Leader's Bread Alone in Boiceville, NY. Such was the pull of the bread made over there that he doggedly put up with the 1-hr and 45 minutes commute each way from his home in Katonah.
After a year of this hectic life, he moved to Boston, a city which features several good bakeries and was soon hired at another remarkable bakery, Clear Flour Bread in Brookline, MA. Clear Flour was very different from Bread Alone where a baker learned to do everything from the mixing to the shaping and the baking. It was a very organized 24-hour operation where the bakers worked in dedicated shifts (some mixing, some punching and folding, some shaping, etc.) In terms of sourdough baking and punching and folding, it was a teaching bakery, bent on educating its bakers. McNamara was encouraged to take classes, which is how he came to train with Didier Rosada at the National Baking Center in Minneapolis. A Master Baker from France, Rosada has trained the American teams which competed for the Coupe du monde de la boulangerie (Bread World Cup) and he is widely recognized as one of the leading bakers in the United States.

Duly trained, McNamara went on from Clear Flour to open his own bakery in Easton, MA. His wife - who is a pastry chef - made the cakes and pies and he made the bread. But he is a perfectionist and called upon to produce by himself daily a wide variety of breads with many different doughs, he found it difficult to focus consistently on high quality. He and his wife also soon tired of swimming across the current of the anticarb wave that the Atkins diet had created. He cast about for a while, working for a friend in Ohio (but that friend already had a bread baker, so he found himself making croissants and pastries, which wasn't what he was looking for). Coming back East, he worked briefly at Le Château before getting a job at SoNo bakery and finally joining Wave Hill Breads.
When he first came to Wave Hill, McNamara was given a formula and asked to work within well-defined parameters to produce the bread the customers had come to know and love. After a few months of going with the flow, he decided he had to introduce a few changes to make the product even better. With the owners in cautious agreement, he moved the bench to the other room, away from the oven, changed the mixing, cutting it from improved to short-mix, added a tiny bit of yeast, incorporated punches and folds, upped the hydration to the high sixties (it had been in the lower to mid-sixties) and introduced temperature control.
Since there is no leeway on time (the bread has to be ready by 4:30-5:00 AM when the baggers arrive), he had to increase the yeast and to cool the dough down to maintain quality. Even after doubling the yeast, the amount used at Wave Hill Breads is still the lowest he ever worked with. The challenge is to set the right balance daily between the temperature, the length of the fermentation and the percentage of yeast.

The bâtard I took home for tasting
As he needs to keep in mind what the owners, Margaret Sapir and Mitch Rapoport, understandably desire (which is to continue making their signature bread, thereby keeping their customers happy), McNamara has to compromise. If it were up to him, he would double the amount of poolish, increase the mixing time and prolong the fermentation (introducing more poolish would counterbalance the more intensive mix). But, as it is, he is proud of the product which he deems consistently very good, and satisfied with the direction the bread has taken at the bakery under his stewardship.
As Rosada puts it, "to grow and excel, bakers must not only learn 'what' to do, but understand the 'hows' and 'whys' of what they’re doing." Minding the how's and why's is McNamara's calling as a baker and it does translate into a near-perfect product. When I visited last fall, the bread was already great. Now it is extremely good, with a beautiful crumb and a tasty and crunchy crust. My only reservation would be the amount of salt, which is a bit high to my taste. My guesstimate would put it in the 2.3-2.5 % range (and I am more used to 2%, or even 1.5% as now required by law in Europe) but, obviously, I can be wrong. Even if I am not, I don't doubt that there are reasons for that, if only that it is what the customers want.
Since joining Wave Hill, McNamara has assembled a whole new team of full-time bakers and part-time helpers and learned how to put the pieces together to get the work done. He is very proud of that accomplishment and has discovered he loves the managerial aspects of his profession. But when retirement age approaches (since he is only 39, we are talking a rather distant future), there is a little mountain bakery in his dreams where he and his wife could live and work, gazing at the scenery between batches of golden loaves and visions of wedding cakes. Meanwhile, he cannot picture himself doing anything but what he is doing right now and that's certainly excellent news for all of us who live and eat in Connecticut and nearby New York!
For a list of the stores and farmers' market where the bread can be found, please click here.


  1. MC, what a wonderful post! You really have a way of making the reader feel as if he/she is right there alongside the baker. I'm glad to see James getting some well-deserved recognition for his bread-baking talent and passion.

  2. Excellant reportage!

    Happy belated Bastille day!

  3. Fascinating! I love the idea of doing one dough, and doing it better all the time.

    Thanks, MC.

  4. Great post!! This is what I expect to read from a blog besides beautiful food pictures or cook book recipe posting!!

  5. Wonderful, wonderful post. Now how do I get holes like that?!

  6. Hi MC
    This is a great write-up. I enjoy reading stories of bakeries and bakers. It's interesting that McNamara used to train with Didier Rosada. I came across that name in my correspondence with Tim Huff, General Mills technical manager.
    Thank you.



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