Suzanne Gessler bustles me past The Pennyloaf’s front counter and through the kitchen door one afternoon, introducing me to her bakers and gesturing toward the gigantic wood-fire brick oven that takes up roughly a quarter of the kitchen’s floorspace. Pulling back its cast iron door, she exposes the roaring flame inside. The Pennyloaf produces a lot of incredible treats, but their sourdough wood-fired loaves are the reason I’ve come.
The oven blazes on throughout the day, gathering heat. As they finish up for the evening, the bakers clean it out. Then at 1 am, the morning baker comes in and slides waiting dough loaves onto its warm concrete hearth. Each sourdough loaf is made slowly, with expertise and individual care. The result is an exceptional bread - tight and moist crumb on the inside, chewy crust with just the right toughness, and complex, nutty flavour. Bread from The Pennyloaf disappears in a few days in my home. Whether smeared with butter and jam or honey, topped with melted cheese or toasted with a fried egg and washed down with a cup of coffee: it’s truly something special.
FULL: I know most of your breads are sourdoughs, for us non-baker types, could you explain what that means?
Suzanne Gessler: It’s made with a sourdough starter. That’s where the word for the type of bread that sourdough refers to comes from. A lot of people think sourdough means a round, white loaf, but any bread that’s made with a sourdough starter is sourdough. We use a combination of rye flour and water for ours. When that mass of rye flour and water is allowed to sit over time, good bacteria and yeast in the air inoculates the flour and water and it becomes a living organism. It’s this gloppy mass of flour and water that we feed with more water and flour twice a day – once in the morning and again before we leave at night. The yeast breaks down starches in the flour to make sugars. That fermentation process releases gas that becomes trapped in the gluten and forces the bread to rise.
We take a piece of the starter and we make it into a leaven. There are a lot of different names for it, but it’s essentially a pre-dough. We use that starter to make a pre-ferment and then that piece of dough gets mixed into the final combination of flour, salt and water, along with whatever other ingredients we might add – cheese, nuts, seeds, and so on. We mix the dough and do a very light mix, just so that everything’s incorporated, followed by a series of stretches and folds instead of kneading. Depending on the temperature of the water and flour, that takes place over about three hours, with stretching and folding every half hour. The stretching plus time strengthens the dough to a point where it can be shaped. Once it’s formed, we put it in baskets and then put it in the fridge overnight where the loaves ferment slowly. This allows the flavour to develop. We could speed up this process and do it all in a three or four hour period, but the fact that it’s long and slow gives our bread more flavour. We can play with these variables to achieve sweeter or more sour flavours.
The baker who comes in at 1 am bakes the bread directly on the hearth of the wood-fire stove. We make anywhere from sixty to one hundred and twenty loaves a day, depending on the day of the week. Once the brick oven’s at 210 degrees or so, the baker takes it out of the oven and lets it cool, then puts it out on the shelves.
FULL: Hearing you talk about this process, it sounds as though it’s very responsive and individualistic.
SG: People ask questions like, “How do you know?” “What’s the temperature that it should be in the air?” and I’m not saying I’m the most experienced baker. Certainly it’s a bold proposition to open a bakery after having only baked for a few years. I think most people do it after 25 years of baking. They have the experience of working with other people, and they’ve developed their own vision. So I don’t know everything. Some days things come out of the oven and we go, “Why did it turn out that way?” There’s this challenge of trying to figure out that perfect combination of things, but after working long enough, a baker can start to tell what factors have made a loaf look a certain way. Maybe it got over proofed or under proofed, or it was the way it was scored or slashed before being placed into the oven. There’s only so much a book can tell us. We just start to know when it’s done.
On the days when it’s beautiful and just a success, we go, “Oh my God, what was that?” and try to replicate it the next day. There are bakers who will calculate water temperature and flour temperature exactly. They’ve got everything right down to a T. But then there are other factors like altitude, or moisture levels in the air that require adjustments. It’s a bit magical as well as being a science.
I think a certain amount of the individuality of our bread just has to do with how it’s handled. It may be a commercial kitchen, but because it’s not automated, that affects results. I hope that people can see that and not have that be solely charm - I don’t want to put out bread that’s wonky - but they’re not perfectly round loaves all the time. These loaves are made by hands, not machines. I’ve got bakers who are physically stronger than others and the way they shape the bread will be different from someone with a lighter touch. That’s part of the small batch, handmade-ness of the place. It’s not pleasing to everyone, but I think overall people respect that way of doing things.
FULL: What made you decide to focus on bread when you opened?
SG: My husband was born in Poland, and when I decided to go into baking, I was asking myself what I was going to specialize in. He mentioned that he’d never found a good loaf of bread here. He described this loaf. I started thinking about that. In baking, when you think about bread and cakes and cookies, bread is more of a monster that you can’t figure out. You want to crack this nut. I was just drawn to the challenge of making it.
As I started reading more about it, I discovered this entire world of people trying to revive old fashioned good bread and departing from the Wonder Bread commercial world.
FULL: In North America, bread can certainly be that bland, everyday thing that goes barely noticed. Your bread is so different; I pause when I eat it.
SG: And I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for automation in the world. Mass production has to happen to some extent. But I think bringing back some of these traditions is also a valid way of working. The neighbourhood bakery shouldn’t be an antiquated thing. It seems reasonable to have this kind of product on the market and people seem to want it. Everyone should have good bread.
There’s a pleasure and a joy in doing things by hand.
FULL: How does using a sourdough starter and a wood-fire oven affect the bread?
SG: Sourdough makes for a more flavourful loaf. It’s nuttier and sweeter than a loaf made with commercial yeast. It just has a more complex flavour. Commercial yeast lends itself well to breads with a lot of eggs and butter.
The wood-fire oven is cost effective as well as charming. Wood is a renewable resource. The way the oven is built, once the fire is out of it, the ceiling is really low and that creates a lot of steam, which is what lets the bread cook in the middle, and then once that steam is released, the loaf forms a harder crust on the outside. With forty loaves in the oven, all the water in the bread creates steam in this tight environment, while a lot of commercial ovens are more spacious. The wood-burning brick gives it a nice crumb on the inside and a crunchy crust, which is what I’m looking for, and it costs a lot less than a gas oven that could do those things.
These ovens are really durable, and you can bake or roast other kinds of food in them. It keeps my heating costs down too. Also, I was able to support an artisan out of Toronto who builds stone ovens and masons. I like the idea of a local business supporting other small-scale businesses.