If bread is the staff of life, then Jim Leahy at Sullivan Street Bakery will live a very long time. My visit to his Hell’s Kitchen location was an eagerly anticipated pilgrimage and was as wonderful as I had hoped. His welcoming storefront beckoned and the sweet and savory smells enveloped you as soon as you entered. Beautiful crusty loaves filled the shelves and I was struck by their artisanal, craggy appearance and their dark color. Leahy is a proponent of very dark, almost too dark, crusts as the flavor of the crust reaches an optimal point when the crust almost burns. As a novice, but intrigued student baker, his dedication to the craft inspires me.
At 50, I took my lifelong love of baking and enrolled in culinary school in Chicago. During the Artisan Bread course, Chef Kraus introduced me to many of Lahey’s recipes and techniques. I had been hooked on Lahey’s No-Knead Bread since I read the NYT article that described the technique in 2006. In school, I learned how to make a sourdough starter and was exposed to a variety of ingredients and recipes that revolved around sourdough. The more I learned, the more I loved the depth and breadth of sourdough possibilities. As a lover of words, I even loved the vocabulary of bread baking. The retarding. The fermenting. The boules and batards. The tactile sensation of bread making reminds me of my children when they were babies. There’s something very earthy and fulfilling about clean baby bottoms and plump bread dough. Does that realization make me weird?! Oh well, I love all things bready. The possibilities are endless so I tinker with ingredients and recipes. A current favorite is a multi grain, seeded sourdough that I make with a starter named Beatrice. Beatrice had her origins with beets, hence, her name.
Anyway, back to Sullivan Street Bakery. My forthright daughter asked the lovely manager of the bakery, Michelle, for a behind-the-scene-tour of the bakery and the request was promptly granted. We walked behind the front counter and into a cloud of flour dust as we watched the skilled bakers turn fermented dough from bins onto the work tables. There were enormous ovens, cooling racks filled with beautiful loaves, bags full of bread ready to be delivered to NYC restaurants and bags of flour, spices and herbs. There is even a huge rooftop garden where Leahy grows herbs and vegetables for his breads. What a delight! After a morning of sensory overload and with a suitcase filled with bread, I flew home to Chicago.