with Biagio Settepani at the Bruno Bakery
This baking adventure was another New School opportunity, happily coinciding with a trip to Manhattan. I had been to Bruno Bakery before, stumbling on it about ten years earlier. We were walking past on a hot summer day and saw someone come out with a beautiful, cold, frothy cappuccino and turned around to get one. One to share between the two of us. We left, took one sip, and turned around to get a second; sharing would have seriously risked relationship harmony.
I encountered Biagio Settepani and the Bruno Bakery again in Artisan Baking in America, an excellent cookbook/source book for home and professional bakers and bread lovers. Settepani is featured making Pandoro, an Italian holiday bread. The bakery has been on LaGuardia Place since 197x and in 198x, he took over another Italian bakery around the corner on Bleeker street. The shop's cases are filled with elegant cakes and pastries, but also with biscotti regina, covered with sesame and jam daubed butter cookies that have the touch of the grandmother. In fact, Biagio's mother would be there that Sunday morning, just on the edge of the class, listening and watching her son, receiving greetings from regular customers.
When I called to register, I reached a very nice, Asian-sounding man who informed me I was "very lucky, last space in class." Some friendly confusion ensued when we divined that I had taken classes before at the New School, but lived in Maryland. Once this was resolved and numbers were exchanged, I hung up delighted with my luck and hopping with anticipation.
On the Sunday morning, I walked down Houston Street to LaGuardia Place. The street was quiet, just a dozen or so people, deserted compared to the busy afternoon before. I began to think of all the other situations I get myself into where I seem to be one of the few interested oddballs. Lectures by obscure writers, used book sales at obscure addresses, and restaurants in obscure neighborhoods. I get myself so nerved up about these events that I convince myself the city will be moving en masse, and they will all get there before me. I invariably arrive and there are just one or two people before me. I once went to a book sale and while waiting on line for it to open, struck up a conversation with an older man who seemed quite vital and sane until he told me he was missing The Price Is Right and never actually read all the books he bought. Oh dear, I am an oddball.
I'd even brought my Artisan Baking book with me for him to sign, how nerdy is that? My step slowed as I became embarrassed by my oddness, but then it picked up again when I remembered that this morning, at least I would be joined by nine other fellow oddballs. It would be fun!
We were directed past the cafe tables and gleaming cases to the kitchen, where we were given aprons, towels, and recipes, and gathered ourselves around the marble countertop. There were two older women, one so trim I bet she hadn't eaten a whole slice of bread in 15 years. There were two friends from Staten Island who were full of their grandmother's memories. There were two young women, one Japanese whose sister was to have come, but for September 11. The sister loves to bake, and was very much interested in learning Panettone, which her other sister had never heard of. She would take and translate copious notes. There were two other men, one young and buff, the other older and also a meticulous note-taker. We were a happy group of perfectly normal oddballs. Let the baking begin!
We would make three panettone: the classic, tall Milanese, a shorter Genovese Basso, and a refined Veneziana, topped with ghiacha mandorla, a crunchy almond glaze. The dough was partially prepared, with vats of natural starter that had been refreshed and risen through the night. This starter, said Biagio, is made only with "water, flour, and the blessing of God." The group bogged down a bit, trying to understand the intricate mysteries of the "madre," but I knew that I could not devote the necessary time to a lump of dough, no matter how intricate or mysterious. I would settle for fresh yeast.
Then the mixing began, flour was added to the starter, which turned slowly (staying cool) in the mechanical kneader imported from Italy, that only Biagio is allowed to touch. Then pounds of sugar and quarts of eggs (these three batches would each make 12-16 breads), each added in halves, half again, and half again.
The dough is mixed slowly and ingredients added gradually to build a strong dough, fully stretching the gluten to hold the rise and the fruit. We watched and chatted as the dough turned from ragged shreds into a silky, shining, living thing. It is amazing to watch a dough develop, like a baby opening its eyes or a blooming flower, it comes to life.
The dough is ready when is forms "la mallia glutinica." Roughly translated--a gluten t-shirt, which doesn't sound very appetizing but means that the dough has developed a resiliency that will bake into a firm, even bread. Biagio takes a small piece of dough, flattens it a bit, and stretches it until it is transparent. If it doesn't tear, it's ready.
Each in their turn, the doughs were dragged from the mixer and dead-weighted onto the buttered countertop (Flouring the board to keep the dough from sticking would also make the dough tough.) Biagio whacked off pieces, flipped them onto the scale, folded and shaped them into domes, and patted them gently into paper sleeves.
It is a joy to watch a professional move smoothly and expertly through their work. The last shreds of dough are scraped and flipped swiftly onto the counter, huge buckets are hefted and dumped, and sugar crystals rain through fingers. Tools are wielded with a muscular familiarity and every movement is at once powerful and graceful. Biagio and his assistant, David move like kings through their domain.
Covered, all the breads rose about halfway up their sleeves, and after leaving them open for about 15 minutes to develop light skin, they were scored with a straight razor bent onto a skewer. A triangle on the Genovese, a cross on the Milanese, and the Veneziana left smooth, to be glazed with a ghiacha mandorla, made of ground almonds and sugar mixed with egg whites into a paste.
While the breads baked, we ate Pandoro, another Italian Christmas bread. Settepani wraps it with a small bag of powdered sugar, that he dumps into the larger bag and shakes until the star-shaped bread is covered. This golden bread tears into long eggy strips that melt in your mouth. As for the leftover ghiacha, it was piped onto a cookie sheet and baked into pastilles, which we also ate.
As the breads came out of the oven their perfume filled the bakery and we could hear customers sighing and breathing in the aroma. One even came back to see what we were doing. Biagio neatly sliced a few of the breads into wedges to share out. When he spied a few left on the counter, he chided us, "Eat them, don't waste." Even though bread should cool before cutting or else could slice up gummy, this bread was even and elastic, like silk sponges studded with emerald and topaz bits of dried fruit.
For a grande finale, four of the Genovese were dipped in milk chocolate, drizzled with dark chocolate, and crowned with 24-carat gold leaf (fully digestible). Bravo, applause, sighs.
The bread was done, questions answered, the class was over. Biagio ran downstairs to change for a soccer game, and happy students packed up their panettone in crackling cellophane bags. We oddballs do all right for ourselves.