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Baking a Well-Bred Loaf

Mon, 09/25/2023 - 15:04
Tracy Stoloff's Night Owl Bakery week starts on Sunday as she begins the fermentation process and ends on Wednesday with the baking of the loaves, which she delivers to local markets on Thursday.
Lindsay Morris

Bread. For some people it's paradise, for others it's hell. For every person who can enjoy a crusty baguette or chewy bagel without guilt, distress, or bloat, there seem to be many more who cannot.

For those in the latter category, quitting bread has become the norm. But some bakers have developed ways to make bread that they say will help curb its typical downsides. A native of California, Tracy Stoloff makes Night Owl Baker sourdough bread with a triple fermentation process and a levain or "mother" first developed with wild yeast from the air in Montauk, which is where she has lived on and off for some 25 years.

"My background has always been clean, healthy food. That's how my mom raised us," she said in an interview earlier this year. Although she has spent much of her professional life on the East Coast (previously in the film industry as a focus puller), she was living in Los Angeles when she discovered Jack Bezian's bread at the Santa Monica farmers market.  

"I saw this long line wrapped around the corner with celebrities that even I recognized, everyone in their yoga pants. I'm like, what are they giving away there?" Given how body-conscious everyone is in Los Angeles, the idea that people were lining up for bread at a time when carbs were considered especially forbidden was intriguing. She queued up too and became a weekly customer. 

After losing some stubborn belly weight she had carried since her pregnancy without changing anything else in her diet except for eating the bread for six months, she said she became obsessed with it. She wanted a way to keep eating the bread once she moved back east, but she found that people are very secretive about how they produce their starters and their loaves.

She grabbed whatever books and recipes she could for wild-yeast-raised bread. "This style of fermentation is really a primitive technique and every culture has a version of the bread. . . . It's the way to make bread without baker's yeast because baker's yeast is not readily available in a lot of countries."

While this was the traditional way to make bread for thousands of years, it is not so easy to harness the wild yeast. "It doesn't happen fast," she said. Even once she got her levain going, it took a year of test baking to come up with a loaf that met her requirements. She's now had the starter for 14 years.

It's not just the starter that distinguishes the bread, which has a chewy texture and sour rye flavor best experienced toasted. The stone ground organic wheat and rye flours she buys from Farmer Ground Flour upstate and the milling process that "leaves so much of the important parts of the wheat in the wheat" is what she credits for its hearty and healthful properties. "I think that also lends to the unique flavor of my bread."

This is the flour she used to start her levain, or leavening agent, along with Channing Daughters Winery's organic grape juice. "You can tell when your levain has become 'the magic' when it starts to bubble." This is a sign that the microbes -- what are considered "wild yeast" -- have started eating the flour and are releasing carbon dioxide gas. Then, every eight hours it doubles in size.

Once it gets going, it needs to be fed with more flour and water. Ms. Stoloff said her original levain was about one cup and made in a mason jar. But now, she is feeding it about 50 pounds of flour a week to keep it going and to create enough to raise the 300 pounds of dough she bakes weekly.

Her triple fermentation process takes 86 hours to finish. "I was committed to a long ferment, because I love a super tangy sourdough." Plus, she noted, "the longer I ferment my dough, the more predigested and easy on the gut the glutens are." Once she felt like her bread was ready to market, she used Gosman's Fish Market's kitchen for her commercial baking. She now makes her bread at Stony Brook University's Calverton Food Incubator.

Although she only bakes on Wednesdays, tending to the levain and getting the dough ready for baking begins on Sunday. On Tuesday she blends the dough with two levains, one is the 86-hour levain, which brings the sour tastes she loves, and the other is a levain fermented for 12 hours, which helps the bread rise.

The claims about the bread might be open to debate, but her followers, including local and national nutritionists, and the fitness and lifestyle guru Tracy Anderson, are true believers. 

Ms. Anderson, who has been a loyal customer, has featured her bread in posts and in the most recent issue of her magazine, in a recipe called Night Owl Baker Brunch Toasts. 

Each loaf costs $12 and is available at farm stands in season as well as all year at Amber Waves Market in Amagansett, Provisions in Sag Harbor, and Hen of the Woods in Southampton. She also ships the bread nationwide through her website.

Ultimately she would like to make her bread three days a week and get it out to an even broader market, but with a long commute and a lot of work for one person, that dream will have to wait. "My quality of life remains very important to me. . . . I love living in Montauk. I hike, I bike, I swim."

Her mother, who died this spring, used to tell her " 'your bread is so important, Tracy, to so many people that understand it and have been introduced to it,' " she paused. "My mother was very proud of me." 

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