The cookbook author and former bread program director of Flowers & Bread dishes on what she's baking during the COVID-19 crisis.

With most of us stuck at home because of the coronavirus outbreak, baking has become a respite for many people. Take one glance at Instagram and you’ll know sourdough starters are having the best time of their yeasty lives. So, who better to check in with right now than one of Central Ohio’s top bakers?

Sarah Black, a Marion native, has more than 30 years of professional baking experience, much of it spent as a baker, bread consultant and instructor in New York City. Black was a founding baker at Tom Cat Bakery before launching her own company, Companio Breads, in Long Island City, Queens, which she ran for almost 10 years before selling it to Tom Cat.  

Black is the author of “One Dough, Ten Breads,” a cookbook for aspiring home bakers published in 2016. Soon after moving back to Central Ohio, Black served as the bread program director of Flowers & Bread in Clintonville when it opened in 2016, and she continues to teach classes on bread and baking.

She is currently back in Marion, living with her mother, Ann, in the house where she grew up. I reached out to Black via email to find out what she thinks of the current baking renaissance and what she’s been up to in the kitchen.

You built your career as a baker in New York City beginning in the 1980s, just as artisan bakeries were gaining popularity and you became well known for your ciabatta recipe. What intrigued you about baking ciabatta at that time?

I felt confident in making ciabatta, a very highly hydrated dough (that means it has a lot of water), because I had just come from an apprenticeship [in New York City] with Dieu Donné Press and Paper, making handmade papers where working with water was key. The ciabatta dough is luxurious, and the result is an interior of beautifully translucent webs and strands of dough. My great grandfather was a renowned architect in Ohio, and I see my ciabatta with his eyes, in an architectural way, and that was very satisfying.

Sourdough starters seem to be social media darlings during our current stay-at-home situation. Why do you think people are turning to baking during this challenging time?

I believe and hope that everyone is beginning to find out how pleasurable and soothing making bread can be. From mixing the dough to shaping and baking, the mind and the senses are engaged and everything becomes quiet and still. My love of making bread has kept me sane during this challenging time, and I’m grateful for that.

On April 6, you organized a virtual bake sale on Instagram in which people posted photos of their baked goods. You also asked people to list what charities they would be donating to during the coronavirus crisis. Where did you get the idea and how did the bake sale go?

My birthday is Sept. 11, and I was in NYC with friends the day we were attacked. We decided immediately that we wanted to help in whatever way we could,  and because my network of friends included many people in the culinary industry, we were able to volunteer on the boats in the harbor of the World Trade Center, feeding the first responders. Selfishly, maybe, that was one helpful way to confront the fear and sadness and anxiety in a comforting way. Now, during this pandemic, we are limited in how we can help. I am patrolling my home and not going anywhere, because I want to keep my 89-year-old mother safe. While baking bread at home it occurred to me that Instagram provides so many platforms to reach out to others, and so I did, and many of my friends and colleagues came through. I was especially touched by the charities that were listed, and it helped me realize how many good people are doing good deeds during this crisis; it was a positive day.

What have you been baking while sequestered at home?

This question is a source of some consternation (I’m smiling as I write this), because I grew up eating Pepperidge Farm [Very Thin] White Bread as it was my mother’s favorite bread. Now we can’t get it! So, I’ve been making my favorite Milk Bread and then slicing it as thin as I possibly can to come as close as I can to matching Pepperidge Farm. My mom is appreciative, and she likes it, but she says it’s not as good as her favorite—ha!

When you are not baking, what do you enjoy cooking?

I love making soup, because for me it has the same build process (set-by-step) as bread. It’s satisfying to create a stock, layer ingredients and build flavor, and then feel the steam on your face and smell the aromas. We’ve been making and freezing a lot of soup here at home which feels secure in its own small way.

When the stay-at-home order finally ends, where can we find you?

I began teaching at Columbus State Community College this past year and have loved the elegant and professional space that Mitchell Hall provides. We’ve just begun to think realistically about when classes will begin, and that will be determined soon, but perhaps late summer? However, we’ve decided that I’ll be leading a six-week intensive series on “The Art and Craft of Making Bread” come September, and you can look forward to hearing more details about that soon. In the meantime, when life gives you lemons you make sourdough starter kits, and I am selling them at Weiland’s Market for the next couple of months. It’s an easier way to create your own sourdough culture.

For those home bakers with plenty of time on their hands, would you mind sharing a recipe—one that’s not sourdough?

I think everyone should have my Milk Bread recipe [see below] in their repertoire. What I love about this recipe is that it can be made in a loaf pan (to mimic Pepperidge Farm bread); it can be used as the base for a savory tart; or you can use it to make cinnamon rolls.

Recipe: Sarah Black’s Milk Bread

Ingredients:

(yield: 2.4 pounds of dough)

1 1/4 pound bread flour 8 1/2 ounces scalded milk            8 1/2 ounces hot water  1/2 ounce sugar               1/2 ounce salt    1 1/2 ounces unsalted butter       1/4 ounce Saf-Instant Yeast        

Instructions:

In a pot, scald milk and then combine with water, salt, sugar and butter.

Let mixture cool until it is lukewarm to the touch (68 to 70 degrees).

Mix

In a bowl, add bread flour, Saf-Instant Yeast and salt.

Add above liquid little by little; mix until all liquid is absorbed.

Let dough rest for 15 to 20 minutes, then fold and place in oiled bowl to ferment.

Ferment

Let dough rise for approximately 1 hour, then refrigerate overnight.

Shape

Shape dough into rolls, 1 1/2 to 2 ounces each.

Place dough rolls side-by-side in oiled loaf pans or aluminum tins.

Cover with oiled plastic wrap.

Proof

Let dough proof for 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Prep to Bake

Preheat oven to 400 F, placing an empty, small pan for creating steam in the bottom of the oven (note: do not use glass or Pyrex).

Spritz dough with water (or use egg wash or melted butter) and tap on top of dough with pastry brush.

Sprinkle with herbs and salt (optional).

Bake

Place loaf pans or aluminum tins in oven and add water to the small pan to create steam; bake for 25 to 30 minutes.

Let cool completely before cutting into milk bread, approximately 30 to 45 minutes.

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