Chef on Call

There's a Better Weigh to Bake, He Said

Bread expert Mark Furstenberg helps baker Paula Whyman please her son's discerning palate.
By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 30, 2008; Page F01

Bethesda resident Paula Whyman calls herself a breadhead, meaning she takes, and bakes, the stuff seriously.

The sight of artisanal bread packaged in plastic bags disturbs her. The 43-year-old writer owns a baking stone, a peel, a special tool for slashing dough, a gas range and an electric convection oven. She stocks three kinds of King Arthur flour and a malt powder to build a better texture. She combs reference books, surfs Web sites and experiments with ingredients and preparation.

Then she tests the results on her family. Her husband, Bill, also 43, and son David, 9, are not likely to reject anything home-baked, but 7-year-old Eric is a more discerning judge. He had no problem giving a thumbs-down to his mother's rendition of Julia Child's French bread.

"The crumb's a little tight," he declared, objecting to the density of the loaf's interior. The maple oatmeal bread she offered a few weeks later fared no better.

Upset by such crummy reviews, Whyman contacted Chef on Call.

She wanted to produce good loaves consistently, and she requested the help of one man: Mark Furstenberg, the bread maven credited with bringing European-style bread to Washington.

When Furstenberg opened Marvelous Market in 1990, customers waited in line to receive two-loaf allotments. But the instant success meant that he could not keep up with demand. And he admits his lack of business savvy.

"People considered me a guru, but I really didn't know what I was doing," Furstenberg says. The year before, at age 51, he had gone to the famed La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles to study Nancy Silverton's techniques but soon realized he had learned how to make her bread instead of how to be a breadmaker. So Furstenberg went to Paris, where he did stints over five years at renowned bakeries such as Le Moulin de la Vierge and L'Autre Boulange.

The District resident, now 69, has fierce white eyebrows and a thinning thatch of white hair -- and a reputation for telling it like he sees it. He sold his interest in Marvelous Market in 1996 and opened the popular Bread Line downtown in 1997.

Furstenberg no longer is associated with that business; he now works as a consultant, spreading the bread gospel according to Mark and teaching regularly at the Greystone campus of the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, Calif. The bread he bakes at home, most of which is whole-grain and in the service of recipe development, is given to his Kalorama neighbors. His quest to achieve the perfect baguette is ongoing.

He arrived at the Whymans' kitchen a few weeks ago with bubbling dough starters and samples, plus an essential piece of kitchen equipment. A properly crunchy exterior was the first issue he addressed.

Humidity gives bread a desirable hard crust, he said: "Steam retards the formation of a crust long enough for the bread to expand to its maximum before the crust sets and inhibits its growth. Then it gelatinizes the crust. The sugars in the dough caramelize and become deep brown."

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