How the Semilla baker came to understand the art of baking with whole grains.
Anyone who’s tasted Pam Yung’s bread knows that she's a fascinating baker. The Brooklyn-based pastry chef only seriously started baking bread—a classic levain at first, made with white flour and baked in a wood-fired oven—while working under chef Ignacio Mattos at Isa back in 2011. But she quickly got hooked. Today, her bread is anything but classic. Yet, her baking harkens back to age-old traditions, pulling inspiration—and fascinating varieties of grains—from all over the map.
On a recent night at Semilla, the tiny but sensational Williamburg restaurant that she runs with her boyfriend, the chef José Ramírez-Ruiz, the bread basket contained a revelation: slices of a loaf made with a healthy dose of ground freekeh. Spelt that’s picked green and then roasted, the freekeh gave the bread’s crust a smoky, bittersweet flavor akin to that of dark chocolate; it helped make its crumb, dotted with meaty, green Castelvetrano olives, as moist and creamy-sweet as pudding.
Yung had sourced the freekeh from Champlain Valley Milling in upstate New York and had milled it herself right into her dough at the restaurant. On a shelf above Ramírez-Ruiz’s head, in pride of place in the small, open kitchen, sits Yung’s German-made KoMo gristmill, handsome in its beechwood casing. It is the trophy machine of a dedicated whole grains baker—a reward Yung has given herself for the completion of a Grand Tour–style education that, with the help of a work-study grant from the James Beard Foundation, took her to San Francisco and throughout Western Europe in a quest to understand the art of baking with whole grains.
Here, she shouts out the baker mentors who taught her.
Chad Robertson, Tartine, San Francisco
“I went out to San Francisco and staged at Tartine for a month. Chad was deep in the process of producing his whole grains book, Tartine Book No. 3. Flour has been such a commodity product that even as a pastry chef, I’d taken it for granted. But Chad was exploring the flavor of wheat and blending wheats and finding synergies. He did a lot of sprouting and soaking and fermenting, processes that brought about other flavors from the grains, other textures. Most other places I’d been were very formulaic. You follow an exact recipe. At Tartine, it was much more about intuition. How does it look and feel, rather than strict measures and formulas. It was the opposite of pastry. It blew my mind.”
Gabriele Bonci, Pizzarium Bonci, Rome
"Bonci was incredibly eye-opening. Gabriele is really famous for Pizzarium, a tiny spot, standing room only, where pizza is sold by the kilo. The pizza doughs are fermented for three days. This was the most exciting part for me. In New York, we get fancy with toppings, but there’s not a lot of focus on the dough, so I had never made pizza like that before. In a long-fermented dough, there’s very little leavening, so it can be fermented for a long time. And there’s very low activity when the dough is cold, so they mix the dough, put it in the fridge, and the next day, they cut the dough and put it back in fridge. On the third day, they shape it. This adds more flavor. And it gives the dough an unreal texture. It has an impossibly thin crisp crust, but a very open crumb, very airy."
Carol Choi, Relae, Copenhagen
“Carol Choi, who was at Per Se, Noma and now Relae, where they’re just opening a bakery, is self-taught, though she also worked with Chad. She has a similar style— high-hydration dough, long fermentation—but she’s adopted her own methods, and her bread doesn’t taste like Tartine bread or my bread. She was working with Denmark’s organic high-protein soft wheat and a lot of amazing grains, which behave differently than the hard wheat here. So I learned about adaptability and treating the flour as a live product. It’s not always the same from batch to batch. It has character. Carol would measure the dough’s Ph with a probe and use that as a guiding force to react to it. She’d try to mix her dough at a certain Ph, ferment it in the fridge to retard it, and she’d look for a final Ph before it went in the oven. Levain becomes more acidic over time. When it’s over-proofed, the acid eats the gluten, and then your bread collapses, so you want to hit a range that’s optimal. The more you understand about fermentation, I learned, the more you can be flexible."
The Bakers at Rosendals, Stockholm
“This bakery and café in a biodynamic garden is the holy grail for bakers. It’s surrounded by nature, there’s an old Finnish wood-burning oven, you pick stuff from the garden to put on the breads, and everyone is amazing. It’s one of those places where you think, ‘Why isn’t every place like this?’ They use a high percentage of whole grains because the Swedish palate is used to that: different ryes, a lot of barley flour. They do a rye bread where the liquid in the dough is coffee. It’s traditional but unique. I’d never used an oven like that before. The bread isn’t shiny because there was no steam injection. It was just a closed environment where water from the bread itself was keeping the air moist. They made a loaf of a more rustic appearance, not like a lot of French bread, which is exact and pointy. I really loved that it all had a more rustic and beautiful look and feel. It doesn’t have to be perfect.”