- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 27, 2003

RENICK, W.Va. — Jeff Kessler’s career as a baker in the Appalachian Mountains mirrors the development of bread baking during the past two decades. When he first came to West Virginia, Wonder Bread was king and artisan bakeries did not exist.

“When I first began, no one knew what a bagel was. Can you believe it?” So Mr. Kessler appealed to the local German community, baking classic American rye loaves with an open crumb and soft crust.

Building on this foundation, he acquired a starter said to be 400 years old. A starter is a soft paste of flour and water that is activated by yeasts and left to ferment before being added to bread dough.

The older it is, the more mellow the flavor. Historically, sourdough starter was made in areas where fresh yeast was scarce and where wild, airborne spores would do the same job by feeding and multiplying in the starter mixture. Sourdough is especially successful in certain microclimates, such as San Francisco, and Mr. Kessler seems to have found another.

For each batch, Mr. Kessler takes a small amount of starter — which is sometimes called by the French term levain — and mixes it with flour, water and salt to make his dough. The yeast in a small amount of starter raises the bread, but it takes time, sometimes as long as 18 hours.

Skill and patience are needed. Much depends on ambient temperature and humidity, as Mr. Kessler’s bakery is not climate-controlled. With his starter, Mr. Kessler first developed “a sexy white bread. I wanted something different, based on a French baguette and boule, a round loaf. With my starter, they tasted great.”

A trip to France was Mr. Kessler’s epiphany. He went to pick grapes and ended up as a baker of bread, working in the remote foothills of the Pyrenees.

“As a child in New York, I ate bread baked in a brick oven,” he says. “That sowed the seed.”

From France, Mr. Kessler moved on to Corsica, Dublin and finally to the National Baking Center in Minneapolis, where he studied with master baker Didier Rosada. But the mountains called. “Here I’ve no lock on the front door. The kids can raise a ruckus on Butler’s Mountain, and I can fire up the oven and bake whenever I want,” he says.

Mr. Kessler gradually built up a devoted local clientele. Good bread invites sandwiches, so with a partner he opened the Bakery on Court Street in nearby Lewisburg, serving soup, sandwiches and savory breads such as Mediterranean roll (recipe follows) and onion soup on a roll, a split loaf baked with a stuffing of caramelized onions and cheese. Using his starter, he baked a powerful whole-grain organic rye loaf. “They loved it,” he says.

An exploration of grains became Mr. Kessler’s next preoccupation. He brings in wheat flours from various mills to test their qualities. “Flour varies from season to season and year to year. You have to learn to work with each batch,” he says.

Ancient strains of wheat such as kamut and spelt offer a further challenge with their complex flavors. Mr. Kessler also sprouts wheat by moistening the grains. “They wake from dead to alive in just a few hours. Sugars change dramatically. It’s amazing,” he says.

What’s next? Where does Mr. Kessler want to take his breads?

“I would like to go all organic,” he says, “but the flour costs twice as much and there is not much demand here for organic bread yet.” Meanwhile, Mr. Kessler has opened his own bakery on a bleak hillside. A big gas-fired oven dominates what is essentially a warehouse, with sacks of grain and flour against the walls.

The bread-making process stretches over three days, with the first day devoted to preparation of ingredients, grinding of grains and soaking of dried fruits. Starters must be fed with more flour and water. Next morning, about 4, comes the mixing, kneading, raising and shaping of dough to a dozen different types of loaves.

“It’s a bit of a dance,” Mr. Kessler says, grinning. “I bake late the same day, sometimes into the following morning with a quick nap in between.” By the end of baking, the racks are lined with breads. They will be delivered to local restaurants, to the bakery in town or packed to send farther afield by overnight delivery.

“That’s one of the great strengths of bread made with starter. It stays fresh and moist three days and even up to a week,” he says.

The schedule is grueling, but Mr. Kessler does not seem fazed. “I make my own hours and take a day off when I want. It makes everyone, me and the family, happier. And I want my bakery to stay small. I want to instill my personal spark. When you start getting too big, you just grind away to mediocrity.”

One thing is certain. The redolent, crusty loaves baked in traditional style by artisans such as Mr. Kessler have reached obscure corners all over America, and they are here to stay. To contact Mr. Kessler: Jeff’s Breads, Box 1622, Lewisburg, WV 24901.

Mediterranean roll

For his popular lunch roll, Mr. Kessler packs a simple white bread dough with feta cheese; red peppers; herbs such as thyme, oregano, basil and garlic grown in his own garden. To save time, you can substitute frozen pizza dough. The rolls are delicious served warm with a green salad.

2 teaspoons dry active yeast

cup plus 2 tablespoons warm water

1 cups flour, more for kneading

Salt

Olive oil

2 medium red peppers, cored, seeded and cut in strips

3 cloves garlic, chopped

2 tablespoons chopped fresh herb leaves

6 ounces fresh feta cheese, crumbled

cup Kalamata olives, pitted and chopped

Freshly ground black pepper

1 egg

Sprinkle yeast over 2 tablespoons warm water and leave until dissolved, about 5 minutes.

Put flour and 1 teaspoon salt in a bowl and make a well in the center. Mix dissolved yeast with remaining water and pour into the well. Mix with your hand, gradually drawing in flour to make a smooth dough. If it is sticky, add more flour, a tablespoon at a time, until dough pulls from sides of bowl. Transfer dough to a floured work surface and knead it until elastic and very smooth, 3 to 5 minutes.

Alternatively, mix and knead dough in an electric mixer with the dough hook.

Shape dough into a ball, drop it into an oiled bowl and turn dough so the top is oiled. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave it in a warm place until dough is doubled in bulk, 3/4 to 1 hour.

Meanwhile, make filling by heating 2 tablespoons olive oil in a frying pan and frying peppers until wilted, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in garlic and herb leaves and continue cooking 1 minute. Remove from heat, stir in feta cheese, olives and plenty of pepper, and let filling cool. Chop it on a board into coarse chunks. Taste and adjust seasoning, if desired.

Make glaze by beating egg with teaspoon salt.

Knead dough lightly to knock out air, divide in 4 portions and shape into balls. Roll to 7-inch rounds about -inch thick. Brush edges with egg glaze and mound filling in center. Lift the 3, 6, 9 and 12 o’clock points of each round to center and pinch together to shape a tall square parcel. Pinch together the parcel seams and transfer packages to an oiled baking sheet. Cover with a cloth and leave in a warm place for dough to rise, 25 to 35 minutes. Brush parcels with glaze and bake in 375-degree oven until browned, 25 to 35 minutes. Makes 4 servings.

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