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It’s hard for aficionados in any field to avoid the desert-island question. For music mavens, it boils down to, “Which album would you take with you, if you could only take one?” Movie lovers have to decide which film they’d want to watch, possibly in perpetuity—a question that bears careful consideration, especially if you consider the perils of spending the rest of your natural life with only Ishtar or Ernest Goes to Camp to keep you company.
Whenever we at CCD Innovation convene our Chefs’ Council to conduct an ideation session for clients, we often break the ice by asking participants to choose the sole source of nourishment they’d want to be able to haul with them to a life of solitude and renunciation. When my turn comes, I invariably answer the same way each time: a crispy/crunchy baguette with fresh creamery butter.
To me, there’s absolutely nothing more soul satisfying or delicious. And no matter how many exotic recipes or preparations cross my desk each month, I’m still intrigued by the magic of what happens when four ridiculously simple ingredients—flour, salt, yeast, and water—band together in one pan. And I’m not the only one; James Beard was quoted thusly in The New York Times: “Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.”
Four years ago, when I last addressed the topic of bread in this space, I noted four trends that seemed to be gaining traction at the time: the use of ancient grains in breads, the rise of gluten-free offerings, ethnic breads, and the prevalence of previously marginal carriers, particularly flatbreads.
As it happens, each one of these trends has not only continued gathering momentum, but all have also branched out and advanced in ways I wouldn’t have anticipated at the time. Since 2010, the ancient-grains trend has taken root in bakeries and patisseries all over the U.S. A few years ago, I mentioned only four grains that were finding favor for their unusual flavor profiles: amaranth, bulgur, quinoa, and barley. Today, the options have increased almost exponentially. From emmer wheat and einkorn to millet, teff, couscous, and farro, ancient grains are being used in contexts ranging from breads and pastas to cakes, chips, muffins, polenta, and simple side dishes. Now we’re seeing the emergence of sprouted grains, which the Whole Grains Council describes as “offering all the goodness of whole grains, while being more readily digested.”
We’re now seeing grains such as sprouted barley, buckwheat, rice, rye, and wheat in a wealth of new contexts, and the results, from a culinary standpoint, are quite pleasing. Peter Reinhart of our Chefs’ Council—and James Beard Award winner for his masterful tome Whole Grain Breads—sees sprouted grains as the next big thing in bread, and many of his esteemed colleagues agree.
Flatbreads have also, in the past few years, become so commonplace as to be almost unremarkable. Or this would be the case if restaurants and bakeries weren’t doing so many interesting things with them. When establishments like Lincoln in Portland, Oregon, are coming up with delicacies such as thyme flatbreads with crispy pig ear, or when chef Michael White’s Ai Fiori in New York is presenting lavash with burrata caviar, arancini, and ricotta, it’s pretty tough to make the case that this trend is tapped out.
On the ethnic front, perhaps no single import is being explored to as great an effect as the Latin American empanada. The San Francisco Bay Area alone had, at last count, four empanada bars or food trucks making the urban rounds. Mamas Empanadas is a force of nature on four wheels, delivering a Latin/Mediterranean fusion in the form of chorizo and potato empanadas, as well as a veggie and olive oil rice variety. And the National Pork Board has flagged honey-braised pork cheek empanadas with wild honey chimichurri among its choicest recipes on offer at its website.
Another delicious trend we’re seeing more of these days is a penchant for substituting items such as pretzels and croissants for more traditional carriers. Doma Kitchen outside Los Angeles is taking things to a decidedly different plane with tongue sliders on pretzel buns. And Wayfare in New Orleans is right there, too, with its Knuckle sandwich, consisting of beef sirloin tip, horseradish aioli, pickled onions, shoestring potatoes, and arugula on a pretzel bun. It’s worth noting that this substitution trend, driven in part by the desire for novelty in carriers, is at least loosely related to the so-called mash-ups that have been making headlines in recent months: the “cronut” croissant-doughnut hybrid, scone-muffins (“scuffins,” in hipster parlance), and “cr’nishes,” a possibly unwieldy but definitely inspired mix of knish and croissant.
Last but hardly least, we have both the simplest trend and the most notable for what it tells us about the high premium consumers now place on great bread. In San Francisco today, an establishment called The Mill charges $5 for an order of toast. Yes, you read that right. Now, to be fair, the toast is an inch thick and can be ordered with a dizzying array of condiments, including various homemade nut butters and jams.
It’s going to be some time before we see $5 toast on offer at any quick-serve or fast-casual establishment. But operators should take The Mill’s success as a testament to how compelling a piece of heated bread can be, given the right treatment and toppings. And they might just give some additional thought to how they can tweak their own carriers and accompaniments to capitalize on guests’ growing yen for the staff of life.