By Janice Llanes Fabry
Baking reached new heights during the pandemic as budding bakers kneaded their way through pounds of flour, finding it soothing and productive. For Virginie Baur, what started as a pastime became her passion.
“I go to France every year and last summer was the first time I could not go,” said Baur who was born and raised in Alsace. “I thought: What am I going to do? As bread is part of the French culture, I thought maybe I’ll try making it. I started and I haven’t stopped.”
She began taking online classes, experimenting with a variety of recipes and styles. Once she settled on sourdough, it became her specialty.
“Sourdough bread is naturally leavened, using sourdough starter, not packaged yeast. The starter is a live culture made with flour and water that collects naturally- occurring bacteria and yeast,” she explained. “Every 12 hours I refresh it with water and flour. It’s my baby.”
In fact, this starter is often referred to as “sourdough mother” because it’s essential to making good bread with complex flavors. It’s also quite challenging to master. Serendipitously, a friend of Baur’s husband happens to be the dean of the School of Baking at the Culinary Institute of America, Tom Gumpel.
“I couldn’t have done it without him,” she said. “Tom played a major role in helping me address problems that we would fix together over FaceTime.”
Baur emphasized that it takes considerable patience and a lot of practice. “I like to say you need four ingredients to make bread: flour, water, salt, and time, the biggest ingredient. It takes 24 hours from beginning to end.”
Every morning she makes loaves for the next day in her lovely, bright kitchen with windows overlooking her garden, where she grows herbs, including rosemary for her olive loaf. She starts by mixing 500 grams of flour, 375 grams of water, 80 grams of the starter, and 10 grams of salt.
“Next, a long fermentation process breaks down the gluten, so the gluten level in sourdough is very low, as is the sugar level,” explained Baur, who extols sourdough’s health benefits. “It’s more digestible, good for your gut, more nutritious, high in B vitamins, and there are no preservatives.”
Once it rises, she shapes it with impressive dexterity and swaddles it in pretty kitchen towels, placing it in bamboo “proofing” baskets. Proofing activates the yeast in the dough, which Baur refrigerates overnight.
The next morning, she bakes the loaves in Le Creuset Dutch ovens at 450 degrees for 50 minutes. The pièce de résistance is crispy on the outside, light and airy on the inside. The bread is so good that the circle of friends she was sharing it with convinced her to start selling loaves.
“During the pandemic, delivering the bread became as satisfying as making it. Our kids were home, so they embraced the opportunity to get out of the house and accompanied me,” she recalled. “Seeing the smiles and receiving the beautiful emails and texts about the bread from my friends made it very special. This wouldn’t have happened without their positive feedback.”
With all her success and rave reviews, Baur insists, “This is not a business.
I only have two hands and one oven.” It’s true her oven only accommodates two loaves at a time and the maximum she has made in a day is eight. However, the idea of expansion seems to be fermenting — “Well, maybe when the kids go off to college.”
This summer, she was able to return to Alsace for a visit with her family at the now biodynamic vineyard where she grew up. Her family is the ninth generation to produce wine at Domaine Francois Baur, which was founded in 1741.
While her brother is the winemaker now, she has been marketing the family wine locally in New York for 15 years. Her husband, John Sellar, also works in the wine industry. They moved to Rye from New York City 16 years ago and have two sons, Toma, a Rye High School junior on RowAmerica Rye’s team, and Nicolas, an eighth grader at Rye Middle School.
“I’m from a small town, so I appreciate that everything here is within walking distance. Rye is a beautiful community to raise kids, and it’s so easy to make friends, from the first day on the playground,” she said.
As for this summer’s trip to France, Baur brought her sourdough starter. She was eager to share her bread with her parents, who had seen it so often via FaceTime. Unfortunately, she was unable to duplicate it.
“The flour, water, and oven are so different in France. My family will have to come to America to taste my bread,” she said.