The Bread Whisperer
A master baker returns to her Ohio roots to partner in a new concept bakery
The aroma of fresh-baked bread is so delectable, so satisfying, so life-affirming, that it’s almost magic, and Sarah Black, head baker and bread program director of soon-to-open Flowers and Bread in Clintonville is the alchemist who makes the magic happen.
Except that Sarah—a petite, quiet dynamo—doesn’t see it quite that way. She is definitely an expert, with 30 years’ experience in New York City’s competitive food arena (see sidebar), and her breads have appeared in the city’s finest restaurants and shops (think Dean & Deluca or Delmonico’s), but bread making is not a secret she wants to keep to herself.
Sarah has a unique and specific way of learning to make bread that she teaches in her new cookbook, described below, and in her classes. But, she says: “People can make bread baking too science-y. I think you should use your instincts and get your hands in the dough. Baking is a fun and pleasant thing to do.”
Savoring the Simple
Sarah, who is originally from Marion, was pondering a return to her Midwest roots when she serendipitously met Tricia Wheeler and Sarah Lagrotteria, who were pondering a dream of their own.
Tricia, the publisher of Edible Columbus magazine and owner of The Seasoned Farmhouse cooking school and event space, and Sarah Lagrotteria, a chef and writer who works with both companies, wanted to create the kind of “great space” in Clintonville that they themselves would enjoy. They envisioned a bakery/café/floral studio that championed fresh-baked bread, fresh flowers, and freshly brewed coffee—simple pleasures often neglected in these overbooked times.
Then the three women met—a spark of recognition! great minds thinking alike!—and a few months later, Sarah B moved to Columbus to assume her role as head baker/teacher. Flowers and Bread, the fruit of their shared dream, will open soon on the corner of North High Street and Acton, across from the Whetstone Library.
Passing It On
“I’ve opened at least five different bakeries,” Sarah B says. “Truthfully, if you ask any baker, they’ve all worked 20 hours a day when their bakeries first open. It’s not something I want to do at Flowers and Bread. That kind of schedule throws off the balance of life.”
“But it’s difficult to get a consistent product. It’s the nature of bread. Since it’s alive, so many things can go wrong. You need someone there who knows it and can guide it.”
Aspiring home bakers can take advantage of Sarah B’s expertise in her new cookbook, One Dough, Ten Breads: Making Great Bread by Hand, to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in February. The book is a natural outgrowth of her baking classes. “It’s a specific and organized way to teach baking,” Sarah B says, describing it as “not a splashy coffee table book, but user friendly.”
Booklist has already given it a starred review, calling it “probably the closest a book can get to a hands-on course in the art of bread.” Her recipe for Ancient Grains Bread (see sidebar), is a delicious example of Sarah B’s art.
The cookbook took about eight years to conceptualize and two years to write. Sarah B describes the creative process of developing her recipes in her home kitchen. “I start with a bread that I can envision in my imagination as to how I want it to look and taste. Then I make it 20 or 30 times until I can understand each nuanced component and feel confident that I can build it out to scale, so that 50 loaves taste as good as one. It takes practice, practice, practice.”
Her New York (and now Ohio) neighbors benefit from her process, since they are the lucky recipients of the one hundred or so experimental loaves that Sarah B bakes to develop each new recipe.
Baking Bread, Raising Community
While Flowers and Bread is a commercial enterprise, all three women also see the shop as a gift to the community.
“We’re across from the Park of Roses,” Sarah Lagrotteria points out, “and we want to be here for moms to pick up drinks and home-baked granola bars on their way to the playground.”
“Or milk and cookies after school,” Tricia adds. “Sandwiches for the Fourth of July celebration. Hot Cross Buns for Easter weekend. We want to really integrate into Whetstone events and beautify our corner of Clintonville. Flowers and Bread fits right into the community values of green space and walkability.”
Part of Sarah B’s mission in Ohio is to train other bakers to a high standard. “I’m very serious about Flowers and Bread becoming an educational part of bread making for the Midwest.”
And she hopes to eventually partner with local farmers to grow heritage strains of wheat to use in her bakery. “Better soil makes better wheat,” she says, which results in better bread.
Learn, Celebrate, Build
In addition to the workaday business of bakery, coffee shop, and floral studio, Flowers and Bread will provide three different private event spaces, including an upstairs meeting room, for dinner parties, rehearsal dinners, showers, or business meetings. All can be catered: think roast chicken from the wood-fired oven.
The floral studio will sell locally grown flowers and bouquets and offer howto classes for floral and wreath design and flower drying. In the bakery, “Imagine a corporate team-building bread class,” says Sarah B, who will teach this and other more traditional baking classes.
And there are gifts to purchase. “A nosegay of fresh flowers, a candle, some good local honey,” says Tricia, promising that “we’ll always have something here that feels special.”
Flowers and Bread will serve the public from 7am until 5pm, when the house will take on its second life as an event space and classroom. The owners promise ample parking and a beautiful place to meet friends, buy fresh bread and flowers, and feel a part of Clintonville’s neighborly vibe.
The Happy Baker
“I’m so happy to be back in Ohio,” says Sarah B. “Tricia and Sarah are very lovely women with a whole way of being that’s different from New York City. The Seasoned Farmhouse, where I taught some classes, is a happy place to be, positive and friendly and unlike any other work scenario I’ve known.”
Today Sarah B is happily planning the curriculum and classes for her bread courses and testing recipes for Flowers and Bread, confident that she is in the right place at the right time.
“I don’t necessarily believe in destiny—or I didn’t—but all these components of being back in Ohio, near family and friends, making bread, working with women I respect and like seem to be the kind of happy ending I’ve always imagined.”
Flowers and Bread is located in Clintonville at 3870 North High St., in a former residence. Street and lot parking are available.
On Becoming a Baker in The Big Apple
Before Sarah Black became the head baker and bread program director of the new Flowers and Bread in Clintonville, she spent 30 successful years as a New York City baker. Born in Marion and educated at Ohio University, Sarah made the leap to NYC armed with a degree in painting—and realized almost immediately that she didn’t have “the right stuff” to succeed.
Undaunted, she cast around for an alternative, trying and failing at pantry and pastry positions in a friend’s restaurant. In the meantime, Sarah was experimenting at home, guided by Carol Field’s now-classic book, The Italian Baker, and in its pages she discovered her career. “Bread and I were a great time,” she recalls, so when another friend opened Tom Cat Bakery in 1987, Sarah was ready.
So was New York. In the early 90s, New York Magazine trumpeted the news of a “bread-baking renaissance” in the city, and Sarah was one of its pioneers, credited by the New York Times’s Florence Fabricant for “bringing ciabatta to New York.”
“That was my shining moment,” Sarah laughs. Ciabatta was one of the breads she found in The Italian Baker and for which she perfected the recipe that she sold in her stores and taught in her classes.
In 1990, under the wing of Tom Cat Bakery, she opened her own line of breads that soon turned up “in sandwiches and bread baskets all over Manhattan,” according to New York Magazine. “Bakeries are not cutthroat like other parts of the culinary world,” Sarah says. “Women bakers know about each other and help each other.”
Sarah’s prominence as a NYC baker led to her “most fun job” as a coach for Judd Hirsch when he played a baker on Broadway. “One of his lines was: ‘It takes a lifetime to be a baker,’” says Sarah. “And it’s true, because bread is a living thing, and you have to learn to understand it and respect it and manage it.”
To do that, bakers sacrifice sleep and normal business hours.
“Because so many bakeries or retail businesses open at 7 or 8am, bakers tend to start work by 3am. Just about every bakery I’ve worked with has operated 24/7.”
Sarah says that it is “pretty well known” among bakers that the overnight shift is the most challenging, since the people who choose to work nights are largely rebels who cherish their independence, but are “hard sometimes to redirect and retrain.” On the other hand, “there is a real freedom to being up all night. You have the quiet, focused ability to really learn about bread.”
In 1999, Sarah sold her baking business and began a career as a baking consultant for corporations including Pepperidge Farm, Whole Foods, and Giant Eagle Marketplace. Sarah also consulted with Amy’s Breads, helping to train, develop, and teach baking classes at the bakery’s Chelsea Market location.
In the past five years, Sarah says, “I recognized how much I love working with people. I’ve always gotten a great response to my classes. It’s fun to open up the world of bread to people.”
And now, back home in the Midwest, Sarah plans to do just that at Flowers and Bread.