The delicious Metropolitan Bakery is owned by Wendy Smith Born and James Barrett. Opened in 1993 in close proximity to the posh Rittenhouse Square area of Philadelphia, they feature European style high-quality pastries, breads, pizzas, sandwiches and desserts in now six locations. They offer fantastic gifts (breads, cookies and more) shipped online. You can even get a “Bread of the Month” subscription! The subscription of my dreams! I had the opportunity to try the products below, and read further down for my interview with James Barrett of Metropolitan Bakery
What was your first bread-making experience like?I was eight years old and baking with my Grandmother Tucci. It was a rustic Italian loaf… I guess that’s where it all started.
Essential tools you would recommend for someone starting to make bread at home?
A hearthstone for the oven, spray bottle for misting bread while it’s baking, a good sturdy bowl and a bench scraper.
What are your top selling breads?
The French baguette, multigrain and San Francisco sourdough.
There are so many bakeries out there, what makes Metropolitan unique?
That we do everything by hand and in the old-world style – including all-natural starters and a long, slow, cool rise – and that day after day, for 23 years, we are consistent in quality, whether it’s handmade soups or pies or breads. Also, our sense of community. We have customers that we see every day, and then some only when they are back in town, and we feel a connection to them, and our community. And now we see the children of our first customers coming in to shop for their kids!
How do you find inspiration to develop new recipes?I’m inspired by the grains themselves, especially locally grown and cut grains, whether it’s a red corn grit or course ground rye. Sometimes, though, I just have a craving.
Do you have favorite ingredients you like to work with? I love working with rye grain. Its caramelization and fermentation creates a really great flavor profile and texture.
What are some of your favorite (and most used)cookbooks?
Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty is a current favorite. I turn to Advanced Bread and Pastry by Michel Suas time and time again. My all-time favorite is The Joy of Cooking.
I have a video on making ciabatta bread and in the comments there has been much debate about the perfect technique. Can you share any secrets with us for making a fantastic ciabatta?
A few tips –
Use a mixture of cornmeal and flour or semolina and flour and sprinkle it on parchment paper, and then loosely shape the ciabatta dough into ovals or rectangles on the paper. Place it on the parchment seam side down, then allow the dough to proof until dough has not quite doubled in size (don’t wait until it’s doubled, you get a much better oven expansion if you start to bake less than doubled in size). Then dust the dough with flour mixture, dimple loaf from top to bottom lightly, and then place another floured parchment paper on top and flip it over, do any final reshaping, then then get it into the preheated oven on a brick.
When I bake mine at home, I bake it on a 550 degree oven, and I spray it with water three times in its first 15 minutes, then lower to 450 degree, and bake another 35-40 minutes until I see nice caramelization, then I turn the oven off and leave the door ajar to let the bread finish drying in oven… this is what crisps and sets the crust. If you don’t let it dry, it will get squishy because it’s such a hydrated dough. Usually another 20 minutes. Everyone’s baking environment is different… so you might need to experiment a few times to get it right, but once you have the right parameters, it’s pretty easy.
What advice do you have for anyone considering a career as a pastry chef?
Work for a baker or chef you respect for a year before you start culinary school. You want to know that you really love it, and that you don’t mind the long hours and low pay, BEFORE you start school.