Alex Bois gets his sourdough starter ready
for the holidays at High Street on Market
Photographed By Courtney Apple
The first time I ate lunch at High Street on Market, I was so enamored of the bread that I weaseled my way into the kitchen to meet the baker. There, I found a studious, clean-shaven guy in clogs, threading bamboo skewers through loaves of hot panettone before he hung them upside down to cool.
It was November, and in the tiny baking area a dozen domed holiday breads dangled like pregnant bats between overturned coffee cans. “Oh, I’m just experimenting,” Alex Bois said casually, grinning through the fragrant air. It smelled of toasted almonds, cherries and—was that the smell of lilies? “No, jasmine,” Bois shrugged. He had kneaded dried, ground blossoms into the dough.
I took home a warm loaf in my arms and was changed forever. Or, at least, my feelings toward panettone changed forever. My impression had been formed in early childhood by my grandfather, who—always in search of a deal—loaded up on discount panettone from Kmart one year and stacked them by the mower in his garage. For an entire summer, we pecked away at them for breakfast. Cottony, dry, dotted with shriveled raisins, this was the bread of misery.
Bois’ panettone, by contrast, was feathery, moist, studded with plump brandied cherries. Toasted and buttered, it melted like sugar on my tongue. In the two weeks that I ate it for breakfast, I never tired of the aromatic spices and the sweet, slightly boozy taste of each crumb. What made it so good? I wondered. And: How did it last for two weeks on the counter without molding?
Inspired by the first brisk temperatures, I recently stole back to High Street’s kitchen to find out.
“First of all, panettone is a sourdough,” Bois explains to me over coffee at High Street’s communal table. “There are similar festive breads all over Europe, but of those in current production, panettone is the only one that’s fermented.”
Of the many sourdoughs that Bois makes for High Street and its affiliate restaurants, Fork and A.Kitchen, panettone requires the longest rise time and is the most labor-intensive. “The first step takes about a day and a half,” he says, “and if the temperature isn’t just right, it gets finicky.”
The total process takes about 48 hours, not to mention the extra effort it takes to “hang” the bread when
it comes out of the oven so that the loaves don’t collapse. This extra step prevents the molten butter from
sinking to the bottom of the hot loaf “and pulling the top down with it,” Bois explains.
The total process takes about 48 hours, not to mention the extra effort it takes to “hang” the bread when it comes out of the oven so that the loaves don’t collapse. This extra step prevents the molten butter from sinking to the bottom of the hot loaf “and pulling the top down with it,” Bois explains, lifting his hands into the air and flicking his wrists, branded with oven-door scars. The extra love and labor result in an exquisite payoff.
The long rise creates what Bois describes as a deep rummy flavor in the dough. Unlike yeasted, enriched breads that are best eaten right out of the oven or soon after, a true sourdough pannetone tastes best after it cures for a few days, or even a week, he says. Well wrapped, it will stay fresh for a month at room temperature, thanks to organic acids that act as a preservative.
“It’s really a wild bread,” Bois says, grabbing his apron and heading for the kitchen. “Even before you add fruit and spices to it, the long, slow ferment gives it so much flavor.”
Bois began baking under unusual circumstances, and he has a thing for unusual, hard-to-master breads. After studying biochemistry in college, he followed a girlfriend to Bangladesh, where he contracted a fierce case of hepatitis E. The virus, which affects the liver, forced him to return to his parents’ house in Cambridge and take up residence on the couch.
“My liver was so destroyed, I couldn’t drink any alcohol or eat any fat,” he recalls, pulling paper-thin lavash crackers from the oven and drizzling them with a brackish- looking purée of charcoal and garlic.
As part of his treatment, Bois began studying the one thing he could eat: carbs. He pored over books on sourdough and drew on his scientific knowledge to begin making his first starter. It helped that Bois’ parents are French (he pronounces his last name “bwwwwah”) and that he grew up with a taste for a perfectly crusted baguette. “My after-school snack every day was a piece of baguette with butter on it and a square of dark chocolate,” he recalls, noting that his mother went out of her way to buy only from French bakers.
When his health improved, Bois landed at a professional bakery, Sullivan St in New York. During his illness, he’d started an e-mail correspondence with its renowned head baker, Jim Lahey—the man famous for developing a no-knead bread formula that revolutionized home bread-baking after the recipe ran in The New York Times.
Bois worked for Lahey as a dough mixer, rising to the head of production in three short months. From Lahey, he learned to ignore the dogma of bread baking, Bois tells me as he shapes loaves of anadama bread, dark with molasses and stippled with bran. Bois explains that most bakeries operate under rigid tenets about rise times and starters, while he prefers to use experimentation and “empirical evidence”—something Lahey encouraged.
After a year, Bois left Sullivan St for Philadelphia. Worn down by New York and eager to experiment with new flours and grains, he interviewed with Chef Eli Kulp, who had just set the lights aglow at High Street with Ellen Yin of Fork. Bois loved the handcrafted ethic at High Street, where pastry chef Samantha Kincaid had already begun sourcing locally milled flours.
Kulp still shakes his head like a retriever shaking off water when he recalls the day Bois showed up for his interview. “He came in with one of the most perfect baguettes I’d ever seen,” Kulp says. “And he’d just baked it in a crappy home oven!”
Apricots. Cardamom. Chocolate stout reduction. These are just a few of the ingredients that Bois plans to knead into his holiday breads this year. Since he became head baker for High Street and Fork, his bagels have appeared in Details, and Bon Appetit honored his loaves with a two-page spread.
These successes—and the gorgeous breads that appear on tables in High Street, Fork and A.Kitchen—all stem from a single oven that runs all day long. Bois shows up at five each morning, oversees a team of three mixers, manually steams the oven using a handheld pump sprayer, and loads the loaves in himself—about two dozen at a time. Because his primary source of flour is a small family-run mill in Bucks County, “every batch is a little different to work with,” he says. His mind calculates, his fingers adjust, his internal timer sways.
The constant challenge keeps him engaged, and the freedom to create makes him rise from bed before dawn, though he is a night person— so much so that he studied circadian rhythms in college in order to understand his own.
This winter, Bois will release several new breads, including a 100% local Vollkornbrot, a dense German rye made with locally raised grains that are milled at Castle Valley Mill in Doylestown. He considers it his greatest achievement since he developed his anadama, a moist, crusty loaf that uses cracked corn and a hard red winter wheat variety known as Warthog.
After much testing, he has also perfected his baguette—yes, a perfectly crisped baguette—made with a touch of brown rice flour that he grinds himself. “It’s the first baguette recipe I’ve made that I am willing to sell to the public,” he says proudly, adding, “Just a small percentage of rice flour gives you a crust that crackles.”
And of course, there will be holiday breads. Not to mention the one I am waiting for. Panettone.
High Street on Market
308 Market St.
HIGH STREET BREADS FOR THE HOLIDAYS
Look for chocolate-apricot-cardamom or cherryalmond- jasmine. They’re great for toasting and shmearing with Amish butter, alongside coffee or tea.
This dense German rye calls for a holiday smorgasbord of smoked fish, pickles, and a spread of cured meats and cheeses.
Made extra-moist with the addition of oatmeal, this crusty loaf is a great breakfast or lunch bread, topped with almond butter and honey or sliced avocado and sprouts.
Imagine challah rolled around a mixture of chestnuts, Hubbard squash, and cranberries. It’s a meal, or a side to a luxurious dinner.