Bread maker at BreadSmith
Anyone who has traveled to Europe understands the quality difference between European breads and those mass-produced, preservative-packed wonder loaves you find in most U.S. grocery stores. Thankfully, Fairlawn’s Breadsmith offers a tasty alternative. This pure artisan bakery uses high-quality ingredients imported from France and leaves out the preservatives and stabilizers. Each loaf is made completely from scratch, hand formed and baked on stone in an 18,000-pound hearth oven from France. It’s that steam injection oven that gives the bread its desirable sheen and crust.
So how did such savory bread make its way to Akron? It’s all thanks to Laurence Neill, who after being co-founder of an investment company in Philadelphia, moved to Akron and felt there was no good bread in town. At the time, he was also traveling frequently to Chicago and became hooked on the bread from a local Breadsmith bakery. He then decided to go out on a limb and open a Breadsmith franchise in Fairlawn. The location has since parted ways from the chain and is independently owned by Neill. While some of the original recipes remain, he and his staff have also incorporated some of their own concoctions.
Throughout the year, Breadsmith carries 140 different selections, and of those, about 17 varieties are offered daily. Each month, the bakery distributes a calendar that details which varieties are available each day. In addition to breads, Neill also carries pastries, scones, muffins and cookies. “Our cookies are serious cookies,” he says. “A half-pound each.”
Breadsmith breads are serious too, with each loaf weighing in at a whopping 2 pounds. For comparison, the average grocery store loaf weighs about 1 pound. Of course, if that’s too much for you to handle, Breadsmith will make customized half-size orders, with a day’s notice.
To those who don’t know better, the process of baking bread might seem like a simple one. But for Neill and his staff, it’s nonstop work for 80 hours per week. Production begins at 10 p.m. each day and goes throughout the night. Production manager Deb Stoker leads the way, and is often a one-woman show, rolling and shaping two loaves at a time with her bare hands.
First, all the grains, salt, water and yeast are measured, mixed and put into a bucket to rise. The dough is then shaped and formed, and put into natural proofers, each batch taking about six hours from beginning to end. “This is nothing but feel,” Neill says. “You don’t time anything; you just touch it and you know it’s ready to go.”
And the slightest changes in the atmosphere and humidity levels outside can result in big changes in how long the process takes. “The doughs live their own lives,” Neill adds. “From one day to the next, you don’t know how they’ll react.”
With the exception of mixing the ingredients, all the work is done by hand, and it’s very physical and intense labor. It’s the process of hand rolling the dough that removes the air and results in the chewy, dense bread that people desire. And although the process consumes a great deal of time and energy, Neill and Stoker display an obvious passion for their trade.
“It’s basic and honest,” Stoker says.
“It gets in your blood,” Neill adds. “One thing that keeps me going is the fact that the customers just love it.”
In fact, some fanatical customers will pack their suitcases full of Breadsmith bread before leaving for trips. Others will drive from Strongsville or Youngstown just to pick up a few loaves.
Throughout the year, the bakery’s most popular breads are the French peasant, the cracked wheat and other whole grain breads, as well as cheese breads. On Fridays, customers can find challah, the Jewish Sabbath bread, which is also available in special shapes for the high holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In December, Breadsmith is one of the few bakeries that carries German stollen (a classic Christmas bread similar to a fruitcake) and the Italian panettone (a sweet bread usually prepared for Christmas and New Year’s). Because these true Christmas breads take days to make, orders must be placed no later than the Saturday before Christmas.
A monthly calendar of available varieties can be picked up inside the bakery, located at 3067 W. Market St. in Fairlawn. You can also call the Breadsmith at 330-864-4500. Bakery hours are Tuesday-Friday, 7:30 a.m.-6 p.m.; Saturday, 7:30 a.m.-5 p.m., though the best selection is available between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.
The Fresh Factor
For optimal freshness and flavor, store your bread in a dark, cool place, such as a breadbox, and avoid leaving your loaves in the front seat of your car if you have to make any stops on the way home. The heat from the sun will cause condensation to form. And if you’re not planning on eating the whole loaf within three days, freeze the remaining bread. Storing bread in the refrigerator will cause it to dry out. Before using frozen bread, thaw a few slices or pop the loaf in the oven to recreate that hot,
freshly baked goodness.