Photos by Rick Daugherty
It’s 6 a.m. on a Saturday, and loaves of artisan bread are pouring from the mouth of the impinger oven at Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio.
Yes, artisan breads. Fifteen types ranging from classic ciabatta, Afghani na’an, fougasse stuffed with cheese and vegetables, whole wheat couronne studded with berries, and pizza al taglio laced with white anchovies and roasted cherry tomatoes.
Out of an impinger oven. “Pretty cool, isn’t it?” asks Avalanche owner John Gutekanst, smiling at the irony. “Nobody thinks you can get loaves like that from an impinger oven. Not supposed to happen.”
But Gutekanst does it every weekend. He leapt into artisan bread baking after tasting the low-quality bread sold at the town’s farmers market. Though Athens is a largely sleepy town of 22,000 (its population swells by 30,000 each fall as students return to Ohio University), its farmers market is one of the nation’s top rated. Today, the year round outdoor affair will see Gutekanst outside for several hours hawking loaves in the February deep freeze.
“It’s cold as hell out there, but people still come, and they’ll buy everything I have,” he says, motioning toward 300 loaves he’ll sell for $5 to $6 each. The production effort required is tremendous, but the revenue makes it worthwhile. “It’s very lucrative, about $2,000 in sales each time. Do that four times a month and you’ve almost added an extra week’s sales to your month.”
To develop his dough’s’ flavor, Gutekanst builds a pre-ferment (or biga) every Thursday from day-old pizza dough, flour, water and yeast. While the mixture rests 24 hours until Friday night’s forming, he chooses his toppings.
“The stipulation for this market is you use all local products,” he says. Foraging for those ingredients is time consuming, while other toppings and fillings, such as olives, sausage and white anchovies, come off his makeline. “My clientele knows what I bring is different. Okay, sometimes a little weird. They look at me thinking: ‘I don’t know about eating a bacon, cashew and green olive bread, but the sample tastes … good, so I’ll get it.’”
When Avalanche’s Friday night rush eases, Gutekanst gets his turn at the oven. He bakes throughout the night with the help of an assistant who joins him in the predawn hours. He adjusts the oven temperature to between 470 F and 480 F to get the proper browning on the highly hydrated dough, but not so low that it would change his pizzas’ character — Avalanche is open until 4 a.m. on weekends, so Gutekanst has to be able to make room for a pizza order when he’s baking the breads.
The high-rising doughs have taught Gutekanst to move carefully inside the oven. More than once his ciabattas have risen and fused themselves to the fingers inside the impinger. The cleanup is frustrating — and ultimately costly if he has to shut down the oven.
Since the impinger is highly adjustable, top bake isn’t a problem, but bottom bake is challenging since non-perforated pans must be used to contain the nearly gelatinous dough. Over the three years he’s baked and sold bread, Gutekanst has found that hard anodized aluminum pans brown best, and currently he’s working with a manufacturer on pans with pinhole perforations to allow air flow.
Given the time required to produce so much bread that isn’t sold at Avalanche, one wonders how the shop benefits. Gutekanst says it’s mostly sales, and since his tent at the farmers market has Avalanche signage, he gets some local marketing out of the venture as well. Above all that, though, the pizzeria owner says making the bread is a labor of love for him.
“Bread making is very cathartic for me,” he begins. “I get a lot of pride from the stuff I’m doing, and people really do appreciate it. Plus, I like to challenge myself as a chef to do new things. So, if you can do that and make money at it, why not, right?”
The Pizza Guy’s Ciabatta
18 ounces of day-old dough
7 ounces or 1½ cups high-gluten fl our
1½ cups warm water
Dredge dough ball in fl our and chop dough into quarter-sized pieces. Place in a large plastic bucket with the fl our and the water. Using hands, squeeze mixture through fingers to achieve texture of thick, lumpy soup. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let rest 24 hours in a 70-80 F spot. Mixture will bubble and double in size.
4 cups (18 ounces) high-gluten fl our
½ tablespoon yeast
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon salt
1½ to 2 cups water
Add biga to mixer. Add fl our, oil, salt and water and mix slowly 6-8 minutes, until dough no longer sticks to sides. If sticking, add a bit more fl our and work gently until releasing from bowl. Dough should be soft and tacky. Remove to workbench.
First Fold and Proof
With floured hands, fold dough over itself like an envelope, then stretch and fold upon itself 3 more times. Transfer to lightly oiled large bowl and let rest 30 minutes. Lightly oil the top.
Place parchment paper on hard anodized sheet pans. Flour or wet hands in cold water and cut and weigh 15-ounce dough balls. Dust each with fl our and let rest 30 minutes.
Form each dough ball into oblong loaf by gently stretching to a length equal to the width of sheet pan. If it won’t stay stretched, let rest until the gluten relaxes. Place only four loafs on each tray. Dust loaves with fl our and dock with fingers to form dough (as it rests, it will rise again slightly). Place panned dough near oven; proof 45 minutes to an hour at 70 to 75 degrees. It will swell noticeably.
Heat oven to 475 F. To create classic crust, mist each loaf with water within first 1 to 2 minutes of baking. Remove loaves, still on pan, and mist each loaf lightly and quickly. Midway through oven chamber, rotate loaves on pan to ensure even baking. Bake ciabatta total of 10 to 12 minutes. When loaves are golden brown and hard when tapped, they are done. Coming directly from the oven, they will be very hard and crusty, but will soften some when cooling. Cool on rack 1 hour before serving.
Steve Coomes is a former Pizza Today editor and a freelance writer living in Louisville, Kentucky.