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Monsieur Baguette

A Cornell professor with a bread fetish comes to town and separates the wheat from the chaff.


On a brisk Friday evening a week or so ago, the vaunted reputations of some of New York’s best-known bakeries were savagely laid waste, and we know exactly how it happened.

It was the professor, in the conference room, with the LamsonSharp Batard knife with a folding wood handle.

Not that we didn’t see it coming. Some, in fact, would say we orchestrated it. You don’t invite Steven L. Kaplan, Goldwin Smith Professor of European History at Cornell University and the world’s preeminent French-bread scholar, to a blind tasting and not expect the crumbs to fly—which they did, all over the wall-to-wall carpeting. “Jesus!” exclaimed the professor, having barely crossed the threshold. “Some of these breads are ugly.” It is that brazen frankness, that instinctively critical faculty, that has improbably won this Brooklyn-born bon vivant legions of fans in France, where he lives part of the year, and where the government, in its chastened gratitude for his missionary baguette zeal, has twice dubbed him Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. To test his mettle—and our town’s best baguette efforts—we assembled a baker’s dozen, all of approximate freshness, and subjected them to Kaplan’s rigorous system of evaluation.

From No. 1 to No. 13, Kaplan studied each specimen with the appalled enthusiasm of a CSI pathologist examining a particularly gruesome corpse. He assessed each baguette’s appearance, looking for the decorative incisions called grignes, and evaluating color and line. “Is it seductive? It has to seduce my eyes.” He considered the crusts, tapping each sample’s bottom for resonance and squeezing it to hear its song. Then he brandished his weapon, made a surgical slice straight down the middle of each baguette, and, with a practiced air of theatricality, ripped the thing open and buried his nose deep within its crumb to capture the aroma. This is critical, he noted—as critical as the taste, in fact, and thus given the same weight on his 21-point grading scale. Multiple sniffs ensued, plus some bellows-like manipulation of the bread to extract even more aroma. A thorough examination of the crumb, he explained, would ideally reveal an off-white color and good alvéolage, or “distribution of cavities that are the testament to the fermentation process”—the more wildly inscribed, with a multiplicity of uneven holes, the better. All this before Kaplan ingested even a single morsel of bread, and then proceeded to isolate the mouthfeel (“a global sense of the first moment of penetration”), the crust (a good caramelization is key), and, finally, the taste, which the professor defined as “the marriage of crust and crumb.”

Many things can go wrong in the baking of a baguette, and on this day, alas, many had. We learned that when breads are packed too tightly in an oven and they’ve “had intercourse,” as Kaplan puts it, the sides don’t cook sufficiently—a condition technically referred to as being baisé, or “fucked.” When the oven is dirty, the bottom develops croûtage, a piling-up of little pieces of crust. Even more baffling to Kaplan was the grill-marked underbelly of one especially sad sample—a sign, he speculated, that it had been cooked by convection heat, rather than on a refractory floor, the only acceptable method. “Feh, as my grandma used to say.”

On the whole, Kaplan wasn’t hugely impressed. (For a more enthusiastic take, look for his forthcoming Good Bread Is Back, out next February from Duke University Press.) Among his more interesting findings: Baguettes from Balthazar Bakery and Almondine, the Dumbo dark horse, were the best-looking. Almondine also won for crust and crumb. Amy’s smelled the best, but Sullivan St. Bakery had the best mouthfeel. Kaplan is a tough but fair grader, and only the top two baguettes overall (Almondine and Pain d’Avignon) merited his Michelin-style wheat-sheaves designation; their Kaplan scores—and the next “best” four, to use the term loosely—are revealed on the opposite page.

On the whole, although the results weren’t great, the bakers in question shouldn’t take it personally. What Kaplan does, he does for love. “In France, I crusade against the indifference or bread-ignorance of chefs and/or owners,” says the professor, who often brings his own bread with him to dinner, stashed in his briefcase. “If the bread served is abominable, I pull out my own—demonstratively. Shaming is the only effective technique to deal with bread dereliction.”

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