How many trendy sourdough starters have been nurtured and brought to toasty fruition by your humble critic since the dark COVID curtain descended last winter? Not a single one, I’m a little embarrassed to admit. I’ve enjoyed plenty of toasty-edged madeleines straight from the oven, however, and sticky lemon tarts, which my baker daughter likes to dust with powdered sugar after they’ve cooled on top of the stove for an hour or two. I’ve experimented with pizza doughs (a dash of dark beer works wonders), avidly Instagrammed apple pies being made from scratch (as followers of @plattypants know, our in-house baker favors an intricate lattice crust), and when not stuffing home-baked goods down my craw, I’ve made trips out into the world for bags of bagels, dense loaves of Pullman, and narrow, pointy Jerusalem-style baguettes, which I like to slice, freeze, and then pop in the toaster whenever I’m looking for little comfort on a cold gray morning or in the middle of the night.
A working bakery is a wonderful thing in the best of times, but in the worst of times, if you’re a food lover and a resident of this great baking town, I would argue, there’s no better place to be. There are the obvious sensory pleasures: the warmness of the ovens, the familiar, toasty baking smells, the reassuring sight of the golden loaves or bagels or pastries laid out in their baskets and baking trays. Like visiting church in the olden days, or your favorite museum, you don’t have to spend much time at your favorite neighborhood bakery to enjoy the comforts it provides. Like at churches and museums, generous tipping is also encouraged, and so are regular visits, which is how I’ve found myself making weekly (and sometimes daily) pilgrimages to the She Wolf Bakery stand on Wednesdays at the Union Square Greenmarket (for the Pullman among other delights); to Breads Bakery (for the Jerusalem baguettes and bricks of the famous chocolate babka); and to our local place of worship, Bagel Bob’s on University Place, where, as every devout regular knows, you can tell the freshest bagels by the clouds of steam they leave on the display-case window.
“It’s been a challenge, but it’s our job,” one of the countermen at Bob’s said to me the other day, with the kind of weariness and pride in his voice that you hear these days when you talk to fireman, or bus drivers, or other essential workers around the city. I’ve heard the same kind of thing from the people at She Wolf and at Breads, and as my bakery pilgrimages have become more ambitious, to places beyond the old neighborhood, and even across the river in Brooklyn, at the original Bien Cuit outlet, on Smith Street, where I stopped in for a bag of freshly baked croissants on a stormy morning not long ago, during the course of my culinary rounds through the rainy streets of Brooklyn.
“It seems like people just want to buy their bags of pastry and hunker down at home, so I guess we really are essential workers,” said the area manager, Christina Oh, a veteran of many great bakeries around town, including Milk Bar. She’d been working the counter for ten days straight, she said, as I browsed around the warm little space, where the bakers had come in to fire the ovens the way they do every morning, starting at 3 a.m. The bakery had been open every day since March, Oh said, and the only day they’d taken off this month, all the way up through the Christmas season, was Election Day, which we both agreed, as I hoisted my bag of croissant and pastry treats out the door, was the most essential day of all.
*A version of this article appears in the November 9, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!