Kitchen failure: silver lining

Roy Levy of Gail's Artisan Bakery explains how a baking disaster led to the creation of a new recipe

By Anthea Gerrie, August 1, 2014
Gail's Bakery's trademark cake display

Gail's Bakery's trademark cake display

This time last year Roy Levy was weeping over the loaf he had just carefully lifted from his new oven. it was a lumpen mass: "i had been baking for 20 years, but this was nothing like the beautiful sourdough I was used to making," he laments.
"It was almost as if I had never learned to make bread."

A surprising admission given that Levy is an experienced professional baker and the star chef of Gail's Bakery. he was one of many legendary bakers imported from Israel by Gail Mejia, who first set out on her mission to give the capital great bread 20 years ago.

Levy has been at the helm of Gail's for seven years, and seen Mejia herself move on. Yet in spite of his culinary triumphs - cakes, buns, desserts, bread-based savoury dishes and every kind of loaf - committing his secrets to a new cookbook defeated the London chain's head baker at the outset.

"Most of the recipes started out as disasters because they had never been designed to replicate in a domestic kitchen," he explains. "I saw immediately that I needed to bake them in a home oven, so I went out and bought the cheapest one I could get."

Levy, who started baking in his native Israel at the age of 19, also got the kind of baking sheets, spatulas and scales most of us use at home and started to think like a domestic baker instead of a professional. "I re-tested every recipe, and it took me a long time to get them right."

Roy Levy had to adapt recipes for the domestic kitchen

Roy Levy had to adapt recipes for the domestic kitchen

However, mistakes did not go to waste in the test kitchen, as even at the professional level, Gail's has had mistakes which turned out to be happy accidents. Like the savoury biscotti in the new cookbook, which started out life as hoped-for loaf-sized giant scones.

"What we actually got was just horrendous," Levy remembers, and confesses to returning home discouraged by an unexpected professional failure. But the next morning assistant baker Gerry Moss took another look, cut the flattened, abandoned loaf into thin slices and toasted them. "suddenly we found ourselves with something incredibly delicious," says Levy, "and the oven really concentrated all the different flavours".

While overnight resting is not indicated in the new, improved recipe, readers will find exhortations for much slower baking than they are used to. "I couldn't understand the notion of leaving bread in a warm place to raise when I came to Britain," says Levy, who believes you should take two days over your bread and let it rise at a snail's pace in the fridge.

In case you doubt the wisdom of this, Levy points out: "it wasn't until I came to this country that I discovered toast. Bread is so good in Israel that everyone just eats it fresh."

Whether he can get us to adopt slow baking - or any baking at all, given that Brits are now surrounded by artisan bakeries - Levy would like us to think a little bit outside the box to avoid mistakes, and be creative about those we can't.

"The trick is to get to know your oven - they differ, and an oven thermometer will give you a truer temperature than the oven dial," he says. "And you should always check your cake before taking it out of the oven - if it's not fully baked, you can put it back in. And while a cake which has burnt all the way through has no future, you can cut off a burnt top and sides."

As for measuring ingredients, that's not nearly as important as an instinctive feel, he adds.

"Especially with bread, it's about understanding what the dough needs. After all, sourdough was baked for hundreds of years before scales and modern baking equipment were invented. Baking bread is part of human nature, and people think it's more complicated than it is. it's about waiting for things to happen rather than what you do to the dough; we need to cultivate the art of letting go."

Even if he lets go of his daily bread, Levy is on a permanent quest for the new. he travels the world in the hope of making new discoveries, and is currently enamoured with South Korea.

"Bread is not part of the daily diet there, but young professionals who left the country and discovered it abroad returned from the US and Europe with their recipes. Visiting these bakers was so inspiring, unlike France, where there are no surprises. they just keep on doing everything the same."

Gail's Artisan Bakery Cookbook is published by Ebury, £20

Last updated: 12:51am, August 5 2014