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R&IEditorial Archives2002 — December 1 — Food

On the Rise
Breads, biscuits and bagels take on bigger roles

From humble beginnings—the simple union of flour, water and salt—bread, biscuits, bagels and other dough-based baked goods bring versatility to the nation’s tables. Uncomplicated and wholly straightforward, these culinary components are the toast of restaurateurs in all segments as simple breads and rolls take on newfound significance.

Operators are finding that higher quality and greater value can be conveyed through dough and batter. Bagels and biscuits also are extending beyond their traditional roles to a wider range of uses.

Robust flavor profiles continue to be important, but the use of herbs, cheese, chiles and other ingredients is becoming restrained rather than brash and bold. Meanwhile, textural elements that breads provide are being explored with greater zeal to achieve a complete and balanced eating experience.

“There’s no doubt that more importance is being put on all kinds of bread and what they can contribute to dishes,” says Steve Schimoler, chef-owner of Mist Grill in Waterbury, Vt. “There’s so much you can do with them.”

The pendulum of so-called foundation breads—batards, baguettes and loaves—is swinging back to simpler varieties, returning focus to well-made artisanal baked goods. Chains such as Richmond Heights, Mo.-based Panera Bread and Smyrna, Ga.-based Atlanta Bread Company sell a variety of baked goods, with quality products their foremost goal. They are among the concepts that bake bread at least once a day.

When it comes to bread, restaurants are seeking higher-quality products that don’t compete with the meal. While demand continues for bread studded with ingredients, subtlety guides the more popular recipes.

Z Bakery Cafe in Boca Raton, Fla., sells handmade artisanal breads as well as bagels, focaccia and ciabatta. “For the most part, customers want high-quality bread that’s got a good crust and tastes great,” says owner Neil Swartz. “Whatever you sell just has to be made right.”

Schimoler agrees. “We’re not seeing many value-added breads. Some of our bread may have olives and others herbs, but what people really want is a bread that tastes good, has a unique flavor profile and has a good texture.”

With freshness and quality as defining characteristics, adding a good-for-you trait also can be successful.

“We make our own honey-oat bread that people perceive as high quality,” says Schimoler. “We toast the oats to bring out the flavor, which also knocks down some of the oats’ starchiness. As a result, you get a traditional grain-crumb structure like whole-wheat bread but the texture is softer, with the underlying sweetness of honey and oats.”

Cambridge, Mass.-based Rebecca’s Cafe is discovering differences between New Englanders’ palates and those of its newest customers in Chicago, where the operator is opening six locations. But the company also is seeing strong demand for the healthful breads it offers, such as nine-grain, wheat and marbled rye.

“You can have all the things you want in a sandwich, along with flavorful bread,” says Cathy Hoffman, regional manager for Rebecca’s Cafes in Chicago. “The key thing is to offer variety.”

Boston-based Finagle A Bagel doesn’t try to drive traffic or outpace competitors by expanding its menu with salads, soups and other unrelated items. Instead, the 17-unit local chain stays focused on its core product: bagels.

The company last year rolled out grilled bagel flatbread pizza, an offering geared to after-11 a.m. customers, who account for 60% of business. Dough is rolled thin like pizza but into individual portions, brushed with olive oil, piled with ingredients and baked. The pizzas are soft but offer a crispy edge. Varieties include tomato sauce and four cheeses (Asiago, mozzarella, Romano and Parmesan); grilled chicken, roasted peppers and blue cheese, and a veggie option with the four cheeses, broccoli, onions, eggplant and red peppers.

Most recently, Finagle A Bagel introduced a breakfast version of the grilled flatbread bagel. These creations are layered with ingredients such as eggs scrambled with cheese, artichokes and spinach, or with cheese, peppers and onions served with spicy bean spread.

“We are all about the food,” says Laura Trust, a Finagle partner. “We serve high-quality products focused on new and innovative ingredients all tied to the bagel.”

The company’s director of research and development is working on grilled flatbread sandwiches. “We would like to keep these soft and warm,” Trust says.

Finagle A Bagel also offers a line of more traditional sandwiches such as roast beef, turkey and ham served on sliced bagels.

Of the concept’s 17 regular bagel varieties, plain and sesame remain the favorites. That does not mean the company’s products lack flavor. Instead of rolling bagels in garlic before baking them, Finagle bakers roast cloves and work them into the dough along with Parmesan cheese to achieve a more restrained, rounder garlic presence. For its apple-caramel bagel—four years in development—the goal was to achieve an “ooze of caramel” in a bagel containing bits of apple.

At Panera Bread, Asiago cheese is the bagel of choice. While regional tastes differentiate Rebecca’s Cafes in Boston and Chicago, favorite bagels are the same: Cheddar and cinnamon-raisin.

Cheese also is a popular ingredient for biscuits. North Square Restaurant in New York City serves Cheddar biscuits with a brunch of baby pancakes, eggs and chicken-and-apple sausage. At Buckhead Diner in Atlanta, eggs Benedict are served on an herb-cheese biscuit. The poached eggs and biscuit are accompanied by rosemary-herbed ham, sweet peppers and chive hollandaise.

Sara Foster, chef-owner of Foster’s Market units in Durham and Chapel Hill, N.C., sees biscuits as ideal flavor conveyors. They are wonderful, she says, in their simplicity, warm and flaky with the tang of buttermilk. Foster also has won loyal fans with her herb-and-Cheddar version as well as a sweet-potato biscuit. Watercress biscuits too are favorites among regulars who have been loyal to her baked goods for more than a decade.

“You can achieve what you want in a dish as long as the ingredients are top-notch and the technique correct,” she says.

When Schimoler and other chefs create sandwichs or other items that include bread, texture always is a factor. The bread is treated like any other element in a dish, he says.

“We have been playing around with different textural components for our portobello sandwich,” he adds. “You think you want to use an artisanal bread, but the crust may be too tough or abrasive and not offer customers optimal mouthfeel, so you try a softer bread.”

A new line of sandwiches at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., takes texture into consideration. At Pandini’s, university cooks pair fire-roasted flank steak with focaccia and roasted vegetables with ciabatta bread. A popular jumbo crab cake with Creole mayonnaise gets texture and flavor from a soft onion roll that is grilled before it is matched with the crab.

In exploring texture, Schimoler has found that cornmeal provides pleasant possibilities. “Over the summer, one of our most successful desserts was strawberry shortcake with marinated strawberries, and shortbread biscuit made with cornmeal,” he says. “The cornbread also had fresh basil baked into it and a hint of vanilla.”

For the fall dessert menu, Schimoler introduced a cornbread “sandwich” with pumpkin custard and caramel. “Cornmeal has great textural attributes and so much flavor on its own.”

At Camille’s Sidewalk Cafe, a Tulsa, Okla.-based chain of 17 fast-casual sandwich restaurants, bread plays a significant role in its three-daypart operation. The concept, started by David and Camille Rutkauskas in 1996, serves traditional deli offerings along with wraps and panini sandwiches. To capture breakfast eaters seeking healthier alternatives, the concept is rolling out Sunshine Nature Rolls, flavored tortillas filled with scrambled eggs or egg whites. “It was essential to have the bread for such a carry-and-go item also convey flavor,” says Mike Halpern of Fransmart, an Alexandria, Va.-based franchise consultancy.

The eggs are menued as Vegetarian Zenergy (spinach, mushrooms, ham, tomatoes, chives in a spinach tortilla), Herb Garden (pesto with rice, basil and chives in a tomato tortilla) and Ranchero (pepper Jack and Cheddar cheeses, green onion, bell pepper, rice and ranchero sauce in a tomato tortilla).

“Flavor profiles and fresh ingredients are important for what we are doing,” Halpern says. “We want to distinguish ourselves in the fast-casual segment.”

  • Herb-Cheese Biscuits
  • Seeded Breadsticks

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