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3-course interview: Christina Balzebre of Levee Baking Company

On baking workshops and the benefits of fermented bread

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Christina Balzebre served as the bread manager for Link Restaurant Group for several years. Now, she runs the weekend baking pop-up Levee Baking Company (www.leveebakingcompany.tumblr.com) and works in the bread department at Willa Jean. In a few weeks, Balzebre will start hosting a series of sourdough fermentation workshops in conjunction with Mosquito Supper Club (www.mosquitosupperclub.com). Balzebre spoke with Gambit about her baking.

What's your baking philosophy?

Balzebre: I've been interested in cooking and baking since I was a kid. After graduating from Loyola (University) I started working at Satsuma (Cafe) and worked there for about three years — that was my first baking job. I really loved their style and everything that they do. ...

  I think ingredients are really important. That was something that I wanted to showcase when I started Levee, using ingredients that are sourced locally. Not only does it taste better, but you're actually building a local economy by buying from small businesses or small farmers. ...

  The pop-ups are basically a bake sale. I'll do sourdough breads and lots of pies and lots of scones. I've been playing around with using whole-wheat flour with everything that I'm baking. I really like the fact that Bellegarde Bakery is milling its own flour. It makes such a huge difference.

  I think there's a (shift) happening and I think a lot of it has to do with what Graison (Gill, founder of Bellegarde Bakery) is doing. He's the first person to introduce freshly milled flour to New Orleans. I follow a lot of bakeries from around the country and it was cool to see that happening here now too.

How are the workshops structured?

B: I'm creating them together with chef Melissa Martin. We wanted to do something small and intimate. For the sourdough workshop, I want it to be a place where you learn everything about fermentation and why it's healthier for you and your digestion — why using whole-wheat flour is healthier for you. It's eye-opening when you can see bread in this different light as opposed to what we're so used to seeing in the grocery store.

  For the pie (workshops), I'd just like to cover as much as possible. It's the South. Pie is just so important here. Whether you have trouble making pastry, or you've always wanted to just become stronger at it, this will help.

  I'm eventually going to start doing wholesale for Stumptown Coffee (Roasters) and possibly a couple other coffee shops in the CBD. I'd also like to start a (community-supported agriculture-style) subscription service so that once a week you can order bread and I'll send a box with a couple of loaves and a couple of pastries.

What are the benefits of making naturally fermented breads?

B: With naturally fermented breads, you don't use commercial yeast. You're making a culture out of flour and water and you're just using the environment to ferment it. ... If you give it the most nutritious flour, it will generally be more active. It's funny because there are so many perceptions and arguments about environment and whether or not your environment actually plays a role. For instance, San Francisco sourdough is very specific because (the area) has a microclimate. Basically, the sourdough breaks down the enzymes — lactobacillus is actually fermenting everything and it makes it more digestible for your body, too. It changed my perspective on food. This is an ancient, traditional way of making bread. It's not something that's been around a lot in the last 50 years because we've gotten so used to eating manufactured and processed foods.

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