Gluten-free or low-carb dieters were not among the devotees swarming to Fresh Starts Chef Events to hear from Kathleen Weber, founder and baker at the renowned Della Fattoria in Petaluma.
“I’m excited that so many people want to know how to bake bread,” Chef Kathleen told the sell-out crowd, though she could present only small slices of her acclaimed technique during the evening.
Most attendees weren’t interested in just any bread; they wanted to learn about — and sample — the world-class loaves made of organic flours and natural starter, shaped by hand, and baked in wood-burning ovens at Della Fattoria. Among many honors, Della Fattoria recently was named a James Beard Award semi-finalist for outstanding baker.
No one was disappointed — plenty of bread arrived with three courses drawn from the new cookbook, “Della Fattoria Bread.” To open the evening, guests enjoyed iced Lemon Chiffon Tea from The Republic of Tea, premier sponsor of Fresh Starts Chef Events.
Chef Kathleen taught herself to bake artisanal breads by trial and error while working a day job in retail. “Baking became an obsession,” she says, sparked by Carol Field’s book on pre-fermented breads. She crafted her own starter by experimentation, including “crushing grape leaves in a jar” to mix with flour and water. “I figured this out by the seat of my pants,” she adds.
As she perfected her technique, she gave away loaves to everyone she knew. Soon the Sonoma Mission Inn and the French Laundry came calling — Della Fattoria took wing. It remains a family business with husband Ed, son Aaron, and daughter Elisa working together with employees that are considered family as well.
There’s more to Della Fattoria than bread these days, with the downtown Petaluma bakery and café featuring a daily menu. At the event, the crew demonstrated a Green Salad with Citronette served with Walnut Levain Bread; Lamb Tagine with Dried Apricots, Golden Raisins & Pomegranate Seeds, served with an epi bread (French-style bread shaped like a stalk of wheat); and a Lemon Cream Tart.
The salad was a revelation: a lemony dressing comes together quickly in the bottom of the bowl, then is tossed with greens and herbs.
The lamb needs quite a bit more time, most of it for cooking rather than prep. The demonstration used a clay tagine, which Chef Kathleen said is a favorite since it’s attractive and easy to clean.
Chef Aaron put together the spice blend, then rubbed it into the lamb. He cautioned against too much lamb in the pan at once or “it steams, rather than cooks.” The dish needs two hours, but guests did not wait long since the Fresh Starts Culinary Academy students and staff had started before guests sat down.
Pastry Chef Laura McIntyre prepared the Lemon Cream Tart, a café mainstay. She deftly worked the butter into the dry ingredients for the tart shell by hand, adding, “You want it just where it comes together.”
Guests fell quiet while taking the first bites of dessert – the Fresh Starts team made the tart to look perfect and taste sublime.
The evening ended with Chef Aaron shaping bread dough into an impressive variety of loaves. He handled the dough dexterously, molding each loaf in seconds.
The chefs share a fuller story of Della Fattoria’s painstaking techniques and their path to becoming bread artisans in the book, along with 63 recipes. None goes better with hearty bread than the salad. – Contributed by Carol Inkellis with photos courtesy of Neely Wang.
Green Salad with Citronette — Serves 8
1 lemon, cut in half
¼ teaspoon fine gray or other sea salt, plus more to taste
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 small shallot, coarsely chopped
2 heads Bibb or butter lettuce, any rough outer leaves removed and discarded
½ ripe avocado
About 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Coarsely cut or torn basil, mint, or oregano leaves (or other herbs or a combination)
About ¼ cup crumbled fresh goat cheese (optional)
1. Squeeze the lemon (catching any seeds with your other hand) into a large salad bowl. Add the salt, mustard, and shallot. Let sit while you prepare the lettuce.
2. Separate the heads of lettuce into individual leaves and wash and dry well.
3. Add the avocado to the lemon juice mixture and use a whisk to break it up. Give everything a turn with the whisk to combine, then slowly whisk in the olive oil until you have an emulsified mixture; the amount of oil you add will depend on the tartness of the lemon. (The dressing will be thick but it should be loose enough to toss with and coat the lettuce leaves.)
4. Season with additional salt to taste, then add the herbs, if using, and add the greens, tossing to coat.
5. Scatter the cheese over the top, if using, and serve the salad with the sliced bread on the side.