Home Cookin' with Amy Scherber
Crave / New York
April 1, 2005

The toast is perfect—a soft loaf, turned slightly golden and crisp, studded with juicy raisins, brightened with a bit of ground fennel seed, and given a gentle texture from cornmeal. Of course, toast is not generally cause for excitement, but when it's made from Amy Scherber's semolina raisin and fennel bread, it might as well be Oysters and Pearls at Per Se.

Scherber, owner and founder of Amy's Bread, makes me two slices of her incredible toast as we gear up to spend the day cooking in the cozy West 50s apartment she shares with her husband, Troy, and their son, Harry. Her home is charming in a classic New York City apartment sort of way—hardwood floors, a working fireplace, a wall of rough-hewn exposed brick, shelves and shelves of books. Her modest open kitchen, lined with white tiles and blue trim, has a butcher-block island that serves as a central station for entertaining. "I love my open kitchen," she says, "because while I am cooking, I feel like I am with the party"

Scherber, who began her culinary career at Bouley after ditching a career in corporate marketing, found her passion for bread while interning at three small bakeries in France. "I loved baking bread," she says. "It was a very organic process—the pace of the dough rising, staying up all night and baking, and the smell of the bread coming out of the oven in the morning."

After her experience in France, she knew she had to work with bread. Luckily when she came back to New York in 1989, she found a chef willing to allow her to do just that—Tom Colicchio (chef-owner of Craft and Gramercy Tavern), then the chef at Mondrian. He gave Scherber the opportunity to experiment with top-notch ingredients and develop her own unique repertoire. "Every day I made a different bread, and I got a sense of what people liked," she says. "Tom was one of my real mentors. He has a wonderful palate and a vision for what something should be, and he would just direct the bread and help me fine-tune the recipes."

In 1992, she decided to take a leap and open a bakery where her breads would take center stage. She found a small store on an unchartered stretch of Ninth Avenue and made it Amy's Bread. "I thought the neighborhood was so interesting," she recalls. "I kept walking by this one space. It had an old windowed facade and a great old New York storefront feeling that I wanted." Today, Scherber's Amy's Bread empire includes the original store (now expanded to double its size), a large retail and work space in Chelsea Market, and a café and bakery in the West Village that opened in February.

Scherber found her stride professionally, but her personal life was significantly altered this past July when Harry was born. He has changed everything, including their eating habits. 'We used to go out to dinner four nights a week, but now I cook at home more often," says Scherber. She prefers to make simple, well-balanced, sometimes meat-free meals. "I always include two veggies," she says. "They are the magic to staying healthy. I eat broccoli, carrots, and kale. I also make some whole grains, beans, and pasta." Naturally, then, she favors big salads. "I make lots of salads with whatever is in season. In the middle of winter I am sick of mushy root vegetables, so I'll chop up celery, carrots, fennel—a variety of crunchy flavorful things that are good to eat raw"

Scherber's cooking tends to be more elaborate when she entertains, but she still embraces simplicity The meal she prepared recently for a few close friends (and again for me today)—an orange almond salad with avocado, a boneless pork loin roast stuffed with garlic and herbs, steamed greens, vegetable couscous, and lemon pie for dessert—was homey and elegant. "This whole-lemon pie is my mom's recipe," she says, "but I like to use Meyer lemons because they have thinner skins and are so juicy, and that makes the pie so much better."

If she's having a cocktail party she assembles a variety of bread-based hors d'oeuvres, like her potato onion dill bread topped with gravlax, crème fraiche, and caviar, her semolina raisin and fennel topped with serrano ham, Manchego cheese, and quince paste, her black olive bread topped with black-olive puree, oven-roasted tomatoes, and basil, and her walnut bread with melted goat cheese and a drizzle of olive oil. "They are bite-sized, and you get salty sweet, and soft. And it's really easy" she says.

When she shops for ingredients, she stays close to home. "I don't like to carry groceries very far, so I just go to places around [the West 50s]," she says, like the greenmarket on 57th and Ninth, Whole Foods Market in the Time Warner Center, and Westerly Natural Market. "I am not a very good planner, so often I go to the grocery store or the farmers market and just browse. You can get inspired ideas that way"

As the afternoon sunlight streams into her kitchen, Scherber asks me to play with Harry while she gets to work on dinner. While I hang with Harry she slices into the pork roast, seasons it with salt and pepper, stuffs it with minced garlic and fresh herbs, ties it up, browns it on the stove top, and pops it in the oven. Meanwhile, she steams the couscous, whips up the Meyer lemon pie filling in a blender (which takes all of four minutes), makes quick work of slicing an onion, avocado, and some oranges for the salad, and toasts a few slices of semolina raisin and fennel bread for croutons.

After the meal is completed—in record time and with me falling hard for Harry—I notice there are some leftover slices of toast from the croutons sitting out on a plate, looking very enticing. I also realize Harry is not the only one in the room drooling. ti
Amy Scherber sprinkles toasted almonds over orange and avocado salad.


AMY'S HOME COOKING TIPS

Must-haves for the cupboard
Canned garbanzo beans, durum wheat pasta, quinoa, kosher salt, olive oil, spices like coriander, cardamom pods, anise seeds, "or something aromatic for broth or rice," almonds, and espresso.

In the fridge
Plain organic yogurt, carrots, two green vegetables, fresh fruit, toasted sesame oil (to add a bit of Asian flavor to a grain dish), Dijon mustard, eggs, butter, a hard cheese for grating (like Parmesan), toasted almond butter (to spread on organic brown rice cakes—"Once in a while I need a break from bread"), sesame tahini, and fresh herbs. "I always use fresh herbs—tarragon, parsley, thyme, cilantro, and chives."

Kitchen tools
Tongs, an eight-inch Wilsthof-Trident chef's knife, her Korin serrated bread knife, a whisk, a Braun hand-held blender, and a pot that is large enough for a steamer basket for veggies. "I try not to sauté vegetables," she says. "I just steam them and toss them with a little olive oil. Then I use the steamer water to thicken a soup or as a broth to cook grains."

Time saver
When she is having company but feeling a bit stressed out, Scherber cuts back on the kitchen time by picking up a good rotisserie chicken from Tartare (653 Ninth Ave., 212.333.5300) and focusing on sides, salad, and desserts. "It's really perfect," she says. "This is a great way to entertain without huge expectations for yourself."

Table makeover
Scherber has a collection of place mats and napkins as well as great glassware and flatware that she uses to dress up the table and make the evening feel special. "Sitting down to a meal is a pleasure, so even if I am making something ordinary or just eating take-out, having good place mats and fun napkins makes it nice," she says. We have really nice Riedel wine glasses, so even if the wine isn't that great, it looks good and that makes it taste good."

Secret obsession
Honey. "I collect honey. I love to drizzle it on toast." Right now, she has eight kinds from around the world.

By Andrea Strong
Photography - Amy Lee