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Passionate about bread

Building a wood-fired brick oven was his favorite project

At 66, Bill Schuerman says he’s reached that point in life where he only does things if they’re fun. In his case, baking bread is at the top of that list.

“Just listen to that!” he says with a smile as he cuts into a loaf of his multi-grain artisan hearth-baked bread. “It’s crispy, but chewy, and has a nice caramelized crust.”

Schuerman, the former vice president of student development and dean of students at the University of Dayton, admits he began life as a finicky eater, a “peanut butter and jelly kid” who couldn’t stand for foods to touch one another.

But a lifetime of travel changed all that, particularly a visit to a little bakery in a small town in the mountains of the Black Forest in Germany in 1995.

“All the bread was baked in century-old wood-burning brick ovens,” Schuerman remembers. “I said to myself, “this is what I want to learn to do!”

He wasn’t kidding. When he got back to his Oakwood home, he researched the topic and eventually purchased directions for building a wood-fired brick oven.

” I spent a year planning, dreaming, studying the plans, and in the fall of 1998 I bought the materials and built my oven,” says Schuerman proudly. Now his oven, which sits in the corner of a flowering backyard garden, is used not only for bread-baking, but for pizza and even the family’s Thanksgiving turkey.

These days, Schuerman finds great pleasure in baking and sharing his cherished baguettes or loaves of rye or sour dough    with friends, neighbors, families, colleagues.

For Our Good Cooks, he offers a favorite recipe, tips on bread-making and his own fascinating bread-baking journey.

What early memories do you have of food?

As president of my fraternity, I would escort the housemother to dinner every evening and one night she said: “Now Bill, you must try a Brussels sprout.” She was elderly, elegant, cultured, sweet, very hard-of-hearing and I couldn’t bring myself to refuse her request, so I tried one. I loved it.

From that point on I would try anything — oysters, beef tartar, clams, stinky cheeses. At some point — around the age of 20 — this kid from the west side of Cincinnati had his first taste of Brie and thought, “This is one of God’s great gifts to mankind.”

How did you become interested in cooking and baking?

In grad school a friend introduced us to fine wines and shortly thereafter my wife and I moved to Washington, D.C. It was a time when fine food ingredients, gourmet cooking shows, books, and true European-style restaurants were becoming popular — particularly in Washington. Friends and acquaintances were experiencing the same awareness and appreciation about dining, buying and cooking. We’d all entertain, explore new restaurants.

How did bread become a passion?

Around 1973 we visited Ann’s father’s family in the Black Forest and traveled around Germany, Austria and Switzerland for six weeks. Besides the wonderful food, wine and beer, this experience introduced me to great European bread.

In the early 1990’s, Ann and the boys bought me a bread machine and I started exploring the art and science of bread baking. I now have dozens of books on the subject — bread baking has experienced a renaissance.

What is it about bread and making bread that you love?

The process of making bread from dough formed from ground wheat, combined with water and a naturally fermented leaven and then baked in a wood-fired “oven” (clay, stone, brick) remained essentially the same for thousands of years —until the early 19th century. I love the fact that the way I bake bread today is the way ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans baked the bread that served as the fundamental element of their diets.

Another aspect I love is its simplicity — flour, water, salt, leaven (sourdough or commercial yeast). It is the same simplicity that I love about so much of European food culture — cheese, cured sausages/salamis, beer, wine. A loaf of crusty bread, a bottle of wine or naturally- brewed beer, a cured sausage accompanied by a fresh piece of fruit and nuts — I’m in heaven.

Where did you learn to bake bread?

I am self-taught through reading dozens of books, experimenting, learning from mistakes; visiting and observing bakeries and bakers throughout Europe; and, in the last few years, scores of video streams, bread websites/blogs/discussion groups.

What advice would you give to those who want to learn to bake bread?

Develop an appreciation for the qualities of good bread — the crust and crumb of a real “French” bread, of a country-style sourdough, rye breads, wheat breads, multi-grains.

Read. There are scores of great books on bread baking! I’d recommend three for starters:

• “The Bread Bakers’ Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread,” Peter Reinhart, 2001, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley.

• “Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast: The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza,” Ken Forkish, 2012, Ten Speed Press, Berkelely.

• “Tartine Bread,” Chad Robertson, 2010, Chronicle Press, San Francisco.

Use the Internet. Type “artisan bread baking” into your browser and you’ll be overwhelmed with sources, demonstrations, world class bakers, video streams. King Arthur Flour has produced a series of videos that are excellent on YouTube.

Seek out other bread bakers and bake with them. Practice, practice, practice. Experiment, experiment, experiment. Keep notes of successes and failures and your analysis of the success or failure.

What are your favorite ingredients?

Flour (unbleached, non-bromated white — I find King Arthur all-purpose to be a good choice), water, salt and leaven (“instant” yeast or sourdough starter), rye flour, stone ground whole wheat flour, cracked wheat.

What about freezing bread?

Bread freezes extremely well after it completely cools (doubled wrapped in plastic bags) so I bake 10 to 15 loaves at a time and freeze them. Once thawed, place the loaf in a 350 degree over for 15 to 20 minutes to freshen and crisp.

What do you want to do next?

Maybe rebuild my oven to enlarge it. Master a true, heavy German “Volkenbrot.” Become the cute old white-haired man who rides around neighborhood with a basket on his bike giving away bread fresh-baked from his wood-fired oven.

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