It seems the planets have aligned for SCRATCHbread. After garnering a cult following at Brooklyn Flea for his decadently good focaccia and brownies, founder Matthew Tilden left the market a couple of years ago and shifted his focus to building a wholesale business out of the bakery’s new home in Bed-Stuy.
But something kept nagging at the SCRATCHbread crew, while they worked – the forlorn faces of locals drawn to the smell of baking bread that would peer through the takeout window next to a stack of pizza ovens, left behind by the slice joint that previously occupied the space, hoping for a taste.
Last May, SCRATCHbread made the leap, changing course from wholesale to retail, focusing all of their efforts on the takeout window. They expanded the menu to include sandwiches, soups, salads, and brunch, all done in line with the SCRATCHbread standard of going far and deep beyond the call of duty when it comes to wholesome deliciousness.
We stopped by the window to chat with SCRATCHbread veteran Jess Tell, aka Jess Cool, and to try one of the latest seasonal concoctions, a bread custard wrapped in prosciutto.
So Jess, what should we have today?
If I had to pick one thing, I think I’d have to pick our seasonal bread custard. For the late fall/early winter version we’ve been roasting acorn squash and folding that into the bread custard, then topping it with a crumbly pecan streusel, wrapping it in smoked proscuitto, baking it, then topping it with homemade vanilla bean yogurt, bourbon soaked currants, and black pepper.
How do you make it?
To make the bread custard we take crusty, stale bread and make breadcrumbs. We use everything from our chai sticky buns to the bourbon wheat or our Mutt, which is sort of a cross between a focaccia, a whole wheat, and a rye – it’s loaded with sesame, poppy, burnt caraway and flaxseed, so you get those seed essences and oils carrying through. The mix of breads used in the bread custard changes from day to day, so it’s always something a little different.
Then we roast some acorn squash in the wood-burning oven. It takes on this really beautiful golden color and starts literally bursting out of its skin. The whole place just fills up with the smoky, sweet smell of the roasting squash. It smells so good.
While that’s roasting, we’ll take some beautiful organic eggs and whole cream from a farm upstate. We mix those with a few different natural sugars – agave, honey, and molasses. We really prefer using those naturally sweet products to refined sugar in our baked goods because they keep things softer, and because they give you a darker, much more complex flavor background. We add some warm autumn spices into the custard too.
When the squash is ready, we fold it into the custard. It gets really soft when it roasts, so it really blends with the custard. When you’re eating the bread custard after it’s been cooked, you’re not getting chunks of squash, you’re just getting the flavor in every bite.
Then we add the breadcrumbs to the custard and we let them soak. We use a lot of larger, crusty breadcrumbs, because we love the texture of the bread, and we like that chew of the bread to be there in the end. The breadcrumbs just sit for a while and soak up all the custard.
Then we have our streusel. A streusel is basically a crumb topping like you’d find on a crumb pie or that sort of thing. It’s a moist, sugary, buttery mixture, cut with flours and nuts. For the bread custard streusel, we use pecans, toasted oats, and pumpkin seeds with butter and molasses to give it a real earthy flavor and a little bitterness.
When the bread custard is ready, we wrap it in some really nice smoked prosciutto. We leave about two inches of empty space at the top of the custard and we fill that with the streusel. When it’s all put together, we stick a sprig of rosemary into the middle of it and put it in the oven to bake.
When the bread custard is done baking, we make a vanilla yogurt topping. It’s just a nice local yogurt with some vanilla bean scraped into it, and a little agave for sweetness. That goes on top of the streusel. Then we sprinkle it with bourbon smoked currants, grind some black pepper over the top, and that’s it.
When it’s done, it’s really, really good. The bread custard itself is delicious – you’ve got a mix of savory, earthy flavors from the breads mixed with the smoky, sweet acorn squash and the warm spices and molasses, honey and agave, all lightened up with a nice floral, herbal note from the sprig of rosemary.
When it bakes, the fat from the prosciutto and the buttery molasses in the streusel melt into the custard. So the incredibly savory, smoky flavor of the prosciutto and the nutty, earthy, bitter and sweet flavors of the streusel all come into play with the custard.
Then with the vanilla yogurt topping, you bring in a nice bright tang with that luxurious vanilla bean aroma, and a coolness. The bourbon-soaked give you both that richly flavored alcohol note from the bourbon and that sweet/sour thing from the currants, and then finally you have the black pepper that just lights up your senses and sort of amplifies all those other flavors.
Black pepper is sort of a signature thing here. It’s familiar. It’s warm. It lights things up. Using it in unfamiliar ways, like in sweeter contexts, can be surprising. There’s no reason to limit it to savory dishes. It’s something that’s on everyone’s table, but it shouldn’t be taken for granted. It can still surprise.
So the bread custard is a pretty amazing dish, and I think pretty representative of what we do at SCRATCHbread. You’ve got everything in here – a few different kinds of sweet, sour, smoky, savory, tangy, earthy, bright, chewy, soft, warm, and cool, all happening in one really delicious thing. It speaks for itself. Once you get a spoon in there, you’ll just fall in love.
What about you? How did you end up at SCRATCHbread?
I’m originally from Pittsburgh. I’ve lived in Brooklyn for ten years. I was working as a writer for a long time. I got laid off when the company moved to Florida. I could have gone to Florida, but I wanted to stay here. I started sending out resumes and going on job interviews. It was so depressing! [laughter.]
I wanted to find something productive to fill my time. I knew about SCRATCHbread and had heard about their internship program. I came in through that, and a little while after I started, Matthew Tilden, the founder, asked if I wanted a job. I was like, “Of course I do.”
It’s been great seeing SCRATCHbread develop and grow. When I started here, we were totally focused on wholesale. We were trying to have the window open once a week or so, but that was all we could manage while scrambling to fill our wholesale orders.
But the window was always, like, calling us. People in the neighborhood wanted it open. We wanted it open. So we went with it. We shut down the wholesale business in May and immediately shifted to putting all of our efforts into expanding the menu with things like sandwiches and salads and soups, and into having the window open every day. Everything we make now, everything we do, goes out that window to the neighborhood, and it just feels right.
I used to live in the neighborhood, on Madison between Throop and Tomkins, and there was just nothing good to eat. It was just McDonalds, Chinese takeout or fried chicken. It didn’t seem fair, the sheer number of places doing good food in more affluent neighborhoods, when there was absolutely nothing here. Getting all this delicious, homemade stuff, these little pots of love, going out the window into the hands of our neighbors, feels really good. I think people can feel the love in the food.
SCRATCHbread is located at 1069 Bedford Avenue, at Lexington, in Bed-Stuy.
Photography by Morgan Ione Yeager. All rights reserved.