These days, you hear a lot of “low-carb” this and “fat-free” that. Well, what happens when the former baker from New York City’s famed Bouley Bakery takes over a fitness ranch in Rio Frio, Texas? Accommodating up to 12 guests at a time, Hart and Hind Fitness Ranch (the name refers to the male and female deer) represents a unique experience incorporating rugged outdoor activities, such as hiking and horseback riding, with more traditional spa fare, like massages and yoga. The ranch combines all these activities with healthy “cowboy” cuisine prepared by chef Paula Disbrowe and baker David Norman. Nicole Porto talked to David and got the skinny on his healthy approach toward artisanal baking.
Q: Being the head baker at Bouley is quite an accomplishment. Can you tell us a little about your background and how you got there?
A: I don’t actually have any classic training as far as baking goes. I studied German literature in school and then spent a lot of time in Europe. When I returned, I really missed having good bread around so I started making my own at home and eventually got a job at a local bakery. I turned my hobby into a job. I made my way around the country, working in Minneapolis and Seattle, before eventually moving to New York City to open Tribakery. Then I taught at The French Culinary Institute for a year, and from there I became the baker at Bouley.
Q: What took you from working in a classic French bakery to a fitness ranch in Texas?
A: My fiancé, Paula Disbrowe (a former food writer and now chef at Hart and Hind), was on a press trip down here when the head chef at that time gave notice that she was leaving. We had been trying to decide what we wanted to do next in our careers, and this opportunity just fit for both of us.
Q: Was it difficult to go from a bakery to a resort situation?
A: I wouldn’t say difficult, just different. I still have long hours, but definitely less stress. We only have about 12 guests here per week, so I really get to take my time with the bread—to make it exactly the way I want it. There’s no production stress because if the dough doesn’t rise like it should, I don’t have the worry of delivery deadlines to meet.
Q: What’s a typical day at the ranch like?
A: I get up around 6:00 a.m. and light the fire in the oven. It takes about four to five hours to heat up, so I’ll go out and feed the horses that we keep here for the guests to ride. After that, I mix and knead my dough. Because I’m baking such a small quantity, it’s a perfect opportunity to knead the dough by hand. I set it out to rise, and then I help Paula prepare for lunch. After the oven has heated, it needs to rest for about an hour, so I let the dough rise during that time. I bake off the loaves mid-afternoon, do some more prep for the evening meal, and then I go feed the animals again. Unlike most bakers, in addition to the baking, I’m in charge of livestock and orchards.
Q: A lot of people are trying to follow the Atkins diet these days. Do you offer any low-carb selections at the ranch?
A: Rather than offering the guests low-carb items, we just limit their intake. Instead of a bread basket, we offer them one slice of a specific bread to compliment certain dishes on the menu. Our goal is to send people home with better eating habits.
Q: What about fat? This is a fitness ranch. How do baked goods fit into that?
A: First of all, bread is inherently fat-free. And it’s healthy because it is naturally leavened with a sourdough starter.
Q: How has being in Texas influenced your baking?
A: We combine a Mediterranean cooking style with local ingredients, and then we give them a cowboy twist. For instance, in the morning we do what we call campfire breakfasts where I make buttermilk biscuits in a Dutch oven. We also have pecan orchards here, which I’m in charge of harvesting. I end up using them a lot. Their great in recipes such as my pecan sourdough loaf.
Q: Is there one particular offering on the menu that guests go crazy for?
A: Definitely the salad pizza. We bake the crusts in a wood burning oven using local woods such as pecan and oak to impart a great smokey flavor. Then we brush them with olive oil and top them with a salad of baby greens and mixed herbs in a Dijon vinaigrette. Everyone loves them!
Q: I read that you do baking demos for your guests. Do you have any tips you can share with those of us not able to get down to the Lone Star State?
A: I really like and encourage people to knead by hand. I think it produces the best loaf. I also like to use a natural starter. The main things to remember is to have patience with the bread and to take your time.
Q: Do you have any favorite ingredients you’d like to share with us?
A: I love organic flour from Arrowhead Mills, and lately I’ve also been using spelt flour combined with wheat flour for a really great flavor. For my French country loaf, I use a ratio of about 40 percent spelt for good results.
David Norman, Hart and Hind Fitness Ranch
1 2/3 cups unbleached flour
½ cup water, room temperature
¼ teaspoon active dry yeast (reserve remaining yeast from packet)
3 cups seven grain Arrowhead Mills cereal
1 ½ cups water, heated to boiling
¼ cup water, heated to 90°-110°F
remaining yeast from packet
3 ¼ cups whole wheat flour
1 ½ cups unbleached white flour
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon + 2 teaspoons Kosher salt
2 cups water, room temperature
THE EVENING BEFORE:
Prepare starter. Mix flour, water, and ¼ teaspoon of yeast to form a stiff, shaggy dough. Cover and allow to stand overnight at room temperature.
THE NEXT DAY:
Boil 1 ½ cups of water and pour over the cereal. Stir until moistened and allow to cool. Dissolve the remaining yeast in the warm water, then mix with the starter, the flours, salt, honey and remaining water in a large bowl. When all the flour is well-moistened and the dough comes together, turn out onto counter (no additional flour).
Pull the dough towards yourself from the middle and slap it back on itself. Continue stretching and pulling the dough, slapping it back on itself, for five minutes. Note: It will be a wet, sticky dough. Gather it into a rough ball and return it to the bowl. Allow dough to rest for 15 minutes. Turn out again onto counter and fold dough four times into itself. Return to bowl. Repeat this folding three times, allowing the dough to rest for 15 minutes in between. The final time, add the soaked grains, working them into the dough. Return the dough to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and allow to stand for one hour. Turn out and fold again. Let stand for 30 minutes. Turn the dough out, this time on a lightly floured surface. Divide in half. Form dough into balls and place on a floured baking sheet. Allow to rise for an hour. The top may crack, but this fine. In the meantime, preheat oven with a baking stone to 500ºF for at least an hour.
When the loaves have risen, slide them onto the hot stone with a wood peel, or off the back of a cookie sheet. Bake for about one hour, lowering the temperature to 425ºF after the first ten minutes. The loaves should be deeply browned and have a slightly hollow ring when rapped on the bottom. This bread slices and tastes best when allowed to cool and rest for several hours or overnight before slicing.