Bake your own bread in a traditional oven at Katong’s ‘village baker’

May Seah

CNA – If you’re a home baker, you’ve probably fantasised about what it would be like to bake your bread or pastries in a traditional wood-fired brick oven – you know, sort of like the kind that Hansel and Gretel pushed the wicked witch into.

Well, starting in September, you’ll be able to do that at Firebake. The restaurant, which specialises in baking its own bread, pies, cakes and other goodies – along with a menu of tartines, stews, grilled and smoked meats and fish and more – is opening its ovens to the public to use.

This means you can bring your own loaves from home and have them baked the old-school way – and see if they come out with that old-school taste, too.

They should, because these are no ordinary ovens. Hand-built from 5,000 bricks by specialised craftsmen over a six-week period, they comprise 37 tonnes of brick, gravel, sand, mortar and cement. They are heated to a temperature of around 800 degrees Celsius by burning sustainable, recycled wood.

Firebake’s founder Konstantino Blokbergen and his team will be on hand to help you, as the bread has to be put into the oven using a long paddle – which is quite a show in itself.

Buns in the oven are a regular occurrence at Firebake. PHOTO: AIK CHEN
ABOVE & BELOW: Tartines at Firebake change from time to time; and Firebake’s Seafood Risotto. PHOTOS: FIREBAKE

Thanks to the ovens’ high arches, they are able to extract moisture from the dough and spread it around to get a nice deep crust, said Blokbergen, explaining that they extract moisture steadily from the dough down to the grain, to progressively stretch the crumb and build the crust so that it’s more evenly stretched. “At home, most conventional ovens will require manual spritzing of water to increase moisture in the oven cavity,” he added.

“In Europe, you have some generations-old woodfired ovens that produce breads with amazing results in flavour because the ovens continue to season themselves. The breads taste so much better over time with the natural environment of stones, flour and water. This is unique in a woodfire oven.”

East Coast’s Village Baker

Why does he want to share his ovens with the public? “The whole idea goes back to my childhood memories of villages in Greece,” said Blokbergen, who has lived in Singapore for more than a decade. “In the olden days, the baker’s oven was the only one available in the village, so the village folks would bring their food – from dough to pots of food – to the baker to finish. It was a way for the baker to build relationships with the community.” Here in Singapore, “to be in the heart of the community has always been our intention – to be Katong’s community baker,” he added.

But bringing traditionally baked sourdough to Singaporeans hasn’t been all that easy. Some, thinking that the name “sourdough” refers to the taste, come in and ask for sour bread, he shared. Sourdough is also often mistakenly believed to be a specific type of bread, with many customers thinking it ought to look like a French boule; when in fact it is a baking technique using natural fermentation.

Firebake hopes to help its community understand bread better. “It is about creating awareness of woodfire baking, and bringing people back to the days of traditional bread baking techniques. It is also our way of giving back to the community we are part of,” Blokbergen said. “Fire has always had the power to bring people together – and we would like to gather people around the woodfire ovens, and to grow the woodfire sourdough family.”

While you’re waiting for your bread to bake in the oven – a process that takes about 40 minutes – you can also choose to gather around a rather scrumptious table for some sustenance. Firebake’s menus include dishes such as chicken liver pate, wild mushroom soup and blue mussels, all served with freshly baked sourdough; baked eggs with mushrooms, onions and grilled bacon; woodfired pumpkin with burratina, pistachio, dukkah, orange blossom and molasses; and a signature bread and butter pudding.

Newly introduced dishes include a cheeseburger made with potato sourdough buns; a very delectable seafood risotto laced with sherry vinegar and sprinkled with Grana Padano; Argentinean striploin with salsa verde on rye sourdough; and sourdough tartines that change from week to week.

Tips For Baking Your Own Bread

If you’re just starting out on your home baking journey, take these tips from a professional. Firstly, “Keep things simple – don’t get overly obsessed with maintaining many sourdough starters which may generate excessive daily feeds and wastage. Instead, focus on one or two good starters that you can look after well, which is sufficient to produce many different baking results,” Blokbergen said.

Secondly, follow your gut. “In contrary to making pastry, home bread baking is not perfect science; it is all in the power of intuition,” he said. “Look, observe, and adapt the recipes accordingly. It is good practice to keep a logbook of all these adaptations for future references.”

Lastly, if your bread isn’t up to your expectations, it might be because of the quality of the flour you’re using. “One weakness we have in Singapore is the sourcing of a good bread flour,” he said. “You will need to find a flour that gives you good elasticity as well as structure.” To find it, “Do a bread window-pane test.”