Like most of us, David Norman grew up eating packaged white bread.
The head baker at Easy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden knows more about European breads than just about anyone in Texas, or the U.S. for that matter, but as a kid growing up in Minnesota and, later, Florida, he mostly ate the squishy slices with the bleached crumb and suspiciously long shelf life.
It wasn’t until he studied abroad in Sweden in high school that he discovered crispbreads and rye breads and country loaves and sourdoughs and cardamom rolls.
That was 33 years ago, and it was the start of what has become a lifelong pursuit that Norman has chronicled in his debut cookbook, "Bread on the Table: Recipes for Making and Enjoying Europe's Most Beloved Breads" (Ten Speed Press, $35), which comes out this week.
Norman will close out this weekend’s Texas Book Festival with a presentation at 3:30 p.m. Sunday in the Central Market cooking tent, but his book is a resource that baking students and home bakers will be studying for years to come.
Norman says it took more than three years to write this book, but the research started more than three decades ago, when he got his first baking job at a small boulangerie in Gainsville, Fla., where he went to high school and college.
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He’d already fallen in love with eating sophisticated bread while living in Europe, but it was at that small shop that he started learning how to bake it. That curiosity (and skill) led him to numerous jobs at the best bakeshops and baking schools in Minnesota, Seattle, New York City and San Francisco, where he either worked as a baker or taught baking students the basics of French bread, which was the dominant style of bread that chefs and high-end restaurant clients wanted.
He couldn’t shake the memory of those Swedish and German breads, though. “French baking is a great place to start, but it’s not the only kind of baking that’s out there,” he says.
In Scandinavia, families will serve a handful of different breads for each meal, each type serving a purpose. Some are soft and dark, others are spiced and crispy. Some breads are best suited for open-faced sandwiches, while others are made for sopping up soup.
“Each culture has its own bread culture, which grew with the cuisine and made sense within it,” he says. “There are 300 types of rye bread in Germany.”
Some breads transcend their originating cultures, while others stay fixed in place. “You don’t see French bakers baking German breads, for instance, but ciabatta is wildly popular all over the world.”
He continued to explore the world through its breads, visiting every bakery he could find wherever he traveled, looking for clues about why certain breads made sense within that culture.
“I was so interested in bread and culinary pairings,” he says. “How the breads reflect the culinary traditions of each place, or even each family.”
In Mexico, for instance, you don’t see many sourdoughs, but in Guadalajara, he found a torta ahogada made with pork carnitas and a sourdough fortified with eggs and beer that is then dunked in a tomato sauce. “(The addition of eggs) makes a hardier, sturdier bread for all that soaking, and it offsets the rich pork flavors,” he says. “It’s a specific cultural sandwich made for a specific dish.”
Another example is a salt-free bread found only in Tuscany. “There’s tales of why it started, but why does it persist? Why do they keep this tradition?” he says. It turns out that Tuscan food is typically saltier than other Italian foods, including their ham, so the salt-free bread acts as a counterbalance to make the food itself less salty. “If you eat the bread with the dishes, you understand, but on its own, it doesn’t make sense.”
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Norman recalls doing a baking demonstration several years ago where he taught this salt-free bread, and afterward, a man who happened to be a baker from Tuscany approached him. “My heart went in my throat I was so worried,” he says, “but he shook my hand and said, ‘This reminds me so much of home.’ That made me so happy.”
When he eventually landed in Texas with his wife, fellow cookbook author Paula Disbrowe, he continued baking as many kinds of bread as he could find customers to buy it.
Eight years ago, he helmed the ovens at the opening of Easy Tiger, a restaurant that doubled as a wholesale bakery. Norman hired bakers to work overnight so they could provide enough bread for the restaurant and for the wholesale clients that included Whole Foods, but the company quickly outgrew the Sixth Street location.
“The scope was always to do wholesale and bring artisan bread into the Austin market,” he says. “Three years in, we had a waiting list.”
To accommodate that growth, Easy Tiger opened a second location last year at the Linc in North Austin that includes a large production kitchen.
For the first time in many years, Norman says they have the capacity to grow, but he’s also quick to point out that there are several other great bakeries in town, including Swedish Hill, Sour Duck and Abby Love’s still-under-construction bakeshop, Abby Jane.
“We have increased awareness for artisan bread in Austin, but we could stand a few more really good bakeries in this city,” he says. “Portland has seven bakeries that I can think of. We don’t have that many.”
The low-carb craze still scares some people away from bread. Norman says Americans haven’t embraced the idea of buying or making bread every day, which is how many cultures incorporate bread into their daily food life.
Easy Tiger had an outlet at Fareground food hall downtown, surrounded by condo and office buildings, but “we didn’t change people’s habits to stop by and buy bread on the way home,” he says.
Norman is always bringing home baguettes loaves of bread, but his two young children haven’t loved the intense rye breads that Norman fell in love with as a teenager. “They do love levain, which makes me happy.”
Norman says Central Texans are lucky to have access to high-quality flour from Barton Springs Mill, a local mill that specializes in heritage and heirloom grains, but, on the other hand, even though traditional grocery stores might have 10 kinds of gluten-free flour, many of them aren’t carrying basic rye flour anymore, even in his native Minnesota.
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Austinites embrace some of the avant-garde loaves that Norman sells at Easy Tiger, but not all of them. Although Easy Tiger’s regular German rye bread is fairly popular, for instance, when he experiments with a 70% rye or a Danish pumpernickel, European expats will come in, but people who have never had them often think they are just a little too strange, he says.
“Semolina sells like crazy in New York,” he says, “and most people who try it think it’s really good,” but after the bread didn’t sell very well, he pulled it off the menu.
Pan au levain is another bread he hopes customers will seek out more. “It’s like sourdough 2.0 but with the whole spelt and rye in it,” he says. “It’s a great, fully flavored bread and it digests better, so if you’re choosing sourdough for health, why not add some whole grains in there?”
"Bread on the Table" isn’t an encyclopedia of every bread Norman has ever loved, but it’s deep dive about the ones he finds essential to a handful of regions, including Central Texas. Beautifully written with Norman’s dry humor and vivid details of meals he enjoyed 25 years ago, the book is filled with stories that you can enjoy reading, even if you never make any of the dishes, but serious bread bakers will relish the technical instructions that take you from simple yeasted country breads and flatbreads to complicated ryes.
Norman says his Instagram feed is full of “crumb shots” from those science-minded bakers, who can tell you the hydration percentage of every loaf they’ve ever baked, but that wasn’t his target audience when he wrote the recipes.
“I hope that my book can teach people that you can still make great bread without worrying about all that technical stuff,” he says.
Although many of the recipes in Norman’s book are exacting and specific, there are also easier non-bread recipes, including stews, gravlax and Easy Tiger’s famous beer cheese, to go along with the pretzels and sourdoughs and boules.
At the Texas Book Festival on Sunday, Norman is going to demonstrate how to make that ahogada sandwich. He won’t have time to show all the steps in making the bread, but he’ll show a basic mixing technique and then show how to make the salsas and put together the sandwich.
If you can’t catch him this weekend, Norman is eager to answer bread baking questions through Instagram, where you can find him at instagram.com/doughpuncher, and he’s also teaching more pretzel-making classes than ever, which you can sign up for at easytigerusa.com.
That’s also where Norman is hosting a cookbook release party from 6 to 9 p.m. Wednesday that will feature live music, samples of breads featured in the book and the option to buy flours from Barton Springs Mill.