I first met Emily Downs when she arrived at a party carrying a loaf of bread as big as a newborn in an old-fashioned turkey roaster. It was the most perfect loaf I’d ever seen. “Supple, meaty and moist,” she described the texture, with the lexicon that can only come from years over a stove, and the taste—“Creamy with a slight hint of sourness, and a yeasty floral aroma.” I was eager to visit her kitchen.
Watching Downs bake, she reminds me of a potter. Her hands deftly fold and turn the dough. Although it looks effortless, her skill reflects years of training and a deep understanding of the process.
Sculpting was, in fact, Downs’ major at Smith College. As a child she took classes in potting at Peter’s Valley craft school, near her home in New Jersey. But there was another education underway on the weekends, when, every Saturday, she’d go to her grandmother’s to make pizza. So when she moved to San Francisco for an internship following graduation, a part-time job at Pizzeria Delfina, owned by award-winning chefs dedicated to using local ingredients, seemed a natural fit. She later worked at Keste in the West Village, arguably the number one Neapolitan pizzeria in New York City, learning to make truly authentic pizza from one of the best pizza makers from Naples, Italy.
Her career-shaping moment came about when she interviewed with the iconic chef Alice Waters. “Hearing her talk about . . . the importance of knowing how to grow your food and empowering people through this basic life skill struck me as vital,” said Downs.
Downs knew she wanted to work her way back to the root of it all—the dough. “Like planting a seed and growing a garden, you are cultivating and feeding bacteria that brings your dough to life and makes it rise.” Over the years she’s experimented with various fermentation starters, including one passed down through her husband’s family since the California Gold Rush.
She went to work for Bobolink Bakery on the edge of Warwick, excited at the chance to work with a wood-fired brick oven. Never one to shy from the major leagues, she invited Jim Lahey, a frontrunner in the artisan bread and pizza movement in New York City, to bake with her for a day, at the end of which the bread guru told her she had the touch and invited her to apprentice with him.
Expecting her first child any minute, Downs now teaches baking classes at home (Italianhearth.com). She’s dreaming of opening a wood fired pizzeria in Warwick featuring other local food artisans.
On the day I watched her bake, Downs upended a stockpot of freshly risen dough onto the counter. Cutting the dough into quarters, she shaped one into an oval loaf, encrusted it with sesame seeds and set it aside for one final rise. The next, she spread with pats of butter, sprinkled with sugar, and folded into multiple layers to trap the rising steam in the oven and create perfect flaky croissants. Another was reserved for bread sticks.
With the final ball of dough, a firm but light press of her fingertips pushed air bubbles toward the edge of the pizza crust. She topped this with sauce from local yellow tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil. Five minutes later it came out of the oven, the thin crust blistered and charred to perfection, and ready for lunch.