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A food blog from NHPR news, digital, & programming staff, exploring food & food culture around the state & the New England region. On-air features air Thursdays on All Things Considered and Saturdays during Weekend Edition.

Foodstuffs: What Makes A Great Loaf? Ask This Manchester Bread Baker

Peter Biello
Benge Ambrogi, owner of Benge's Bread, in his kitchen in Manchester, N.H.

How do you get serious about baking bread? French bread, in particular, which takes hours to make and years to master.

For Manchester resident Benge Ambrogi, the path to becoming a serious baker began in the late 1980s, with a bad loaf made by someone else—the man who would become his father-in-law.

"It was terrible. Typical first loaf. Very heavy and monochromatic. Not a very interesting loaf."

"What did you tell him about his first loaf?" I asked.

"Oh, I didn't say anything. I said thank you. But I said, 'I gotta be able to do better than this.' So I got the recipe out."

And so Benge got to work.

At the time, he and his fiancee Sarah were living in southern California. To make the bread, he worked from a Julia Child recipe.

"The first time when you mix flour, water, salt and yeast together and you watch—first of all, it's a shaggy mess when you start to mix it, but then when you knead it, it comes together as a smooth, very luxurious feeling dough. And then you let it sit and it rises. it’s so magical. It's just the coolest thing. And I was hooked."

Watch: Julia Childs took baking bread pretty seriously, too

Benge Ambrogi was an engineer with a degree from MIT working in the defense industry. Every month or two, he'd break out the bowls and try again.

Over the years, he and Sarah got married and had children. Life got busy. Years later, when he moved to New Hampshire, he saw an ad for a bread-making class at King Arthur Flour in Norwich, Vermont.

"That kinda got the bug re-ignited and I started doing it fairly regularly," he says.

At this point, it was still a passion for Benge, not a business. But that changed when he was speaking with a woman selling her products at a sugar shack.

"I was saying, 'Yeah, I've been thinking of selling my bread, and I'd love it if there was some kind of farmer's market around.' And she said, 'Oh, I have a farmstand. Why don't you bring me some of your bread and we can sell it at the farmstand?'"

I'm happy to give people a recipe, but just like you can know the notes on the piano, it may take many years before you can play Mozart. Bread is not dissimilar to that.

So he baked some bread, made some labels, and the bread sold well.

In his kitchen in Manchester, Ambrogi cuts into a baguette. His kitchen is now his test kitchen.

When he bakes bread for sale at farm stands and farmer's markets, he uses a rented commercial space, which the city of Manchester requires.

These days he makes sourdough as well as baguettes.

"At one point in your bread-making career did you feel like you finally got it? Or do you feel that way?" I asked.

"No, not quite," he says. "I mean, it can always get better. I'm always learning new things. And people will often ask me, 'Can I have the recipe?' And I'm happy to give people a recipe, but just like you can know the notes on the piano, it may take many years before you can play Mozart. Bread is not dissimilar to that. There's a sort of sixth sense and feeling you get."

Things like: when has the dough risen enough? Does it feel right?

Benge's Bread, LLC, is still a part-time gig. It's a passion that pays for itself with a little left over.

He says he's not sure how it'll evolve. Maybe he'll get his own commercial kitchen or a storefront someday.

"The beauty of it is you can dip your toe in the water and see if you like it," he says. "You don't have commit to something huge right out of the gate."

Which, for fans of Benge's baguettes, means trips to Manchester's Community Market, or Benedikt Dairy's Farm Stand in Goffstown, and getting there early, before his bread sells out.

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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