The Ciabatta that Changed New York (and Sarah Black's Life)

My hands were trained in making paper before they were trained in making bread. That training was one advantage I had in learning the hand skills of baking, and the beginning of the story of how I became a bread baker.

I knew within a month of moving to New York City that I was not going to be the kind of successful artist I had imagined. That decision had to do with confidence—but also and mostly, after paying rent on my apartment, I could not afford the studio space needed for my very large canvasses.

Photo by James Ransom

As I cast around for an alternative direction, I came upon Dieu Donné Press and Paper. Dieu Donné was and remains a studio devoted to making beautiful handmade papers, and at that time it was located at the southern tip of Crosby Street in New York City's SoHo neighborhood, which in the early eighties was still a neighborhood ripe for change. In the dark winter evenings it felt a little dangerous walking through the abandoned streets—but also exciting, as there remained downtown an energy that felt accessible and vibrant. Artists could still afford to live and work there, and I sensed possibility, something that was unique to the city then, so I surfed up and rode the wave.

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I learned to make paper, and as an apprentice, I had the lowly job of cutting up huge old hotel tablecloths into one-inch squares. These were fed into a machine called a Hollander beater, macerated with water into a pulp, and then, with an artful dip, caught by a screen, pressed, and dried.

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“It was a very heady time, those early years of bread baking emerging in NYC. Thank you for this lovely reminder. -Toy Dupree”
— Toy D.

We would hold the first few sheets of dried paper to the light to see where the imperfections were, and this became the gauge for understanding how to build the pulp, when to add more water, how to better press—all skills that would eventually lend themselves to my future life in bread.

Sarah Black's ciabatta. Photo by Lauren Volo

As much as I enjoyed making paper, I was still looking for that thunderbolt clarity for my future, and truly felt that—and still do!—with bread. So in 1987, Tom Cat Bakery began production and I—sensing that a business in bread sounded like a sensible solution to a future career—was hired as the first baker. There were only a handful of New York City bakeries producing good bread at that time, but some kind of bread resurgence was simmering intently, with Eli Zabar in Manhattan, Bread Alone in Woodstock, Acme Bread in San Francisco, and La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles.

Though I left Tom Cat after the first year to help open a bakery called Ecce Panis, I returned to start my own business, called Companio, sharing Tom Cat’s ovens and delivery trucks but making products uniquely different from the Tom Cat breads I knew.

Carol Field’s book The Italian Baker guided me towards ciabatta, and with the utmost confidence I took on this challenging, highly hydrated "dough-with-its-own-mind-kind-of-dough," using all of the skills I had mastered at Dieu Donné. The ciabatta dough I made poured out of the mixing bowl like batter; it was voluptuous and luxurious—I loved working with it.

Photo by Houghton Mifflin

I crafted large rounds which, when baked, became an interior cathedral of glistening webs and strands of bread surrounded by a burnt-brown, eggshell-thin crust. It was almost a work of art, and when I offered it up to the New York market, it was an immediate hit (except for the shattering mess of crust it made when cutting)—nothing quite like it yet existed. My ciabatta “changed New York City’s breadscape forever” says Dorie Greenspan, and it had its coming-out party when it was introduced by Florence Fabricant of the New York Times in 1992.

Sarah in 1987, with an armful of bread. Photo by Sarah Black

My ciabatta, for the first time in my life, allowed me to see a pathway towards a real and dedicated future, but it was also about a certain time and place in New York City that felt innocent and promising. We, as cooks and bakers and artists, created an intimate community of colleagues and friends where dedication and passion were the currency. We worked like hell, and what seemed like random, crazy chaos at the time was, in the end, as a structured story—the underpinnings that allowed a shift in the way we thought about food, and what became a true renaissance in the craft of bread and baking.

If you ask me, it was a pretty heady moment in time, and I was glad to be a part of it.

Sarah Black is a baker and the author of One Dough, Ten Breads. Her most recent project is Flowers and Bread, a baking school (and then some!) in Columbus, Ohio.

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Amanda H. February 23, 2016
Sarah, I loved reading your story -- and remember meeting you at Tom Cat when I drove down to NYC from college to see the bakery. You most certainly changed NY for me. Thanks.
blacksbread /. February 23, 2016
Amanda! Yes, I remember you well, and happily - it's gratifying we are both a part of this circle of life. Thanks for this note - it means so much to me... Look for something in the mail soon. xOx Sarah
Toy D. February 21, 2016
I hear your voice so clearly in this article, Sarah. Well done! As is everything you turn your mind and hands to. It was a very heady time, those early years of bread baking emerging in NYC. Thank you for this lovely reminder. -Toy Dupree
blacksbread /. February 21, 2016
Those were the days. . . thanks for this nice note Toy!