French baked delights draw crowds at Livermore’s Casse-Croûte
By Lou Fancher
At Casse-Croûte Bakery, unbreakable bonds are made with simple ingredients: flour, water, salt, human patience and kindness. Firm friendships form over sturdy croque monsieur (ham and cheese sandwiches), potage du jour (soup of the day) or handmade chocolate croissants, lemon bars, café au lait and other sweet treats.
Owned and operated since 2013 by Pleasanton residents Richard Denoix and Lenore Colarusso-Denoix, crusty house-made bread is the magnet; a fine but not fancy casse-croûte (light meal) menu is the anchor.
“We use non-GMO flour from a local mill, purified water and salt,” says Denoix, the primary baker at the downtown Livermore establishment. “We use yeast in a strict way, which is called “levain.” It’s the traditional way to make bread rise.”
Levain, sometimes known as “wild,” “sourdough,” or “starter” yeast, was commonly used 100 or more years ago, when the commercial yeast known today was less available. “I grow it on a daily basis, mix some in every batch of bread, save some for tomorrow. It’s ongoing, natural,” says Denoix.
In his childhood home in a French village of roughly 300 people, Denoix was seventh in the lineup of nine children born to his traditional, father-works-mother-cooks family. “My mother used recipes she got from her mother, friends, family. Food was organic because we grew our own vegetables, fruits; raised chicken, rabbits. We were self-sustaining with the exception of bread (flour) and meat from large animals like cows.”
Denoix served in the French Air Force before transitioning to software engineering and immigrating to the United States in 1993. Baking came only within the last 10 years, largely due to a desire for good bread becoming a hobby and then a daily job and nearly a mission in bringing it to customers.
In Long Island, New York, Colarusso-Denoix’s Italian-American upbringing was characterized by dramatic changes. Her father suffered brain cancer for five years and was largely absent from the home due to illness before passing away when she was 13 years old. Her older sisters married when she was 11, which left Colarusso-Denoix and her younger brother at times fending for themselves while their mother worked or cared for their father. “I went from being a young one to being in charge of cooking meals, laundry, housekeeping, plus school,” she says.
Even so, her older sister taught her how to make bean and tomato stew, meatballs, lasagna and the special sauce her children favor at home. “I treat recipes as guidelines,” she says. “Then I do my own thing.”
The couple rarely go out to eat. “Richard is vegetarian, so he’ll order pasta primavera,” Colarusso-Denoix explains. “He’ll taste it and say, ‘You make this so much better. Why go out?’ ”
After they married in 2004, friends who came for dinner frequently said, “You cook, Lenore,” or requested a particular tart or dessert. “We’d look at each other and laugh. It gave us the idea that maybe we could make food for other people,” she says. Retired after 22 years as director of sales with AT&T, she is surprised by her twilight career. “Working in the corporate world, I never knew I loved cooking so much.”
Of course, cooking and baking for Tri-Valley customers is different than hosting dinner parties or feeding a family. People in the area value fine ingredients, like the 13-month-aged Comté cheese or seasonal, locally-grown fruits and vegetables. There’s appreciation for handmade items that include a custardy apple tart Denoix learned to make from his mother’s verbal instructions. “Some people go straight to our traditional French croissants or chocolate mousse cake,” says Denoix.
“The lemon bars fly off the shelf; we can’t keep them around,” adds Colarusso-Denoix. “A cabbage soup I made, they went crazy over it.”
Quality ingredients and slow processes test the bottom line, a fact that has them constantly searching for cost efficiencies that won’t compromise the cuisine. “When you won’t compromise, you get fulfilled spiritually,” says Colarusso-Denoix, grasping the silver lining.
Yelp, Facebook, Instagram and Google Plus have been a boon. Disappointing review posts are few and viewed as learning tools for improvements. They rarely respond directly. The wide-open kitchen allows for more personal interactions instead. “People love to watch me chop,” says Colarusso-Denoix. “They love smelling. They open the door and a huge smile comes across their faces. Then they come back at lunch and have whatever we’re making.”
Giving back reaches beyond Casse-Croûte’s cozy space. Denoix is a volunteer chaplain at Santa Rita Jail; Colarusso-Denoix is president of a chapter of Soroptimist International, whose focus is educating women and girls. “In a way, our volunteer work is the same as the café,” says Denoix. “we feed people spiritually and in the process we feed ourselves. At first, you imagine it is for others, but we get a lot in return.”