Day 5: A book to boost baking

IMG_3097Yes, you can go to La Farm in Cary and simply buy baker Lionel Vatinet’s wonderful breads. But Vatinet’s new cookbook brings you into his mind and heart – although it lacks the delight of his French accent, which remains strong after more than 15 years in the U.S.

This book is both a detailed, user-friendly lesson on making your own breads and an irresistible Valentine. You’ll want to walk into the kitchen and give it a try.

“A Passion for Bread: Lessons from a Master Baker” (Little, Brown and Company, $35) begins with the story of how learning to bake bread changed Vatinet’s life and gave him a driving purpose. In the instructions, numerous photographs show home cooks how the dough and bread should look at each stage.

He clearly explains why things work the way they do, why certain ingredients are important and other techniques. I’ve encountered too many bread books that are sort of mystical, that lack helpful detail and talk about the “spirit” of the bread. One book suggested that I “praise the dough” before shaping it. I find Vatinet’s approach much more likely to achieve success and give me something delicious to eat. That’s “spirit” enough for me.

You may be able to still find some signed copies at La Farm or local bookstores. But signed or not, those who have an interest in good bread – whether or not they’ve ever baked – will enjoy this book. Although I still wish there was a book-on-tape version with Vatinet reading.

Loafing around

breads at la farm bakery in cary

The idea of a bread tasting had never occurred to me, but when the breads are as unique and layered in flavor as fine wine, why not?  Lionel Vatinet offered the tasting of breads from his upcoming book at La Farm Bakery in Cary, which he opened in 1999.

Instructions to make the breads will be featured in “A Passion for Bread: Lessons From a Master Baker – Seven Steps to Making Great Bread” which will be published in November. It will be the first book for Vatinet, who trained in France (where he apprenticed for seven years) and San Francisco. The book is full of photos that show each step of the process for novice bakers, part of Vatinet’s goal of helping home cooks make beautiful fresh loaves.

We started with Vatinet’s classic 5-pound boule. And I found out why the sourdough-flavored loaf is so large. The recipe, Vatinet said, goes back to the tradition of communal ovens in small French villages. Villagers would bake loaves large enough to last their families for several days, and would mark each loaf with an identifying crest.

My previous experiences with all-whole-wheat breads has been that they were suitable for sanding down furniture. Vatinet’s was soft and flavorful, and he uses North Carolina grown and milled flour from a newly opened mill near Asheville, Carolina Ground.

Beaujolais replaced water in another bread that included chunks of salami. But, of course, my attention was drawn to a bread using cornmeal, onions, chives and buttermilk. I’m thinking that this fine-textured bread would make the base for a great grilled cheese sandwich or interesting in a savory bread pudding, if it hung around long enough to get stale.

Many of these breads are not regularly available at the bakery, but Vatinet says he will offer them more often once the book comes out.

He had taught baking classes at La Farm for years, and enjoys passing on knowledge. “People want that touch with the earth from making the bread,” he says.

Southern exposure

There are so many Southern-themed cookbooks out now. And while the bigger cookbook world just discovered my native chow, some  writers have been carrying the torch for years. One such author is Jean Anderson, whose 2007 book “A Love Affair with Southern Cooking” is full of heart, soul and history.

Now Anderson, who lives in Chapel Hill, N.C., opens the door to Southern-style baking with “From a Southern Oven: The Savories, the Sweets” (John Wiley & Sons, $32.50). The book contains recipes for casseroles with Southern touches, like Orange Chicken Nested in Pecan Pilaf, and plenty of crab and seafood dishes. Anderson always finds at least one recipe with a history that surprises. One in this book is Philpy, a quick bread made in the South Carolina Lowcountry using cooked rice and rice flour. Then there’s Confederate Rice Pudding, from the same part of the world, which includes Madeira.

I love sweet potatoes, and am pleased to see several enticing recipes using them, including Sweet Potato Focaccia, Sweet Potato Corn Bread and Bourbon-Glazed Sweet Potato Pound Cake.

Anderson has written more than a dozen cookbooks, and is a food writing professional whose recipes always work; you can rely on them. She has long been my role model in that area. Others may be jumping on the Southern cookbook bandwagon, but they will have to ride a long way to catch up with Anderson.

Whoosh! There go the holidays

I think that blazing flash of light I just saw was the holiday season whizzing by. December usually runs in fast-forward (now there’s a term today’s tape-free teens probably don’t know), but it seems worse for me this year. A big part of it was having to finish proofs and other materials for my cookbook on buttermilk, which won’t be published until fall of 2012, but nevertheless the publisher needs the stuff now.

I’m finally up for air, and plan to make the most of the remaining time. “Christmas in Connecticut” is snug in my DVR, right next to the Alastair Sim version of “A Christmas Carol.” “Christmas in Connecticut” is my new holiday fave – I love the idea that Barbara Stanwyck’s 1945 version of Martha Stewart doesn’t actually cook any recipes she writes about.

I don’t look quite as va-va-voom as Barbara, but I do bake. When fresh cranberries and oranges abound, this quick bread is my favorite. It’s easy, good for breakfast or snacks, freezes well, and I can easily “non-dairy it” for The Hub.

Cranberry-Orange Nut Bread

2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup fresh cranberries

1 cup chopped pecans

2 tablespoons melted margarine or butter

Grated rind of 1 orange

Orange juice

1 egg

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, combine the flour, salt, sugar, baking powder and baking soda. Stir in the cranberries and pecans.

Put the margarine or butter in a 1-cup glass measure and melt the margarine or butter in the microwave. Add the grated orange rind, then pour in enough orange juice to fill the cup. Add the liquid and the egg to the flour mixture and stir to blend. Don’t overbeat. Pour into a non-stick 8-inch by 5-inch loaf pan. Bake 1 hour or until it tests done with a toothpick.

Let the bread cool in the pan on a wire rack for about 15 minutes, then remove it. Let it cool completely if you want to wrap and freeze it.