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.

Loafing around

mary turner with loaf's loaves

In the Bull Durham days, downtown Durham, N.C. was perfumed with the scent of tobacco curing. Today, if you take a deep breath, you’re likely to get a whiff of baked goods instead. How it happened, I don’t know, but three bakeries have settled downtown (including the oldest, Ninth Street Bakery).

My food-adventurous friend Mary Turner has been posting Facebook photos from her job at the newest of the three, Loaf. Although Scratch Baking is just around the corner, she says the two don’t compete. Loaf has no sit-down dining, and no fancy coffee drinks – just fresh baked things. The spot draws a lot of morning traffic from office workers, who grab cinnamon rolls or chocolate croissants. The cinnamon rolls have no

some of friday's offerings

nuts or raisins, and are made with croissant dough, with makes them different from the typical cinnamon roll.

Amply sized loaves of bread contain oat, almond or, the one I tried, polenta. It was ultra-crusty with a moist interior. Really nice. The bread menu is evolving. (Challah, perhaps?)

I also brought home a chocolate tart and what Mary described as a Canadian seven-layer bar. But if The Hub is reading this – so sorry, Bug the cat got them.

Owner Ron Graff began at the Durham Farmers Market, and still sells there during the season. The store at 111 West Parrish Street opened in November 2011.

Going coconutty

I was in the mood for something sweet this morning. Actually, what I really wanted was ice cream, but I was contemplating a baked good that the dairy-allergic husband could eat. There was a can of coconut milk in the pantry, so I adapted a buttermilk spice quick bread that I used to make a lot. It came out a little dense, so I think I will up the baking powder next time, but it’s pretty good. Only a hint of coconut flavor – not excessively so. See what y’all think. Mace is similar to nutmeg, but I prefer the flavor over nutmeg.

Coconut Milk Spice Bread

1/2 cup unsalted nondairy margarine, at room temperature

3/4 cup sugar

1 egg

2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon mace

1 cup canned coconut milk

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray an 8-by-4-inch loaf pan with cooking spray.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the margarine and sugar together. Add the egg and mix well.

In another bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder and spices. Canned coconut milk can separate, so pour the entire can of coconut milk into a small  bowl and stir it until it’s recombined. Then measure out 1 cup. Stir the vanilla into the cup of coconut milk.

Running the mixer on low, add the flour mixture and coconut milk alternatively, beginning and ending with flour. Pour the batter into the pan. Bake 50 to 60 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.