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.

Biscuit personality

Fast food is all about consistency. People want to know that they’ll get the same food at a drive-through in Rochester as they will at one in Raleigh. So, I was intrigued by the seeming contradiction of being asked to judge the regional finals of a biscuit contest for McDonald’s in Cary, N.C. Bakers at each store have a list of rules to follow and everyone has the same ingredients – not much of a contest, I thought.

The biggest challenge was sheer number – there were 12 entries. Even taking just a bite of each would mean eating the equivalent of three or four entire biscuits. My fellow judge, Cary Mayor Harold Weinbrecht, boasted that he had gone for a run in preparation for the marathon. I, in contrast, had merely foregone any bread at lunch and walked briskly to my car.

The mayor and I were handed a detailed score sheet. We had little metal rulers to see if the biscuits hit the requisite 1 1/2 inches in height. We were told to check the brownness of the tops and the whiteness of the sides, the amount of pebbly texture on the tops and the fluffiness of the centers. Can a good biscuit be scientifically quantified? They were trying.

I was surprised – even with all the rules and being baked in the same McDonald’s kitchen, each baker’s biscuit was a little different. Even in the standardized fast-food world, it makes a difference whose hands mold the biscuits.

The regional winning bakers were Angelica Hernandez from the Falls of the Neuse Road store, Elena Salgado from the South Street store, Gustavo Sanchez from the Kildaire Farms Road store and Mariana Morales from the Garner store. They will compete next week in the state finals.