Top 5 Gifts for Bread Bakers: Your Kitchen, My Boulangerie
For some of us, baking bread is something that we do without much thought, whenever it's cold enough to crank the oven, for giving to friends, when our kids demand it, or as a coping mechanism (see: the recent election, long distance relationships, Steve Nash). The smell of bread baking is a fundamental thing, as is the taste of a warm loaf, yeasty and buoyant and with a crust golden and resoundingly crisp.
Bread baking also a pretty inexpensive hobby, and in this era of renewed interest in DIY projects and artisan whatsits, not a bad one to take up. If you don't give the breads you bake to friends, you can aid and abet your friends' interest in the craft. Of course you don't need much in the way of fancy gear to bake a good loaf of bread -- a bowl, an oven, the most basic of ingredients -- but there are some things that make the experience infinitely more rewarding. Turn the page for five of them, for your friends this holiday season. Or for yourself.
5. Great Bread Books:
Unless you're already an experienced baker -- and even if you are -- you'll want some good baking books. Of the many out there, especially in recent years, a few stand out. Pretty much anything written by Peter Reinhart -- Crust and Crumb (Ten Speed Press; 2006); The Bread Baker's Apprentice (Ten Speed Press, 2001); Peter Reinhart's Whole Grain Breads (Ten Speed Press, 2007) -- for starters. Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Bread Bible (Norton, 2003). Jeffrey Hamelman's Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes (Wiley, 2004). Maggie Glezer's Artisan Baking (Artisan, 2005). Local Breads: Sourdough and Whole-Grain Recipes from Europe's Best Artisan Bakers by Daniel Leader (Norton, 2007). Tartine Bread, by Chad Robertson (Chronicle, 2010). And of course the classic Nancy Silverton's Breads from the La Brea Bakery (Villard, 1996), by You Know Who. Sure, some of these are more complicated than others, but it's good to have something to shoot for, isn't it. At Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Vroman's, or any good bookstore.
Sur la Table bannetons
Sure, you can use a standard loaf pan, but baking bread is exponentially more fun if you get a pretty boule -- its round crusty top decorated with the flour-dusted spirals that the forms create -- instead of a rectangular sandwich loaf. Bannetons, also called brotforms, are woven baskets made from cane in which you proof your dough for the final rise before baking -- thus allowing for the shape and pretty pattern. They come in many shapes and sizes, not only the round ones used for boules, but also ovals and rectangles and even triangles. They're costly, but they last forever -- and you can use them as pretty bread baskets after you've finished baking. Tip: do NOT wash them, just brush off the crusty flour and brush on fresh after each baking. At Sur la Table, Cook's Direct, King Arthur, Surfas (sometimes).
3. Baking Stone:
A. Scattergood baking stone
If you use a banneton or basket or free-form your bread, you'll need a baking surface on which to bake it. Yes, you can use a metal baking tray, but your bread will bake a lot better if you have a stone. Also marketed as pizza stones, these are unglazed ceramic tiles that you put into your oven while it's preheating. Thus when it's time to bake, you slide the breads onto the hot stone -- kind of like a facsimile of the bottom of a bakery's big ovens. You get better oven spring -- that extra rise of the bread when it hits the heat -- and more even baking. If you look closely, you can see that my stone is broken, since yeah, they're breakable. But I never got a new one, since the thing works just fine in two pieces -- and actually stores more easily. If you don't feel like buying a stone at a cooking supply store, get some unglazed ceramic tiles at a hardware store instead. Surfas, King Arthur, The Webstaurant Store.