Lionel Vatinet, master baker and owner of La Farm Bakery, in Cary, North Carolina, is also the author of the forthcoming A Passion For Bread: Lessons From A Master Baker — Seven Steps To Making Perfect Loaves (Little, Brown, fall 2013). Here are his top holiday tips.
What are your favorite holiday gifts?
I like to make a basket of fresh bread. I’ll sometimes add some charcuterie, even though I don’t make my own, or a jar of local jam. We have a jam maker I like a lot here in Cary, called Mrs. Ruth’s. If we do a jam in France, it’s going to be only strawberry or black currant or what have you. Here you can be much more creative. She doesn’t just go with one fruit, she’s going to go with raspberry and pecan, these fun, sometimes funky combinations that go well with everything.
What’s your favorite holiday cocktail?
I always come back to my French roots, so at the holidays I don’t think of cocktails so much as aperitifs. The classic is the anise liqueur Ricard: I cannot go without one, no matter what time of year. Then my father is from the region that makes Pineau des Charentes, a Cognac-based liqueur that’s a great aperitif for the holidays. There are two, white and red: pineau blanc and pineau rouge. They always make me think of the holidays because my mother brings me a bottle when she comes to visit, as my father did when he was still alive. It’s usually served straight up, chilled.
What’s a great entertaining tip?
Hire a caterer so you don’t stress out and can enjoy your guests. To organize and cook for so many of them, at least for me, you spend your time in the kitchen, and you never spend time with your family and friends.
What are your 5 top places not to miss in Cary, North Carolina, and the Research Triangle?
What’s the recipe you’re most famous for?
Definitely our stollen. We make the fruitcake with marzipan in the middle, but it’s very light, almost like a brioche, not dense and heavy. It’s full of flavor: orange zest, lemon peel, almonds, rum. We make it only once a year. It’s a very popular item.
At our café the most popular item is a croque-madame made with our signature La Farm bread, a 5-pounder sourdough made with white and whole-wheat flour, natural starter or liquid levain. The croque-madame has sourdough, Mornay sauce, ham and two eggs on the top.
What’s your favorite cookbook of all time?
Alain Couet and Eric Kayser’s Pains Speciaux et Decorée, Vol. 2. This book is now out of print, but it came out in the 1980s when I was first starting as a baker. The second volume covered farm breads as well as decorative breads. It’s got a lot of pictures for the steps, so it’s not too intimidating; it was great.
What’s one technique everyone should know?
Mixing by hand. I believe for bakers, and even foodies, you need to use your hands. If you are cook, you want to use your hands as much as you can, no matter what you do. Your hand is your memory. And the feel of bread is the hardest thing to teach: to explain how a dough might be a little too soft, or needs a little bit more strength. By touching, you develop your skills faster and become a better baker.