A Baker's Dozen

Gifts for the Kneady

illustration by Lisa Kirkpatrick
Being a baker by trade as well as avocation, my annual personal Christmas list invariably includes an interesting new baking book, a handy new gadget, or an innovative time-saving appliance. Professional as well as amateur practitioners of the baking arts usually fall into one of two categories, patisserie (pastry making) or boulangerie (bread baking). Though my training and skills are primarily in pastry making, the recent renaissance of artisan bread baking has inspired me to bake bread more often this year. Whether the baker on your Christmas list is a pastry queen or wields a mean baguette, here's a list of a baker's dozen gift ideas that are sure to please the chef and everyone who tastes their wares.

1. Baking with Julia (Wm. Morrow, $40, hard) by Dorie Greenspan: This elegant volume is the companion piece to the new 39-segment PBS television series Baking with Julia filmed in the Massachusetts home kitchen of America's beloved premiere food expert, Julia Child. Twenty-seven of America's best pastry and bread bakers shared personal recipes with Child for both the book and the camera. Long-time Child collaborator Dorie Greenspan, a well-respected baker in her own right, compiled and oversaw the testing of the recipes, making them very accessible for the home baker. The book is divided into sections, starting with a basics chapter about terms, equipment and ingredients and a chapter on batters and doughs. Following that, there are chapters on Breads (daily loaves, artisan and flat breads), Morning Pastries and Quick Breads, Cakes (including a lovely wedding cake and some cookies), and Pastries. The final section includes useful auxiliary recipes for sweet fillings and savory spreads. Try the Oasis Naan from flatbread experts Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, Flo Braker's freeform Berry Galette or the Buttermilk Bread for the bread machine from Lora Brody. The book is illustrated with mouth-watering photographs of finished breads and pastries but almost no "how-to" shots are offered. The book is a must-have for the cookbook collection of any serious baker -- and perhaps the gift should include an offer to tape the weekly TV segments (currently Saturdays, 1:30pm, on KLRU) or to man the oven while the baker takes time to watch for him or herself.

2. Walking on Walnuts (Bantam, $21.95, hard) by Nancy Ring: New York City artist/pastry chef Nancy Ring has written a poignant, recipe-filled memoir of her personal journey from waitress struggling to support her career as a painter to accomplished pastry chef struggling to find the time and energy to paint. At each level in the development of her pastry expertise, Ring is very much aware of the generations of family bakers who've preceded her, and the book is laced with insightful recollections of the lessons about both baking and life that were shared by her grandmothers and aunts. Each chapter begins with a recipe, some family heirlooms, and some of Ring's original creations. But this is not really a cookbook. It is an enlightening peek into the kitchens and dining rooms of New York City's hot and trendy restaurants, where the restaurant and chef names have been carefully changed to protect the guilty, I suspect. It's also the author's loving tribute to the bakers' hands who shaped her own, giving her the skills and confidence to create in the kitchen.

3. The True History of Chocolate (Thames & Hudson, $27.50, hard) by Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe: This scholarly work, begun by famed cultural anthropologist and food historian Sophie Coe before her untimely death from cancer, was completed by her husband, Yale anthropology professor emeritus Michael D. Coe, using his wife's thorough research. The Coes chronicle the fascinating history of theobroma cacao from its ancient days as an elite drink of the early Maya to its status as both a legal tender and valuable trade commodity before and after the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica. They follow chocolate as it conquers Spain, flourishes in jasmine-scented glory in the Florentine court of Cosimo III, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and as it remains the constant source of debate among clerics trying to decide if drinking chocolate breaks the fast during Lent. Anyone who has read recent scientific studies on the medical merits of eating chocolate will be surprised to find that this controversy dates back hundreds of years. The book comes full circle, ending the 3,000-year-old history of chocolate with information about the new cultivation of chocolate on the island of Hawaii and the creation of a new chocolate bar marketed as "Maya Gold," made from chocolate grown by the Kekchi Maya of Belize. For the baker (or anyone else) with a passion for chocolate, this is the chocolate Bible.

4. The Baking Sheet Newsletter (King Arthur Flour, $20 yearly): This bi-monthly newsletter is a must for serious home bakers. All the recipes, tips and info are generated in a home-style kitchen in Norwich, Vermont -- home of the venerable King Arthur Flour Company. Recipes come with nutritional analysis and handy tips from the King Arthur baking staff as well as other subscribers. Recently, one whole 28-page issue was devoted to naturally leavened artisan breads, and a summer issue was full of suggestions for flat breads, crackers and cookies. Call 800/827-6836 to order.

5. Pastry Art and Design (Haymarket Publishing Group, $30 yearly): The folks at Chocolatier magazine put out this quarterly companion publication aimed at pastry professionals. The recipes are somewhat complex but they would give the accomplished amateur or aspiring pastry chef something to dream about and strive for. To subscribe, call 815/734-1109.

6. Marble Pastry Board ($46 from Williams-Sonoma): Marble has long been recognized as the perfect surface for rolling pastry because it's so cool and smooth. A great (and very heavy) gift for the person who attempts to make puff pastry in a Texas kitchen. (The cheaper option is to check with marble monument companies for rectangular scrap pieces and have the edges sanded smooth.)

7. Tavolini™ Board ($64.95 from the King Arthur Flour catalog): This portable hardwood counter top is named for a customary Italian wedding gift, a little table. The 18 x 24-inch board has a 3/4-inch lip to hook securely onto a work space and a 21/2-inch backsplash to reign in flying flour when your baker is kneading bread dough, rolling and cutting pasta dough, or proofing bagels. Call 800/827-6836 to order.

8. Rolling Pin pin ($18 from the Williams-Sonoma catalog): This beautiful little sterling silver pen actually rotates on its dowl and makes the perfect culinary badge of honor for a favorite baker. There is also a lovely set of measuring spoons fanned out on a ring for $29. Though there is a Williams Sonoma in the Arboretum, these only appear in their most current catalog, page 5. Call 800/541-2233.

9. Gadgets from Ace Mart: This downtown restaurant supply house at 1025 W. Fifth might just be the perfect place to buy stocking-stuffers for the bakers of your acquaintance. They stock every size pastry bag, decorating tips, off-set icing spreaders, metal pastry scrapers, and pastry brushes. For serious gifts, think about heavy hardwood rolling pins on dowels and thin French batons, sheet pans, cheesecake pans, springform pans or pizza pans. Ace Mart offers good sturdy quality and is usually cheaper than cookware or department stores.

10. Baking Chocolate: After reading the history of chocolate, bakers will no doubt be inspired to new heights of creativity. For easy-melting unsweetened baking chocolate, invest in a supply of Ob-Lan Wafers from Texas Specialty Foods (451-5447) on Burnet Road. They also have 11-pound blocks of Callebaut Bittersweet, Semi-Sweet, Milk, and White Chocolate. For a taste of the newest rage in baking chocolate, try the popular Venezuelan brand, El Rey, at Heart of Texas Produce (479-8771) on E. Sixth. Sweetish Hill co-owner Jim Murphy swears by El Rey and now uses it in many Sweetish Hill delicacies. Heart of Texas carries it in 6.6-pound blocks. Both of these gourmet purveyors sell primarily to the restaurant trade, but they will take phone orders from individuals as well. Call in advance to check availability of products and minimum ordering requirements.

11. Sgraffito Servingware: Drop by this interesting do-it-yourself pottery decorating studio at 809 W. 12th and whip up some one-of-a-kind serving pieces for the baker on your list. Perhaps a distinctive cookie jar for his famous cookies, a signature pie plate for her blue ribbon pie, or round, oval or rectangular platters to display those special pastries and desserts. All you need to do is choose a piece of their white pottery, decorate it using paints, stencils, stamps, sponges and block prints supplied by the studio, and turn it over to the helpful Sgraffito staff for glazing and firing. Pottery items range in price from $2-$45 and painting time is billed at $7 per hour, which includes all decorating supplies, glazing and firing. Your unique masterpiece will be ready in a few days. Call them at 708-9000 for operating hours.

12. Baking Courses at the CIA Greystone: The Culinary Institute of America has opened a West Coast campus at the former Greystone Vineyards in St. Helena, California, primarily for continuing education. The 1997 catalog is just out and there are several short baking courses from which to choose. Bread-baking and pastry fundamental courses are available, some of which are three-week courses and others which are 30-hour courses taught over a period of three days. The Great American Pastry Chefs series looks particularly exciting, giving participants the opportunity to work side-by-side with some of America's premiere pastry chefs, creating plated desserts. These classes are not cheap, but tuition and a short stay in the California wine country would sure make some lucky baker a memorable gift. Call an Education Assistant at the Greystone campus at 800/333-9242 or 707/967-0600 for the 1997 catalog.

13. Bread Machine: As a former professional baker, I was very skeptical about bread machines until I attended some classes at Central Market taught by bread machine expert Lora Brody. Lora is the cooking teacher who turned the venerable Julia Child on to bread machines and that's good enough for me. Bread machines are convenient and easy to use and, like all electronic equipment, now that they've been on the market a while, good ones are available at affordable prices. A bread machine is a good idea for someone who wants to learn to make bread but is intimidated by the mystery of yeast doughs, or someone who thinks they don't have enough time to bake. Once they get used to the smell of bread in the oven, they'll be hooked. And Lora Brody has a whole library of books on the baked goods that can be created from doughs made in a bread machine.

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