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I first stumbled upon stenciled bread loaves at a little farmers market in North Carolina. I was there selling bread myself—crusty baguettes, olive oily focaccia—but those ones, there, across the way, were different: decorated with custom stencils. Some weeks, it was a wheat stalk. Others, the stout, wide shape of our Southern state. And others still, words, a message from baker to buyer.
Rob and Monica Segovia-Welsh—the husband-and-wife team behind Chicken Bridge Bakery—have been doing this for years, turning flour into bread, bread into art. And wildly delicious art at that. Meanwhile, I was still proud of myself for baking bread, period. It was only years later, when I wrote about Rob and Monica for a local paper, that they let me in on a little secret: Stenciling bread isn’t difficult. Actually, it’s simple. Like really simple.
“It’s an old technique and as easy as finding an object, like a doily or an ornament, placing it on the proofed dough, and sifting flour over it before slipping the dough into the oven,” Rob wrote me. “I like to come up with my own designs as well by cutting them out of paper board with an X-Acto knife.”
So, we tried just that....
And it was easy. Below, I’ll walk you through the steps (psst: there are only three) and turn you into a bread decorating machine. You could make a Food52 stencil—we’re blushing!—or, you know, something else. Your call! The Food52 one is pretty cute. But whatever you want.
1) Create your design.
“Create” is a nice way of saying: Find something pretty online and print it out. We re-created our logo because we couldn’t help ourselves. But those tiny letters can get tricky. If this is your first stencil—hooray!—opt for a simpler shape, with as few nooks and crannies as possible. Say, a big heart or star, because you’re a bread-baking, stencil-making star. Print it out—thicker, sturdier paper is preferable but not a deal-breaker—then cut it out. As Rob mentioned, an X-Acto knife makes a world of difference here, but scissors will do in a pinch.
Or, if you’re really in a pinch, don’t make a stencil at all. Find one. Seriously, look around, there’s probably one nearby. (Looks left: stack of cookbooks. Right: cell phone and peanut butter jar. Forward: laptop. Shakes head.) Our contributor—and all-around fearless baker—Erin McDowell likes to use a doily to powder-sugar her pumpkin pie. I’ve even used a grater to great (heh!) success.
2) Start the bread.
In theory, any bread recipe will work here. If I’m making a stencil from scratch, I like to opt for an easygoing recipe that I feel comfy and confident with. This way, it’s one less element to worry about. If you’re new to this (hi, join the club), steer clear of recipes that require a last-minute step—say, dumping the bread from a proofing basket into a preheated Dutch oven. Instead, try a low-key pan loaf or sheet-pan soda bread. Whatever recipe you pick, get it to the step when you’re just about to bake, then stencil right before it goes in the oven. We went with Alexandra Stafford’s no-knead peasant bread—multiplied the recipe by 1 1/2 to yield two pan loaves, let those complete their second rise, then stenciled.
You have your stencil, ready-to-bake bread dough, and ready-to-save-the-world cape. Let’s go. There are two options here: flour or cocoa. The biggest difference is color—white or brown—because the flavor doesn’t come through much with either. If you’re using a sturdy stencil—plastic or metal or a thick piece of paper—grease the bottom of the stencil with nonstick spray or a smear of oil. This greasiness will sidestep any dough sticking, a trick from Sarah Jampel, who styled these pretty-as-ever shots. If you’re using a fragile stencil—like fabric or a thin piece of paper—do a super light spray, or nothing at all.
Now, gently place the stencil atop your bread loaf. Add a scoop of flour or cocoa to a fine-mesh sieve. Hold this a foot or so above the stencil and shake, shake, shake. You want the coverage to be opaque, but still thin, like a dusting of snow that juuust covers the street. If it’s too heavy, it will weigh down the bread and not fully adhere. Gingerly lift up the stencil—thanks, nonstick spray!—and admire your design. Okay, okay, enough admiring. Bake that bread! Almost too pretty to eat, right? Almost.
How do you decorate your bread? Let us know your tips and tricks in the comments!