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5 Questions with Lionel Vatinet

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We're sitting down with our favorite writers and cooks to talk about their upcoming cookbooks, their best food memories, and just about anything else.

Today: We break bread with North Carolina's baker extraordinaire, Lionel Vatinet, as he discusses his new book and demystifies artisanal bread for the home baker.

Lionel  Lionel

A strip mall in Cary, North Carolina is likely not the first place you'd go looking for artisan bread. But that's where Lionel Vatinet -- a French certified Master Baker and teacher -- has built his bakery. After working as a teacher for years, Lionel opened La Farm in 1999. 

Ever since, Lionel has developed a loyal following through his artisan breads, sandwiches, and sweets. ("It's not a traditional French bakery," he told us. "We sell cookies.") He works with local millers to source the highest-quality whole wheat flour, and passes on the techniques he learned during 7 years of study with the Les Compagnons du Devoir bakers' guild in France. The result is a chewy, sour crumb; a bubbly crust; and potential for a killer sandwich.

In his first cookbook, A Passion for Bread: Lessons from a Master Baker, Vatinet has turned years of instruction into an incredibly useful, practical, step-by-step guide to an art with a learning curve tends to scare off home cooks. From mixing, to kneading, to shaping, the key steps of bread baking are shown through detailed photographs and instruction -- he essentially holds your hand throughout the process. And for those wary of baking artisan bread in a conventional oven, Vatinet has devised a genius technique that won't have you throwing water into your 500° oven. Read on to hear more about his history, the importance of having a teacher, and the easiest breads you can bake from his book. (We're also giving away a few copies! Read on for details.)

When did you decide that you wanted to be a baker?
I was 16 years old when my mom sent to me to apprentice with different types of artisans. I wanted to learn a skill. On my first day in our neighborhood bakery, I knew I’d do this for the rest of my life. I instantly fell in love with baking and everything that goes along with it -- the feel of the dough, the smell of the breads -- and to be able to produce something that feeds and nurtures people is a gift. It’s an art that gives such pleasure to everyone, and it's such a fundamental part of every day, every culture. I’ve had a love affair with bread for so many years now.

What is biggest challenge that home bakers face that professional bakers don’t have to worry about?
A crusty exterior is often the difference between a professional loaf and a home-baked loaf, which is created by steam in the oven. I’ve included a simple technique in my book that produces the same results you’d get using a professional steam-injected oven: It’s a stainless steel bowl. You simply cover your bread with a stainless steel bowl while its baking, and remove it after 10 minutes. This will create a steam chamber and help to produce a crusty exterior. So easy -- a great technique for both first-time bakers and more experienced bakers!

How do you understand the importance of having a teacher when learning to bake? Is this why you decided to write your book in such an instructional way?
After decades of teaching professional and home bakers, I’ve found that most learn to bake bread when they can see the instructors' hands at work, which often means a hands-on class. I teach that way weekly at our North Carolina bakery, La Farm Bakery, and around the country. So it was very important to me that my book recreate this feeling as best it could. I wanted my readers to feel as though I was right there with them. So we worked hard to offer step-by-step photos and captions for every single recipe. 

More: Here's how to make your own lovely loaves.

What do you see as the easiest yeasted recipe in your book?
Ciabatta – because there’s no shaping. All you do is put four simple ingredients into a mixer, fold over several times in a greased bowl, and once it's proofed, you’re ready to bake. Shaping techniques take the longest to learn, and you don’t have to shape Ciabatta. You can also serve it in a variety of different fashions and with different ingredients. For example, you can bake it on a stone and make a classic Ciabatta bread, add ingredients like blue cheese and walnuts and create your own flavored ciabatta, or place in a pan to make focaccia with tomatoes and basil. You can even make pizza and flatbreads with it! 

My goal with this book was to teach four basic doughs and the fundamentals to make a great bread -- with the knowledge that the loaf can reflect your imagination. It can reflect your own passion for bread.

What’s the biggest mistake that home bakers make?
Not accurately measuring the ingredients is the biggest mistake, and a scale is the most accurate way to measure. In A Passion for Bread, I highly recommend that even home bakers invest in a scale and use this rather than cups for measuring. It’s much more precise and will get you off to a good start!

We're giving away 5 copies of A Passion for Bread! To enter, tell us in the comments: What do you find most difficult about baking bread? We'll choose our winners at random next week. (Unfortunately, we can't ship internationally. Sorry!)

Cover photo by Gordon Munro; Photo of Lionel by Tara Lackey; Bread photos by Beth Kirby

Tags: Lists, Cookbooks, 5 Questions