After Hours: Bakers Best

Kathy Biehl is the food writer for Diversion magazine and the former longtime dining critic for the Houston Business Journal. She has reviewed restaurants as well for the Houston Press, Time Out New York, My Table and the TONY guide Eating & Drinking 2000. Her food writing has received awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Houston Press Club. She is also the author of the LLRX Research RoundUp and Web Critic columns, a member of the State Bar of Texas and co-author of The Lawyer's Guide to Internet Research.

We’re about to enter a tight, fast curve in what my friend David calls the elliptical calendar. In his construct, time progresses slowly across the long stretches of spring and fall and whooshes round the bends of summer vacation and the winter holiday season. If baking is on your holiday wish list, it’s not too soon to start planning. The following pantry staples, baking aids, and, shhh, ready-made goods may not slow down the wild ride that’s about to begin, but they will make it tastier.

Flour / Other Staples / Nuts / Decorations & Toppings / Cutters / Storage Supplies / Ready-Made Goods

Flour

The Baker's Catalogue, published by the 200-year-old King Arthur Flour Company of Vermont (800-827-6836), is a veritable guidebook for outfitting a professional-quality pantry -- with an alphabetical index, to boot. The online and print versions of the catalog have separate but equal virtues to recommend. The Web site gives easy access to a trove of recipes, trouble-shooting tips, online classes, and a Baking Circle forum. For sheer sensuality, the print version is the choice, offering a more delightful voyage of discovery (and more risk to your wallet). Paging through its bounteous photos and descriptions of enticing ingredients and gadgets will stir passions that are hard to put down. A food extravaganza, this is.

Both versions of the catalog teem with more varieties of flour than you’ll find in most grocery stores, such as fine cake flours and grinds from bases other than wheat (including nuts). If the choices overwhelm, the one must is King Arthur's all purpose unbleached, bromated flour (5 lb., $3.25; organic, $4.50), and not just because it's equally suited for yeasted and quick breads, cookies, pies and coffee cakes. The packaging contains step-by-step bread-making instructions that beat most cookbooks for clarity. They're simpler and quicker than my (previously) favorite recipe, and yield loaves that rank among the tastiest I've ever made.

King Arthur Flour Company’s all-purpose grind yielded the best-tasting, least-effort loaf of bread I’ve ever made — until I combined it with Lavain du Jour Pain de Campagne starter. This French-made, dry mixture of yeast, bacteria and lactose combines with water and flour to create a “sponge,” which cuts out most of the kneading that’s otherwise required (and lengthens the amount of time that dough must rest and rise). The result is as crusty and hearty as any professionally made artisan bread. One 5 oz. packet ($6.95) is enough for a dozen scrumptious loaves and includes directions for both the sponge and bread.

To add to your baking satisfaction, stock up as well on SAF instant yeast (4.4 oz., $2.95), which makes dough rise noticeably higher and more quickly. Instead of activating it with warm water, mix it directly with the flour. And if something goes really awry, phone King Arthur -- all employees take a Bread 101 course in their first year – at 1-800-827-6836, or look for answers at the web site.

Other Staples

Powder

For tall, flaky, golden biscuits, leaven the flour with Bakewell cream ($3/4 lb., $4.95). This, despite the name, is a powder that originated in Maine as a substitute for cream of tartar. It lends a mild bite, reminiscent of buttermilk. It also comes with its own, foolproof biscuit recipe, which set new standards for my oven's output after only the first use. Available from the Baker’s Catalogue (800-827-6836).

Vanilla

Vanilla beans come from the only orchid that bears edible fruit, require hand-pollination and take a year to cure -- which makes them the most expensive floral product after saffron. Since 1907, Nielsen-Massey has specialized in pure vanillas, extracted by a slow, gentle and unique cold-temperature process. Its Madagascar bourbon vanilla (4 oz., $16.95) is a superior all-purpose extract, rich in both taste and aroma. Available from the Baker’s Catalogue (800-827-6836).


Sugar

India Tree offers exquisite unrefined baking sugars from the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. Made from pure cane, they retain molasses overtones that add depth to any baked goods. Use golden bakers in place of white sugar, while dark muscovado will substitute for brown. Either type costs $5.00 for a pound and is available from Far Away Foods.

Chocolate

Dagoba Chocolate’s certified organic cacao powder (8 oz., $7.49) yields elegant, dark-as-night brownies, while its Choco Drops (8 oz., $7.49) offer a sophisticated alternative to chocolate chips. Order directly from Dagoba, 541/664-9030.

Nuts

Paste

American Almond Company's pastes of ground nuts and sugar make a rich filling for breakfast bread, pastries, and cakes. Almond paste (15 oz., $7.75) is like marzipan, but not as sweet; hazelnut praline paste (15 oz., $7.95) mixes well with chocolate to bind sandwich cookies. Both are available from The Baker's Catalogue, 800/827-6836.

The Nut with Two Names

Hazelnut Growers of Oregon is the country's largest processor and handler of hazelnuts (aka filberts). If you can't find them locally -- retail distribution is spotty -- the cooperative will ship one pound, shelled, for $8.50 or five pounds in the shell for $12. Order directly from Hazelnut Growers, (503) 648-4176.

Black Walnuts

Fifty-five years ago, Missouri grocer Ralph Hammons began cracking and selling eastern black walnuts he purchased from people in Ozarks. His family business, Hammons Products Company, is now the world's only processor of this American-grown nut. The company still buys each year's crop -- which totaled 49 million pounds in 1999 -- from individuals in about a dozen states, who gather nuts from wild trees in their yards and pastures.

Hammons processes the nuts for retail and wholesale distribution (companies such as Diamond and Planters repackage these black walnuts under their labels). It also grinds the shells into a soft grit abrasive for industrial and cosmetic use.

Fitting its homey roots, a quaint house next to the multi-acre plant is the center of its retail operation. Hammons Pantry offers the bold, earthy nut in and out of the shell (which is notoriously tough to crack), as well as in candy, cookies, and cakes. A one-pound bag of “recipe ready” walnuts costs $8.50. For a retail catalog, call 800-872-6879 or visit www.black-walnuts.com.

Decorations & Toppings

Sugars

For color selection, taste, and pure glistening beauty, you won't find more dazzling decorations than India Tree's. Its line of Sparkling Sugars teems with selections tailor-made for Christmas baking -- aptly named bright white, emerald city green, holiday red, and red-white-and-green confetti. India Tree's Party Decoratifs include tiny, crunchy white balls, called String of Pearls, perfect for simulating coarse snow, and a mix of green sprinkles and red cherry balls, called Boughs of Holly. All sparkling sugars and decoratifs come in shakers for easy application. Locate a retailer near you at India Tree’s website. (The company does not ship to consumers.)

Chocolate

Fine red wine and chocolate make an irresistible pair. Corey Creek's Merlot mixes dreamily with Belgian dark chocolate in the Long Island vineyard's fudge-like dessert sauce (8 oz., $6). Made with minimal sugar, this restrained, preservative-free sauce is perfect for cakes, ice cream, and other desserts. (For stunning effects, brush it onto lamb chops in their final minutes on the grill.) Order from 631/765-4168; www.coreycreek.com. Or indulge your sweet tooth by drizzling cheesecake or fresh fruit with luscious, pourable chocolate sauces featuring Beaulieu Vineyard's Cabernet Sauvignon or Port. A 9.5 ounce flask of either costs $19.75 and is available from the vineyard's gift shop at 800.264-6918 ex. 5233 or www.bvwines.com.

Cutters

Want to bake large? The Baker's Catalog offers four-inch-plus copper cookie cutters in the shape of a fir tree, reindeer, sleigh, snowflake, and other holiday symbols. They’re $8.95 apiece ($23.95 for a set of the reindeer, sleigh, and tree), except for the 71/2” snowflake, which goes for $24.95..

The masks that Heather McCartney brought back from her first trip to Africa inspired her to create cookies with tribal arts motifs. She quickly progressed from baking mask-like cookies for friends and family to designing a batter mix and specially shaped cutters. Her Ethnic Edibles cookie cutter set ($15.95) contains excellent recipes for chocolate cookies, sugar cookies, and icing, as well as four cutters -- in the shape of a mask, Ndebele doll, African continent, and drum (which doubles as the cup used in the Kwaanza ceremony). 718-320-0147; www.ethnicedibles.com.

Storage Supplies

Thick-crusted artisan breads have special storage needs, because airtight containers make them moist and soggy. The solution? Use micro-perforated bags, which keep bugs out but let air in. A pack of 100 bags costs $10.95. Plastic all-purpose and baguette bags run $8.95 - $12.95 per 100. 1-800-827-6836 or www.KingArthurFlour.com.

Keep cookies fresh (or wrap them up for giving) with poly/acrylic Holiday BakerBags (13 for $10.95), patterned with your choice of trees or snowflakes. 800/827-6836; www.KingArthurFlour.com.

Ready-Made Goods

If your schedule doesn't allow you to bake as much as you'd like (or at
all), there's no shame in calling in the pros.

Divine Delights' choice of name isn't overstating the situation in the
slightest. The petits four that have brought the company renown are layers
of almond butter cake, separated by luscious fillings (truffle cream,
butter cream, or fruit), and encased in exquisite chocolate. Come cooler
weather, the petits four take on all manner of shapes for Halloween,
Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Prowl the website for the catalog of seasonal offerings, or call 800-4-HEAVEN. Halloweeners, take special note of Divine Delights' eyeball truffles ($28.95 a dozen).

The harvest cakes of Rosetti's Fine Foods (888-571-7140) suggest an awesome, bejeweled geological specimen, especially when cut open to reveal a cross-section. These elaborate mixtures of nuts and dried fruits (not to be confused with fruitcake!) are a symphony of crunchy, moist and chewy textures. Only a light egg batter and a little sugar holds it all together, without benefit of butter, oil, flour or preservatives. The Northwest Harvest Cake celebrates the bounty of  the Pacific Northwest, while the San Joaquin Harvest Cake salutes Rosetti's  home base in California. Either comes in a16 oz. ($13.95) or 36 oz.($27.95) size.

Salem Baking Company's ultra-thin holiday cookies are crisp, elegant
complements for cocoa or tea. Choose between sugar cookies, which are
shaped like ornaments, bells, and trees, and Moravian Christmas spice
cookies, which need a "Warning Consumption May Lead to Addiction" label. Check the website or phone 800/274-2994 after mid-October for availability and pricing.

Also in the dangerously addictive category are Swiss Colony's spiced
pumpkins
, which are debuting this season. Shaped and decorated like
little pumpkins, they're full of pumpkin spice cake around a sweet cream
cheese center. A dozen costs $15.95, plus shipping.

Pumpkin cheesecake will soon be returning to the baking schedule of the
Nuns of New Skete Farms, an Orthodox Catholic religious community in
upstate New York that operates without a hierarchy. Their recipe,
exceedingly moist, creamy and smooth, blossoms with refrigeration. Phone in an order and the calmest (albeit recorded) voice in the history of
mail-order commerce will request your desired delivery date. (Don't be
startled by the voice's gender; running the community's mail-order food
business is the province of the Monks of New Skete.) A six-pound
cheesecake, unsliced, is currently $27.75. Order by the 1st of November or December for Thanksgiving or Christmas, respectively. Call 518/677-3928 or visit NewSkete.com.

ã Kathy Biehl 2003