“Put this thing in a hot box and see how it comes out” is how Lexie Smith describes the creative endeavor that is baking. The New York–based artist uses bread as her endlessly versatile material, experimenting with texture, color, and form until a malleable idea starts to take (delicious) shape.
In her hands, this covers an impressive range—a delicate buckwheat cracker that could have been unearthed on the moon; an upended baguette bending all the rules; a Cubist composition (almost) too pretty to eat. “It’s a very physical outlet,” says Smith, who has been pastry chef at downtown Manhattan fixtures Lalito, El Rey, and Café Henrie, and started her career at Elizabeth Street Cafe in Austin, Texas.
After more than a decade of developing recipes—using whole grains and unprocessed ingredients to re-establish bread as a healthy, nourishing food—she is set to launch a new initiative. Smith’s encyclopedic website, Bread on Earth, will connect a network of bakers from around the world with an interactive map showing regional bread traditions and techniques—essentially re-creating a communal kitchen space online.
The ambitious work in progress aims to also have social impact (Smith traveled to the remote area of Ladakh, India, this summer to conduct research for the project), while celebrating the simple satisfaction that comes with making and sharing a warm, fragrant loaf—breaking bread in its purest form.
A Twist on Sliced Bread
“For this molasses and cornmeal anadama bread [pictured above], I baked two large loaves. Once cool, you can cut them into pieces and remove the crusts with a serrated knife. Keep carving the chunks with a small paring knife until you create your desired shapes. The flavor and aroma are warm, sweet, and somehow nostalgic—even the first time you make it,” says Smith. She saves the scraps and uses them as breadcrumbs—genius!
Keep a Slim Profile
According to Smith, “Crackers are a great way to make an easy fermented item (which is healthier than standard doughs), with little experience in sourdough necessary. Your starter does not need to be wildly active, and the dough takes just a few minutes to put together,” she explains. “Buckwheat gives the crackers a speckled, slate-like quality and adds a toasted, nutty flavor.” Another plus: they stay crunchy, so you can make-ahead a day or two before having guests (or keep them longer as a satisfying snack).
Crumb Is the New Crust
“For many breadheads, ciabatta has the holy grail of interiors: a gaping, open crumb. The dough has so much water that it stays soft for a couple days and has a satisfying, elastic chew,” explains Smith. “I like it best as a sourdough with some whole grain incorporated into the mix, which saves it from being just another pretty-looking white bread,” she says. We recommend serving your ciabatta on a mirrored surface to magnify the far-out patterns.
Make Your Own Rules
“I made these baguettes with a mix of freshly milled sprouted and whole grain flours. There are a lot of rules governing how to bake a baguette, and for that reason in particular I like to break them all,” Smith says. “If you’re making baguettes with no steam or steady shaping skills and the loaves get jostled on their way into the oven—that’s okay! I like to believe that, ultimately, we can do whatever we want when baking bread. The goal is that it tastes—and makes you feel—good.” We love her presentation here of placing baguette on a pedestal, or try snaking a slim loaf down the table for guests to tear off a piece.
Play With Color
- 250g organic whole wheat flour (I use white whole wheat or a sifted heritage whole wheat like Red Fife)
- 425g organic all-purpose flour
- 440g water
- 90g yogurt
- 100g refreshed sourdough starter
- 1 ½ tsp salt
- ⅛ tsp yeast (optional)
- 1 tsp honey
2. Add salt, instant yeast (if using), and honey to the flour mixture, and mix using a dough hook or paddle attachment for 5-8 minutes on medium high, or until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl and has a smooth sheen to it. It should have a medium to high gluten development (should not rip easily when stretched thin).
3. The dough will be wet and sticky. Use well-oiled hands to remove dough from the bowl and roll into a smooth ball. Clean the bowl and oil well, then place dough back inside and cover with oiled plastic. Let rise at room temperature for 1 hour.
4. Refrigerate overnight or up to 48 hours. When you’re ready to bake, preheat your oven as high as it will go (around 500°F) and place a baking stone or inverted heavy baking sheet on the middle rack. Dump dough onto a floured counter and cut into 18 pieces, approximately 75g each. Roll each into a ball, using plenty of flour to help you (it’s ok if this is tricky, they don’t need to be perfect). Cover with a towel or plastic and let sit for 20 mins to relax.
5. Roll each to about ¼-inch thickness, making sure the balls are well floured before rolling. They shouldn’t stick to the rolling surface or the pin. Do this with half of the balls and place each on a floured surface or towels as you go.
6. Starting with the first one you rolled out, gently transfer the round to a floured peel (you can use cardboard, a piece of wood, a rimless baking sheet—anything flat) and transfer to your hot baking stone or sheet in the oven. Close the door quickly. Repeat this with as many as will fit in your oven at once (I do 4 at a time at home). Bake for about 3 minutes or until nicely puffed, resisting the urge to open the oven door to peek as they bake. Repeat with remaining dough.