La Farm Formidable

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALionel Vatinet is the devil.

And a magician.

Up until very recently, La Farm had one location in a strip mall on Cary Parkway.  In this small space, Chef Vatinet and staff turned out bread, pastries, candies, and other treats for their own retail sales and cafe.   They also made items for five local Whole Foods, farmer’s markets, and their own, delicious food truck.

How they pulled off this miraculous feat of legerdemain is well beyond my imaginings.


The Kid’s favorite at La Farm.


…and, mine.

This week I spent some time at their new production facility for La Farm.  It’s in the old Sorrel building in downtown Cary, built in 1958.

In this airy, roomy space both the bread bakers and the pastry folks have tons elbow room.  But, in this building there is also space to play and experiment.  To do things like making their own graham crackers for a s’mores tart.


After stuffing us full of bread and sandwiches, this is the dessert spread they put out.  The s’mores tarts are the little meringue stars.  And aren’t those the prettiest macarons you ever saw?

But they didn’t just unlock the doors, move in equipment and get to work.  Chef Lionel and team looked at things that very few of us would even think of.

Like the air.  The retail space needs to be comfortable for customers 365 days a year.  The bread area needs to a little warm and humid, to rise dough without drying it out.  The pastry room needs to be cooler.  The air can’t blast down because it can make dough form a skin which will inhibit the fermentation.

Chef had an innovative air conditioning and venting system from Europe installed.

I spent some time speaking with his head pastry chef, Jim. I asked Chef Jim about the bags of orange butter cookies at the register.  When applying to cook at an establishment, a common practice is for the applicant to actually cook.  Jim baked his delicious little orange confections and got the job.

I have a recipe that is an homage to pastry Chef Jim and his citrus treat with a nod to a blueberry cookie from Trader Joes.  They’re a lemon-scented shortbread studded with dried blueberries.

Blueberry Lemon Shortbread Cookiesblueberry lemon shortbread1 & 1/3 cups butter, softened

2/3 cup sugar

Zest of 1 lemon

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

3 & 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

1/3 cup dried blueberries, coarsely chopped


Line two cookies sheets with parchment paper.

Put sugar and lemon zest into food processor and pulse until the sugar is very fine, and the zest has disappeared into the sugar.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add salt and lemon juice.  Beat to combine. Stir blueberries into flour and add mixture, 1 cup at a time, beating on low speed until just combined.Pour dough onto surface and knead just until it comes together.  Divide dough in half, and roll each half into a log about 2 inches in diameter.  Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least one hour.

To bake: Heat oven to 275.  Slice logs into 1/2-inch thick rounds.  Place on sheet pans and bake for 60-75 minutes or cookies are very light golden and barely browned around the edges.

When done, slide parchment and cookies onto cooking rack.  Let them cool completely before removing from paper.

Makes approximately 36 cookies.La Farm can make a bread loving girl lose her head.  I could spend a full paycheck on and eat my body weight in those gorgeous, aromatic, delicious wares.

In addition to bread, cookies, and treats, Chef Lionel Vatinet serves up fresh temptations daily.Thanks for your time.

Bread’s Greatest Hits

My grandmother was a straight-up, bona fide, character.Her name was Geraldine.  She looked (and acted) like an Old Testament prophetess.  She was very tall, thin, and wore her iron-gray, waist length hair in a very tight bun during the day and in a long, ropey braid when she went to bed.

Granny was tough and blunt.  She had plenty of rules and expected everyone to fall in line.  My dad always said his mother was a “test pilot at the broom factory”.

You know, she actually did bear a resemblance to Margeret Hamilton…

She married my grandfather in October of 1929.  Somehow, she fed and clothed her growing family during the greatest economic crisis this country has ever known.

She was enormously frugal and wasted nothing.  She made her own intense, delicious grape juice.  She canned, pickled and repurposed.  She still managed to produce dessert almost every night.One of my favorites was a jello-based dish.  She used the black walnuts that grew in her yard.  Dad loves them, but I find them as bitter and dark as a Dickens spinster.  In this recipe, I subbed in pecans.

Granny’s black cherry dessertjello-dessert

1-6 ounce box black cherry jello

3 cups boiling water

1 cup ice

14 ounces cream cheese

1 ½ cups large pecan pieces, toasted

Prepare your cream cheese: cut into ½-inch cubes using unflavored dental floss.  Place in refrigerator to get very cold. 

In a large bowl, mix jello, water, and ice.  Stir in pecans.  When the jello’s room temp, fold in cream cheese, keeping individual cubes intact.  Pour into 9X13 dish, refrigerate, and allow to set completely (around 4 hours).

Serves 8-10.

I think Granny went to Sunday school with General Washington.  My father’s middle name is George.

Granny also made her own potato bread.  When we visited, she would cut thick slices, toast them, and slather on butter and/or jelly.  It made the best gosh-darn toast you ever tasted.

A couple weeks ago I tried a new bread from La Farm, in Cary.  It’s Carolina Gold rice sourdough. rice-bread-1It’s very moist and tasty.  But the best part is, it makes the best toast since I sat at Granny’s table and ate my weight in hers.  I discovered it October 10th, and am on my second loaf, with plans to get more next week.  That doesn’t sound remarkable until you know that the loaves are huge, and I’ve been the only one eating it.

And this brings me to my main point.

Life is too short to eat dreadful, sub-par bread.  I’m talking about you, Wonder and Sunbeam. We live in an area rich with great bakeries, so there’s no excuse.

Here are a few of my favorites and where to get them, plus a tip to make frozen and day-old bread bakery fresh all over again.

Lots of places sell baguettes, but Earth Fare sells crusty-on-the-outside with pillow-y soft interiors for 98 cents—every day.

Costco bakes square rolls that are kind of like ciabatta.  Sandwiches on them are delicious, but they’re awesome just eaten with cold salted butter.

The Co-op has a seven-grain that is really delicious.  It makes a grilled cheese that even my white-bread-loving Petey enjoys.bakeriesNinth St bakery has quite a few lovely loaves.  A couple of my favorites are Sourdough French and sunflower.  They also have a whole grain that’s quite good.

Whole Foods, Scratch and Loaf all have diverse and delicious bread.

I leave you with a couple carb hints.

When you freeze bread, it stops the clock on staleness and mold.  If it’s toast you’re after, just toss slices, still frozen, into the toaster.  You may have to turn it up to get enough color for your taste.

If it’s rolls or loaves, leave frozen until oven heats to 350.  When it’s at temp, run each piece under water and place directly on the rack.  Then throw about ¼ cup water into the oven as well (the steam keeps the crust crispy and the insides cloud-like soft).  Bake for 13 minutes then take it out and place on cooling rack so it doesn’t get a soggy bottom (soggy bottoms are the worst).

Good as new—I promise.  There are so many things in life that you’ll probably regret.  For the love of guacamole, don’t let bread be one of them.

Thanks for your time.

Memories and stone soup

Originally published in the Herald Sun 5/12/2012

Stone soup with onion straw garnish.

Stone soup with onion straw garnish.

When I asked you to help me out by sending food stories to share, I mentioned a particular letter that was the catalyst for the request.
Right after the egg essay ran, Jo Darby sent me a note.
It was funny, sweet, and extremely well written. I wanted to share it with all of you.
So, in what I hope is the first of reader storytelling, here is Jo’s tale about her mom; a terrific cook, and my kind of woman.

“An Egg Story
We were poor when I was little but that didn’t ever stop my mom from trying to be creative with what little she had to feed us with. She died almost 30 years ago but her children still long for her rice pilaf. She filled our bellies with mostly rice mixed with a few token slivers of vegetables showing, but somehow managed to imbue that rice with a flavor that was subtle on taste and somehow fully fragrant to our hungry noses.
Her Spanish garlic soup was little more than a pot of water, garlic and olive oil. But so wonderfully tasty that we salivated like good little Pavlovian children when we walked in the door home from school and smelled what dinner would be.
One Easter she had the bounty of eggs given to her by a local farmer and she wanted to do something extra special with them. We wouldn’t have baskets or chocolates but By Golly she was going to do her best to delight us with an unusual treat. One of her friends had given her a book of French country cooking and she perused the pages slowly, deciding at last to poach them in wine (which was very cheap and plentiful from the bodega).
From our various spots in the house we inhaled the wonderful scent of garlic being gently heated in olive oil, we sniffed approvingly at the smell of toasted bread, the fragrance of simmering wine. Finally she called to us to sit down at the table so as to be ready for the eggs immediately they were done. Five children waited eagerly to see what she had wrought with the humble egg. Beaming, she brought our plates, setting before each one of us a plate of her latest creation.
There was dead silence as she took her place at the table. Perplexed she wondered aloud why her little wolves were not gobbling down the wonderful treat? We could not. We looked at each other, at our plates, at her. She must have known her error as soon as she made it in the kitchen but, food is food and would not be wasted. She must have been hiding her angst behind cheerful encouragement. Eat, she said.
With horror, we picked up our forks. Squeezed our eyes shut and tentatively raised the tiniest morsel to our mouths. Some of us managed to swallow, others cried, one of us gagged. Many years later, we would roar with laughter at the recollection of her French recipe of eggs poached in wine. Someone at the bodega made a mistake. Red wine was sent instead of white. When she poured the wine, imagine her surprise when the liquid going into the pan was deep burgundy. Her disappointment must have been profound. Just say Purple Eggs at one of our family get-togethers and see what happens. We still laugh until we cry. One of us still can’t eat eggs.”
Jo Darby

Debbie here again:
When I was a kid, I loved the story of Stone Soup. And elevating simple food is an obsession. Thusly, I was intrigued by the idea of the garlic soup.
After some thought and research, I came up with this version.
This is definitely a peasant soup, but there’s something in it we can all give to our food that money can not buy. Time and attention. And that is the component that can turn the other four (I cheated with six) ingredients into a golden, silky, bowl of poetry.
I made the garlic confit one day, and the pot of soup the next. You can portion out the actual creation of the soup. But time is really the key. If you don’t want to put in the hours, don’t bother. There is no way that the resulting product can be the same.
This soup takes a whole day to make correctly, but Jo is right. This stuff is what angels have for lunch, after they get done singing.
I can only imagine what her mother’s tasted like.
Thank you, Jo.
And for everyone else, thanks for your time.

Spanish Garlic Soup 2012 Edition

Garlic confit (recipe below)
1/4 -1/3 cup garlic oil (from the confit process)
1 loaf country bread, something rustic and crusty, cut into 1 1/2 inch cubes, crust and all
1 cup white wine
2 quarts chicken stock
3-4 cups water
1 bay leaf
3/4 cup heavy cream
salt & pepper

For the garlic confit:
35 (yes, 35) cloves garlic, peeled
4-5 cups oil (I used combo of olive and canola)
salt and pepper
In a very heavy large pot, put in garlic and cover with oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and set on very low, just above warm. Cook slowly in oil until cloves are a light caramel color, approximately four hours. Cool, and remove garlic from your new garlic oil. You will have more than you need for this recipe, so put the excess oil into a container and refrigerate; it can be used for a gillion things.
In the same pot, toast the bread cubes in the garlic oil, a couple handsful of bread with a couple of tablespoons of oil at a time. This brown crusty goodness on the bread translates into tons of flavor.
When all the bread is toasted, put it all back into the pan, along with the garlic confit. Toss together a bit, and then deglaze with the wine.
When the wine is cooked off, pour in all the stock, stir, cover, and cook very low for about twenty minutes.
Uncover, stir, and add more water, because the bread will absorb it like crazy. Keep cooking slowly, and adding water until it is thick, but not too thick, like a cream soup.

Season with salt and pepper. Add and taste until the amount is correct, and an extra dimension of flavor is revealed, that will literally make you sigh. This soup is simple, so please don’t neglect this.

Cook for two or three more hours, and then either use a hand blender or a regular blender for it until it’s completely smooth. Stir in cream, check for final seasoning, and keep warm (but don’t let boil) until service.
Yield: one humongus pot of seriously yummy soup