Mom’s peasant bread recipe anchors food blogger’s book

Photo courtesy alexandracooks.comPhoto courtesy alexandracooks.com

By Kristin Schultz

Gazette Reporter

NISKAYUNA — Things to fear: global pandemic, unchecked inflation, clowns. Things not to fear: babies, a game of checkers, baking bread.

Successful blogger and food writer turned cookbook author Alexandra Stafford wrote “Bread Toast Crumbs” with her mother, Liza Lowery, to demystify bread baking and illustrate the endless and satisfying uses of a simple loaf of homemade bread.

From pulling a fresh, steaming loaf from the oven to crafting crostini and sandwiches to crisping crumbs and thickening soups, “Bread Toast Crumbs” walks through the life-cycle of a loaf, making the most of sweet and savory flavors along the way.

“More than any other baked good, bread seems to inspire an unnecessary amount of fear,” said Stafford, a Niskayuna resident. “People are terrified of yeast. My mission was to show how easy baking with yeast can be.”

If baking bread is easy, getting her mother to share her secret recipe for peasant bread was not. When Stafford was growing up, Lowery served her peasant bread for everyday meals for her family and for guests at dinner parties. Despite the loaf’s ubiquitous nature, Lowery guarded the recipe.

“It was a different time,” said Stafford. “Now everybody shares recipes, but growing up if someone would ask my mother for the recipe she would tell them it was from the back of the King Arthur Flour bag.”

It wasn’t. Not exactly.

The master recipe makes two loaves and employs unconventional technique. In normal bread making, there is blooming and mixing and flouring and kneading and rising and punching and rising and baking.

“My mother hates the feeling of flour on a board,” Stafford said. “She tried this method and it worked.”

The method is simple: mix ingredients in a large bowl and let rise. Divide the dough into two and put into two smaller, oven proof bowls. Let rise again and bake the bread right in the bowls.  

Food was an important part of Stafford’s childhood so it seemed natural to take a job as a food editor at a newspaper. Wanting to write more than there was space for in the paper, Stafford started a blog, “Alexandra’s Kitchen” in 2006.

Stafford would sometimes include a loaf of peasant bread in photography for another recipe and readers started asking for the recipe.

She called her mother and asked to publish the recipe online.

“We had a lengthy conversation,” Stafford said. “She told me she’d have to think about it. A while later, she texted me that it was OK.”

To date, the recipe has been shared on Pinterest over 100,000 times and viewed on “Alexandra’s Kitchen” over a million times.

Over the years, she and her husband moved across the country and back and their family grew. She focused on blogging, as it was a family-friendly, if not always easy or convenient, way to work and raise children.

“I saw other bloggers starting to write books so I looked into publishing,” she said.

The idea for “Bread Toast Crumbs” came out of her experience as a food and recipe blogger. She would often make a recipe multiple times to perfect it or to troubleshoot for a reader. As a result, she had lots of bread on hand.

“I had so much, I had to get more creative with how I used bread,” she said. “There are so many uses for bread. Italian and Spanish cooking uses bread in its entirety. Bread crumbs thicken soup and Italian grandmothers soak bread heels in milk to make meatballs.”

She first pitched her idea to an agent in 2014. Publishers, citing the gluten-free movement, worried about putting out a book devoted to bread and its uses. In 2015, when Stafford was in labor with her youngest child, her agent called and said that the publisher thought toast would be the next hot thing and agreed to sign on to Stafford’s book.

The next two years were devoted to recipe writing, editing, more editing and photography. Stafford hired recipe testers from New York City and flew to San Francisco to work with photographer Eva Kolenko.

“The most interesting part of the process was working with the copy editors,” Stafford said. “They asked questions I thought were obvious. I would write, ‘bake at 350 degrees’ and the editors came back and said, ‘You didn’t tell the reader to transfer the bowls to the oven, then bake.’ That kind of feedback has made me a better recipe writer.”

Six weeks before the book was released, Stafford received her advanced copies.

“It was an unbelievable feeling,” she said. “I know the material inside and out but it was still special. Authors say it all the time, but it does actually feel like bringing a baby into the world.”

Three parts

“Bread Toast Crumbs” is divided into three parts: bread, toast and crumbs. The bread chapter contains the master recipe for Lowery’s peasant bread, along with dozens of sweet and savory variations including gluten-free.

In the toast chapter, readers will find appetizer recipes like summer tartines with burrata, avocado, herbs and seeds along with seafood bisque in bread bowls. There are sandwich recipes like bacon, cheddar and onion ham panini and food cart grilled cheese.

Other toast recipes include summer vegetable strata with green pepper, corn and zucchini and apple charlotte.

Finally, in the crumbs chapter, cooks can try meatballs three ways or meatless dinners like twice-baked eggplant parmesan.

Stafford said her favorite recipes in the book were the peasant bread variations like the cheesy cheddar and parmigiano and the cinnamon-swirl bread.

While she would love to eventually write another book, she’s not thinking about that just yet. “I just want to spread the word about peasant bread and spend time enjoying this book.”

Stafford is the author of the blog, “Alexandra’s Kitchen” at alexandracooks.com. She also is a weekly contributor for Food 52 at food52.com.

“Bread Toast Crumbs” is available at Open Door Bookstore (128 Jay St., Schenectady) or online wherever books are sold.