Meet the NYC Baker Turning Bread Into Edible Art

Baker and artist Lexie Smith mixes wholesome ingredients into sculptural forms, creating breads that really give you something to chew on.

Taupe Studio

photography by WILL ANDERSON


“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!  

Taupe Studio

photography by WILL ANDERSON


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).

Taupe Studio

photography by WILL ANDERSON


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.

Taupe Studio

photography by WILL ANDERSON


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.

Taupe Studio

photography by WILL ANDERSON


Play With Color

“I find pitas to be endlessly forgiving. This dough (which has yogurt in it, making it closer to a traditional naan) is smooth and silky. Throw pieces of the dough onto a hot stone in a hot oven, and they will puff up into something delicious. For the chocolate pitas, I used high-quality cocoa for color but also flavor, which when taken out of the context of sweet transforms into something even more intriguing and dynamic,” says Smith. We also like alternating white and black in a stack to create a graphic look at the table. Try her recipe below.

Pita recipe

"I suggest to all people wanting to bake bread to get a scale asap; they’re inexpensive and the only way to really provide consistent results in measuring. For that reason, everything here is listed in grams. Because this is a flat bread, don’t stress if your sourdough starter is new or not terribly active; the wetness of the dough will serve as a leavening agent in the form of steam when it hits the hot stone. Remember that bread depends on a ton of external factors that are always changing, so be patient and adjust with a bit of water or flour if the dough does not seem to be cooperating." 
 
A note on flour: To me, this is the most important part of making bread that is good to eat, good for you, and also good for the planet. Use organic flours from small, independent providers whenever possible. King Arthur organic flours are some of the best alternatives to heritage grains. I use Farmer Ground Flour, grown and milled in upstate New York. 

Ingredients:
  • 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
Yield: 18 at 75g

1. Dissolve the yogurt and starter into the water. Mix flours together in the bowl of a stand mixer and add wet ingredients. Cover with a towel or plastic bag and let sit for 20 minutes (this is called an autolyse, and is a quick way of developing strength and extra flavor in the dough).

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.
 
Read more from the fall issue:
6 Recipes We’re Loving from Fall’s Most Talked About Cookbook
How One Photographer’s Travels Inspire Her Home
Tour a Mid-Century Hacienda Filled with Modern Charm

Published on October 02, 2017 - 10:15am EDT

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