“Beautiful Bread: Create & Bake Artful Masterpieces for Any Occasion” by Island resident, professional baker, and bread artist Theresa Culletto is perfect whether you are a novice or a seasoned baker. Culletto focuses on a single bread — focaccia — and provides clear instructions with immensely enticing photographs for making any of her 30 mouthwatering, show-stopping, edible artworks inspired by flowers, famous artists, nature, and holidays.
Culletto uses four types of focaccia — white, whole wheat, dark multigrain, and sweet — as the basis of her beautifully decorated creations. She has selected focaccia because it is the perfect place to start when making yeast bread. There is minimal preparation and shaping, and most of the recipes are the one-bowl, no-flour-on-the-counter method known as the stretch-and-fold technique.
Culletto explains that “focaccia is a rustic, folksy kind of artisan bread. It’s rustic because it is made with a few ingredients and can easily be baked outside over a hot fire on a stone. It’s folksy because it is handcrafted in the traditional manner with a new artistic flare … Adding simple ingredients arranged in a creative design on your flatbread will bring this traditional bread into an artisanal space that pleases the senses.”
Culletto teaches us how to “paint” these tasty “canvases” with vegetables, fruits, herbs, nuts, seeds, cheeses, and more to create savory and sweet toppings and fillings. Among those in the artist-inspired category are Vincent van Gogh’s “Irises,” Monet’s “Lily Pond,” and Pablo Picasso’s “Faces.” Flower-inspired recipes include Poppy Field, Wrapped Bouquet, and White Irises in a Vase. Under the Sea, Solar System, and Tree of Life are just a few of the gorgeous examples of nature-inspired breads. For special occasions, there are the likes of an Easter Basket, St. Patrick’s Day Lucky Clover, and Thanksgiving Cornucopia.
Culletto provides plenty of helpful tips and explanations. For instance, if you want an alternative to white flour, you might like to try using spelt, which is a whole grain but less strong than regular whole wheat yet has a wonderful texture and is well-behaved, easy to work with, and always does exactly what you want.
We are told to keep toppings to about half or less the weight of the dough for a perfect balance. With fresh herbs, as soon as possible, place them in a bowl of ice water for about 15 minutes until ready to use. Lay them on the dough, then sprinkle with just a bit of water. You want them plump and moist to give leaves such as basil a better chance at not turning brown while baking. Thyme leaves are apparently too tiny to hold up, so incorporate them into the dough.
Fresh vegetables that bake nicely include mini sweet peppers, red onions, scallions, garlic, leeks, mini potatoes, zucchini, as well as grape and cherry tomatoes. You want to soak them first as well to keep their colors vibrant and tighten their membranes. Thinking of using mushrooms? Since they are 85-95 percent water, you want to sauté them first to reduce the amount of liquid. When thinking about your color combinations, remember too that onions will brown, and peppers will turn a deeper color as they bake. For variety, semi-dry cheeses such as feta or dry goat cheese are excellent accents for color, and their salty, tangy flavors work with the sweetness of roasted veggies.
Culletto also lists essential implements, one of which sounded particularly helpful that’s not in my kitchen: a bowl scraper, which is a 6-inch white, flexible plastic scraper with a curved edge that fits perfectly in the bowl’s groove. She tells us that a bowl scraper can handle large scooping of scoopable stuff. It is a big help with mixing, as well as the gentle transfer of dough — it also safely works to get the gunk off the counter without scratching.
Apparently, that parchment paper that we all have stored in a drawer but may rarely use has multiple applications, such as helping with gently moving dough, protecting it from burning, and seamlessly removing the bread from the pan, making it easier to clean. The paper is also perfect for creating a template for your dough and setting your vegetable design on it while prepping.
In an email, Culletto recalls how she got into bread art: “I was preparing vegetables for a different dish one day along with some dough for ‘regular’ focaccia bread. The vegetables were on the cutting board in such a way that it reminded me of the beautiful poppy fields that lined the highways of North Carolina, where I had just come back from taking the last two of my four boys to college. I just began playing around with them on the ripening focaccia dough, placing stems made from chives, sliced mini peppers, olives, etc. When it was completed, it was those poppy flowers — only this version was a delicious warm bread. From there, next was sunflowers. I liked painting as a hobby, but this became a new art form for me.”
Fortunately for us, Culletto has shared it in her new book and says, “I hope that every recipe will inspire the baker/artist in each of us and create amazing culinary masterpieces.” “Beautiful Bread” will soon have you creating your unique edible art that’s almost — but not quite — too beautiful to eat.
“Beautiful Bread: Create & Bake Artful Masterpieces for Any Occasion,” Theresa Culletto, Race Point, $24.99. Publishing Oct.10, 2023, will be available at Bunch of Grapes and Edgartown Books. For more information, see vineyardbaker.com and instagram.com/vineyardbaker.