Quick breads rise to many occasions

Served at breakfast, lunch or perhaps as a dessert

October 22, 2003|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

When Kathy Reid awakes at 3 a.m. on baking days, she's inspired by seasonal riches, the weather forecast and a hankering for certain flavor fusions.

Maybe it's spring and the strawberries are ripe. Maybe the heat calls for something "lemony and light." Perhaps a chill has set in, summoning a robust carrot-and-pineapple creation.

Her whims find expression in the 450 to 600 loaves of quick bread she makes each week in her Orrtanna, Pa., home.

Rarely found in elegant patisseries or bakeries, quick breads are a staple of home kitchens and country markets. A quick loaf studded with dried apricots, dates or chocolate chips conjures afternoon confidences over tea and simple gifts of friendship, not artisanal brilliance.

The "modern quick loaf is a purely American product," writes Beth Hensperger in The Best Quick Breads: 150 Recipes for Muffins, Scones, Shortcakes, Gingerbreads, Cornbreads, Coffeecakes and More (Harvard, 2000, $18.95). Before the invention of baking powder in the late 1800s, "Early Americans used saleratus (an early form of bicarbonate of soda converted from sea salt), hartshorn (the ground antler of a male deer, the chief source of ammonia), cream of tartar and pearl ash (ashes from wood, seaweed, pea or bean stalks) for leavening quick breads, each with its own pronounced flavor," Hensperger writes.

Today, quick loaves are usually leavened with baking powder and/or baking soda. Breads may be savory or sweet, flavored with combinations of fruit, liqueurs, nuts, cheeses, herbs or spices. Toasted, quick bread makes breakfast. Sliced and spread with peanut butter or cream cheese, or filled with other typical sandwich ingredients, quick bread becomes lunch or a delicacy served with tea. Quick breads are useful presents and easy to freeze in anticipation of holiday company.

Since she started baking quick breads and selling them at farmers' markets in the Maryland, Virginia and the Washington, D.C., area about 16 years ago, Reid has developed some 80 variations.

Sometimes she works from ideas scribbled on a pad while she tends the orchard and farm she runs with her husband, Dave. At other times her muse will strike at dawn, perhaps with a vision of Vermont apple bread, and Reid will add applesauce and maple syrup to the batter, knowing that "my taste buds wanted that."

Baking gives Reid a creative break from laborious farm work, she says. Her tea loaves, sold as Kathy's Gourmet Cakes and Breads usually at $3 each, are baked in sets of seven or eight. "It's a much more personalized act than [baking] a more mass-produced item," says Reid, who spends two long days a week baking.

With an inspired mix of flavorings, quick breads can be as delectable as fancier fare, yet are much more utilitarian. Instead of sending cookies to her kids at college, Reid sends quick breads, along with fruit from the orchard, of course. A loaf is the ideal size for a dessert shared by two, she says. Recently, a customer who is an "empty nester" bought one of Reid's chocolate-chocolate-chip breads for her spouse's birthday. "That's his birthday cake," she announced.

While, as Hensperger says, quick breads require a precise combination of "liquid, leavening, flour, fat and flavorings," they're easier to make than yeast breads and are an ideal medium for culinary improvisation.

Tammie Monaco of Towson attributes the blue ribbon she won at the Maryland State Fair in August for her zucchini quick bread to spur-of-the-moment additions. Using a recipe from her mother's Oklahoma extension service cookbook as "a base," Monaco threw in some shredded coconut, some raisins, plus "a little bit of this or less of that" and produced a winning recipe. Her family sent Monaco, an avid baker, a flurry of congratulatory cards.

As her confidence has grown, "I've gotten very experimental," says Monaco, a 28-year-old instructor of horsemanship at McDonogh School. "Quick breads are great. They're so easy. ... I will make myself a quick bread on Sunday night and eat it for breakfast for the whole week." Don't ask Monaco to re-create her blue-ribbon bread, though. She didn't write down the recipe.

Sarah White, a passionate baker who lives in Arkansas, teaches an online quick-bread course. "You can learn how to make quick breads and be happy for a long time," says White, who is 24. "They're really versatile."

Quick breads are also a good first step for inexperienced bakers before progressing to yeast breads, she says. "I think the first thing people need to know is not to be afraid. A lot of people these days who didn't grow up baking are intimidated by any kind of making bread," White says.

Nostalgia also informs White's love of quick breads. "The banana-bread recipe I use with the course is actually my great-grandmother's banana-bread recipe," she says. "When I make it I sort of think about all the women down the line in my family who have made the same bread."

Carrot-and-Tangerine Bread

Makes two 9-inch-by-5-inch loaves

3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

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