In celebration of our new book, "Gatherings", which is due in stores any day now (the publication date was officially Monday but it’s taking a bit of time to find it’s way onto the shelves of the different stores) and the upcoming holiday season, I’m launching an eight-week series called “How to…”, a collection of ideas that will hopefully help you with some of the entertaining you may have planned for the coming months. None of these ideas are in our book, although in hindsight they likely could have been. Instead, I wanted to offer something new, and hopefully useful, as we head into the biggest entertaining season of the year. Are you as excited as I am?
First up… how to fill a bread basket. It seems simple enough, and really it is, but I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love a little bread at the side of their plate when it comes to a meal, so why not make the bread basket a little extra special this season? It’s one of the easiest things to place on the table, and a little extra effort in assembling it is sure to impress your guests.
You can slice a baguette and lay the pieces on a small wooden board with a pot of softened butter, or you can offer a few different varieties, giving your friends a selection of fresh bread to choose from. Regardless of how you choose to approach your carbolicious offering, here are some tips to make you look like a pro while putting it all together.
- If possible, buy your bread the day you need it so that it’s warm and fresh. If that isn’t doable, try not to purchase it more than a day in advance. If you do have to pick it up ahead of time, or have some leftover from another meal (see the next point), wrap it immediately in a double layer of plastic wrap (as long as it’s cooled) and store it in the freezer until the day of your dinner.
- Four full loaves (you'll want a few different varieties) may be too much bread for one meal – it certainly is for my family. Immediately freeze any leftovers and save them for another dinner. I sometimes get three meals from my bread purchase, in which case I shop only once for a few special occasions.
- When creating a bread basket, think about the shape, texture, and colour of your bread before you buy it. For example, square pieces, round pieces, pointed pieces, and/or triangular pieces look nice together. Some of the bread could be seedy, some fluffy, and others dense and dark. It’s also nice to see breads with a little something stuffed inside the dough, like raisins and nuts, or olives and herbs. Variety is key here.
- When it comes to the actual baskets you use, anything goes. It doesn’t have to be a designated bread basket that graces your table. It can be something made from wire or wicker, and in a pinch you can even use a bowl. If you’re really stumped for what to place your bread in, Martha Stewart has directions for making a bread basket with a cotton napkin.
- Once you have decided on your basket, line it with a cloth. Burlap works well this time of year, but you can also use linen napkins, or a clean tea towel. While a simple stripe or polka-dot pattern is fine, I wouldn’t go too crazy with the graphics. A neutral background will show off the bread and is likely to coordinate with your table settings a little better than something with a wild print. If you don’t have linen that you think will work, you can always use a brown paper lunch bag. Open the bag so it’s a long flat rectangle, crumple it up in your hands, and then press it flat inside the basket for a rustic look. There’s no napkin to wash and the brown paper can be tossed into the recycling as soon as your meal is over.
- When placing the bread slices in the basket, stack the pieces together by variety. This keeps the bread neat and it prevents the nestled pieces from drying out. The first piece in each row may become tough and little stale if it’s been sitting out on the table for too long, but hey, that’s better than the entire loaf turning to toast. Once filled, keep your bread basket loosely covered with a cloth, napkin, or towel, and remove it just before you sit down to eat. Use a long baguette that's been haphazardly torn into pieces to fill in any gaps in the bread basket (see photo above).
- Breadsticks are a nice addition to the table as well. They’re more difficult to include in a bread basket but look great when tucked into a glass. Scatter the glasses (or glasses) down the centre of the table or set one beside the basket in the middle of the table. Feel free to use any kind of drinking vessel like a small juice tumbler, Mason jar, or stemless wine glass.
I'm curious... do you have any burning how-to questions about casual entertaining? What are you most looking forward to serving this holiday season?