For those of us who covet the baguette but shudder at the phrase “dissolve the yeast,” we have plenty of options here in Champaign-Urbana. My partner and I so regularly have bread and cheese dinners — brie, a baguette, and maybe some grapes — that we forget how much of a cliché we are.
Go ahead, judge us. We still get to eat bread.
We tend to prioritize convenience of location when the need for carbs strikes, but have lately been curious to expand our wheatly horizons.
So my humble reader, here we set out on a simple quest for the best baguette in town. We assessed loaves based on whether they had that signature crispy but slightly chewy exterior, a potent aroma, and a moist interior that tastes airy and almost fleshy when chewed.
At the end of the taste testing, we agreed the “C” in “Champaign” must stand for “chewy”: only one bakery achieved a crust that crackles triumphantly when squeezed. Overall, though, we have some solid choices all around town.
Okay, enough loafing around. Let’s begin.
Rick’s Bakery: $2.50
I had heard great things about Rick’s as the hidden gem off Philo Road in Urbana. If you have yet to go, please note it doesn’t present itself well — maybe all effort goes into their baked goods?
Rick’s baguette had the opposite problem of many loaves we tried. It was too soft and thus had no crackle, and the guts of the loaf weren’t satisfying to chew. It gave the top-tier baguettes a run for their money, though, in terms of flavor and aroma. Stick this in the oven for a few minutes and it would be perfect — or use it as a base for garlic bread.
Speaking of perfection, also I grabbed a spinach croissant ($2.50) to meet the $5 minimum for paying with plastic (no pictures, this baby didn’t make it home). If you like spanakopita (spinach pie), go get one right now. I’m serious. It’s got that creamy, spinach-heavy filling with a slight acidity, nestled in a heftier pastry than a spinach pie usually has.
We often opt for Mirabelle because we’re close to Downtown Urbana, but we regularly complain the bread is overdone — to the point where I cease to get excited about taking a bite. How crumby!
The test loaf was no different, and it seemed a little worse than we remembered. The aroma was pleasant, yet subtle. The bready flavor almost achieved greatness; a pinch more salt would do wonders for this loaf. We ended up using it strictly as a dunking-in-sauce loaf rather than eating it alone or with butter. One feather in its cap: for the Ratatouille fans out there, this loaf was the closest to having that “symphony of crackle.”
Pekara Bakery: $3.90
I’ve heard many great things about Pekara but had strangely never tried it; I appreciate that they strive to utilize local and organic ingredients. My conscience was willing to spend the extra dollar for it. Pekara by far had the best texture, with plenty of those classic irregular air pockets.
For the most part, Pekara lived up to the hype. We agreed that it is more akin to a true baguette than Bread Co., and also loved its innards. Pekara alone achieved a delicious, airy and fleshy interior, leaving us eagerly tearing off another chunk. The exterior was fairly chewy and did not crackle when squeezed, but we were thankful it wasn’t too overdone.
Bread Company: $2.50
When I was a wee lass, I spent a year at the Busey-Evans Residence Hall and frequented Bread Co. more than my Freshman 15 (or 20) needed. Thanks to its balanced, perfectly-salted flavor and powerful aroma, it was definitely one of the best loaves we tried. Bread Co. had a longer, skinnier loaf to Pekara’s stout shape — if you are seeking a great bruschetta base, for instance, I’d opt for them.
Unfortunately, the exterior was overdone and I found myself chewing longer than my jaw — or patience — desired. A fairly flat loaf, it lacked those signature air pockets that Pekara had in its favor. Nevertheless, this is a great baguette, and my new go-to when I want something for dipping.
All photos by Emily Cross.