Thursday, February 11, 2010
Finally Fine French Bread
Like most of us, I was brought up eating plain white Sunbeam bread. We didn't know any better. I didn't even know what Wonder Bread was. (Would my growing brain have been better had I had all those vitamin and nutrients?) When I went to summer camp I was introduced to Bunny Bread, their version of Sunbeam . I came home raving about this fine tasting bread. In hind sight, I think it taste better because I was so hungry. Thinking back on it, it probably taste better because it was always fresh given the number loaves that were delivered daily to the mess hall from the bakery.
Anyway, my point here is that down south, most of us were brought up on plain white bread. It was the foundation for our chicken salad, our egg salad, and our venerated pimento cheese. I can remember being offered wheat bread and almost gagging. Ignorance will delay pleasure so many times.
About eighteen years ago, when I was on a gourmet cooking kick I found a bread making book in a local store. Not knowing any better, I thought to myself "I can do that." Well, all my friends had their bread machines and after dumping a box of mix and a cup of warm water into the top, mashing the button, in 2 1/2 hours they would have a cute, perfect, small rectangular loaf of bread (in any one of 4 flavors). Meanwhile, I was carefully measuring yeast, checking the exact temperature of the water, mixing, kneading, rising, resting, shaping, rising, baking, and praying to Demeter the Goddess of all bread. And, after some time, and many disasters, I was able to make a pretty darn good loaf of bread. Now granted it wasn't easy and took some time, but to me it was worth it.
However, with all this success, a good basic French baguette alluded me. I could make a dark heavy pumpernickel, a light rye, a great loaf of wheat for sandwiches, whole grain rolls, etc. Oh, I could make a loaf of French bread. But, it wasn't light, with the right taste, crackling crust. I tried many different recipes to no avail. I have an excellent collection of bread cookbooks - you only need so many - after all there are only so many different types of bread. I even bought a French bread steamer. (One of the secrets to good French bread is steam in the oven.)
Now a bread steamer is a cylindrical shaped covered metal tray with a pan beneath it that you use in an oven to cook your French bread. Yesterday, I was looking at the directions for the bread steamer and saw a recipe that I had never noticed before. (It may have helped if I had read the entire booklet, not just the cooking directions.) Perhaps, I said to myself, I should try this recipe, after all what do I have to lose.
I will not go into the details, but when I read through the recipe, I saw what I had been missing to make true artisan French bread. (Now granted, the entire process took 13 hours, but it was well worth it.) When I finished, and the bread was cooling, I heard that sweet sound of the crust cracking, and when I cut the first piece, the uneven holes in the slice along with the elasticity told me I was on the right track. But it was the tang in the taste that sealed the deal. Finally, after 18 years, all I needed to do was read the directions. I think my first grade teacher taught me that - I have always been a slow learner - but bread making is a slow process, and hey - and I'm back to my roots, well close to them - white bread.