The late great James Beard, champion of American cuisine who taught and mentored literally generations of both professional chefs and food enthusiasts alike, once said, "Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter the greatest of all feasts". There's no doubt that there are few things more delicious, more soul-satisfying than the aroma and taste of freshly baked bread.
We've all heard the phrase, 'the best thing since sliced bread', which is a common hyperbole used to depict innovative achievement. The first 'loaf-at-a-time' bread slicing machine wasn't invented until 1928 and it wasn't until 1930 that Wonderbread started marketing sliced bread nationwide. On January 18, 1943, U.S. officials actually imposed a ban on the production of sliced bread as a "wartime conservation measure". The public was NOT impressed! One distraught housewife actually wrote a letter to the New York Times stating that sliced bread was important to the "morale and saneness of a household". I suppose when you have to slice 10 slices of bread for your family's breakfast and then 10 more slices to fill the lunchboxes, it can be a bit time consuming and exhausting. In any event, on March 8, 1943, the ban was lifted and from that point on, most households abandoned making bread at home and filled their shopping carts with packaged sliced bread.
Growing up in outport Newfoundland, though, a lot of people still made their own bread, with the exception of my mom....the kitchen was not a place she liked to spend her time. Luckily for me a neighbour, Mrs. Foote, use to bake bread every Saturday and let me tell you, there's no better aroma than freshly baked bread and there's no treat more heavenly than a slice of warm, fresh bread topped with butter. Needless to say, I made a point of lingering by the Footes' every Saturday.
While I like to consider myself to be a fairly decent cook, baking is not my forte. To me, baking is too exact of a science and it's not nearly as forgiving as cooking. Add 1/2 tsp too little or too much of something and you can ruin the whole end product.
I really wanted to try my hand at making homemade bread but rather than just diving right in and whipping up the recipe on the side of the bag of flour, I decided to search the internet for a foolproof plan. In the midst of an endless sea of information about baking bread, I found this episode of The French Cook with Julia Child on You Tube.
Julia Child is one of my all-time mentors when it comes to cooking. Her laissez-faire, refreshing, pragmatic approach to cooking was empowering and made even the most inexperienced of cooks believe they could cook the most delicous gourmet meal, with the proper guidance of course. There are a lot of brilliant and famous quotes by Julia Child but perhaps my favorite is this: "The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you've got to have a what-the-hell attitude".
Darn right, Julia! The worse thing that could happen would be that I would have spent a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon, attempting to make homemade bread. It might be a flop, or it might be awesome...nothing ventured, nothing gained!
That having been said, I decided not to use Julia's recipe for pain de mie, which she covered in the above episode, because it contained milk and I wanted a lighter, simpler bread. My search continued. Most of the recipes I perused called for measurements like '2 lbs of flour", and "75 grams active dry yeast". I'm sorry...there was too much room for error in those measurements for me , (mostly because I don't have a kitchen scale to weigh ingredients with), and I was just about to abandon the thought of baking bread for that day when I came across a simple, easy to read recipe with precise measurements., ironically enough from a blog called "Dinner with Julie". I'm pretty sure this is a different Julie than the Julie/Julia Project, but I could be wrong. Either which way...seemed written in the stars that I attempt to bake bread on this particular Saturday.
To make White Sandwich Bread, you'll need:
2 and 1/2 cups warm water
1 Tbsp active dry yeast
1 Tbsp sugar
6 - 6 and 1/2 cups bread flour (can substitute with all-purpose flour)
2 tsp salt
1/4 cup butter, softened
First up, you have to proof, or activate, the yeast and to do this, you add 1 Tbsp active dry yeast to 1/2 cup warm water. You might be asking yourself, 'Just how warm should the warm water be?', as I did. Well, for my first batch of bread, which turned out perfectly yummy just not as risen as I liked, when the running tap water felt warm to my fingers, I figured that was warm enough. For my second and subsequent batches of bread, I let the tap water run until it starts to feel hot on my fingers. I actually placed my meat thermometer into the water the first time I did this just to check the temperature, and it registered 110 degrees Fahrenheit which is technically 5 degrees warmer than tepid, but it works. At this temperature the yeast wakes up, begins to bubble up a bit and yields a nicely risen bread. So....add the 1 Tbsp active dry yeast to 1/2 cup warm water, give it a stir and let it sit for 5 minutes or so. If the yeast doesn't bubble, throw out the mixture and start again. If it still doesn't bubble, the yeast might be too old to activate so you'll need fresh yeast to proceed.
While the yeast is proofing, in a large bowl add 3 cups flour and stir in 2 tsp of salt. I used ground sea salt, but kosher or table salt works equally as well. After the yeast had been sitting for 5 minutes or so, I stirred in 1 Tbsp sugar in with the yeast and warm water and poured the yeast/water/sugar mixture into the bowl with the flour and salt and stirred it around a bit. I then added an additional 2 cups of warm water to the flour, stirred it about and added 3 more cups of flour, one cup at a time to the mixture. When the dough was looking a little shaggy, for lack of a better word, I floured my work surface with the remaining 1/2 cup of flour and poured the shaggy dough out onto the floured surface. (I want to point something out here: if you pour the flour into a measuring cup, you're probably going to need more than 6 cups to make your 'shaggy' dough because the act of pouring the flour actually incorporates air into the flour and fluffs it up, or something along those lines. My recommendation is to use your measuring cup to scope the flour out of the bag or flour canister and level it off with a knife).
I smushed the dough around on the floured surface a little until a scruffy ball was formed? (Sounds really appetizing hey? Shaggy dough, scruffy ball?). As Julia suggested in the above video, I left the ball of dough alone for a little bit, about 5 minutes, to rest before proceeding.
Julia Child would flatten the dough out with the heel of her hand a little and smush (there's that word again) the softened butter, a little at a time, into the dough. I decided to give this a try. I kneaded the dough out on my work surface with the heel of my hand, took a glob of the softened butter, schmeared it on the surface of the dough, kneaded it over onto itself, flattened it, schmeared in more softened butter and repeated this process until all of the butter was incorporated into the dough.
I lightly greased my now cleaned out bowl with some olive oil and then tossed the ball of dough into the bowl and gave it a flip so that the top of the dough was coated with a little oil. (This would prevent the plastic wrap from sticking to the dough while it sat for an hour to rise).
I wrapped the bowl with some clear plastic cling wrap, placed the bowl in a warm place in my kitchen, because, from what I can gather, the area where the dough is left to rise should be around 75 degrees Fahrenheit or slightly warmer. On top of the refrigerator is possibly the warmest place in the kitchen, but I wrapped my bowl with a towel and left it on top of the stove. (My kitchen is the warmest room in the house).
After an hour, this is how much the dough had risen:
I turned the dough out onto my work surface that I sprinkled lightly with flour again, and divided the dough into thirds. For this particular batch of bread dough, I planned on making two loaves of bread and saving some dough for toutons, a Newfoundland delicacy that I'll get into a little later on. Each one third of the dough that I was going to use to make a loaf of bread I pressed out into a rectangle, about 8 inches by 10 inches. I folded one third lengthwise toward the center, pinched the dough where it touched together and then folded the other third toward the middle too, joining the dough by pinching.
Next, fold both ends up so that the 'log' of dough will fit into the greased bread pan, pinching the dough together again at the ends. Place dough, pinched side down, into greased bread pans.
Re-cover bread pans with plastic cling wrap and towel and let rise in warm place for another hour to hour and a half, until the dough puffs out of the bread pan. This is what the dough looked like after rising in the pans:
Bake bread in preheated 375 degree oven on middle rack for 30-35 minutes, until golden brown. Remove from oven, immediately turn out onto wire cooling racks. For a softer crust, brush top of each loaf with melted butter. For a crunchier crust, simply let bread cool without brushing with butter.
By this point, every member of your family, and quite possibly the odd neighbor, will have convened in your kitchen, the heavenly aroma of freshly baked bread having lured them in a trance-like state, by their noses!
I rarely can wait more than 15 minutes before having to slice into the bread and spreading the freshly cut heel tap, (which is the term we prefer to use over 'butt'), with butter, letting it melt into the bread.
I really don't know if it's Julia's technique of pressing the softened butter into the dough, a little at a time, or the rolling of the dough over onto itself in thirds, pinching the meeting points together that makes the consistency of this bread perfect every single time, but I've made this bread four times so far and it always turns out sandwich perfect, without any big air holes for the butter or other fillings to ooze out through.
Now...let's talk toutons. A touton is a type of traditional pancake-like biscuit commonly made in Newfoundland. Usually it's made out of leftover bread dough and pan fried in either butter or pork lard, and served for breakfast or brunch with molasses or pancake syrup. When making the homemade bread pictured above, I intentionally left some dough aside to make toutons. My plan was to do something a little unorthodox and make Touton Eggs Benny for supper. I know...breakfast for supper? Well yes! Breakfast for supper is one of my all time favorite things to cook and I have yet to hear a complaint from those I feed.
To make toutons, divide dough into about 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup portions, place them in a pan covered with plastic wrap and a towel and let them rise just as you would bread or rolls. When it's time to cook, heat a large skillet over medium high heat, lightly grease skillet with butter or vegetable oil and add touton dough, being careful to give individual toutons enough room to expand and cook without touching the other toutons. For Touton Eggs Benny, before frying the touton dough, I cooked up some bacon. I then drained off some of the bacon fat and fried the toutons in the remaining bacon fat in the skillet.
When the toutons were golden on both sides, I transferred them to a warming tray along with the cooked baked in the oven while I made the poached eggs and Hollandaise sauce for the Touton Eggs Benny.
To make Touton Eggs Benny, you'll need:
(To serve 4)
1 tsp white vinegar
8 slices bacon, cooked
4 toutons, cooked and split into half
2 egg yolks
1/4 c. cold burtter, in cubes
2 tsp lemon juice
pinch cayenne pepper (optional)
Heat a saucepan of water over medium heat just until simmering. In a heatproof bowl over saucepan of simmering, (not boiling), water whisk egg yolks with 2 tsp water until slightly thickened, about 2 minutes. Add butter, whisking in 1 cube at a time, until thickened, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Whisk in lemon juice, salt and cayenne pepper, if using. Keep warm over pan of hot water (off heat), whisking occasionally to prevent skin from forming.
In a large saucepan or skillet, heat 2 to 3 inches of water with vinegar over medium heat until simmering. One egg at a time, crack egg into small dish and gently slide egg into simmering water. Add remaining eggs in same way. Poach eggs until whites are set and yolks are soft, about 3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to paper towel-lined plate to blot dry. (MAKE AHEAD: using a slotted spoon transfer poached eggs to a bowl of warm water until ready to use).
Split toutons in half, top with bacon, poached egg and spoon Hollandaise sauce over egg. I served these Touton Eggs Benny with roasted baby potatoes seasoned with Herbs de Provence and a fruit salad, but all on their own they're a satisfying meal for breakfast, brunch or dinner!
Gone forever are my fears about making bread! In fact, my confidence level is such that next on my agenda is Whole Wheat Bread, French Loaf, Herb Bread and of course, Italian Bread! I'll keep you posted!
Unlike store bought, commercially packaged sliced white bread, Homemade White Sandwich bread is actually lower in sodium and doesn't contain any preservatives or artificial sweeteners. I also like the fact that I KNOW my bread is cooked in a clean environment, using my clean hands!
I can emphatically state, this Homemade White Sandwich Bread is virtually foolproof. In fact, I don't know how it can fail other than the yeast being dead and that happens sometimes.