Dilly Bread

Dilly bread

Cooking is one of those things that is never learned in a vacuum. You do not learn it solely from books or blogs or television shows; you learn it from people. They impart their knowledge, their wisdom, and their sense of taste, and you internalize that.

For many of us, of course, much of this wisdom comes down generationally. For those who cook professionally, they learn in a school or on the job. Those of us who are passionate about food tend to learn from each other. It is our bond.

This recipe comes to us from a dear friend, who is in turn passing on a piece of someone dear to her, a colleague named Tom. Tom was an engineer, but also an avid home cook and pioneering food blogger. He would throw lavish dinner parties for his birthday, collecting his crew of fellow cooks to work with him. He was our friend’s mentor both at the office and in the kitchen.

This bread was his comfort food, something his mother used to make for him. He would make it when he was vexed by a problem, either professionally or personally. He’d also make it for friends if they were sad or stressed out. It’s not hard to see why. When this bread comes out of the oven, its aroma erases any cares in the world.

Tom passed away in 2008. We never met him, but his influence lingers on in his friends, in our friend. A recipe from a man we’ve never known has made it into our repertory. The cycle continues.

When Jerry James Stone asked me to participate in Three Loaves, this recipe sprang to mind for three key reasons. First, because it has significance. Second, because it’s delicious. Third, and most importantly, because it’s easy. I am not a confident baker, so I gravitate toward recipes that are, simply, hard to screw up.

The recipe scales linearly. The original makes two loaves, so I’ve scaled for three. According to our friend, each loaf can also be broken out into three mini loaves, though the baking time will be shorter. Serve slices warm, slathered with butter, or alongside a lovely spring salad.

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Pull-apart dinner rolls

Dinner rolls ©DPaul Brown

Bread's kind of a big deal in the Bay Area. Setting aside the obvious connotation with soudrough, we've had some of the leading artisanal bakeries in the nation for decades now. We're blessed in that regard. Practically every store carries at least one of the major bread baker's products, whether Acme or Semmifreddi's or Della Fattoria or what have you. And very good breads these are, if you're looking for hardy, rustic loaves or a fine baguette. Or, um, sourdough. But sometimes, especially when accompanying a holiday meal, nothing satisfies more than a light, fluffy white roll. And as lovely and lovingly made as the artisan bakers' breads are, this is one hole in the repertory I've yet to see filled adequately.

Luckily, I am married to an increasingly skilled baker. (Well, maybe not so lucky for my waistline.) Armed with a copy of The Bread Baker's Apprentice and his own innate ability to coax magic from flour, water and yeast, he mastered the dinner roll in no time flat.

According to him, these rolls are easy as bread making goes. I'll take his word for it. When we made the first batch, he asked me to help shape the rolls. There was little mystery about which one of us touched which piece of dough. His were perfectly smooth orbs; mine were deformed masses. Fortunately, even I could not destroy their rich flavor.

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Sonoma coast, my love


Have you ever felt you were meant — truly meant — to be someplace?

I have often said that my hometown of Schenectady, NY, is a lovely place to be from. I mean, it's a much underrated part of the country, rich with charm and history, but I spent my adolescent years pining for the great big world out there. I knew I was destined for a different place.

After leaving New York State, I had my dalliances. In the summer of 1990 I had a torrid affair with Santa Fe, NM, rocky and passionate. I even returned for a second summer, which was like going back to a boyfriend, only to remember why you broke up in the first place. In between I had a slow, steady and almost serious relationship with Sacramento. But I just wasn't ready for that kind of commitment.

That's when I met San Francisco. This was the city that, intellectually, I was meant to be with — after all, we have so much in common.  And eventually I did fall in love with this newest companion, for mind as well as body, but it took a solid year. Luckily, that perseverance has paid off with a rich and nuanced love that has paid itself back many times over across the years.

But secretly, scandalously, I love another.

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Not bad for a Yankee

Biscuits are the easiest thing in the world to make and among the hardest to make well. To achieve the perfectly, ethereally fluffy, flaky, crusty, buttery texture takes skill, patience and above all else a light hand. I'm not purporting…

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Sometimes it’s nice to be kneaded


Like 5,000,000 others, we tried the ubiquitous no-knead bread late last year. And you know what? It’s fine. It lives up to its every promise — bulletproof crust, airy crumb, zero effort. But like David Lebovitz, I found it to be a tad dead on the palate, and the crumb to be rather leathery and not at all absorbent, which made it a less than stellar companion to the soup we ate it with. But if it inspires people to start baking bread in their own homes, I endorse it wholly. Consider it a gateway bread.

DPaul is the bread baker in this household. Over the years he has turned out countless pizza doughs, focaccie and rustic loaves, and has acquired an artful hand. He knows how to make the dough rise and spring to his touch. He is the yeast whisperer.

Since the utter disappearance of our beloved Brother Juniper bread, we have been hopping from loaf to loaf of store-bought sandwich bread, with little to no satisfaction. Whole wheat loaves are alternately too dry or too gummy, and white loaves are bland and uninteresting. It was time to take matters into our own hands and make sandwich bread.

Living in San Francisco, where we have not one but many of the best artisanal bakeries in the country, the very notion of "white bread" is practically anathema. It smacks of the pedestrian, the mainstream, suburbia. It is the antithesis of artisanship. Or is it?

I mean, there has to be a reason why white bread became the iconic loaf of American sandwiches. Somewhere in its obscured history, it must once have been a flavorful bread that happened to serve well as a vessel for fillings. It had to have a consistent, dense crumb, a soft crust and enough flavor to make you actually want to eat it.

How long ago? According to our 1968 edition of Time-Life Foods of the World: American Cooking,

As early as 1869 two sisters, Catherine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe (the latter known for her Uncle Tom’s Cabin), in their book, The American Woman’s Home, lamented the increasing popularity of store-bought bread and blamed its rise on those people who saw lightness as the only criterion of good bread.

It goes on to explain how manufactured bread, no matter how bad, became fashionable as a symbol of affluence, and that by World War II, homemade bread became a casualty of the newly busy working woman.

And so what are we left with? A society that eats white bread out of a deeply entrenched habit, yet eats an inferior product because for generations they have never known anything different. How many of us were weaned on Wonder Bread? We might as well have eaten Pla-Doh. But buck up, there’s hope.

This same book, of the long-defunct Time-Life series (keep your eyes on eBay for these, folks; they’re an invaluable part of any cookbook collection!) offers up an American White Bread recipe that is simply to die for. The crumb is even, moist and soft, yet has enough structure to keep its shape. The crust is golden and soft. And the whole creature is fragrant and rather intensely flavorful. And toasted? Well.

Sure, it takes more effort than the no-knead bread, but anything worth doing is worth doing well. Sometimes, you need to knead.

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