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.
American White Bread
adapted from Time-Life Foods of the World: American Cooking
DPaul made a few adaptations to the original recipe. He swapped in buttermilk in lieu of milk for a stronger, sour flavor. In our climate, it takes significantly less flour than the 4 cups the original calls for; you’ll need to use your own sense of touch and judgment to determine when the dough had taken on enough flour. The dough will be silky rather than sticky, and will be dense and springy, almost like the consistency of a marshmallow. It is imperative that you do your rises in a truly draft-free place, or else you risk developing a crust on top.
2 packages dry yeast
1 c. lukewarm buttermilk
1-1/2 Tbsp sugar
2-1/2 c. all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
4 Tbsp soft butter
1 Tbsp salt
1 egg, lightly beaten with 1 Tbsp milk (for the glaze)
Sprinkle the yeast into 1/2 cup of the lukewarm buttermilk. Add 1 tsp sugar and stir until thoroughly dissolved. Place the mixture in a warm, draft-free place, such as an unlighted oven, for five to eight minutes, or until the yeast has begun to bubble and almost doubled in volume.
Then pour it into a large mixing bowl, add the remaining 1/2 c. of buttermilk and stir until the yeast is dissolved. With a large spoon, slowly beat into the mixture 1 c. of the flour and continue to beat vigorously until smooth. Still beating, add the butter, remaining sugar, salt and 1-1/2 more cups of the flour. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and knead it by folding it end to end, then pressing it down, pushing it forward and folding it back for at least 10 minutes, sprinkling the dough every few minutes with small handfuls of as much flour you need to prevent the dough from sticking to the board. When the dough is smooth and elastic, place it in a large, lightly buttered bowl. Dust it with a sprinkling of flour and cover the bowl loosely with a kitchen towel. Let the dough rise in a warm, draft-free place for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the dough doubles its bulk and springs back slowly when gently poked with a finger. Then punch the dough down again with one blow of your fist to reduce it to its original volume. Let it rise 30 to 40 minutes until it again doubles in bulk.
Preheat the oven to 425ºF. Lightly but thoroughly butter a 9" x 5" x 3" loaf pan. Shape the dough into a compact loaf, somewhat high and round in the center, and place it in the pan. (Be careful not to punch or deflate the dough in the step. An optional step here is to rub the top with soft butter, such as the leftovers on the wrapper, to keep the top of the dough moist.) Cover with a towel and let the dough rise in the same warm place about 25 minutes, until it reaches the top of the pan. Thoroughly brush the top of the loaf with the egg and milk glaze. Bake in the lower third ofthe oven for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the loaf is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in its center comes out clean and dry. Invert the bread on to a cake rack and cool before slicing.