Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Singing Bread

Some time ago, when I visited Bobolink Dairy, a small grass-fed dairy and bakery in New Jersey, I watched their baker make hundreds of loaves of bread in a wood-fired brick oven with a flue temperature of over 600 degrees. But the most memorable event of the day occurred when she pulled the finished boules out of the oven. On hitting the relatively cooler air (it was summer) of the bakery, the loaves all started to crackle and pop, making a symphony.

"They're singing!" she cried. Well, I'd only experienced that singing once myself, when I'd baked outdoors in February in my clay oven, but for some reason yesterday I pulled a loaf out of my kitchen oven and it started singing. Perhaps not coincidentally, the loaf was graced with one of the most attractive crusts I'd ever made, with fissures and exposed crumb making (oxymoron alert!) random patterns across the top.

Why did this particular loaf sing when hundreds before did not? Who knows? Was the bread (or the crust) any better? It was was a gift. I'll probably never know...

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Pain Perdu

I think this morning I may possibly have made the best pain perdu (French toast) I've ever eaten, thanks to some fresh vanilla beans that I picked up at the open air market in St. Martin a few weeks ago for an absurdly low price (why didn't I bring home more??!!?) and some fantastic organic maple syrup (I'm trying to figure out what would make maple syrup non-organic; I thought you just go into the woods and tap a tree, but this stuff was better) my daughter brought us back from Montreal. (Thanks, Katie!)

As I'm sure almost everyone knows by now, pain pendu (literally, "lost bread") was invented by the French as a way to salvage stale baguettes, which is handy since baguettes seem to go stale about 10 minutes after they come out of the oven. (Not joking here: many French visit the bakery twice a day to get their morning and evening baguettes.)

Here's the recipe -- ridiculously simple. If you don't have a vanilla bean (or don't want to sacrifice to French Toast the one you paid 5 bucks for at Williams-Sonoma), you can substitute -- never mind, you can't; it won't be the same. In the photograph, the dark strip at the top of the slice on the right is a wayward piece of bean.

Pain Perdu
Serves 2

8 1-inch-thick slices day-old baguette
About 1/4 cup of milk
1 egg
A tablespoon or so heavy cream
1 vanilla bean
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons butter

  1. Slice one side of a vanilla bean from end to end, so you can fold it open like a book. Then, using a paring knife, scrape off the interior of the bean.
  2. Add the milk, egg, cream, a dash of salt, and bean scrapings to a bowl and stir thoroughly. Cut the bean casing in half and toss that in as well.
  3. Warm the mixture in a microwave or on the stovetop, remove from heat, and let sit for at least 10-15 minutes.
  4. Soak the baguette slices in the mixture while preheating a large skillet, turning frequently. Soak until all the liquid is absorbed, about 5 minutes.
  5. Add butter to skillet, and saute the bread at medium heat, being careful not to burn the bread.
  6. Serve with maple syrup.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Baking Bread at Home

 Photograph by Jennifer May.

This week I'll let someone else do the talking. There's a nice piece by a Woodstock writer and artist, Peter Barrett, about baking bread at home with wild yeasts in the current issue of Chronogram, the Hudson Valley arts and living magazine. Even though the writer calls me "somewhat curmudgeonly."  Has he been talking to my wife or my editor?

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