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ISO Real Crusty Bread

August 29, 2013

This may be hard to believe, but sometimes I get a little bit obsessed with a food project.

There’s a problem on the farm. We’ve got too many amazing, delicious homegrown tomatoes. I know, cry me a river. But the problem is slicing them up and eating them with Sicilian olive oil, sea salt, and Mandy Aftel’s black pepper perfume isn’t keeping up with the harvest. Neither is snacking on thick slices of tomato on buttered toast. And while these nightshades go great with local poached eggs, there are only so many eggs that I can eat in a week.

Sure, we could simmer the tomatoes down into a sauce or otherwise try to preserve them. But the priority here is trying to enjoy the largest quantity of fresh garden tomatoes as possible. Right now. Of course there’s a secondary problem too. Being in rural PA has its limits when it comes to getting complementary ingredients.

Could I even assemble a panzanella without learning how to bake my own bread first?

Bread is the critical ingredient. It’s a bread salad. Okay, the critical ingredient is really the tomatoes, but the bread really ties the whole thing together. And it needs to be a gutsy crusty bread or else it will just turn to mush in the glorious pool of fresh free-run tomato juice.

I have no idea why crusty bread is so hard to find. Perhaps it’s just further proof that Americans have gone soft. We no longer have the chompers to eat real food. Instead all of our bread has to be light, fluffy and full of dough conditioners.

Call me old fashioned, but bread should be made from flour, yeast (or starter), water, salt and maybe some sugar (to get the yeast going). And by flour I don’t mean soy flour either. Man, it’s amazing what we consider to be bread these days. But that’s another post.

Hearing of the possibility of a good bakery nearby, I drove thirty minutes over a mountain to get to the commercial center of a small town. It’s was true they made their own bread. However, what they made was just sandwich loaves of white, wheat and rye. They actually looked quite good. But their bread wouldn’t have been up to the task.

So I pulled a Hail Mary and went to a decent grocery store chain another thirty minutes away in the relative metropolis of Altoona.

Wandering the aisles of a new grocery store for the first time can be a maddening experience on its own, even if you aren’t hunting for your very own white whale. And this Giant Eagle may have no eagles, but it’s totally giant.

Before looking for the impossible, I was curious about the next-to-impossible. Could I find any capers and decent jarred anchovies. Because without these two other critical ingredients, there wasn’t any point in looking for the bread.

Capers were in abundance. Remarkably, they had one brand of anchovies that I could live with, but they were buried deep in the Italian foods section. I had almost given up when I found them peeking out from the shelf.

Now it was on to find the bread.

There was something in the bread aisle that looked promising. It was from a regional Italian bakery and it had all the right words on it. Things like “Hearth baked daily”. But I looked at the ingredients and it full of junk. Plus a quick squeeze revealed it to be squishy anyway.

Ultimately, it was in the store’s own bakery section where I found it.

I don’t know who I have to thank for the national popularity of ciabatta, but I really hope it’s not someplace like Dunkin’ Donuts or Panera. But this long thin bread has a solid, lightly floured crust. Its bottom was a little softer than I might have liked, but I wasn’t turning up my nose at this loaf given the circumstances.

Steeling myself for a laundry list of dreck in the ingredients list, I took a closer look. Except this bread wasn’t dreck at all. It was made from:

Unbleached unbromated wheat flour, malt, filtered water, levain, salt, yeast, enzymes, cultured wheat flour.

That was good enough for me, and it briefly restores my faith in humanity. Later today, I’ll dry a good hunk of it out in the oven, so it can be even more absorbent. And then for dinner tonight I’m going to try and eat all the tomatoes.

The will is strong, and now at least I have the right tools for the job.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. August 29, 2013 10:32 am

    There’s nothing like a good, crusty bread – I agree! But if you can’t find that perfect loaf you might want to toast your bread first. It will help the salad from going soggy and it adds another layer of flavor. This is my favorite time of year. I love too many tomatoes!

  2. eric scheirer stott permalink
    August 29, 2013 10:47 am

    I have found the supermarket bakeriez around here to have pretty good bread, and not overly loaded with preservatives……..if going stale and / or moldy within the week is an indicator. Hannaford has been selling a quite decent stick baguette for a buck.

  3. August 29, 2013 11:00 am

    Strange what we’ll do for the food we want. I wouldn’t think twice about a 90 minute round trip drive on a pizza quest. Doubt I’d do it for a loaf of bread though. Hope the bread was worth the trip.

  4. August 29, 2013 2:40 pm

    I am getting increasingly worried about your bread ineptitude. It’s like a hiker who leaves behind his water and food and hopes he will find an unpolluted stream and a backpack full of Clif bars that someone has abandoned.

    Please do this… it will take less prep time than your bread expedition. Go to Wegman’s and buy: 5 lbs of King Arthur All Purpose Flour; a packet of Fleischmann’s yeast; a deep stainless steel mixing bowl at least 12″ in diameter. I am assuming you have water and salt and a cookie sheet.

    Dump the yeast packet into 1 1/2 cups of warm (not hot) water in the mixing bowl and stir to dissolve. Add flour until the water won’t absorb any more… about 3-4 cups. Add 1 teaspoon salt. Knead with your hands for 5 minutes to develop a smooth, cohesive dough. Cover with plastic wrap and put in the refrigerator overnight to develop a bit of a tang. In the morning it should have risen to about double its original volume; if not take it out and leave at room temperature until it doubles. (If you’re in a hurry you can skip the overnight refrigeration.)

    Preheat the oven, with the inverted cookie sheet in it, to 480 degrees. Meanwhile, punch down the bread and shape it into a round or oval loaf and allow it to rest about 30 minutes while you wash the stainless bowl and the oven heats. Transfer the dough to the now hot cookie sheet… carefully, so you don’t burn yourself. Cover with the inverted stainless bowl and cook 20 minutes. Remove the bowl, lower the heat to 450, and cook another 20-30 minutes until the bread is dark but not burned. Voila–crusty bread.

    • August 29, 2013 5:50 pm

      Baking bread according to any sort of recipe is like trying to create a work of art via paint by numbers. I bet that if you took 100 people and had them follow these instructions you would have 100 very, very different loaves of bread at end. I think you probably need to bake bread about 100 times before you really attune your senses to the right touch/smell/look of things. At that point you should need only use bread recipes as the loosest of frameworks.

      • August 29, 2013 11:03 pm

        This isn’t a recipe, Mr. Dave. It’s an intervention to get the Profussor involved with yeast and flour. Whatever he ends up (unless he goes off on some really bizarre tangent) it will be better than the bread-pillows he is upset about.

      • August 30, 2013 5:55 pm

        Mr. Dave ~ you’ll scare people off if you make it sound that hard! While you may be correct that 100 people following this or any recipe will end up with 100 different loaves of bread, what is important is that 99 will taste better than the cardboard you get at most markets, even the “mistakes”. It takes five minutes to form the dough, and you can spend the 90 minutes of rise time doing something less productive – like reading our silly food blogs.

  5. August 29, 2013 5:23 pm

    I feel you pain. It was just such a search for decent a decent loaf of bread when I first moved to the Adirondacks that started my on my bread baking journey. I totally agree with Burnt My Fingers. Go for it. (And read William Alexander’s “52 Loaves”.)

  6. August 29, 2013 5:32 pm

    Rambler, can’t you find Rock Hill products up your way?

  7. PatriciaN permalink
    August 30, 2013 4:04 pm

    I went to Mandy’s site and purchased. Fabulous, thanks for the blog.

  8. September 2, 2013 12:56 pm

    If you want to try an alternative panzanella, substitute farro for the bread as presented in Bugialli’s Italy: http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/0688158641. Years ago when I lived in NYC, I happened upon Bugialli presenting his latest book to a crowd at Barnes & Noble. He brought enough panzanella di farro for everyone & it has been my favorite tomato-harvest recipe ever since.

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