Thursday, May 24, 2007

Kevin: Basic White Bread

I've said before, and I'll repeat it here, I enjoy baking bread more than I enjoy eating it. I like bread, and I certainly appreciate good bread, I'm just not a huge bread eater — with one caveat. I'm a sandwich fanatic. In fact, Beth has occasionally referred to me as Pig Sandwich Boy in reference to my dual loves of pork and sandwiches.

There's a Web site named I Love Sandwiches that once had a poll on it asking what's the most amount of time you've ever devoted to making a sandwich? My answer was 36 hours. It took that long because it began with making a poolish from my sourdough starter and proceeded in due course to making the bread, allowing it to rise twice, baking it, and then letting it cool enough to slice for sandwiches. My friends, the true mark of a sandwich lover is when they begin by making the bread for the sandwich.

"There is an art to the business of making sandwiches which is given to few ever to find the time to explore in depth. It is simple task but the opportunities for satisfaction are many and profound…" ~ Douglas Adams, Mostly Harmless

Reputedly the sandwich is named for John Montague, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich. The story goes that he was gambling and rather than take a break from the table to eat he told his servant to bring him a piece of meat between two slices of bread so he could eat with one hand and play cards with the other.

Whether the tale is apocryphal or not, the name does seem to come from him. And I think it holds a key to what truly defines a sandwich: A sandwich is some filling, enclosed in bread, that can be eaten by hand. By this definition a so-called open-faced sandwich is generally not a sandwich because it requires at least a fork to eat. A pizza is not a sandwich, but in terms of utility a calzone is a sandwich just as an empanada or wrap or hamburger is a sandwich.

But whatever the definition, the classic sandwich remains a filling or fillings between two slices of bread. Whether it's a Rueben, a grilled cheese, a ham panini, a cubano, a mufaletta, a Bánh mi a hoagie, a Philly steak and cheese, PB&J, or a BLT they all share a common form and they're all delicious — especially when made with top quality bread.

Click to enlarge

Although sandwiches have a place in every season, they are particularly suited to summer. They're as heavy or light as the maker desires, they're tremendously portable, and they're quick to prepare (at least they are if you've already baked the bread), and almost everyone has a favorite sandwich. That's why when we were planning A Year in Bread we decided to start off the summer with that most basic of sandwich ingredients, white loaf bread.

My favorite recipe is from Beard on Bread by James Beard. It's made with sour cream which adds some tang to the loaf, but mostly produces an open crumb that makes the best damned grilled cheese sandwich you've ever eaten (recipe below). This bread recipe doesn't produce the huge lofty loaves that Susan's Farmhouse White does, but that's an issue of dough quantity and not how the bread rises. Besides, I find the smaller slices such loaves produce easier to make one-handed sandwiches with — which allows me to eat a sandwich with one hand while making my next loaf of bread, or make manageable sandwiches for kids.

Sour Cream Bread
Adapted from a recipe by James Beard.

ingredient US volume | Metric Volume | US weight | Metric
unbleached bread flour 4 1/2 - 5 c | 1050 - 1200 ml | 23 - 26 oz | 650 - 725 g
instant yeast 2 tsp | 10 ml | 1/4 oz | 4 g
granulated sugar 3 tbsp | 45 ml | 2 oz | 32 g
baking soda 1/4 tsp | 1 ml | --| --
salt 2 tsp | 10 ml | 1/2 oz | 8 g
warm water 1/4 c | 60 ml | 2 oz | 56 g
sour cream, at room temperature 2 c | 480 ml | 16 oz | 450 g

Click to enlarge

Thoroughly combine 4 1/2 cups (650 g) of the flour with the yeast, sugar, baking soda, and salt in a bowl. Mix in the sour cream and water. You should have a wet, sticky dough, but you made need to add a bit more flour to make it manageable. Scrape out onto a lightly floured board.

Using a baker's scraper or a spackling knife, lift the flour and the dough, and fold the dough over. Turn it clockwise slightly and repeat the lifting and folding process until the dough is less sticky and can be worked with your hands. Add only enough flour to prevent sticking. (This entire kneading should take about 10 minutes, possibly longer if you are inexperienced). Shape the dough into a ball, place in a buttered bowl, and turn to coat it with the butter. Cover with plastic and let sit in a warm spot to double in bulk. (Note: The mixing and kneading can be done in the bowl of a stand mixer.)

Punch the dough down. Turn onto a lightly floured board and knead for a minute, then divide into two equal pieces. Butter two 9 x 5 x 3-inch loaf tins. Shape the dough into loaves and fit into the tins. Cover loosely and let rise again until doubled. Bake in a preheated 375F (190C) oven for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the loaves sound hollow when tapped on top and bottom. Cool thoroughly before slicing.
It may, perhaps, seem foolish for me to post a recipe for a grilled cheese sandwich — after all you can’t get much simpler. And yet, a truly great grilled cheese is one of the best sandwiches on earth and they don't happen by accident. They are made deliberately with care given not only to the choice of ingredients, but to their proportion and the cooking method.

The Perfect Grilled Cheese

Click to enlarge

Take a loaf of bread with a crumb that's almost cake-like in appearance. In the recipe above the sour cream produces the open pores while the bread flour gives it the firmness it needs. Cut two 3/8 inch slices. I know, I know. Too much precision. But if the bread is too thin the cheese will melt too quickly and if it's too thick the cheese won’t melt quickly enough.

Spread each slice with a light coating of unsalted butter at room temperature.

Place one slice of bread, butter-side down in a cold skillet. Cast iron is best because it heats slowly.

Cut as much sharp cheddar cheese (I highly recommend Grafton Village 1-year- old cheddar but almost any sharp artisanal cheddar will do) into enough 1/8 inch slices to cover the bread. Again, this seems overly precise, but the goal is that the cheese is perfectly melted at exactly the moment the bread is properly browned.

Place the second slice of bread on the cheese and turn the heat to low medium. The bread should start browning in about 6 minutes and should be perfectly browned in 8 - 9 minutes. The cheese will be tacky enough to hold the bread together, but not truly melted. Flip the sandwich and cook until the other side is browned, about 4 minutes, and the cheese is completely melted.

With the right bread and cheese, the bread will actually absorb some of the cheese — a bit may even soak all the way through the bread to contribute to the browning on the second side.
I like to cut the sandwich into two triangles and then eat it with a few pickled peppers and a mug of hard cider. This, my friends, is absolute bliss.

For a collection of sandwich photos, click here.

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Anonymous Robin said...

Looking forward to trying this recipe if only for the Grilled cheese recommendation, which is a great favorite in the house. I made up three loaves of Susan's Farmhouse bread and they have all but disappeared - one loaf when to parents who reminded me that they truly love sandwich bread; another to a friend who hinted BROADLY about fulfilling a vague promise for bread and the other has been thorougly enjoyed with dinner, breakfast and lunch! This site is my highlight on Thursdays - really enjoying reading and sharing our bread passions! Robin

5/24/2007 4:45 PM  
Blogger Joanna said...

Hi Kevin,

Love the site, love the post, but I have to take issue with you: this loaf looks good, looks as if it tastes good - but it really doesn't qualify as a basic white loaf because of the sour cream ... however good the sandwiches!

Best wishes,

5/25/2007 3:14 AM  
Blogger Κατερίνα said...

i like very much your blog....i love making bread things too....i am from Greece and i have a blog in greek...anyway....can i replace the sourcream (which is rather difficult to find in my country) with something else??? Yogurt maybe??? Buttermilk???

5/25/2007 8:16 AM  
Blogger Kevin said...

If you can find the Grafton Village cheddar, it's really extraordinary -- Whole Foods and its ilk may carry it.

Ah, but white bread often has dairy in it.

Yogurt would be delicious, and Beard came up with this when he set out to make bread with buttermilk and didn't have any.

5/25/2007 8:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Kevin, I can't wait to get this recipe for bread started. Susan's farmhouse white was good. Just about all gone. I did make pictures, now if I can just remember how my neighbor told me to put them on the internet. Ha, that's been a couple of weeks. I have used cottage cheese in bread before, but not sour cream (except in sweet breads). This sounds great. Thanks for another great recipe.


ps~katepiva, how about some of that great rich Greek yogurt? or is what we get here in the state's not the same as over there. I love Greek food!

5/25/2007 8:56 AM  
Blogger ejm said...

Sour cream and baking soda in the bread dough! I've got to try this...

And grilled cheese sandwiches. I adore grilled cheese sandwiches. We might have to have them today for breakfast. And lunch... And....


5/26/2007 8:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I finally got the dough in for the first proof. It felt like silk. I can't wait to get it finished. I noticed the texture of the outside of your loaf looked a little different from the other breads also. This is going to be interesting. I'm thinking cucumber sandwiches, scones, tea cakes, and a pot of my favorite tea. Of course there will be grilled cheese also, can you beat that? Where can I find the Grafton Village Cheddar here in Knoxville? I know you know Kevin!


5/26/2007 1:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's out of the oven! It smells great, it looks great, oh my, I can't wait to taste it, but I am waiting for it to cool like a good girl. Okay Kevin, come through with where I can get the Grafton Village cheddar cheese.


5/26/2007 4:08 PM  
Blogger Christina said...

Oh heavenly yummy-ness! I had read this recipe in Beard on Bread many times, but had never pulled myself together to make it. After you posted it, I had to give it a whirl.

I can see how this is a great grilled cheese bread, but it is also a fantastic breakfast bread, smeared like a biscuit with butter and jam. It's what I'll be having for breakfast tomorrow, that's for sure! Thanks for nudging the world towards better bread.

5/28/2007 12:02 AM  
Blogger Kevin said...

Sorry to have disappeared on everyone, my Internet connection went down Friday afternoon and I just now (4:30pm Wednesday) got back online.

It's an excellent all-purpose white bread.

Judy, I've seen Grafton cheese at Earth Fare.


5/30/2007 3:31 PM  
Blogger lucette said...

I was just thinking about grilled cheese sandwiches yesterday! Happily, this week is going to be more conducive to baking in an un-airconditioned house here.

6/04/2007 10:09 AM  
Blogger Kevin said...

I've been running the AC in the afternoon (at least some of them) for the past month. This summer shows signs of being a killer.

6/04/2007 10:52 AM  

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