A loaf of crispy crust french bread. That’s all I want. It’s not much to ask. I don’t think so anyway…
I was thinking about this on December 31 — a day when inevitably I conjure up thoughts of a nice crisp baguette, or a slighly crunchy, almost overbaked, croissant.
If there’s one thing I shall miss here in S. Texas it’s easy access to a good loaf of bread (unless I make it myself).
Bread is a funny thing. You can only make what your ingredients allow. And even if you have the ingredients the baker is at least partially hamstrung by his consumers. If people don’t like (hush, hush, my lips — it’s hard to even say the words) CRUSTY bread then there’s no sense in making it.
U.S. consumers have never gotten the hang of crusty bread. Even when bakeries succeed in producting a nice crispy crust the store clerk is invariably going to want to put that lovely loaf into a plastic bag. By the time you get your crispy delight home and out of the bag that to-die-for crust will have softened in the bag. All that hard work lost for loss of a little employee instruction.
What we think of as a loaf of french bread is a accident of fate. There are only four ingredients: water, flour, salt, and yeast or sourdough starter. Of course all the ingredients have to be right: beginning with the flour. It must be High Gluten flour, or as the Brits might say, “Strong Flour.” The gluten is needed to build the body of the loaf and there’s no way to chemicalize what Momma Nature devised in High Gluten wheat.
Of course there is the process. A good loaf of crusty bread needs time to rise, time to develop it’s flavor. Time is not a friend of factory bakeries. Machines need to be kept moving and you don’t achieve volume production if you are willing to give the dough a few extra minutes before popping it in the oven.
Of course there is also that magic influence of steam. A good loaf of crusty bread needs an injection of water or steam into the oven to insure that crust and the bread you bake in your home oven is going to have a hard time replicating that injection of steam. Some of us literally throw a cup of water into the hot oven, others try a tray of ice cubes, there are all sorts of suggestions that have been made — none of which I’ve ever found really adequate in a home oven but try, try, try again….
There’s a Panera Bread store about 50 miles away. They make a passable french loaf. Time was I would have driven there a couple times a week to feed my addiction. I guess I’m getting lazy.
I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of stores selling italian bread. It’s not the same product. Softer crust, pulpier texture, too even grain. Italian bread is made from a different kind of flour. It won’t make a loaf of french bread even if you tried.
There are a lot of Mexican bakeries around here. They make a lovely product. But it’s not what I’m looking for. And a guy has a right to whine about something or another. I am positive about so much in life — I have a free pass to complain about something as ‘little’ as the lack of a good crispy loaf.
A Mexican panadería in Milwaukee puts out a loaf that could be twin to a loaf from any of the panadería here in S. Texas. People are proud of their traditions and the reason traditions remain is that having grown up with a product they think nothing of perpetuating it as long as they are alive. That is what a loaf of bread is supposed to be. That is what the wheat they have access to will produce. Why fight with nature?
Don’t get me wrong. I may be a food snob, but I acknowledge that and most of the time I’m happy to eat what I can find in the vicinity. I don’t normally import foodstuffs. (even though I did bring bean coffee this year not knowing that the H-E-B stores not carry it; and I brought a few cans of corned beef hash just in case) But being willing to eat local doesn’t mean that I will ever forget the luxury of a simple hunk of baguette slathered with sinfully luscious french butter (don’t even get me started on the differences there!) and a little home made jam. There are some things that simply cannot be improved upon.
In the meantime I continue experimenting with home made bread. About the time we went mobile 5 years ago our old bread machine died. I spent what I thought was a bundle (at the time) for a Zojirushi bread machine hoping that it would last longer than the el cheapo machine that we’d had. I did not expect the results with the new machine to be anywhere near as good as they have been. Oh, sure, I’ve tinkered with the recipe a bit. I do use bread flour / strong flour / high gluten flour. But I also add some whole wheat flour and I also add some cornmeal. I replaced the butter ingredient with corn oil – which helps give me a crustier loaf with the ability to inject steam. Also, because the machine uses a set time and doesn’t understand letting the dough rise a little longer naturally — the recipe calls for a little sugar to help the yeast do it’s job in the allotted time. I switch out the sugar for an equal amount of liquid malt which not only adds a little flavor but also colors the loaf. I only wish the machine made a larger loaf — this barely one pound loaf means we could almost end up making a loaf a day (when I’m not watching my weight).
Yeah — there’s a lot to love about the area we are settling into. But there are drawbacks as well. I have to be honest and tell you about those as well as the good things. Then again… a lot of people won’t care about the fact that it’s hard to find a good loaf of french bread in predominantly hispanic S. Texas. So, who cares. 🙂
Have a great day. This new year is going to turn out to be fascinating. Thanks for stopping and I’ll be here again tomorrow. Why not stop by and say Hi!