Friday, March 4, 2011

Fantastic French Toast Starts with Homemade Buttermilk Bread . . .

Some things in life are debatable and always will be--politics, religion, how the Detroit Tigers will do in the upcoming season (anyone's guess, yet our affection for them never wanes), but one thing is certain: If you want really good French toast, you have to start with fantastic bread.

There's a lot to be said for a day-old loaf of this homemade buttermilk bread. Though it doesn't retain the just-baked enchantment that it had yesterday, its magic has evolved and matured. It's a little denser, moister, and ever so slightly sweeter than a garden-variety, home-baked white bread. I used a couple slices of it this morning to make a nice, thick PB and J sandwich for my younger son's brown-bag lunch. I'm tellin' ya, a peanut-butter and blackberry jam sandwich gives off an entirely different aura when it's made with this stuff.

And, I couldn't resist trying it out as French toast. Nothing fancy, just the classic egg and milk concoction with a tiny sprinkle of vanilla extract in there for good measure. Heat the griddle with a little butter or oil, soak the bread in the mix, and fry it up. Toss a few fresh berries on there, drizzle some maple syrup, and you've got yourself a pretty spectacular breakfast.

Remarkably simple to assemble, and fairly quick to rise, this is the kind of yeast bread to bake when you don't want to venture too far from shore, yet you crave something a little more interesting than the norm. It's a relatively forgiving recipe that you can throw together entirely by hand if you're in the mood--that's what I did yesterday. I mixed it in a big bowl using a fork, and did all the kneading by hand instead of relying on my KitchenAid's trusty dough hook. (That dough hook and I have a pretty close relationship, as you may know, but I like to give it the day off every now and again.)

This formula hails from the James Beard Award-winning book, Secrets of a Jewish Baker: Recipes for 125 Breads from Around the World, by veteran professional baker George Greenstein. The buttermilk in this recipe lends a pleasing note, along with the use of honey instead of sugar.

I adapted it by using twice as much buttermilk as called for along with a couple tablespoons of regular milk, versus using buttermilk and water. Yeah, yeah, I know, but let me explain. I did this, in part, because my flour was extremely dry and it just kept absorbing the liquid as if it were parched, and also because I wanted the essence of premium-dairy buttermilk I was using to really come through. I knew doing this was a little risky, but I was curious to see what would result. I also used instant yeast instead of active dry. And, of course, I totally reworded/revamped the directions.

I will definitely be making this bread again, and soon. Maybe you should, too!

Buttermilk Sandwich Bread (For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

1 Tbsp. instant yeast (Or, 1 and 1/2 Tbsp. active dry yeast that's been proofed in 1/2 cup lukewarm water; adjust liquid in the recipe accordingly to compensate.)
2 cups high-quality buttermilk
1 Tbsp. and 1 tsp. honey (I used clover honey.)
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
5 to 6 cups unbleached All-Purpose flour (Start out with 5 cups, add more as needed.)
2 tsp. salt (I used coarse kosher salt.)

1/4 cup melted butter, to brush on the top of the unbaked, and just-baked, loaves.

In a large heavy bowl, mix together about 5 and 1/4 cups of  the flour, instant yeast, and salt with a whisk. Pour into that almost all of the buttermilk, all of the honey, and all of softened butter. Using a large fork, mix the dough into a workable mass, using your hands as needed to help pull it all together. If the dough seems to require more flour, add it in gradually. Likewise, if the dough is too dry to hold together, sprinkle in the rest of the butter and, if needed, a couple tablespoons of plain milk, until the desired consistency is achieved. You need the dough to be able to hold together, though it's okay if it looks somewhat shaggy.

Dump the mass of dough out onto a floured work surface and knead by hand for 8 to 10 minutes.

Stop kneading when the dough feels nicely spongy and looks smooth.

Place the dough into a large clean bowl that's been greased or sprayed with vegetable spray. Turn the dough over in the bowl so it's lightly coated. Cover the bowl with a piece of greased/sprayed plastic wrap, and cover that with a dish towel. Place the bowl in a relatively warm, draft-free spot to rise. It may take about an hour to double in size.

Grease two standard size loaf pans. 

When it's doubled, dump it out onto a very lightly floured work surface, and divide the dough equally in two with a bench scraper or a sharp knife. Working with one piece at a time, press on the dough with your palms to de-gas it (to let out the carbon dioxide). Then, gather it up into a ball and, using both hands, turn the dough while pulling gently downward on all sides to create a surface tension on the top. Cover the ball of dough with the greased plastic and let it rest for 15 minutes.

Go through the same process with the second ball of dough.

When both have rested, shape them into loaves, being careful to seal the bottom seams very securely by pinching them tightly closed. Place them in the loaf pans and cover them lightly with greased plastic wrap and the dish towel. Again, let them rise in a warm spot, undisturbed. It may take them another hour, or less, to double in size.

Preheat the oven to 375 while the dough is rising.

When the loaves are ready to bake, poke a tiny hole in the top of each in three spots with a toothpick (Greenstein recommends doing this; I've never seen another source that suggests this particular trick, but I went with it and the loaves didn't burst in the oven so I figure it did what it was supposed to do!).

Brush each loaf-top with melted butter. Use a squirt bottle to mist water into the oven before you put the bread in; give it a few good squirts quickly with the door slightly open. Place the pans in the oven and squirt the mist in again, a few times. Quickly and gently shut the door. Don't open it again for at least 15 minutes. The bread may take half an hour or more to bake. The best way to be sure it's done inside is to insert a stem thermometer into the bottom or side of the loaves;  you'll want the internal temperature to be around 200 to 210 degrees.

Brush the top of the baked loaves with more of the melted butter, and let the bread cool on a rack. Enjoy!

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