Sunday, February 17, 2013

In Praise of Stale Bread

I consider myself quite fortunate to have a local butcher and baker within a short walk from my front door. I suppose a candlestick maker would complete the trifecta. Anyway, as I was saying, it is an especially happy task to buy bread given that it is an excuse to wander my neighborhood, watch the squirrels cavort and say hello to the other locals out doing the same things as me.

Heather, my local baker, uses, as she calls it, an 'old yeast'. This produces a very bready, yeasty flavour. The baguettes from her bakery have a slightly soft and chewy crust; different than your standard crunchy french bread crust. One thing that makes Heather's bread particularly appealing is its application when slightly stale. Unlike grocery store bread which is so packed with sugar that green mold can't resist it, this old-school bread has only water, flour and yeast. This assures that if the environmental conditions are ideal (think dry and cool), the bread will dry rock hard for bread crumbs within a week (I like to bash them up in a pestal and mortar as a stress reliever.) When the bread is only 24 to 30 hours old however, its uses are many. On my usual visit to the bakery, I passed over the still-warm fresh loaves and opted to pick up four large day-old baguettes for the grand total of five bucks. That's five bucks for four of the finest artisan-made bread you can buy. It also represents several recipes and dishes from a very small initial investment.

Having friends around for dinner, I decided to use the first loaf for an appetizer - goat cheese crostini. No recipe is really necessary for these little toasts. Simply slice the baguette very thinly on the bias to form a pile of little 'rounds'. Then get them on a cookie sheet, drizzle them in oil, sprinkle on some Maldon salt and some dried oregano. Then toast them on the cookie sheet in a 375 degree oven for about ten minutes or so. This crisps up the chewy stale bread as the little toasts drink in the oil and become brittle from the salt. Then take some goats cheese and fold in a tiny bit of garlic, lemon zest, a little olive oil, some salt and freshly cracked pepper and top with thinly sliced scallions. It's nothing fancy, but it certainly goes down a treat with that pre-dinner drink. 

The next use for the bread was the building blocks of a fine pudding. This dish is an amalgamation of the UK National Trust historic recipe, with a little influence from Gordon Ramsay's variation along with a bit of my own take. For this I will indeed annotate a recipe because it never ceases to amaze me how so few ingredients can come together into something so tasty. 

Bread and Butter Pudding

250 ml milk
250 ml heavy 35% cream
2 eggs
2 egg yolks (save the whites for another use)
40 g of granulated sugar
20 g of brown sugar
50 g of raisins
30 ml of Canadian whisky
A stick or so of softened butter
1 fresh vanilla bean (or a capful of vanila extract if you don't have the bean)
three-quarters or so of a large day old baguette, sliced into thin rounds

First get your raisins into a bowl and cover with whisky along with a further 60 ml of plain water. Let the raisins soak for at least ten minutes. In the mean time, get your bread rounds and butter them (every slice must be buttered on one side). Now, get an appropriately sized baking dish and grease it with whatever butter is left. Now make your custard: whisk the eggs and egg yolks together with the granulated sugar. Split the vanilla bean and scrape the seeds into the egg mixture (or alternately, add your vanilla extract at this point). Then beat in the eggs and cream until everything is well incorporated. Drain the raisins. Then, make one overlapping layer of the buttered bread on the bottom of an appropriately sized oven-proof vessel. Sprinkle over a few of the raisins and a little bit of the brown sugar. Then make a second layer and toss in more raisins. You may be able to do three layers, if not, two will do. Then pour in the egg mixture. If all goes well, the liquid should come to the top and even slop over the sides a bit. If you're unsure, you can test that you have the appropriate amount of custard by pouring it into the empty vessel first and the liquid should come two-thirds of the way up the sides. You can do the same with the bread by doing a dry run with the bread in the vessel to make sure everything is the right size. Anyway, once the bread is in, the liquid is poured over and then let it stand for at least twenty minutes so the stale bread can soak up the liquid. In the mean time, preheat the oven to 350F. After twenty minutes, squash everything down so that it compresses the bread slightly and then sprinkle the top liberally with brown sugar - this will caramelize in the oven and turn into a sticky crust. Now place the vessel into a second, larger vessel such as a roasting pan and fill the larger vessel up half way with boiling water but don't fill it higher than the bread pudding pan sides (otherwise known as a bain marie, this assures that your custard doesn't split from the heat in the oven). Now cook in the oven for 35 to 40 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool somewhat. I served it with good quality vanilla ice cream, but my original intention (nixed because of lack of time), was to make a whisky caramel sauce - next time. Either way, the whisky flavoured raisins were such pleasure in this warm and sticky pudding - a definite keeper. 

So, I still had some stale bread left, for which the following morning I made French toast, followed by crispy garlic croutons for soup and salad. The rest went into bread crumbs that will coat some future fish cakes or schnitzel.  That's more than half a dozen meals from an ingredient that cost five dollars. Thrift tastes good!

1 comment:

  1. I can attest that this was the best tasting stale bread i've ever had! I might have to try this one, we always seem to have stale bread kicking around