Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Cheap "Luxury"

Saturday before last I did something I hadn't done in a long time: I made bread--"proper" bread, with hand kneading and everything. Back in the years when I was a relatively young married I made yeast bread fairly often, from different recipes, but a couple of things happened that stopped it. First Uncle Pookie found a clearance bread machine for only $20 or $24, which left my "bread machines are too expensive" reason not to have one in the dust, and brought it to me for a gift. I quickly discovered that, while it was true that the bread bread machines make is not as good as the best hand-kneaded bread, it was easily the equal of my hand-kneaded bread and I didn't have to do any work for it. So I made a fair bit of bread machine bread, until the second thing happened, which was my realizing how sugar and flour products were negatively affecting me (unstable blood sugar, excessive appetite, mood swings), and I ate very little bread for a couple of years, let alone made it. Then when I started up again on the bread, I was long out of any kind of habit of making even quick breads (biscuits, cornbread), let alone yeast bread.

But having tried out a beer bread recipe the week before Christmas as a possible dish to carry to a family gathering, I kind of had bread on the mind and getting out one old recipe ended too poorly to get it wholly out of my mind, so faced with a dull, cold evening I pulled out the bread recipe I used more than any other back then: the "Cuban Bread" recipe that ran in the old Tightwad Gazette newsletter. (Now available in the big Tightwad Gazette book.)

If you've never tried it, you really should. It's easy and, as far as I can tell, failsafe. There's only one rising period before you put it in the oven, so it's pretty fast, and my poor kneading skills have never spoiled the quality of the bread yet. Moreover, the other week when I made this, I was working with seriously old yeast; I'd proofed some beforehand, so I knew it was still alive, just really sluggish, so I had to let the dough rise longer than usual, but rise it did. I cut my crosses and sprinkled some oatmeal on top, because I didn't have any of the sesame seeds I used to keep on hand for breadmaking, and put it in the oven. Result: two of the most beautiful boules I've ever seen. Tasty, too. I don't think anybody could mess this recipe up without trying.

We can think of home baked bread as a sort of a cheap luxury. To get storebought bread that's equivalent in taste to homemade, you have to spring for the artisan breads, which cost several times more than the ubiquitous sandwich breads. Even then, they aren't always as good as homemade, you can't have a slice hot from the oven, and they never fill your home with the smell of baking bread. Which is a bonus you can't buy in the store.

A word about the name, Cuban Bread. I always suspected back when I used to make this that it might not necessarily be truly Cuban, because, after all, no self-respecting French person would eat what we call French dressing, right? I wouldn't venture to say it definitely is not, but a quick Google search while I was making it suggested it isn't. It does, however, sound like Puerto Rican bread, in that it's put into a cold oven with a pan of boiling water on the rack underneath it.

That quickie Google search had a side benefit, in that it informed me of the existence of the Cuban sandwich. Two kinds of pig flesh in one sandwich? Add some bacon and UP would be in heaven. Makes me sorry I never visited Miami.

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