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March 2012

White Bread and a Guest Post


As I mentioned on Monday, I’m not much of a baker. Cakes, breads, and other starchy delights interest me mightily, but my interest, until recently, has stopped at eating them. I never learned how to make anything in an oven that didn’t at some point in its life move on its own.

But that is changing. After eating Santa Maria’s homemade birthday cake, how could it not? And recently, I was sent a copy of a fascinating new book, “White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf,” by Aaron Bobrow-Strain, a dad and an associate professor of politics at Whitman College in Washington.

In the introduction to the book, Bobrow-Strain tells of being twenty-five, in the mid nineties, and offering to bake twenty loaves of bread for a friend’s wedding, though he had nothing but “one cheap oven and no electric mixer.”

“The bride and groom were devout Christians and bread radiated spiritual connection for them. For me, it evoked community and sharing. The word “companion” itself came into English from the Latin from com and pan—“with bread.” To share bread, I thought, was to tap some ancient chord of togetherness.”

I loved learning the etymology of companion, and someday I’ll learn how to bake bread, too. A good place to start, I would think, would be with my friend Elisha Cooper’s “Bread for Simpletons” recipe, which he shared with me a few years ago. Cooper’s recipe is below, following a few thoughts on baking bread with kids from Bobrow-Strain, who clearly knows what he is doing. He wrote a book on the stuff, after all. 

I recently came across a 1974 New York Times column by the great Craig Claiborne (definitely not a dad).  In it, he offers readers the following instructions for generating steam in their home ovens (steam during the initial phase of bread baking puts the crisp crust on European artisan loaves):

Take two iron ingots, about 6-10 pounds in total, and heat them on a stove burner until “fiery hot.”  Then, “using extreme caution and wearing padded asbestos gloves” transfer the glowing ingots to a baking pan at the bottom of your oven.  Next, place your loaves in the oven and pour boiling water over the ingots.  This will immediately produce billows of scalding steam so “shut the oven as hurriedly as possible.” 

I was hooked after “fiery hot” and “asbestos gloves”—what a great project to try with kids!

“Or maybe not,” my wife commented from the other room, reading my mind. 

I’m a slightly obsessive amateur baker and author of a new book on the history of fluffy white bread (America’s ultimate icon of industrial eating), but I have to confess something here.  My kids don’t really like to bake bread—they like to eat bread.  And they like to putter around the edges while I bake.  But they don’t yet have the patience to see a loaf of European artisanal bread through its 8-15 hours of waiting.  Or even through its short bursts of mixing, shaping, and baking.

Instead of fighting this, I weave my kids into the baking process with quick, fun activities.  Since I’m a food historian, they usually derive from an oddity of the past.

Here are two favorites:

Instant Bread

In 1939, scientists at the Wallace and Tiernan Laboratories in Newark hooked a ball of dough to two electrodes, cooking it perfectly evenly with no crust formation.  This demonstrated something that most bakers already knew: bread’s rich, nutty flavor comes primarily from browning reactions in the crust.  No crust, no flavor.

When I asked another dad, who is an experimental physicist when not brewing beer, how to reproduce this experiment, he offered an easy option: microwave the dough.

It was an immediate hit, and a great source of instant gratification at precisely the stage in baking when my kids start to lose interest in the slow, slow sugar magic of yeasty fermentation.

Here’s how it works:  have your kids shape a small lump of rising dough into a ball (about the size of a golf ball).  Then microwave it on low for about a minute, or until the dough has doubled in size (and just before it bursts into flames).  The result—as predicted by science—is a doughy, flavorless gumball.  But my kids love it more than anything.  Hands down it’s their favorite thing to do on baking day.

Finish with a Pizza

European artisan breads need to cool for at least an hour, if not more, after baking.  Tearing into a loaf too soon interrupts key chemical processes of flavor and texture development—but try telling that to your kids. 

Instead, I distract them with an old Italian bakery tradition: set aside a hunk of raw dough (it can sit on the counter or in a bowl under a damp towel while you proof and bake your loaves).  Then, as soon as you take your bread out to cool, take advantage of the hot oven and baking stone by making a pizza out of your leftover dough. 

There’s a lot of talk these days about how to make “the perfect” pizza crust.  All kinds of complicated formulas and mystical thinking circulate on this topic.  But, really, any well-fermented Italian or French bread dough will make a delicious pie. 

Let your kids stretch out the crust. It will get dropped on the floor and torn full of holes, but they’ll love it (and it’ll distract them from the cooling loaves).  Top the crust with whatever you have around.  A simple pizza bianca (topped with olive oil, salt, and rosemary) is easy.

And here is Cooper’s recipe for bread for simpletons. Cooper’s baking technique might be modest but he’s quite accomplished outside the kitchen. He’s a talented artist and the author of a number of lovely children’s books, the latest of which, “Homer,” is due out shortly. 

Bread For Simpletons  
  • 3.5 cups flour,
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1.5  teaspoon yeast
  • 1.5 cups hot water
  • cornmeal
Mix the flour, salt, yeast, and water in a bowl in the morning. 
Let it sit all day with saran wrap across top of bowl (think about other things, go on about your business).   

When ready to bake the bread:
Heat oven to 425 degrees.
Throw the dough in whatever shape on cornmeal-sprinkled pan and wait fifteen minutes.
After the quarter-hour passes, fold the dough over on itself.  
Place in oven and bake for 22  minutes (or however long), until it browns and it sounds hollow when you whack its belly.

Almost Vegetarian Dhal Recipe--Cake Recipe Another Day

I think I have been doing something wrong all my life--I have failed to learn how to bake. We just celebrated Nina's birthday, and Santa Maria made from scratch the cake pictured above. It was the lightest, freshest, most delicious confection I have ever had. After one bite, I was convinced that I needed to learn how to make things like this myself.

I never learned to bake, in part, because I never really had much of a sweet tooth. Growing up, my mother was too busy raising five kids and tending to a husband who couldn't do much more in the kitchen than make coffee. So desserts when I was a kid ran more along the lines of ginger snaps from the bag or rice pudding (my mother always had a practical mind, even when it came to desserts).

Santa Maria, on the other hand, is one of two kids, and her mother specialized in baking pies and making cakes and cookies. Whenever we go to visit her, it's like going to a bakery. So Santa Maria knows how to make cakes that stop clocks.

Even before the cake was served, the party was a great success, but do you know how much energy is burned entertaining fourteen kids on your home turf? Enough to power a small city for about three weeks, and my energy is gone. I promise to get that recipe for the cake to you shortly, and in the meantime I'll leave you with something more practical than a cake recipe (I am my mother's son, after all).

We served pizza to the kids, but I wanted something more substantial for the adults. I made my Tuscan white-bean soup, and a big pot of my dhal. The central thing to making the dhal is its chicken-stock base. When I looked in the freezer yesterday for chicken stock, though, I couldn't find any. Worse, I couldn't find any chicken carcasses to make some stock anew. I've been eating one or two chickens a week this winter, but I have neglected to save any bones. Here's a reminder: save your bones for stock.

I wasn't worried, though, because stock or no stock, I've learned a great trick for giving any dish a rich base--sneak an anchovy or two into it and you'll add more flav0r (and no fishiness) than you can imagine. It might not be a cake recipe, but it will still please your palate. Trust me, you can do it. 

And I promise to write up that cake recipe shortly. The world should have more cakes in it like the one Santa Maria made today.


Pesco Vegetarian Red Lentil Dhal
  • Olive oil
  • 1 onion quartered lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise 
  • 2 bay leaves 
  • One 2 inch or so cinnamon stick 
  • 2 teaspoons (or more) of minced fresh ginger 
  • 3 cloves of garlic 
  • 1 dash of cayenne pepper 
  • 1 or 2 anchovies
  • 2 cups small red lentils, about a pound, rinsed
  • 1 lemon, halved and juiced (seeds removed) 
  • 6 or more cups of boiling water 
  • 1 teaspoon salt 
Heat the oil in a heavy sauce pan
Add the onion, bay leaves, and cinnamon stick
Saute until the onions are translucent
Add the garlic, ginger, anchovies, and the cayenne
Continue cooking another few minutes
Add the lentils and stir to coat them with oil
Add the chicken stock and the water
Add the lemon juice and the squeezed halves of the fruit
Add the salt
Bring to a boil
Reduce to a simmer
Cook for about a half hour, until the onions mostly break up and the lentils more or less dissolve. If it looks like it needs more water, add some. Remove the lemons, cinnamon stick, and bay leaves after about half an hour.
This freezes remarkably well. It is best served with rice. To make it more fancy, caramelize some onions to go on top, along with some plain yogurt, and some chopped cilantro


Fagioli all’Uccelletto Recipe


I’ve been feeling very fortunate lately because, for the first time in, say, seven years, I’m not exhausted beyond belief. I’m still tired, of course, but I now possess the tiredness of the single, the childless, and the naïve. I’m tired in a way that felt so profound before I had kids, but that I now recognize as a great luxury.

My kids are getting a bit older, and they sleep—mostly—through the night. I’m also a bit more disciplined about when I go to bed, and I rarely see the other side of midnight anymore. I think it’s an age thing. An old friend of Santa Maria’s who is a poet and a woman of the world (she’s the kind of person, the kind of woman, to go on a poetry fellowship to Yemen, so you know she’s not afraid of anything) recently told her that she made one New Year’s resolution this year—to go to bed earlier. If she can do, it, so can I.

I’ve been enjoying the benefits of being better rested, and one of the biggest benefits is that I’ve been able to start having people over for dinner again. The kids go to sleep, and we start the party at the urbanely sane hour of 8:30 p.m. Just the other night I had such a successful dinner—serving my roast pork with apple and sage; broccoli rabe; and polenta—that the guests stayed until 1:30 a.m. Now that was a good party.

One of the guests was vegetarian, so I also made an old favorite of mine, Fagioli all’Uccelletto, a Tuscan standard that is both hearty and sophisticated. It’s a classic Italian dish, and everyone loved it. A close friend gave me the recipe a long time ago, back in the days when being tired meant something completely different. When I tasted it that night, I was taken back to those more innocent days, and I felt good about how far I have come.

Fagioli all’Uccelletto


  • Olive Oil
  • 1 pound dry white beans, either small cannellini, or big giganti, depending on your preferences
  • 3 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
  • One 28 ounce can of peeled plum tomatoes, chopped (or pureed with a hand blender)
  • One bunch of fresh sage leaves (at least 3 tablespoons). Chop about half, and leave the rest of the leaves whole

Rinse and soak the beans for at least ten hours.

Drain and rinse them.

Put the beans into a stock pot with about two inches of water to cover.

Bring to a boil, cover and reduce to a simmer, and cook until almost tender, about 45 minutes to an hour and a half or more, depending on the beans.

Drain the beans, reserving some of the cooking liquid, and set aside.

In a heavy bottomed pan, add the oil, garlic, and sage, and sauté until the garlic is tender.

Add the tomatoes, cover, and simmer for about another half hour or until the beans are as tender as you desire. Note, depending on the beans this can take a while. Remove cover and increase heat to reduce at end and get the desired thickness. Add a bit of the cooking liquid from the beans if it gets too dry.

When ready to eat it, heat some more oil in a frying pan and fry the remaining sage, and serve the beans in bowls with the rest of the sage, freshly fried, on top.

Note: This freezes very well.