Monday, October 6, 2014

What do I do with this big loaf of bread?!

Today's the first day of the bread share. Among other logistical concerns, a lot of folks have expressed concerns that maybe a nearly-two-pound loaf of bread is too much to handle.  We're here to help. :)

Today's Country Loaves
 I certainly suffered similar anxieties when I started baking. You'll find a lot of conflicting information out there about how best to preserve a loaf of bread. Recipients of our bread are ahead of the curve without even trying; our breads are naturally leavened. A natural levain (sourdough) isn't just yeast, it's beneficial bacteria that live in a symbiotic relationship with the yeasts, which, incidentally, aren't even the same strain of yeast that you get in commercial yeast (instant, active dry, etc.).

Among other things, the bacteria produce lactic and ascetic acid. These acids act as a natural preservative, extending the life of your loaf. In fact, if you don't cut into it, you can just leave it on the counter in the paper bag it's delivered in for two or three days. The crust won't be the same as on day one, but the crumb will fare well. In fact, some picky bakers actually argue that these sourdough loaves aren't really good until they've had a couple of days to mature. Lionel Poilane, whose miche was (and is) considered by many to be the ultimate expression of the boulager's art, believed that his larger boules weren't at their prime until they were three days old.

Saving Your Loaf as Slices
I wouldn't recommend waiting three days to eat your bread. Instead, after years of trying different approaches, I've settled on this... The day the loaf is baked, I'll usually cut a quarter of the loaf and enjoy it that day. No need to heat it or toast it. In fact, I often don't even put anything on it. It's great just plain. If I know that on the second day a lot of the loaf will be eaten, I just stand it on the cut side on the cutting board. That protects the exposed crumb from drying out. The crust will get a bit more toothy, but it will be fine for a second day. On the second day (or the first, if I know only a couple of slices a day will be eaten) I slice the entire loaf into 1/2 to 3/4 inch slices, re-assemble the loaf, slide it into a gallon ziploc bag, and toss the whole thing in the freezer.

The first time you go for a slice to make toast, a sandwich, etc., just take the loaf from the freezer and smack it on the counter. This will separate the slices. You'll find that these slices will be as fresh as the day they were baked! Try taking a couple of slices from the freezer and putting them in the toaster just long enough to mostly thaw them. Butter one side of each slice, put some thick slices of quality sharp cheddar between the two slices, and toast them in a hot frying pan (butter side out, of course) for the best grilled cheese you ever had.

Freezing a Whole Loaf
Don't freeze the whole loaf or big chunks of the loaf unless you plan to consume them all at once at the time you thaw them. That said, if you have an occasion some days after you receive your loaf and would like to save it for that occasion, simply freeze the whole loaf in a ziploc bag.  The day of your occasion, take the loaf from the freezer 8 hours before you need it, then give it 15 minutes or so in a 400 degree oven if you'd like to crisp the crust back up before serving. Always give the loaf 15 minutes or so after heating it like this before cutting or serving it.

Cutting the Loaf
You don't actually need to cut the loaf.  You can just tear hunks of it off and eat them, or dip them in a plate of olive oil and black pepper, garlic, or olive oil with a puddle of balsamic vinegar in the middle. Fantastic. Most of the time, though, you're going to want slices. Slicing a big loaf into 1/2 inch slices takes practice. Don't handicap yourself with a bad, old, or dull bread knife. Because bread knives are serrated, they'll still cut for years after they're past their prime. I thought I had a pretty good bread knife, until one day I picked up a cheap offset bread knife made by Victorinox that had pretty good reviews on Amazon. Here's a link. If you have any question about the quality of your bread knife,  get one of these. $25 well-spent.

I hesitate to mention it, but we picked up a Berkel MB bread slicer from a local bakery that was getting out of bread baking to focus on pastries. I like old machines, and couldn't resist. You'll recognize this guy from your neighborhood bakery:
The Berkel MB Bread Slicer
Like most professional baking equipment, these things are obscenely expensive new; in the neighborhood of $5,000. Also like much professional baking equipment, these things can be had for a fraction (in my case, less than 1/10) of the original price. The one we picked up is in considerably worse shape than that one pictured above. Mostly it's just accumulated crumbs and dust. At the same time, it appears to be whole, and it appears to be operational. Frankly, I don't like to even think about what it would take to break this machine. It's incredibly overbuilt. I took a terrifying video of the machine in motion with one of the panels removed. It's on the bed of our truck because it was too heavy for me to get it out of the truck myself. Ha!

At the moment, the machine is completely disassembled while I clean every part until it shines. I'm still torn or whether or not to refinish the paint on the frame and the cover, but I think I'll leave it as-is. I once did this same thing with a 1946 John Deere Model A tractor, and the fresh paint was fantastic, so it's going to be hard to resist. We not only have no idea if this machine can accommodate the shape of loaf we're baking; we don't know if the loaves will get shredded to pieces in the machine! These things are really designed to slice sandwich loaves. It will be adventure. More later.

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