Seasons by the Sea: The Ultimate Comfort Food

Baking and eating bread
Toasted homemade bread with raspberry jam is one of life’s most fundamental pleasures. Laura Donnelly

The other day I woke up bright and early as is my wont. I prepared a pot of coffee, fed the dog, and had the television news on in the background. There was a breaking news announcement: A man had been arrested at his home in Fort Lauderdale. “Oh, what delicious news,” I thought to myself. “This calls for some freshly baked bread, sliced and toasted, spread with Kerrygold butter. And perhaps some fig jam.” Seriously, this is how my mind works. Good news? That calls for comfort food. Bad news?  THAT calls for comfort food.

Good bread, with good butter, is truly one of life’s most basic, fundamental, and simplest of pleasures. It’s a pity that a lot of people nowadays shun it, or believe they are allergic to gluten. Homemade bread is especially great because it is inexpensive to make and fun to do with children. It does require some time, elbow grease, and a little bit of experience, though.

I used to be a pastry chef, but bread was not part of my repertoire. I was tasked with feeding and keeping alive a sourdough mother, but the baking of the bread was done later in the day by the head chef. I made the occasional batch of Parker House rolls doused in Old Bay seasoning butter, and that’s about it. At home I can bake a simple white loaf. I never owned a bread machine when that was a fad and I never thought anyone’s bread that came out of that machine was very good.

All you need to bake bread is flour (bread flour is preferable but all purpose will do), yeast, water, and salt. A bit of sugar is optional. If you have a standing mixer with a bread hook, your bread making will be a hundred times easier. If you have a gas oven, you will also have the perfect location for dough to rise. You can speed up this process and slow it down, depending on your schedule and needs. The first rising usually takes one to two hours, the second rising about 45 minutes to an hour. To slow the rising, just put the dough in the refrigerator. When we were little and had just moved to Virginia from California, our best friends and neighbors and carpool mates were the Yarmolinskys. Their mom, Harriet, would drive around with a bowl of bread dough on the seat next to her so she could punch it down when the time came. What a cool hippie-dippy mom!

The only kind of bread I make with any frequency besides plain white yeast bread is soda bread. This is super easy. It is pretty much foolproof, and you’re still making homemade bread! As far as toppings go, I have a ridiculously varied selection of jams, jellies, and preserves. My favorite is black raspberry, which isn’t easy to find. After that, strawberry, raspberry, apricot, blueberry, marionberry, peach, beach plum, orange marmalade, and fig jam are my go-tos. I also love any kind of honey and the occasional nostalgic cinnamon sugar topping. 

I am also a butter snob. For general baking I’ll use any stick butter like Breakstone, but for spreading on good bread (or vegetables or rice), I insist on Kerrygold, Plugra, President, Echire, Beurre D’Isigny, or any of those other fancy foreign butters. They are worth the extra expense. Whether you choose sweet or salted butter is a personal preference. I like salted. It also stays fresh longer because the salt acts as a preservative. There is nothing worse than old, rancid-tasting butter.

If you want to get serious about bread baking, a good book to start with would be “Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast” by Ken Forkish. I also really like James Beard’s “Beard on Bread,” written in 1973. I inherited a copy from my parents’ dear friends Kay and Berton Roueche. It is full of stains and scribbles and stars and underlinings. Mr. Beard’s writing style is cozy and conversational and you find out very quickly that there is nothing he loves more than white bread and butter tea sandwiches, with perhaps a big thick slice of raw onion in them!

One thing you will notice about homemade bread is how long it lasts. I keep mine out on the counter, loosely wrapped, for several days. If I’m not using it, I will wrap it up tightly in plastic, then foil, then label it and freeze it until needed. Do not freeze bread for a long time; it is too delicate.

We are lucky out here to have amazing local breads like Carissa’s. I also like Blue Duck for simple loaves, Eli’s for raisin walnut, and Marie Eiffel on Shelter Island for a pretty good French-style baguette. But why not try your hand at baking your own? Start with a basic recipe such as the following one from the King Arthur Flour company or make a soda bread so you’ll be a pro by St. Patrick’s Day in March. 

I’d like to end this column with a poem by my late friend E.J. Mudd. It says it all.

Bread

                                                                                                              

Mix flour, water, yeast and salt.

If the phone rings, don’t answer.

Your fingers are a sticky mess.

 

Let dough rise in a nice, warm place.

If the phone rings, don’t answer.

You’re creating.

 

Knead till satiny. Divide into loaves.

If the phone rings, don’t answer.

You’re sculpting.

 

Bake in hot oven till crisp and brown.

If the phone rings, don’t answer.

You’re in aromatherapy.

 

Take out and eat a piece at once.

If the phone rings, don’t answer.

You’re in heaven.

 

Panis AngelicusToasted homemade bread with raspberry jam is one of life’s most fundamental pleasures.    Laura Donnelly
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