A NEW COOKBOOK got me thinking in a whole new way about bread, which actually involved my thinking about bread in a whole old way: more like my grandmother did, when not a crumb was wasted, and bread crumbs didn’t come prefab in cardboard canisters.
The book, appropriately called “Bread Toast Crumbs,” by Alexandra Stafford, got me thinking about not just bread for, say, a sandwich, but about bread as an ingredient in the simple, delicious recipes I can concoct with my upcoming garden produce. Examples: a thick, roasted tomato and bread soup, or orecchietti pasta with brown butter, Brussels sprouts leaves and homemade bread crumbs, or a salad that becomes a meal when it’s a version of panzanella–reviving even stale bread in the best, delicious Tuscan fashion.
Alexandra Stafford is the creator of the popular food website Alexandra’s Kitchen at alexandracooks dot com. Though “Bread Toast Crumbs: Recipes for No-Knead Loaves and Meals to Savor Every Slice” is Ali’s debut cookbook, it has earned raves from some of the baking world’s bestselling authors, including Dorie Greenspan and David Lebovitz.
I am also glad to say Ali will be doing an event near me, at HGS Home Chef in Hillsdale, New York on April 8 so those of us lucky enough to be nearby can see “Bread Toast Crumbs” in action, and meet (and taste) the no-knead, so-simple peasant loaf that is the basis of her bread adventure. (For event information, click here.)
Read along as you listen to the March 20, 2017 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below (or at this link). And enter to win the book in the giveaway at the very bottom of the page.
no-knead bread (and using every crumb), with alexandra stafford
Q. Congratulations on the new book. It takes longer than a loaf of bread to bake a book. [Laughter.]
A. It does. But this is the fun part: getting ready to release it into the world.
Q. Looking at the book, it took me back, and made me think of bread in a much homier way. I hate that bread has gotten beaten up lately–between worries about diet in general, and gluten concerns, and so on. Not to minimize those things, but I feel like maybe we’ve overcorrected. In your family, bread has quite the powerful provenance. Tell us.
A. I can’t imagine growing up without bread rising on the counter all the time, and eating it at every meal. I didn’t really think it was anything special growing up, because it was what was always around, because my mother was always baking bread—and not just this peasant bread, though that was often around. It was breads from the “Bakery Lane Soup Bowl” cookbook, that we would toast and slice for breakfast. Bread at dinner; bread for sandwiches at lunch.
And I am now doing the same: Every single morning I slice the peasant bread, then toast it and put butter and cinnamon and sugar on it for my children, and I make them sandwiches for lunch with the bread—and often at dinner we are having bread alongside whatever we are eating.
Q. So bread is good. [Laughter.] Especially homemade bread, and you just mentioned that peasant bread, which is kind of the centerpiece or the starting point of this book. It’s a recipe that your mother handed down to you, is that right?
A. It is; she has been baking for over 40 years now probably. It was something she had adapted from an old French bread recipe that was much fussier. She found a way to fit it into a busy lifestyle without having to knead it, and to bake it in these buttered bowls, and not have to dirty and flour a countertop, and just keep the rises short and simple. It has just worked, and persisted.
Q. I have been treated to one of these loaves, and what strikes me about it—and you just said a few of the other things—is that they’re not giant. A lot of times today loaves are so big, and a slice of bread is this giant thing, enough for two sandwiches. But this is not a giant bread—you said it’s baked in bowls, so tell us more about this basic peasant loaf that’s the foundation of the book.
A. It’s a no-knead dough: It’s flour, salt, sugar, water, yeast. It can be mixed in less than five minutes. The first rise is about an hour and a half; you punch it down with forks, and separate it. For the ideal size, we’ve kind of played with the vessel over the years. When my mother was baking it when we were younger, she used a different Pyrex bowl, and it was a little bit wider and squatter, and the loaves would come out just a little bit shorter.
Over the years we have found that this one-quart Pyrex bowl is the perfect size for just a nice dinner boule or for nice slices for breakfast toast or sandwiches. The one-quart Pyrex bowl was part of the appeal, because often people have it; it’s the smallest bowl in the nesting set.
Q. Right, in the nesting set.
A. So even if you are on vacation in some sort of rental kitchen, you can always find one of these bowls. And you can bake it, of course, in a larger bowl—it just somehow rises nicely in this one-quart bowl; it peeks above the rim nicely. It just comes out to be this perfect shape.
Q. Before I met you and you brought these loaves and the bowls, I never even thought of Pyrex, which is one of my favorite things, speaking of grandmotherly things. I think I may still have some of hers, oddly enough, since it lasts forever (unless you break it).
You think, oh, I have to have a bread pan, and it has to be just right so the bread doesn’t burn on the bottom. But the bowl: wow, that’s better.
A. There is something about it, and I don’t even know what it is. Part of the trick is greasing the bowls very well with butter, and that creates this especially delicious and golden crust. But it won’t be an artisan, crackling crust that people try to create when they preheat a Dutch oven or do tricks to turn their ovens into steam pans, or spraying it. There is none of that here. But it still is crusty and delicious.
Q. I can attest to the fact that it is delicious. And it can be adapted. As the book’s title says, it’s bread toast crumbs: from making the bread, through using the bread in the more obvious ways, to even making bread crumbs and using them in different recipes—and we will get to that.
Besides the fact that each loaf of bread has all these potential evolutions, the basic peasant loaf that you are talking about that’s so dead simple, can also be adapted. In the beginning of the book you talk about changing out a little of the flour, or adding some seeds—doing things to it. Give us some examples of what this loaf can become.
A. The funny thing about that, is that before I posted my mother’s recipe on my blog, I had never strayed from the recipe or formula. I followed it to a T.
Q. Good girl; good girl. [Laughter.]
A. Once I posted it, people would write in and they would say, “Can I substitute this kind of flour?” or “How would you suggest adding cheese, and seeds?” And some people would actually write in and say, “I added a cup of Monterey Jack cheese and put in some chili flakes, and it was delicious.”
So it was the people reading it and commenting that inspired me to make variations. [Below, Ali’s variation called Oatmeal-Maple Bread.]