Some things in life are debatable and always will be--politics, religion, how the Detroit Tigers will do in the upcoming season (anyone's guess, yet our affection for them never wanes), but one thing is certain: If you want really good French toast, you have to start with fantastic bread.
There's a lot to be said for a day-old loaf of this homemade buttermilk bread. Though it doesn't retain the just-baked enchantment that it had yesterday, its magic has evolved and matured. It's a little denser, moister, and ever so slightly sweeter than a garden-variety, home-baked white bread. I used a couple slices of it this morning to make a nice, thick PB and J sandwich for my younger son's brown-bag lunch. I'm tellin' ya, a peanut-butter and blackberry jam sandwich gives off an entirely different aura when it's made with this stuff.
And, I couldn't resist trying it out as French toast. Nothing fancy, just the classic egg and milk concoction with a tiny sprinkle of vanilla extract in there for good measure. Heat the griddle with a little butter or oil, soak the bread in the mix, and fry it up. Toss a few fresh berries on there, drizzle some maple syrup, and you've got yourself a pretty spectacular breakfast.
Remarkably simple to assemble, and fairly quick to rise, this is the kind of yeast bread to bake when you don't want to venture too far from shore, yet you crave something a little more interesting than the norm. It's a relatively forgiving recipe that you can throw together entirely by hand if you're in the mood--that's what I did yesterday. I mixed it in a big bowl using a fork, and did all the kneading by hand instead of relying on my KitchenAid's trusty dough hook. (That dough hook and I have a pretty close relationship, as you may know, but I like to give it the day off every now and again.)
I adapted it by using twice as much buttermilk as called for along with a couple tablespoons of regular milk, versus using buttermilk and water. Yeah, yeah, I know, but let me explain. I did this, in part, because my flour was extremely dry and it just kept absorbing the liquid as if it were parched, and also because I wanted the essence of premium-dairy buttermilk I was using to really come through. I knew doing this was a little risky, but I was curious to see what would result. I also used instant yeast instead of active dry. And, of course, I totally reworded/revamped the directions.
I will definitely be making this bread again, and soon. Maybe you should, too!
1 Tbsp. instant yeast (Or, 1 and 1/2 Tbsp. active dry yeast that's been proofed in 1/2 cup lukewarm water; adjust liquid in the recipe accordingly to compensate.)
2 cups high-quality buttermilk
1 Tbsp. and 1 tsp. honey (I used clover honey.)
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
5 to 6 cups unbleached All-Purpose flour (Start out with 5 cups, add more as needed.) 2 tsp. salt (I used coarse kosher salt.)
1/4 cup melted butter, to brush on the top of the unbaked, and just-baked, loaves.
In a large heavy bowl, mix together about 5 and 1/4 cups of the flour, instant yeast, and salt with a whisk. Pour into that almost all of the buttermilk, all of the honey, and all of softened butter. Using a large fork, mix the dough into a workable mass, using your hands as needed to help pull it all together. If the dough seems to require more flour, add it in gradually. Likewise, if the dough is too dry to hold together, sprinkle in the rest of the butter and, if needed, a couple tablespoons of plain milk, until the desired consistency is achieved. You need the dough to be able to hold together, though it's okay if it looks somewhat shaggy.
Dump the mass of dough out onto a floured work surface and knead by hand for 8 to 10 minutes.
Stop kneading when the dough feels nicely spongy and looks smooth.
Place the dough into a large clean bowl that's been greased or sprayed with vegetable spray. Turn the dough over in the bowl so it's lightly coated. Cover the bowl with a piece of greased/sprayed plastic wrap, and cover that with a dish towel. Place the bowl in a relatively warm, draft-free spot to rise. It may take about an hour to double in size.
Grease two standard size loaf pans.
When it's doubled, dump it out onto a very lightly floured work surface, and divide the dough equally in two with a bench scraper or a sharp knife. Working with one piece at a time, press on the dough with your palms to de-gas it (to let out the carbon dioxide). Then, gather it up into a ball and, using both hands, turn the dough while pulling gently downward on all sides to create a surface tension on the top. Cover the ball of dough with the greased plastic and let it rest for 15 minutes.
Go through the same process with the second ball of dough.
When both have rested, shape them into loaves, being careful to seal the bottom seams very securely by pinching them tightly closed. Place them in the loaf pans and cover them lightly with greased plastic wrap and the dish towel. Again, let them rise in a warm spot, undisturbed. It may take them another hour, or less, to double in size.
Preheat the oven to 375 while the dough is rising.
When the loaves are ready to bake, poke a tiny hole in the top of each in three spots with a toothpick (Greenstein recommends doing this; I've never seen another source that suggests this particular trick, but I went with it and the loaves didn't burst in the oven so I figure it did what it was supposed to do!).
Brush each loaf-top with melted butter. Use a squirt bottle to mist water into the oven before you put the bread in; give it a few good squirts quickly with the door slightly open. Place the pans in the oven and squirt the mist in again, a few times. Quickly and gently shut the door. Don't open it again for at least 15 minutes. The bread may take half an hour or more to bake. The best way to be sure it's done inside is to insert a stem thermometer into the bottom or side of the loaves; you'll want the internal temperature to be around 200 to 210 degrees.
Brush the top of the baked loaves with more of the melted butter, and let the bread cool on a rack. Enjoy!
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Jane's Sweets & Baking Journalwas born of my ever increasing desire to learn more about the baking and pastry arts, and of my love for anything and everything related to baking. Just as food is meant to be shared, so is knowledge among bakers and among those who enjoy delicious foods prepared from scratch. So, please partake, and feel free to share your thoughts and comments. I'd love to hear from you.
If you'd like to know a bit about me please click here, or look for the tiny photo of a pink cupcake topped by a strawberry, further down, in the "About me"section. You can also reach me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org . . .
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JANE'S FAVORITE BAKING BOOKS
About Professional Baking: The Essentials, by Gail Sokol. This is a textbook, but not one that's intimidating. It contains lots of useful info, including interesting personal profiles of professional chefs.
All-American Cookie Book, by Nancy Baggett. Another winner of the IACP award. Loads of good looking cookie recipes with lots of very appetizing photos. (Don't you love cookbooks with tons of pictures? I do.)
All-American Dessert Book, by Nancy Baggett. Wonderfully detailed, with very reliable recipes, Baggett does it again in this valuable cookbook. Definitely worth your time!
Art & Soul of Baking, by Cindy Mushet. This large Gourmet Cook Book Club Selection is a feast for the eyes. I love the page layout, the photos, and the author's reassuring tone. Recipes range from the quotidian ("classic sugar cookies") to the ridiculous ("Moroccan-spiced sweet-potato tiropetes") to the absolute sublime ("duo-tone chocolate pots de creme"). Worth acquiring.
Baking and Pastry: Mastering the Art and Craft, by the Culinary Institute of America. This is a heavy duty textbook, not for the faint of heart. Intimidating, sure, but also kind of fascinating if you're an obsessive bake-a-holic like me.
Baking with Julia, written by Dorie Greenspan and based on the PBS series hosted by Julia Child. Yet another hefty and dazzling coffee-table-worthy cookbook. Wonderful to have around. (My copy was autographed by Julia herself!)
Betty Crocker's Picture Cookbook, published in 1950 and available in a facsimile edition, holds a special place in my heart. This is the book my mom primarily used, or so it seemed, when I was a kid. The photos are such period pieces, and the little notations that accompany recipes are pricelessly cute and corny. I have an ancient copy that I still use. Every girl needs a copy of this in her house, for good karma if nothing else.
Bitter Sweet -- Recipes and Tales From a Life in Chocolate, by Alice Medrich. Much more than just a cookbook with a focus on fine dark chocolate, this is also a memoir of sorts from a legendary chocolate-dessert creator. Medrich is often credited with awakening American tastes to the finest aspects of superior chocolate. Very interesting read!
Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes,by Jeffrey Hamelman. An indispensable book for anyone who is seriously interested in learning to make fine yeast breads, Hamelman shares far more than just technical knowledge. Like fellow bread guru Peter Reinhart, his warmth of spirit and deep love for the tradition of bread baking shines through on every page.
Breakfast Book, by Marion Cunningham. Not to be confused with the character of the mom on Happy Days, the real Marion Cunningham has a long list of writing accomplishments, the most well known being that she completely revised The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. A contemporary of the late James Beard's, she is still held in high esteem.
Cake Bible, by Rose Levy Beranbaum. Rose is really into the science of baking, which can be helpful in some respects and off-putting in others. Like gardeners who talk mostly about soil components without conveying their joy in the plants themselves. Maybe I'm too sensitive? Probably so, as many consider this to be an invaluable classic. Despite my reservations, I wouldn't part with my copy. One of several highly detailed books by Rose. Her latest book, Heavenly Cakes, is much more down to earth, loaded with photos, and truly beautiful.
Cake Book, by Tish Boyle. I've called it a treasure trove before and please allow me to say it again here. This book is jam packed with wonderful stuff that's well explained. I used the Sacher-torte recipe in the fall of '09 for a culinary school project and it didn't let me down. I can endorse this book without reservation. I love it.
Complete Book of Pastry Sweet & Savory, by Bernard Clayton, Jr. When this book appeared in 1981, famed food editor Craig Claiborne praised it in the NYT as "one of the most important cookbooks of this year, if not of this decade." No photos, but don't let that dissuade you.
Craft of Baking, by Karen DeMasco & Mindy Fox. In 2009, some great new cookbooks were published and this was one of them. Down to earth, straightforward without being condescending, this smart guide offers creative and simple twists on dozens of diverse and well-proven "cakes, cookies, and other sweets."
Dessert University, by Roland Mesnier. As the White House executive pastry chef for over two decades, Mesnier has a lot of wisdom to impart. He does so well in this book, which is designed specifically for home bakers. A good book!
Grand Central Baking Book, by Piper Davis and Ellen Jackson. Readers are welcomed into these pages with a tone of warmth and familiarity. The photos alone will have you scribbling a grocery list. Try the berry kuchen recipe--simple and scrumptious.
Hershey's Chocolate Treasury, published in 1984 by Hershey Foods and chock full of old reliables. The recipe for Black Magic cake is one I've used again and again--invaluable!
How to Bake, by Nick Malgieri. The writing style is matter of fact and fairly informal. That's one of my favorite things about Malgieri's books.
Magical Art of Cake Decorating, by Carole Collier. Sometimes at a used book sale you find an old gem like this. Published in '84, I found it very encouraging when I first began decorating cakes. The recipes are rock solid reliable.
Maida Heatter's Book of Great Chocolate Desserts, by Maida Heatter. Famed baker (apparently her "Palm Beach Brownies" are known far and wide), whose work has centered on wondrous chocolate desserts, Heatter received a James Beard award for this book, one of many she's published over several active decades.
Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook, by Martha Stewart. Beautiful photos, but I must admit I've come to have reservations about the reliability of some of the recipes. Is it just me? Though I love flipping through the book for ideas, I'm a bit on the fence with this one when it comes to actual usage.
Martha Stewart's Wedding Cakes by Martha Stewart. Talk about a stunning and inspiring book! Chances are you may never decide to actually make one of the cakes from this glorious volume, but it's enough just to page through the gorgeous pictures and interesting recipes. Expensive? For sure, but worth it.
Passion for Baking, A by Marcy Goldman. If you're curious about how professional bakers manage to make things come out nicely every time, you'll appreciate this book. Goldman, in her highly approachable style, divulges many of their simple--but enormously helpful--tricks and techniques, and shows readers how to implement them throughout the wondrous array of down-to-earth recipes that pack this great book. Loads of enticing photos, too! I love this book!
Perfect Cakes, by Nick Malgieri. Can't say enough about Malgieri's books. Absolutely worth using, versus just reading! The white and dark chocolate cheesecake is to die for; I've made it a few times, along with many other recipes from this book, and it is superb.
Peter Reinhart's Artisan Breads Everyday, by Peter Reinhart. This book is a revelation for anyone who approaches yeast recipes like a vampire approaches the dawn. Talk about down to earth, encouraging, and flexible! This guy knows how to talk to rookie breadmakers. Well worth reading, and using, this volume will find a comfy place in your cookbook collection--a worthwhile purchase, undoubtedly!
Professional Cake Decorating, by Toba Garrett. I get the impression that this book is perceived as the most thorough and comprehensive text available for serious students of cake decorating. This is the text that we used for my culinary school Beginning Cake Decorarting class (which means I finally own my own copy!).
Sarabeth's Bakery: From My Hands to Yours, by Sarabeth Levine. Almost too pretty to use, but use it anyway! This big book is so appealing, and the photos so remarkably enticing, you'll want to pick it up like a sandwich and bite right into it. Fine recipes for updated classics, well explained, from the famous Manhattan bakery. Worth buying. (You'll love it!)
Secrets of Baking, by Sherry Yard. A must have, bakers! This cookbook's forte is the way it's organized; master recipes are presented with full explanations of how they can be used, and related recipes follow, section by section. An exceptional manual to refer to. Get your own copy!
Sky High: Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes, by Alisa Huntsman and Peter Wynne. Huntsman is the professional pastry chef behind this beautiful book, filled with many tempting recipes, all designed specifically and scaled perfectly for three layers. I've made the Devil's food cake thus far, and it was exceptional--it rose well, was very moist, and had great depth of flavor. I'll be using this book more in the future, without a doubt. Love the photos also!
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. . . to never endorse a product of any kind on Jane's Sweets & Baking Journal that I do not believe in. I've never done so thus far, and I vow never to do so. If I tell you I think something is great, or that I think it is worth spending real money on, then I mean it, rest assured. I promise. And, if I ever talk about a product that I've been given to review or try out, I will disclose that in the post.
I'm a mom with two great sons (both now in college), and a really nice husband. I left a long editorial career in reference publishing a few years ago and I've had nary a regret. I recently finished (after four part-time years!) a Baking & Pastry Arts Certificate program in the Culinary Studies Institute at a local community college. It was a lot of fun, a lot of work, and I am so glad I did it. These days, I do a lot of freelance editorial work, something that I really enjoy.
"Jane's Sweets" was the name of a very small baking enterprise that I started in late 2007. It bloomed a bit, for a little while, with encouragement from my husband, my aunt, and my first cake decorating teacher, Cindy. Because my Aunt Lydia was my most ardent female supporter in this baking endeavor (she was a lifelong independent business owner herself), this blog is dedicated to her memory. If heaven is real, then I know she's there with my mom, baking up a storm. Like Lydia said one day, just before her 80th birthday, while she and my mom and I were baking in my mom's kitchen, "It's been a fun ride. I'd do it all over again!"
If my house were on fire, I'd grab my family, then I'd grab my KitchenAid mixer.
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