Friday, March 4, 2011

Fantastic French Toast Starts with Homemade Buttermilk Bread . . .

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.)

This formula hails from the James Beard Award-winning book, Secrets of a Jewish Baker: Recipes for 125 Breads from Around the World, by veteran professional baker George Greenstein. The buttermilk in this recipe lends a pleasing note, along with the use of honey instead of sugar.

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!

Buttermilk Sandwich Bread (For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

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!

(If you'd like to comment on this post, or to read any existing comments, please click on the purple COMMENTS below!)


Merut said...

I haven't had french toast in such a long time. You are totally right about the bread being the most important part. White Wonderbread just doesn't cut it. I don't think I've had French toast with buttermilk bread, but I'll have to try it.

Jane said...

Hi Merut,
Thanks for stopping by. I see you're holding a bat in your profile photo! That piqued my curiousity and I had to visit your blog--wonderful and interesting stuff! As for French toast, nope, that Wonderbready stuff doesn't even come close. I completely agree with you there!
:) Jane

Cat said...

That beard looks soooo good. Unfortunately buttermilk is not that widely available in the UK. Unless you know where to look like me! x

~~louise~~ said...

I may just take your advice Jane and try this recipe. I've been craving a bread session all winter. With the first day of Spring just around the corner, I better get a move on...

Thank you so much for sharing. Not only does it sound heavenly, I do believe I can smell it form here...

cocoa and coconut said...

Thanks for sharing this recipe! It is a really fantastic one and I'm going to save it. I love that you've paired your beautiful bread with bluberries

Aveen said...

I LOVE buttermilk and I LOVE French toast so this is a definite must-try for me! My nearest shop selling buttermilk is 6 miles away (as Cat says it's hard to get in the UK, although back home in Ireland you can get it everywhere as we love making soda bread) but I always stock up and have a fridge full of the stuff.

Jo said...

I love french toast and just made some this morning with left over cinnamon bread which I had made last weekend. Yummy and with loads of syrup. Definitely an ideal breakfast for a lazy weekend.

june in ireland who loves to bake said...

Now this recipe I can make without feeling any pangs of guilt due to overdoing it at Christmas.

Although I've just baked a fresh loaf of bread yesterday, it won't be too long (tomorrow or the next day at the latest) when I can try out this great recipe for a new loaf using buttermilk. Except for the maple syrup (I'll just put some honey and cinnamon on it instead), I can definitely try this recipe out completely guilt-free, and enjoy every bite. Thanks for sharing, Jane.

Aveen, you're right - here in Ireland, buttermilk is as easy to get as regular milk or butter - especially now, coming up to Shrove Tuesday.

Jane, the 'Secrets of a Jewish Baker' has long been on my list of must-have cookbooks/baking books, but whenever I've looked for it on ebay or amazon, it's always been too expensive. Is it as good a book as I've heard and read about it being?

Great photos, great recipe and inspiring commentary, as always.

Anonymous said...

The homemade bread in this looks fantastic! Great recipe!

Jenn said...

Wow, I must tell you that is one perfect looking loaf of bread! I have never made a loaf of bread like this entirely from scratch. I have a few questions if you don't mind. 1. If I was to use my dough hook, would I knead it for the same time as I would by hand? 2. Also, when you say "shape them into loaves, being careful to seal the bottom seams very securely by pinching them tightly closed" does that mean you just pat it into the shape of the pan or do you have to roll it out then roll it up as the shape of the pan and pinch the seam shut? I have made homemade French Bread before and you just shape the dough into a long loaf and I must say, it made the best French Toast, so I can imagine how yummy your French Toast was with this bread. Sorry for the long comment, but I would love to give this bread a try, but want to make sure I do it right.

kitchen flavours said...

Your bread looks so good. I guess the buttermilk makes this a really moist bread. I love making bread.. yours look perfectly baked. Will be trying this out. Thank you!

Jane said...

Dear Jenn--
In response to your questions:
1) If you're using your dough hook instead of kneading by hand, you won't have to knead the bread as long. If it were me, I'd only use the hook for 4 to 6 minutes after the initial mixing. (If I were doing this recipe entirely on the mixer, I'd do the initial mixing with the paddle attachment for a couple of minutes, and then only switch to the hook once all the ingredients were well incorporated). The main thing is that the dough feels elastic and relatively smooth. You'll also want it to feel tacky but not wet and sticky--neither too dry nor too moist.
2) As far as shaping the dough into a loaf, you can indeed do just as you suggested if you like. That is, flatten the dough somewhat with your hands (not thinly, just pat it out so there's enough to roll up) and then roll it up, jelly roll style. You want it to be snugly rolled. You will need to tuck the ends under and really pinch the seams there closed, as well as the big seam going down the length of the loaf. Put the dough in the pan seams down. You'll be able to tell easily, once the bread is baked, if your seams were not well sealed, because they'll kind of come apart during baking. If that happens, the bread is still yummy, just kind of funny looking. Jenn, I'd love to hear, if you do try this recipe, how your bread turns out. Thanks so much for visiting and for those excellent questions!
Jane :)

Jenn said...

Thanks Jane!

cathyb@brightbakes said...

your bread is homey-looking and quite simply, beautiful.
The french toast looks lovely too! Great food styling!
cathy b.

Anonymous said...

Jane-This is my first time to your blog....following up on a recipe I saw in Family Fun for smores bars.
You have a gift. The photography, the recipes, and commentary are all absolutely wonderful. Finding your blog made my day!


Sweet And Crumby said...

This bread and French toast looked so scrumptious, before finishing your post, I went to Amazon and bought the book. I have toying with various bread books and I knew this was the one instantly. Your bread looks amazing! Thanks for stopping by my blog today and READING...that's always a nice bonus. :) Have a great week.

Nancy Baggett said...

The buttermilk bread looks fantastic. I've been playing around with creating a plain white loaf that I wish looked like that, but, so far, it doesn't come close. I'm wondering how much effect the buttermilk has...h-m-m!

Thanks for stopping by my blog--glad to hear you found the story useful. Nothing like learning the hard way even if we don't want to have to!

Sanura at said...

I love this type of bread made with buttermilk. My Father made French Toast with dry and stale French/Italian bread. It holds the batter better. In New York, some restaurants use Challah bread, another delicious alternative.

Susi's Kochen und Backen said...

Jane, your bread looks amazing! I can only imagine how incredibly delicious your french toast turned out with this homemade version. :-)

Sabine Rogers said...

I've been wanting to try some bread, the recipe looks great and the French toast looks delicious!

HanaĆ¢ said...

Oh my gosh, I love the crumb of that bread. It's close to dinner time right now and I could totally go for some of your French toast right now. Man, it really makes me want to make that bread. The all-buttermilk part has me intrigued. Will let you know how it turns out if I make it. Will let my trusty bread machine (dough cycle) to do all the work for me :o) Thanks for sharing the recipe (will also check out that book at the library).

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TW92 said...

I'm more of a Banana Bread person but yours is really amazing looking!

The Daily Smash said...

That looks so good Love your blog and all your great ideas.

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Beth said...

What a gorgeous loaf of bread! Looks wonderful.

Warda said...

The addition of buttermilk must be heavenly in this bread. Looks so soft! I'm not a big fan of French toast, but sure love love love a good bread recipe for breakfast. Thank you for sharing!

Jay said...

Thank you for this divine recipe. I was looking for a way to use up leftover buttermilk and stumbled upon your blog. The two loaves have just cooled, and I have already eaten two slices. The most moist, softest and tastiest white bread ever. Followed your directions to the letter and it's perfect. Now I have the confidence to bake other breads too!

Thank you Jane!

Jane said...

Dear Jay,
That's one of the nicest comments a blogger can receive--to hear from someone who tried a recipe and experienced great success with it! Thank you so much for letting me know--really! I'm thrilled you like this bread.
Jane :)