Quick to make, pretty tasty to boot - but not the loaf for me; Ina Garten's Honey White Bread.

What can I say that has not already been said in the adoration of bread?

To many, good bread is the cornerstone of their idea of good food. It is a basic staple of life, one that manages to not only nourish the body, but also inspires passion in the soul. The process, the crust, the crumb, the aroma, the texture, the colour, the taste ... each and every aspect of bread, its ingredients, its making, and its consumption, has been examined and often exalted.

I will not presume to think that I could add any more eloquence to its chorused praise; instead, I can only speak of how bread and its baking has become a part of the rhythm of our days.

As we are a family of bread lovers, I bake bread. To be specific, I bake bread often. Every few days, I am dusted pale with flour as I set about putting up some dough. I have made naan, I have made yeasted crescents laminated with butter, I have made soft and open-crumbled breads meant for sopping up soups and stews. I have made hearty, nubbly-textured seeded rolls. I have made foccaccia, both savoury and sweet. I have explored the personalities of rye, whole wheat and flax, of oat bran and wheat germ.

But most often, I make this. That is what my husband and I consider our bread, my variation on Jim Lahey's No Knead Bread. Yes, that bread, the one that seemed to set the entire food community a-baking in late 2006. Our version has bit of extra flour to suit the size of our cocotte, and a bit of extra salt to best suit our tastes. We have tried different flours to perfect our brand and blend. I make it without a specific measurement of water, as through our long and loving relationship I have learned the quirks of the dough's texture well enough to determine by eye how much is needed. It is not very difficult to make, but it is very rewarding.

Oh, and despite its name, I do knead it, just a bit, so that it springs back ever-so-slightly before its last rise. Every time I make it I still have a slight swell of pride at the thought that something so satisfying could come from my oven.

It is a staple, a without-thought routine of our day-to-day. This bread has often made command performances at extended family events, in its original form and multiple grain variations.

Which brings me to my dilemma. While I am more than happy to munch on a (generous) slice of this crusty boule, there does come an occasion where only sandwich-style bread will do. Pleasantly squidgy, the grocery-store classic is the stuff of many a childhood peanut butter and jelly lunch, of open-faced, gravy-soused hot turkey sandwiches made with Thanksgiving's leftovers, and the basis of a perfect grilled cheese. (Nigella Lawson specifically encourages its use for her Mozzarella in Carrozza.) There is a familiar comfort to its blandness, a charm in its yielding texture.

My trouble is, as much as this sort of bread is a standard in my memory, it is not one in my home. I just cannot seem to find a recipe that I adore. I like the Soft Sandwich Bread, American Style from Homebaking: The Artful Mix of Flour and Tradition Around the World (Random House, 2003) by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. I have made it rather often, with our eldest son Benjamin taking delight in the loaves as they rise on a sunny windowsill. It a pre-fermented starter called a biga, which adds a deeper complexity to the final product. But, as delicious as this bread is, it did not stop me from trying my hand at other versions.

My most recent attempt was Ina Garten's Honey White Bread, from Barefoot Contessa at Home (Random House, 2006). My affection for Garten's recipes is nothing new; and this one looked a treat. Garten's recipe left most of the work to a stand mixer, with minimal hands-on effort required. And although I do enjoy a bit of kneading, it seemed novel to allow the machine to do the heavy labour. After a whirl around the mixer, it took only a few turns for the dough turn silken under hand. Into the buttered bowl it went, rising up enthusiastically after an hours rest. I punched it down, formed two generous loaves and waited again. I was convinced that Garten's assurance of "foolproof good bread" would deliver me to sandwich nirvana. But alas, I was left unsatisfied.

Now that is not to say that this is not a good bread. In fact, I am sure that many people would hazard to say that it is great. After baking, the loaves emerged bronzed and beautiful, with a proud, Dromedarian hump. When sliced, they were soft, pleasantly dense, with an even-textured and tight crumb.

Where I was disappointed was the taste. Maybe it is just me, but while I appreciate the relative brevity of its preparation (just under three hours from start to finish), the amount of leavener and honey used to achieve that speed were all-too-evident in its sweet, yeasty flavour. This, coupled with the richness of egg yolks and butter, resulted in a bread that would surely be perfect as a substitute for challah or brioche for pain perdu or summer pudding, but seemed distractingly-sweet when eaten alone. It just was not what I was looking for.

And so, it was back to my boule for us and back to the recipe books for me. And although there is a half a loaf in our breadbox just now, I am still thinking of the perfect sandwich loaf. I am more than open to suggestion, and any guidance would be appreciated and welcomed.

HONEY WHITE BREAD

From the book Barefoot Contessa at Home by Ina Garten.

The recipe can be found online.

Posted
Authortara
12 CommentsPost a comment

A fine balance; salty, sweet, savoury and all-around delicious, Ina Garten's Maple Roasted Butternut Squash from the book Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics.

Martha. Ina. Nigella. Three first names that hardly need last names to be recognized. Three names that are now entities unto themselves; brand names, names that are used as verbs ("I Martha'd up something to decorate the mantle"), as adjectives ("That's such an Ina tablecloth"). Names that have been carefully-cultivated in their marketing to evoke a sense of familiarity and, almost, friendship.

Martha Stewart, Ina Garten and Nigella Lawson have turned cookbooks into cooking shows, cooking shows into housewares lines, specialty food products, magazines and much, much more. I am surely not alone in saying that these women are each a huge influence to me in the kitchen; in the way I cook and, in many ways, the way I look at food.

It seemed as though the holidays had arrived early last month, when all three of these prolific authors published cookbooks - all coming out within a two-week span. As you can imagine, an admitted fan like me was in food heaven.

True to their established brands, the ladies did not disappoint with their offerings. Martha Stewart is once again the teacher with Martha Stewart's Cooking School; Ina Garten is the ever-gracious host, who doesn't stray from her roots, with Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics and Nigella Lawson continues her role as the ebullient gal pal in the seasonal Nigella Christmas.

Here's a peek at each:

Martha Stewart's Cooking School (Clarkson Potter, 2008), lives up to its name; the hefty book not only feels, but also reads, like a textbook. Although publicity material would like you to consider Martha at your side, guiding you through the recipes, the book instead delivers a vaguely school-marmish incarnation of Stewart at the head of the classroom. After a fairly welcoming introduction, it is down to business and the book dives into its curriculum. First off, a summation of the rules of the kitchen, laying out gentle reminders of what one should keep in mind when approaching a recipe, stocking a kitchen, and while cooking. Following that is an in-depth, expansive list of suggested baking and cooking equipment for the well-prepared cook.

Chapters are structured as studies of specific ingredients; highlighting the particular techniques and recipes that best showcase the qualities of that ingredient. For instance, the Egg chapter has the master technique of scrambling, followed by a recipe for Scrambled Eggs with Caviar in Eggshell cups. The "extra credit" for the lesson is a walkthrough on mayonnaise and hollandaise sauce.

What makes these chapters wholly appealing to contemporary palates is the range of influences that are covered. So while the Soup chapter might focus its attention on the proper method for making Basic Brown Stock and Glace de Viande, there is also instruction on preparing Dashi. Further along in the book you'll find recipes for Sole à la Meunière alongside Fish Tacos, and Duck Confit a few pages before Lobster Rolls.

Since the book is aimed at both the novice and expert alike, I asked Sean (a capable but infrequent cook) to review Martha Stewart's Cooking School as well.

He felt the book more than a little intimidating. From its size to the textbook-like layout of the pages, it is an impressive tome. The photographs, save for intermittent chapter title page shots of Stewart smiling obligingly, are simply styled with little adornment to the food or setting. The pages are often crammed with details; step-by-step photos, notes on procedure and ingredients, and companion recipes all fight for space in recipe margins.

Despite the jam-packed information, there were a few lapses in accurate instruction. Sean astutely noted the frequent instruction of "season with salt and pepper" might be simple to the accomplished cook, but to the novice, the lack of measurement (even as an estimate) is troublesome. In another instance, a companion recipe omitted the instruction to preheat the oven at the start; this oversight, again something one used to cooking might assume, left Sean's prepared dish waiting for the oven to come to temperature.

Those slight issues aside, while this might not be the sort of cookbook one wants to cuddle up with on the couch for a good read, it is a well thought out, comprehensive course. The information is dense, but the scope and depth of topics covered, and attention to finicky elements of technique and nuances of ingredients, makes this a valuable resource guide for the home cook.

Chapter headings (or in as labelled here, lessons): Introduction • Basics • Stocks and Soups • Eggs • Meat, Fish and Poultry • Vegetables • Pasta • Dried Beans and Grains • Desserts

To summarize: Cooking basics, but not basic cooking.

Recipes: A selection of recipes from the book can be found here.

Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics (Clarkson Potter, 2008) is Ina Garten at her generous, welcoming, best. Ina is, for me, the author I often turn to when looking for a dish that will be a resounding success. French-influenced and unapologetically old-fashioned, her cuisine is elegant yet straightforward; Garten believes in the best ingredients, often prepared simply, to their best effect.

This book continues upon her mantra of "turning the volume up" on dishes, seeking out and amplifying flavour to its maximum potential. Garten discusses the need to season and taste throughout the cooking process, often stressing the importance of a last hit of something - acids, herbs or something as simple as a smattering of coarse salt - as the finishing accent to a dish.

Those familiar with Garten's style will not be surprised to find that she makes good use of butter and cream for fortifying richness, lemon juice and zest for their puckery brightness, and thyme, rosemary, basil and parsley are her essential herbs. Particularly in this book, more often than not, Garten turns to roasting as the best way to bring out the full depth of flavour of an ingredient.

For example, the Roasted Tomatoes with Basil are promised to recreate summer's taste with winter's supermarket plum tomatoes. Soused with a healthy sprinkle of sugar and syrupy balsamic to mimic sun-ripened sweetness, then blitzed in a hot oven for a short 30 minutes to concentrate and caramelize, the tomatoes emerged slumped and slightly shriveled, but still brightly crimson. When eaten alone, I found the tomatoes were good, but lacking in the savoury-sweet complexity of their slower-roasted cousins. However when eaten alongside other dishes (meats as recommended by Garten and tossed through hot pasta with shavings of Pecorino as recommended by me), the tomatoes were surprisingly well balanced, contributing an acidic hit that paired nicely with richer counterparts. While not 100 per cent August splendor, these were a bright bit of sunshine on a December table.

Still on the roasting, the Mustard-Roasted Fish was rich but pleasingly piquant. The sauce, mustard and crème fraîche, is lifted by the salty burst of capers - accentuating the acidity of the Dijon mustard and bringing much-needed counterpoint to what otherwise could be a stodgy dish. Although Ms. Garten might clutch her pearls at the thought, I have also tried this recipe with sour cream in place of the higher fat crème fraîche, to equally-successful results.

Garten's Roasted Potato and Leek soup is a rustic, earthy take on the classic Vichyssoise, has already commanded repeat performances at our dinner table. The Maple Roasted Butternut Squash has a mellow sweetness perfectly complimented by salty pancetta and aromatic sage; I found this combination nothing short of addicting.

It is not all roasting in Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics, though. Garten stays close to her standards with perfectly-textured Easy Sticky Buns, buttery Wild Mushroom Risotto stained golden with saffron, and (though she forgoes the title of crisp) a juicy Plum Crunch - a classic Barefoot Contessa dessert. With a chapter devoted to the Cocktail Hour, Garten is in her usual fine form.

The books' styling also follows Garten's preferred style; full-colour, full-page photographs accompany each recipe, helpful hints and tricks are organized at the start of each chapter, and recipe notes are filled with her personal anecdotes.

Ina Garten's recipes simply work; when using her books you are pretty much guaranteed delicious food that is almost-always as easy to make as it is to eat. Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics follows the high-standard of her previous books, and although some recipes may seem well-trodden, Garten serves them up with such aplomb that one would hardly notice - and if you do, you're far too busy eating to care.

Chapter headings: Cocktail Hour • Soup • Lunch • Dinner • Vegetables • Dessert • Breakfast • FAQs • Credits • Sources • Barn Sources and Resources • Menus

To summarize: Basic need not be boring; get ready to roast.

Recipes:

Roasted Tomatoes

Maple Roasted Butternut Squash

Bruschetta with Peppers and Gorgonzola

Parker's Beef Stew

Honey Vanilla Pound Cake

Nigella Christmas (Knopf Canada, 2008) is like having Ms. Lawson over for the holidays, as her latest publication is more a guidebook to eating, drinking and socializing your way through the season than a simple cookbook alone.

Lawson has written the book as such, eschewing traditional chapter subjects like Starters and Mains for sections that reflect event-based needs. From the days leading up to the holidays to the days that follow, Nigella Christmas has the recipe for the occasion. This choice in organization makes for an enjoyable read, as Lawson walks us through her own Christmas reminisces, but for future reference the Index is essential. It would be hard to remember (for example) if the Christmas Rocky Road appeared in the chapter about open houses and entertaining, or if as a suggested food gift (the answer is the former).

Like Martha and Ina in their respective books, Nigella travels through known-territory here; trifles, pavlovas, roasted hams and Christmas puddings, pomegranates and Proseco and Italianate influences - all of these are part of Lawson's established repertoire and have a presence here. And yet, whether it is that the reader is distracted by the fanciful wrapping or not, the book feels a fresh revisit to well-loved traditions. Some are classic (Brussels Sprouts with Chestnuts, Roast Rib of Beef with Port and Stilton Gravy), some are gloriously-kitch (Bacon-wrapped Chipolatas, Fully Loaded Potato Skins), but all are Nigella doing as she does.

Generous in its size, the books' coffee-table-suitable proportions make it seem a gift in and of itself. As always, the book is pages full of her usual literary wit, mellifluous prose and engaging manner. And despite its dimensions, Nigella Christmas is just the sort of cookbook one reads as a work of fiction - it is that charming. The book is gorgeously-styled; each and every image of food sparkles with holiday cheer. A prevailing palette of cranberry reds, golden yellows and deep chocolate is set off by snowy whites and glistening lights. Cheeky photographs of the author, dressed in festive garb and perched in holiday surroundings, appear often. I particularly enjoy the photo of Lawson, resplendent and serene as she reclines on a couch with a set of novelty reindeer antlers upon her head. It is through this tongue-in-cheek fun with her own image that Nigella comes across as inviting rather than narcissistic.

Nigella Christmas is a gift best-suited to those already-fans of Nigella Lawson. It is so firmly entrenched in the Nigella lexicon that those unfamiliar with, or simply not fond of, her often visited pantry staples would most likely find this book far too specific in its scope. This is not an introductory course to Lawson, nor is it a portrayal of a generic holiday - it is an unabashed, celebratory romp in the world of Nigella, as bedecked and bodacious as we have come to expect.

Chapter headings: The More the Merrier • Seasonal Support • Come on Over • The Main Event • Joy to the World • All Wrapped Up • A Christmas Brunch for 6-8 • A Bevy of Hot Drinks • Dr. Lawson Prescribes • Stockists

To summarize:Nigella Christmas is as bright, bold, and bedazzled as the Christmas Tree in Rockafeller Center.

Recipes:

Ginger Glazed Ham

Pumpkin and Goat's Cheese Lasagne

Incredibly Easy Chocolate Fruit Cake (as labelled in the book)

Gloriously Golden Fruit Cake

All cover images courtesy of their respective publishers.