I love a good backyard.

Don't get me wrong, a front yard is a wonderful thing. A front yard, and specifically a good front porch, is the place to watch the world go by. It is see and be seen territory, the perfect vantage point to watch the life of your neighbourhood play out in front of you.

In childhood, a front yard is where you meet your friends. Its the soccer field and the skate park. And, in my personal experience, the backdrop for Barbie-related-dramas.

In University the front yard was home to the living room couch, yanked from its indoor confines and released to the great outdoors. It was the spot to lounge away the first sunny days of the season, preferably with beverage in hand.

After that, my front yard was first a fire escape and then a modest balcony, where we sat drinking "classy" wines and pretended to be worldly.

Now, I survey the front yards on our quiet street, with chalk drawings that tattoo the pavement, the toys and bikes and soccer balls left out on the lawns. Gardening tools are nestled by the front door. A watering can sits, stainless steel and gleaming, jewel-bright. Artifacts of the day's adventures and plans for the days ahead.

From our front step I nod to the neighbours, and Benjamin's own technicolour hieroglyphs decorate the pavement.

But a backyard is a whole other world. Even though it is outside, it feels more intimate, more like an extension of your home. The front yard is about show and the backyard is about substance. It is where we really live out of doors, and where others must be invited to gain entry.

This is only our second summer with our backyard, and were becoming fast friends. Last summer we were occupied with the business of having a baby, so this feels like our first opportunity to truly understand its rhythms; the way the light falls throughout the day, the cycle of plants we've inherited, and the time to revisit the haphazardly-laid plans we made a year ago.

It's got good bones, our backyard does, but is in need of a bit of a facelift. If our yard were in a movie, it would be cast as the "plain" girl who has a messy ponytail and always keeps her head down, the one that is suddenly altogether gorgeous once someone takes the time to look.

Its there. I am sure of it. The possibility of specialness, the promise of nooks and crannies for little boys to find magic, a home for a little vegetable patch, and most surely a hammock. We're almost there, our heads full of plans and with days circled on the calendar devoted to the endeavour.

All of that will come in time, and right now I am more than happy with this space outside we have all to ourselves. The lilac is in bloom, and the leaves that form our summertime roof are slowly beginning to unfurl. There is space to run and crawl and cook and dig and plant. And there is my spot, just a beeline out the back door, four strides at most, at the top of the two stairs that lead down from the deck. Sit down with a snack, and suddenly its a picnic. Stretch out, and your toes can reach the grass.


Another thing that is almost there is my attempts at making the perfect sandwich bread at home. I have been experimenting away, fiddling with yeast and rising times, with quantities of butter and sugar. Sorry about the wait, but one family can only eat so much bread at a time, and we're not a one bread sort of household.

I have realized that we like our bread plain enough not to overshadow what's put on it, but with enough personality that it is not merely a mode of transport for other ingredients. Right now, this variation on Julia Child's recipe is our usual as far as sandwich-style goes. The longer rise gives more substantial texture, and the reduced amount of yeast is preferable to our tastes. Previous columns regarding sandwich bread are here and here.

Recipe (via Slashfood)

Current changes:

  • Use only 1 teaspoon of active dry yeast, allowing the dough to rise for about 2-2 1/2 hours for first rise, or until doubled in size. The second rise time will also be longer, about 90 minutes to 2 hours.
  • Use 2 teaspoons of sugar instead of 1 tablespoon.
  • Use 6 tablespoons of butter instead of 4 tablespoons.
  • I usually dust the tops of the loaves with a bit of flour before baking, and sometimes melt 1 tablespoon of butter to brush on the loaves after the flour.

Honey-hued and tender, Soft American-style Sandwich Bread, from the book Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.

Here I go. Again.

It started with chocolate cake, then it was peanut butter cookies. Now, it's sandwich bread.

You see, I'm not one to leave well enough alone. I have fidgety digits, hands that almost twitch at the prospect of fiddling with an idea. An idea will capture my attention, and I find it nearly impossible to let go; even if I attempt to shove it aside to deal with the matter at hand, the idea it will remain, incessantly tugging at the edge of my attention.

Lest I begin a nervous tick, or start yelling at my own brain, I invariably give in to my impulses.

After asking for direction on soft sandwich bread recipes to try, I was offered a myriad of helpful suggestions. Wonderful help, and to be sure there was no way I was going to let the guidance go to waste. So I began baking, first Julia Child's Classic White Bread from Baking with Julia (William Morrow Cookbooks, 1996), then the Soft American-style Sandwich Bread (pictured above) from the fantastic Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day (Thomas Dunne Books, 2007). Both were delicious, each in their own way (more on that in a moment).

What these breads solidified for me was my criticism of Ina Garten's Honey White Bread; too sweet and too eggy. I simply do not like eggs in my sandwich loaves. I like eggs in some breads, Egg Breads to be specific, but those breads I consider a whole other food entirely.

In my standby everyday sandwich breads, I want something milder, subtle but with flavour, appropriate for both savoury and sweet uses and without too much richness. Egged breads have their own place, but in my mind that place is not alongside tuna fish at lunchtime. Your mileage may vary.

Back to the recipes I did like. The Soft American-style Sandwich Bread from Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois, authors of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. With a more modest amount of yeast than some other recipes I have seen, and a longer resting time, this bread had a remarkably deep flavour. The inclusion of melted butter resulted in a crumb that was substantial yet light, yielding but still hearty enough to be sliced cleanly and well-suited as the base for even Dagwood-esque creations. The recipe yields three loaves, I sent some dough home with an especially-cherished friend, and she found it exactly the sort of bread she likes.

My heart, however, was not wholly won over. The aforementioned butter was delicious, but almost too much of a good thing (perish the thought). While I have never been one to shy away from full fat in all its glory, the quantity of fat was again a distraction. It became about the butter, and not about the bread as a whole.

The other strike against this loaf was that I'd made Julia Child's Classic White Bread earlier in the week and I was already rather smitten. I should have known America's grand-dame of gastronomy would have the (almost) perfect recipe. The dough was gorgeous to work with, laminated with less softened butter than the Soft American-style, and sublimely silky. The loaves rose to impressive heights when baked, cresting well over the edge of the pan and sporting a burnished-gold tan. Their texture was spot-on; soft and tender, and slightly springy to the tongue. Most probably attributed to the thorough kneading the dough requires, it was this texture that made this loaf truly exceptional.

But even as I was deeply mired in a blissful state of carbohydrate-induced languor, I had a nagging impulse. An annoying little idea of how I could take this great recipe and (possibly, hopefully) make it better.

After years of eating breads with minimal leaveners and slow rises, I have come to prefer their flavour to that of quicker-risen loaves. Even in my flour-dusted stupor of bready goodness, I could not get past the fact that I could taste the yeast in Child's bread. As such, while I favoued the overall results from her recipe, I still found the longer-rested breads from Hertzberg and Francois, and Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duigud (HomeBaking, Random House Canada, 2003) appealing. Simply put, they had an understated complexity that is lacking in heavily-yeasted breads.

So what to do? Well, although I am no expert on the matter, I am going to attempt an experiment. I am going to combine the elements of all three recipes, to see if I can manage to capture the best traits of each. Possibly this will end in utter disaster, possibly in delicious bread. I'll be sure to share the results.

Oh, and did I mention that I have found the excuse to bake two chocolate cakes for Benjamin's upcoming birthday, just so I can try out another side-by-side comparison?

Neurotic behaviour? Yes. Delicious dividends? Oh yes, very. So how can I complain about that?

Happy baking.