Life is hard.
In the U.S., fascism and racism and anti-semitism and misogyny and xenophobia are back with a vengeance, seemingly emboldened by the current political environment, there's fake news all over the web, propaganda on cable news, the President is, um, problematic, to say the least, young black Americans are being killed in the streets by police officers who are never held accountable, and children are being shot with assault weapons in schools and seemingly no one but the kids themselves are trying to do anything about it.
Add to all of that a growing sense of detachment, of distrust, a struggle to continue believing that the future will be better than the present in the face of so much regressive thinking, so much governmental inaction, so much cynicism and greed. This is a recipe for apathy, depression, isolation, helplessness and hopelessness.
On top of this, we're in the middle of such a backlash against gluten and against mass-produced industrial bread made with refined white flour, that it's next-to-impossible to find bread that is truly comforting. When I'm feeling down, when I'm feeling lonely, or unsafe, I don't want the supposed (and debatable) health benefits of whole grain bread. I don't want dense, dry, super-crusty bread made with "Ancient Grains" and cooked in a wood-burning oven. I don't even want a perfectly-made baguette.
What I want—what I need, even—is practically impossible to find. Really, it has all but disappeared from bakeries (and is literally nowhere to be found in Italy).
What I want is White Sandwich Bread.
Light as a cloud, cream-colored, with a thin medium-brown crust that we'd ask our parents to cut off (they'd say "No, it's the healthiest part," and now we know that it's actually the best part: a little sweeter, lightly caramelized, toasty, plus we can pretend it's healthy 'cause that's what Mom and Dad said), with a flavor that's ever-so-slightly sweet, a little milky, that reminds us of home, of being a kid, of being cared for, loved, comforted. It's bread that exists in our memory with a power that far surpasses the reality of what we actually ate back then. Wonder Bread was the holy grail, of course, and mostly forbidden in my family (or so it seemed), but that bizarre, non-delicious industrial cocktail of roughly 29 separate ingredients that I only ever ate at a friend's house somehow dug a white-bread-shaped hole in my psyche that cries out whenever I'm in The Doldrums.
The trouble of course, is that Wonder Bread itself doesn't fill that hole. Because it is actually kind of terrible. Because what's been created in my memory is something greater, something more primordial, a Platonic Ideal. Not Wonder Bread, but White Sandwich Bread. Warm, soft, fluffy, simple. With a jar of JIF or Skippy peanut butter and some Welch's grape jam sitting nearby on the table. And a huge glass of milk. Whole milk. We're not skimping today, OK?
I believe each one of us has a version of this (often several): a type of bread or some other dish from our childhood, a flavor or scent attached to a memory, to an emotion. Sometimes it's a noble food, like a fresh tomato from your grandmother's garden that she'd pick for you, cut, and sprinkle with salt. But other times it's something we might even be ashamed to admit—a Big Mac, for example (don't get me started), or White Sandwich Bread. Today, at least, that is what I need. If it does it for you, too (or if you're curious to understand a little bit about what makes me tick), I hope you'll try this recipe. It takes only about four hours start to finish (which for bread is pretty dang quick), but it satisfies like nothing else can.
It's not enough on its own to help us get through these difficult times, but it's something.
Life is hard. Eat White Bread.
Recipe: White Sandwich Bread
Yield: about 1 kg / 2.2 lbs (Adapted from Modernist Bread)
30g Fresh Yeast (10g / 1.25 tbsp Instant Dry Yeast)
415g / 1.75 cups Cold Whole Milk
525g / 3.25 cups Bread Flour
40g / .25 cup Granulated Sugar
8g / 1.25 tbsp Table Salt
- Dissolve the yeast in the cold milk in the bowl of a mixer.
- Add the flour and sugar and mix on low speed until the flour is absorbed and it starts to form a cohesive dough.
- Add the salt and continue mixing on medium speed until it pulls away from the sides of the bowl and forms a smooth, elastic dough. You should be able to delicately stretch a piece of the dough until it's basically transparent without breaking it (aka Windowpane Test—here's a video).
- Transfer to a bowl or plastic bin that you've oiled lightly, cover with plastic wrap and allow to ferment for 30 minutes (this step is called Bulk Fermentation).
- Fold the dough over itself in the bowl and allow it to ferment another 30 minutes (1 hour in total).
- In the meantime, lightly oil a loaf pan (a 23 cm x 10cm x 10cm / 9" x 4" x 4" pan is ideal for this quantity of dough) and set it aside.
- Turn out the dough onto a lightly-floured work surface and, without degassing it totally, form it into a rectangle roughly the length of your loaf pan. Starting from the part furthest away from you, roll the dough up into a loaf shape, press the seam against the work surface to seal it, and put the dough into the prepared pan.
- Lightly oil the top of the loaf with some neutral vegetable oil, cover loosely with plastic wrap and let it rise for about one hour (Final Proof). After about 30 minutes, preheat your oven to 195°C / 385°F with a rack in the lower-middle position.
- Test that the dough is ready by gently pressing it with your finger. If the dough bounces back quickly, it needs more time. When the dimple left by your finger slowly re-fills but not entirely, it's ready to go in the oven.
- Brush with an egg wash (beat one egg with a splash of cold water), score the dough straight down the middle lengthwise with a razor blade or very thin and sharp knife, and bake for 30 minutes.
- Remove the pan from the oven, tip out the bread, and return it to the oven placed on a wire rack over a baking sheet for another 5 minutes.
- Allow to cool completely (maybe not completely, but at least a half hour, OK?), spread with peanut butter, jelly, and all of your sorrows.
- This bread will stay fresh for a couple of days wrapped in plastic at room temperature. It should also freeze pretty well (sliced or unsliced). Once it gets stale, it's still pretty awesome as French Toast, regular toast, croutons, bread pudding, and mini frisbees.