Here is bread, which strengthens man's heart, and therefore is called the staff of Life.
- Matthew Henry (1662 – 1714)
Bread is considered the Staff of Life, Manna from Heaven, something holy, important to both body and soul. Yet what is bread, after all? Just flour, yeast and water really, maybe a tad of salt and sugar tossed in. You cannot get more elemental, more earthy than that. Some may call bread bland, some may call it insipid, yet as simple and pure as it is, bread is truly a basic necessity, a staple of our diet whatever our culture, whole and complete, rip off a chunk and stuff it in your mouth, earthy and good. And bread is the perfect blank slate for all the rest that we eat: bread for sandwiches, bread to sop up gravy and sauce, bread for dunking in hot cocoa, bread turned into croutons floating in soup, bread sweetened for puddings or tossed into salads. I am always amazed at how something so plain and simple can be turned into something so succulent, so exotic, so rich. Yet bread still remains the best in its plainest, simplest, barest most natural of form. Just bread. Indispensible.
A bagel and a schmear.
Bread has always been an important staple on our Jewish table. Sacred meaning braided into loaves, twined into our festivals and celebrations. Bread filled with folklore and wrapped around traditions, studded and brushed with symbolism.
Challah, lovely Challah, symbol of love, the braids like intertwined arms. Shaped into circles, the New Year Challah represents a sweet, round year, beginning to end and back to the beginning again; no beginning and no end.
Challah, soft, tender chunks ripped off, pulled apart tress by tress, dunked in honey, dunked in milky café au lait, dunked in cherry jam. Challah cut into thick slices, adding a subtle sweetness to an egg salad sandwich, to chopped liver between two wedges. Soaked in egg and fried up just to crispy, drizzled with a shimmering thread of maple syrup for a very special French toast.
I baked my first Challah in an old fifth-floor walkup in Brooklyn a cool November day. Two even loaves, ostensibly perfect, risen with a deep golden crust. My first yeast breads, a clumsy start, an awkward, unrefined attempt, those beautiful loaves came out dry and hard, dust in the mouth, a texture less bread than board. My own pride and self-contentment was mixed with embarrassment, yet I had overcome my fear of baking bread.
Years later, I would come to understand the secrets of yeast with its earthy scent and mysterious ways. And years later, I would carry on the old traditions of kneading, shaping, braiding and baking homemade Challah once a week to welcome in the Shabbat, much to the delight of husband and sons. They loved nothing better than coming home Friday afternoon to the site of a plump Challah on the table between the long, tapered white candles in their holders, the table set for festivities.
Matzoh, in my book, is a much-maligned delicacy.
Matzoh is flat, crispy, flavorless unleavened bread eaten by Jews the world over during the eight days of Passover. Non-Jews everywhere recoil in horror at the thought of it, bland and dry, and my husband, for one, cannot fathom my love for the stuff, symbolism and holiday aside. He shakes his head in dismay as I slather plain matzoh eagerly, joyously with peanut butter or hummus, thin slices of tart kosher dills lined up and down, side by side, salty to accompany the nutty hummus, and relish every mouthful. A smear of tart, sweet cherry jam on creamier egg matzoh (with its pale yellow hue and gentle trace of sweetness) makes a wonderful snack when cake and cookies are out of the question. The flavor of childhood.
One must need do without bread for those eight days of holiday, and I have always been able to switch my focus on matzoh, love it, adore it, eat it for eight days without regret, without loathing. But Passover is the most difficult of the Jewish holidays for a non-Jewish spouse. Hanukkah is fine, candles and prayers offering a beautiful ambiance, quickly followed by gifts, excited children, chocolate coins and hot, crispy potato pancakes eaten right off the griddle, smothered in applesauce.
Shabbat, the Sabbath, is welcome indeed, Friday night, the calm oasis at the end of a harsh working week. He walks in the house, TGIF, to the glow of the warm candles on a beautifully set table laden with a special meal and a still-warm-from-the-oven Challah. No work, just a tranquil family-oriented evening.
But Passover means clearing out the house of bread, cake, cookies and all the good stuff as he knows it; no rice, no pasta, no flour or yeast. And no bread. No run downstairs to the corner boulangerie for the lunchtime baguette or that once-a-week homemade pizza night. No bread, my Frenchman, no bread. By the sixth night he cannot take it anymore! No bread for his cheese? He sees me pull the box of matzoh from the cupboard and place it on the lunchtime table and he revolts. « I cannot take it anymore! » he cries, exhorting that there is no way he can go the entire holiday, those seemingly endless eight days, eight lunches, eight dinners, without bread. And he bolts from the house, dashes to the boulangerie and comes home proudly bearing a glorious baguette.
A pain au chocolat was my very first taste of France, standing in the Home Ec room watching my very elegant 8th-grade French teacher roll up chunks of deep, dark chocolate in pale, moist, out-of-the-can biscuit dough, pushing myself up on tippy toes trying to capture each and every movement of her hands as she created that special treat for a roomful of impatient students anxious to savor what to us defined that far-away sophisticated culture. Or the memories of that first flaky, crisp pain au chocolat on my first voyage to Paris, standing on a street corner, rather stunned that I was finally there. I so clearly remember stumbling into the nearest corner boulangerie from where we were staying, my college friend and I, and pointing, grinning, even my basic schoolgirl French having abandoned me, at the plump, golden pastry, just a teasing hint of the chocolate peeping out between the folds.
Bread and chocolate stirs up visions of tow-headed children on Parisian streets, elegant little children in shiny Mary Janes or black brogues dressed in pleated navy skirts and Loden coats, their excited after-school chatter filling the void between honking cars and city sounds, each enfant clutching a hunk of baguette, dense, warm from the boulangerie, a long, narrow bar of chocolate sticking out for all the world to see. Watch them as they bite into the crispy crust, crumbs hurriedly brushed away, joyously ripping into the tender center, *crack* into the slender bar of chocolate Maman or nourrice has so lovingly tucked inside and all thoughts of sharing a crêpe and a glass of wine with a chic young parisien fall aside: this is picture-perfect French romance itself.
Tiens-toi à distance de celui qui n'aime pas le pain ou la voix d'un enfant.
- Proverbe suisse
Half a lifetime ago, uniform slices of packaged white sandwich bread, chewy bagels and loaves swirled with traces of cinnamon, dotted with raisins were traded in for baguettes, croissants, brioche and pain de campagne. Lunch no longer consists of heaps of baloney smeared with mustard or peanut butter and jelly clapped between two slices, bread simply making that lunchtime appearance in brown papers sacks carried to school or while sitting in the front yard, sandwich clutched in one hand, book in the other. Bread became an important element of every meal, a chunk of baguette ripped from the loaf or sliced up and handed round the table, to push meat and vegetables onto a fork or to sop up sauce from the plate at the end of the main course; a thick wedge of miche or pain de campagne eaten with a thick wedge of camembert or comté, spread with tangy goat cheese or stinky maroilles, a basic element of every French meal.
Fresh bread bought every day.
White papers sacks carried home from the boulangerie on weekend mornings bearing buttery croissants and pain aux raisins (leaving greasy traces on the bag, greasy traces on fingers) was a habit I quickly adapted to. A French home without fresh bread was no home at all; a Frenchman without his bread at every meal, I discovered, was miserable indeed, the meal simply being incomplete. Croissants, something so special, so rare, so sophisticated back home were almost, but not quite, run of the mill, something sold as commonly as a loaf, baskets full in every corner bakery case. Bread back home was either the meal itself or simply an afterthought; here, in my new country, bread was heart and soul of the kitchen, of the home.
Stale bread dipped in egg and fried up, pain perdu.
This is actually my sister's recipe, one she got from a friend of hers. The tradition of turning stale bread into pudding is both American and French, though the result might be slightly different - Americans will make pudding with chunks of bread while the French pudding is often made with the stale bread ground fine like breadcrumbs and used to bind the pudding like flour - but either way, what a sweet way to use up leftover bread! I love this chocolate version which tastes much like a candy bar, especially when made with a sweet bread like Challah or brioche, my preference.
JAMIE’S CHOCOLATE BREAD PUDDING
1 ½ squares (1 ½ oz/ 45 g) unsweetened chocolate, chopped
2 ½ cups (600 ml) whole milk
2 large eggs
½ cup (110 g) sugar
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
2 – 4 cups stale bread cubes (less bread will give you more custard, more bread will give you a denser, chewer pudding)
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Butter a 1 ½ quart (1 ½ litres) baking dish.
Heat the chopped chocolate and the milk together in a large, heatproof bowl over a pot of simmering water, stirring, until all of the chocolate is melted.
Beat the eggs just until they are foamy then beat in the sugar and the salt.
Add the chocolate/milk mixture to the eggs gradually, stirring vigorously. Stir in the vanilla. Add the cubes of bread and press them down, stirring, until all of the bread is soaked in the chocolate mixture. Allow the bread pudding batter to stand for 10 minutes, stirring and pressing down the bread cubes occasionally.
Grease a 1 ½ quart (1 ½ litres) baking dish of any shape. Pour the pudding into the baking dish and place in a water bath and bake 50 minutes until slightly puffed and the pudding is firm.
Serve warm with freshly whipped cream or ice cream. Keep any leftover pudding in the refrigerator; the pudding gets denser and more satisfying, the flavor evolving into something like a wonderfully elegant candy bar.