Near-dead bread

Bread is one of several foods that are more

alive

than others
– two others are wine and cheese.
Each depends on its own variety of fermentation to develop. The
process in bread is caused by the fermentation of yeast or
sourdough.
Bread is one of several foods that are more “alive” than others – two others are wine and cheese.

Each depends on its own variety of fermentation to develop. The process in bread is caused by the fermentation of yeast or sourdough.

While yeast has been used to make bread rise (as well as brew beer, another lively food) at least since Egyptian times, the science of how yeast works has only been understood since Louis Pasteur analyzed it in 1859. Here’s what he discovered, according to the Web site for Fleischmann’s yeast:

1. Yeast feeds on the starches in flour, producing carbon dioxide.

2. The carbon dioxide expands the gluten proteins in the flour.

3. The gluten proteins cause the dough (of which flour is a main ingredient) to expand and rise.

Sourdough works much the same way. In fact, the main difference is that in commercial yeast the micro-organisms are held in suspended animation in the dry yeast powder, while in sourdough they live in the liquid starter.

Sourdough gives breads made with it a distinctive tangy flavor, while commercial yeast is milder and so more suitable for mild or sweet bread.

Of course, once the bread is baked, the yeast is no longer living, and the bread begins the process of becoming stale.

If you’ve ever eaten bread fresh from a real bakery, you know that most packaged bread is already a bit on the stale side.

After a couple of days, as Better Homes and Gardens puts it, “it’s too old for sandwiches and too young for birds.” It hasn’t lost nutrition, and, unless it’s moldy, it’s still safe to eat.

And if you know a few recipes, it can still be delicious.

In fact, one of my favorite treats is dried-out sourdough bread, toasted till almost black and very crunchy, then buttered. I love the crunch and the carbon-y flavor.

However, having almost overdone it a few times, to the point where the kitchen was filled with smoke and the cabinet above the toaster was on the verge of bursting into flames, I cannot recommend you try this at home.

Here are a few safe recipes for various breads that are past their prime. This first one uses commercial cinnamon raisin bread. Even though the bread is another favorite of mine, I have found the package pushed to the back of the cabinet, making the remaining slices prime candidates for re-invention.

Cinnamon-Raisin Bread Pudding

(adapted from Weightwatchers’ “Simply Delicious” cookbook)

Serves 4

1 cup milk (original recipe calls for fat-free)

2 large eggs

1/4 cup plus 1 tbs. sugar

1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

8 slices cinnamon-raisin swirl bread, cut in 1-inch cubes

Step 1: Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Step 2: Spray a 1 1/2-quart shallow baking dish with cooking spray, or lightly butter.

Step 3: Combine milk, eggs, 1/4 cup sugar and vanilla in a large bowl and mix well.

Step 4: Stir in the bread cubes and let stand 5 minutes, stirring lightly. Pour into the baking dish.

Step 5: Sprinkle the top with the remaining 1 tbs. sugar.

Step 6: Bake, uncovered, until lightly puffed and golden and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean, about 25 to 30 minutes. Let stand 15 minutes before serving warm.

This next recipe is handy if you have overnight guests, especially unexpected overnight guests, whom you wish to feed elegantly despite the advanced age of the bread in your larder. It is also a good vehicle for using up miscellaneous cheeses, as long as they are firm enough for grating and only one has a strong flavor.

This recipe needs to be refrigerated for at least six hours before baking, so it’s ideal to make the night before and then relax while it bakes the next morning. The recipe also included a suggestion for cooking bacon in the oven (see below), which could make your morning go even more smoothly.

Cheese Strata

(adapted from Martha Stewart Living)

Serves 6

2 Tbs. unsalted butter, melted, plus more, softened for baking dish

8 slices firm or day-old white bread (sourdough works great)

1 1/2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese

1 1/2 cups grated Swiss cheese

2 Tbs. chopped fresh chives

4 large eggs

2 cups milk

1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper

1 tsp. coarse salt

1/4 tsp. freshly ground pepper

Step 1: Butter an 8-inch square baking dish; line bottom with 4 slices bread.

Step 2: Sprinkle bread with half of each cheese. Top with chives.

Step 3: Layer with remaining bread and cheese.

Step 4: Whisk together eggs, milk, melted butter, cayenne, salt and pepper. Pour mixture into baking dish.

Step 5: Cover and refrigerate at least 6 hours or overnight.

Step 6: When ready to bake, preheat oven to 325 degrees. Bake until puffed and golden, about 40 minutes. Let stand at least 10 minutes before serving.

To cook bacon, line two rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper and arrange slices of bacon, making sure they don’t overlap. When you take the strata out of the oven, turn the heat up to 400 degrees. Once the oven is heated, bake the bacon until crisp and browned, 15 to 18 minutes, rotating the sheets once. Transfer to paper towels to drain.

Finally, here is a recipe for croutons. These can be tricky to make because they would just as soon burn (the main ingredient being dried bread …). But homemade ones are so much better, and so much cheaper, than the boxed version, that it’s worth the effort.

Croutons

(adapted from the Better Homes and Gardens Web site)

2 cups 1- to 1-1/2-inch cubes French or Italian bread (about 2 ounces)

1 Tbs. olive oil

1 Tbs. butter

2 large cloves garlic, minced

(optional) 1 tsp. dried seasoning, crushed (such as Italian herbs, Greek seasoning, herbes de Provence, bouquet garni seasoning or desired spice blend)

Step 1: Place bread cubes in a bowl. In a large skillet heat oil and margarine or butter over medium-low heat. Add garlic (or other seasoning).

Step 2: Cook and stir 30 seconds. Do not allow garlic to brown. Drizzle over bread cubes, tossing to coat well.

Step 3: Pour cubes into skillet. Cook, stirring occasionally, over medium-low heat for 6 to 8 minutes or until cubes are lightly brown and crisp. Wait to turn the croutons until they’re as brown and crisp as you like.

Step 4: Remove from pan. Drain on paper towels. Store tightly covered for up to one week. Makes about 2 cups.

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