Cookbook review: A family’s famed Peasant Bread inspires ‘Bread Toast Crumbs’

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Growing up, bread was a mainstay at every meal for Alexandra Stafford. Her mother’s famed Peasant Bread — the one dinner party guests always requested the recipe for — showed up as a cinnamon sugar-dusted breakfast toast or spiked with French cheese for lunch. And though her mother kept the recipe a secret for years, she eventually shared it with her daughter, and bread continues to be the backbone of the homemade meals Stafford enjoys and now shares with four young children of her own and her husband in upstate New York.

Stafford has made the bread many times for cooking school and catering job friends, but she first shared the recipe (with mom’s blessing, finally) on her blog, Alexandra’s Kitchen. And lucky for home cooks everywhere, she now shares the recipe and so much more in her cookbook Bread Toast Crumbs: Recipes for No-Knead Loaves and Meals to Savor Every Slice. This isn’t just a book about making bread. This is a book about making bread a part of your everyday life — from breakfast to dessert.

Besides flavor, the Peasant Bread recipe is appealing for its relatively quick rises. This bread can be made in an afternoon, which means it’s ready in time for dinner; this is much faster than Jim Lahey’s popular no-knead recipe, which is an excellent one but does require more planning. Stafford’s mother’s simple no-knead bread is baked directly in the buttered Pyrex bowls in which it rises. And Stafford shows readers and cooks how to make this homey and tasty bread, then how to use the heels and nubs of loaves until every last bit is enjoyed.

Like the nose-to-tail approach to meat, Stafford points out that bread has been used "loaf-to-crumb" for centuries. In her book, she compiles many enticing and delicious ways to use up the whole loaf.

The first section of the book, "Bread," begins with the master recipe for Peasant Bread and then offers myriad interpretations of it: pizza, rolls, focaccia, buns. Her Individual Breakfast Shakshukas are particularly brilliant and cute, with a sesame seed bread enveloping each serving of shakshuka. The bread for dipping is built into the dish.

The next phase of that homemade loaf? It’s all covered in the second section, "Toast," with recipes for bringing the rest of that day-old loaf back to life. It’s resuscitated as a savory French toast infused with thyme, or grilled for dipping into a saffron-rich broth for steamed mussels. A grilled cheese made with some leftover slices of the Peasant Bread is really special.

The final section, "Crumbs," offers vibrant ideas for using a loaf on its last legs. Stafford shares three versions of meatballs and three versions of panzanella, including a modern take with a tahini dressing, as well as orecchiette with brown butter and Brussels sprouts showered in golden bread crumbs. (These recipes can be used with a homemade loaf or a store-bought one.) She even takes bread crumbs to unexpectedly sweet territory. Salted caramel crumbs top off a scoop of goat’s milk gelato and toasted coconut crumbs pair with lime gelato.

In teaching us to use up the entire loaf, Stafford makes us better and more resourceful cooks. The lesson to make something from what is often discarded as scraps soon spills over into other areas of home cooking. And with a loaf of homemade bread — or a heel or a portion of bread crumbs — a satisfying dinner is never far off.

Contact Ileana Morales Valentine at [email protected]

The Peasant Bread Master Recipe

Alexandra Stafford says you can use 1 part boiling water to 3 parts cold water for perfectly lukewarm water. This usually amounts to cup boiling water and 1 cups cold water.

4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons kosher salt

2 teaspoons sugar

2? teaspoons instant or active-dry yeast

2 cups lukewarm water

Softened unsalted butter, for greasing

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, sugar, and instant yeast. Add the water. Using a rubber spatula, mix until the water is absorbed and the ingredients form a sticky dough ball.

Cover the bowl with a damp tea towel or plastic wrap and set aside in a warm spot to rise for 1 to 1? hours, until the dough has doubled in bulk.

Set a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat it to 425 degrees. Grease two 1-quart oven-safe bowls with the softened butter–be generous. Using two forks, deflate the dough by releasing it from the sides of the bowl and pulling it toward the center. Rotate the bowl quarter turns as you deflate, turning the mass into a rough ball.

Using your two forks and working from the center out, separate the dough into two equal pieces. Use the forks to lift each half of the dough into a prepared bowl. If the dough is too wet to transfer with forks, lightly grease your hands with butter or oil, then transfer each half to a bowl. Do not cover the bowls. Let the dough rise on the countertop near the oven (or another warm, draft-free spot) for 10 to 20 minutes, until the top of the dough just crowns the rims of the bowls.

Transfer the bowls to the oven and bake for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 375 degrees and bake for 17 to 20 minutes more, until evenly golden all around. Remove the bowls from the oven and turn the loaves out onto cooling racks. If the loaves look pale, return them to their bowls and bake for 5 minutes longer. Let the loaves cool for 15 minutes before cutting.

Makes two 14-ounce loaves.

Source: Bread Toast Crumbs: Recipes for No-Knead Loaves and Meals to Savor Every Slice by Alexandra Stafford with Liza Lowery (Clarkson Potter, 256 pages, $30)

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