The French have two distinct bread traditions. One is of breads that are crusty, crunchy, and limited to four ingredients: flour, leavening, salt, and water. They’re the sexy, trendy breads of today. When the leavening is sourdough rather than yeast, the resulting loaves are those featured in “artisan” bakeries and those that inspire many of us to bake our own bread at home.
For several hundred years, when English speakers said “French bread,” we didn’t think of the golden, rough-textured breads we so love today. And we never thought of sourdough! Sour was a taste we didn’t like in bread. Cookbooks in the 19th century advised adding soda to neutralize any starter or bread dough that had even a hint of sourness.
A History of French Bread
Historically, the breads we emulated in our bakeries and homes were the second kind in the history of French bread: soft white breads lightly enriched with butter, eggs, and milk, and leavened with yeast. Cookbook authors from the 1600s and 1700s called those loaves “French bread,” and later authors called them “French rolls.” In their softness and subtlety of flavor, they reminded us of the sensuous sophistication of French food in particular, and of French culture more generally.
While this “French bread” fell out of fashion, it never went away. If you break American bread recipes down to their underlying ingredient ratios — how much milk to flour or fat to flour — you’ll find that we never abandoned the French bread of previous centuries. Between the white, yeasted, enriched French breads published in France (and interpreted by British authors in the 1600s and 1700s) and the classic American bread that was the star of cookbooks throughout most of the 19th and 20th centuries, the only difference is that bakers started adding a little sugar to the dough and bumped up the amount of salt. Because most of that sugar is consumed by the yeast in the same way that a cider or wine goes “dry” during the fermentation process, adding a little sugar is more to soften the bread and increase its loft than to make it taste sweet.
I want to reintroduce you to American sandwich bread from its real source: France, via early British cookbooks. Fantastically, the basic French bread recipe I offer you here, first published by Henry Howard in 1708 in England, is the same recipe for sandwich bread published in two classic American cookbooks — the 1924 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book and the 1970s edition of Joy of Cooking. The only effective difference between the 1708 recipe and the modern American recipes is the addition of sugar. The white, enriched American loaf breads you find in cookbooks and online are direct descendants — and virtually unchanged at that — of what the French used to call pain de luxe : bread of luxury. They are breads of luxury. They deserve a fresh look.
Basic French Bread Recipe
- 4 cups (21 ounces) unbleached white flour
- 1-1/2 tsp salt (optional)
- 3 eggs
- 2 tbsp sugar (if making American variation)
- 1 cup warm milk
- 2 tbsp unsalted butter, softened
- 2-1/4 tsp yeast
In 1708, when this recipe was published, eggs were backyard eggs, milk was raw, and butter was freshly churned. The white flour was slightly less white than ours today, but not by enough to matter. I have backyard chickens that lay eggs with such rich, dark yolks that when I serve this bread, friends sometimes ask, “Why is this bread so yellow?”
To be honest, I have only just started using the sugar and full complement of salt. I’m loving it! I hope you’ll find a new appreciation for yeasted, lightly enriched breads and for the American loaf bread tradition.
- In a bowl, add flour and optional salt, mix, and set aside.
- In another bowl, break eggs, add optional sugar, then mix and set aside.
- In a small saucepan, add the milk and softened butter, broken into small pieces.
- Warm to 110 to 115 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Stir to help the butter melt. Add the warm milk and yeast to the beaten eggs and mix.
- Set a “sponge” (pre-ferment) by adding about 1 cup of the flour/salt mixture to the egg mixture to form a batter. Mix until smooth.
- Dust with flour, cover, and set aside in a warm place.
- Add the rest of the flour mixture when the sponge is clearly active, has risen, and the dusting of flour has cracked.
- Form into a rough mass by hand or with a mixer. Historically, this bread was not kneaded, giving it a cakey texture.
- Cover and set aside in a warm place to double in size.
- When doubled, remove to a lightly floured counter.
- Then, gently pressing with your hands or working gently with a rolling pin, form a perfect rectangle the length of the tin and twice as wide.
- Roll into a cylinder and place seam side down in a well-buttered baking tin, 10 inches by 4-1/4 inches by 3 inches.
- Cover, and set aside in a warm place until dough has risen just above top of the pan. For a shiny crust, brush with a beaten egg.
- Bake for 40 minutes in an oven set at 350 degrees.
- Remove from the oven, tip the loaf out of the pan, and set it on a rack.
- Wait 2 hours, until the bread has cooled, to cut and serve.
Abundant Ideas for French Bread
This classic French bread recipe was meant to be served along with other foods — spread with butter and jam or toasted and put into soup. To help you get into this bread, I’ve included, along with the classic French bread recipe, some of the ways I most often use it.
This is the classic homemade sandwich loaf — soft, and a lovely yellow. Slice thinly and fill with your favorite sandwich ingredients.
Bread and Butter
Here’s a reason to make your own butter and jam: the simple yet out-of-this-world flavor of spreading them on warm, classic French bread.
- To make butter, whip some cream in a food processor until it “breaks” (when the fat separates from the liquid).
- Pour into a bowl, and then pour off the liquid. Add some cold water.
- Using a spoon, work the butter in the cold water to rinse out the buttermilk and repeat until the water remains clear (meaning you’ve removed all the milk).
- Next, drain it, work the butter one more time to eliminate at least some of the water trapped inside, and then place the butter on a plate and serve with the bread and jam. Ideal for a holiday gathering.
If you only try one of these recipes, this is the one to choose. The British sippet takes many forms. The version I offer here falls into that class of foods I label “beyond delicious.” All I could say when I tested the recipe for this article was, “Oh, my God!” That’s how great it is.
- To make, prepare a few slices of bread about 1⁄4 inch thick, trim off the crusts, and lightly spread with butter on both sides.
- Fry on a griddle over medium heat until light brown.
- Cut in half or quarters, place a few pieces in a soup bowl, ladle on some soup, and enjoy.
These are delicious crackers that are easy to make.
- Thinly slice a few pieces of bread (no more than 1⁄4 inch).
- Trim off the crust, and then cut in halves or quarters.
- Toast to golden in an oven heated to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Perfect for cheese, spreads, liver pâté, and country pâté.
A warming topping for toast on cold winter mornings and always a favorite of children. Take one slice of cinnamon toast with tea medicinally when you’re feeling down.
- Mix cinnamon and sugar in a ratio of 1 part cinnamon to 2 parts sugar, and then adjust to taste.
- Toast bread, spread liberally with room-temperature butter, sprinkle thickly with the cinnamon sugar, and serve hot.
The French call it pain perdu, or lost bread. I think of it as found happiness. I have been known to mix up a batch of this French bread just to make it into French toast.
- Per thick slice of bread, use 1 egg beaten with 1⁄4 cup milk.
- Pour into a flat-bottomed dish, soak each slice until saturated, 1 or 2 minutes per side, and then fry in butter over medium heat until brown.
- Serve with the topping of your choice, such as maple syrup or a sprinkling of sugar and lemon.
Bread and Butter Pudding
I put this in the class of “dangerous dishes.” I don’t make this often because I can’t stop eating it. This is the recipe I grew up with, so it’s a dish full of memories. My mother made it in late fall through early spring, when the nights were cold. What makes a bread pudding a pudding is the custard it’s soaked in.
- First, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- To make the custard, lightly whisk 4 eggs in a bowl, along with 1⁄4 cup sugar, add 1 quart milk, and set aside.
- Then, bring 2 cups of water to boil and add 3⁄4 cup raisins.
- Parboil (partially cook) the raisins for 3 minutes, strain, and set aside.
- Cut off the crust on all four sides of a loaf that weighs 1 pound, and slice it into 1⁄2-inch slices.
- Butter one side with room-temperature butter.
- Then, butter the sides of a 9-cup soufflé mold. Layer the bread, butter side down, spreading raisins on each layer.
- Add the custard.
- Let stand for 30 minutes, and then bake for 1 hour, or until the top is browned and a knife inserted comes out clean.