The Upper Crust

Norma Najacht
I admit I’m a bread snob.
I haven’t always been that way. I haven’t even always liked bread. But considering the breads I was accustomed to, it’s no wonder.
I didn’t grow up in a bread-making family. My mother never made bread and, as far as I know, neither did my grandmother. All I knew was the supermarket variety, which in my youth, as I remember, was Sunbeam bread. I remember the cute little curly-haired blonde girl on the package and the contest that asked us to send in our pictures to see who looked most like her. My mother never sent in my picture. But I digress.
After I married, Dr. Eldridge at the Hot Springs VA Hospital told my husband he had allergies and needed to eat homemade bread. I’m not sure what his reasoning was, but, as the dutiful little wife that I was, I bought a sack of flour and made a loaf from the recipe printed on the package. 
It was far from the ideal, but I persevered. I branched out and tried other recipes to find the ultimate loaf. I once asked my aunt, who did bake bread, how to make my loaves raise better and she said to “slap them.”
No matter how much I slapped my dough, it still didn’t conform to my will. 
All this time, my husband talked about the crusty breads with crackly crusts and soft interiors that he had eaten in his childhood bought from the bakery in Sheboygan, Wis. I didn’t have a clue about how to bake that kind of bread. I didn’t even know what he was talking about because I’d never eaten bread like that, but he made it sound so appealing!
So I continued my search for the ultimate loaf, trying various recipes, including one I found in a magazine for an Italian loaf. If an Italian ever came across this bread, he would not have recognized it. With a pale, insipid  crust and a styrofoam-like crumb and little taste, it bore no resemblance to a real Italian loaf of bread. But none of us knew that at the time. How could a magazine print the recipe unless it was a true Italian bread!
Nevertheless, we ate it and I suspect that most of the people where I lived hadn’t experienced real Italian bread, either. When I made it for an auction, it was snapped up quickly at an inflated price. I shudder to think what the buyer thought of it.
In the years since, I have come to the conclusion that most people, like me, don’t know what good bread is and even many expensive restaurants serve mediocre bread with their meals. 
I eventually bought a variety of bread books which have finally provided me with the tools to make what I consider good artisan breads — with the cracky crusts and flavorful, soft crumb my husband remembers from his childhood — breads with a rich dark-brown exterior, a gelatinous crumb that smells of wheat and with the complex flavors that develop during the cold retardation as the starches in the flour turn to sugars and are carmelized in the crust when introduced to a shot of steam in the oven as they bake.
If you listen carefully, you can hear the crusts crackle as the loaves cool.
Follow me along as I make these loaves and post the pictures. This is a true Italian loaf I recently made called Semolina Filone. (It tasted as good as it looks!)
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