Day 232 – National French Bread Day

I’ve talked about Apicella’s Italian Bread here before. It’s a New Haven institution and having grown up in the area, that was the fresh bread that was part of our neighborhood. We lived outside New Haven but our local deli, like most of the other delis in town, carried Apicella’s fresh baked bread. It was delivered fresh every morning around the same time and there would be people waiting for it. It was still warm when it arrived. They would stack it in front of the deli case and the formidable stack would slowly be picked away leaving only a few loaves if any by the early afternoon. This was every day. I remember bringing home a loaf, still warm in its white bag. I can still feel how it would squeeze, with just the right amount of give. If it didn’t have that bounce back, you had an older loaf. We’d make sandwiches with it, serve it alongside our dinner or more often than not, just slab some butter on it. It was best that way. Fresh chewy dough with a crusty exterior. That’s when I first really learned to enjoy the pleasure of a fresh made loaf of bread. The thought of getting a fresh loaf of that bread is still dreamy to me. But that was Italian bread. Today was about French Bread.

I guess two cultures that really honor and appreciate the fine art of fresh made bread are Italian and French. They both know it has a place at every table. It’s part of the whole sensual experience of eating. It’s not just tasty but it’s visually stimulating and smells great too. But there is a difference between the two types of bread. The Reluctant Gourmet helped me understand that:

To broadly generalize, while French bread is long with rounded edges, Italian bread comes in a more overall circular shape. French bread is typically baked in a long, thin shape and has become the major food symbol of the country. The baguette can be baked as long as 30 inches and is a staple in almost every region. On the other hand, Italian bread is known to be baked in more a flat and round shape. Italian loaves are also shorter and typically thicker than their French counterparts. Although it is possible to get baguette-type looking bread in an Italian bakery, on average, most Italian bread is shaped into larger rounds.

Although the French have lots of types of bread like the pain de campagne (country bread), the most common French bread is the baguette. A baguette, which literally translates to “stick” in French, is the long, stick shaped bread that is generally associated with French cafe imagery. Picture it – woman in a beret walking down a Parisian street passing by cafes, Eiffel Tower in the background, a bag of groceries in her arms from which extends a long loaf of bread. That’s the baguette. Nowadays, baguettes are everywhere. They are in the grocery store, at fine restaurants and even at the delis in our neighborhood. They seem to be a bit more popular than Italian Bread, but that also has a lot to do with the influence of culture. In any case, they sell fresh baked baguettes at Clements Market and I picked up a loaf there today to celebrate this day.

You do have to get your baguettes early at Clements because they tend to sell out. Selling out of bread by the early evening is a good thing for everyone, excepting ducks of course who look forward to being fed some stale bread. When I got there, they still had a few loaves left. I quickly snatched it up. There are a lot of ways you can serve a good French Bread, but I decided to go with a bruschetta. That’s an Italian dish which I was going to serve on a French bread. I think that’s ok though. The baguette is perfectly suited for bruschetta. It’s the perfect size whereas the Italian bread is a bit wider, so I was fine with my decision. I picked up a tub of bruschetta mix in the deli area from Joseph’s Mediterranean Cuisine. I am never opposed to making a fresh bruschetta mix using ripe tomatoes, fresh basil and garlic, but that’s a tall order in the winter. To make it perfect, you need those in season vegetables. Because that was not an option, I went the easy route with the mix. I’ve used this before and it’s actually superb. It’s got great flavor, it’s locally made and it’s a real time saver.

When I got home, there was still a few hours until dinner and I was a bit hungry, so because I happened to have a fresh baguette in the house, I cut off a few thin slices and I spread on some Nutella. I bought Nutella a few weeks back to celebrate National Nutella Day and for some reason, I have been craving it this week. I had some on Sunday afternoon spread over some graham crackers. Today I had it on the French bread and that seemed to actually be more in line with a true celebration of French bread. That’s one of the many ways they celebrate in France. When you order it at a cafe in Paris at certain parts of the day, it gets served with Nutella. To me, it was just a good vehicle for getting that chocolate hazelnut flavor into my mouth. All in all, it was a pretty great afternoon snack.

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When it was time for dinner, I cut about half of the baguette into thin slices. I got the oven going at a somewhat high temp. In the summer, I like to grill the baguettes, but it was too chilly for me tonight and I didn’t feel like standing outside watching it. The oven would be fine. I prepped some olive oil on a plate and sprinkled in some garlic powder, then I dunked each piece of bread into the oil so it would soak in that flavor. After about ten minutes in the oven, they came out perfectly toasted.

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Then I just scooped the bruschetta mix onto each crostini and finished each piece with a sprinkle of parmesan cheese. I really went pretty Italian on this serving and that’s ok. It shows the diversity of the bread and the different cultures. We have this often during the summer on our deck. It’s the perfect light meal for those long days of summer bliss. You are sun drenched, maybe tired from being outside all day. We eat it with some cold beers or even a glass of chilled white wine and we munch on our snack as we watch the sky change colors with the setting sun. Having it tonight made us really excited for summer even though we are only two days into Spring. The warm air will come soon. That’s the promise of bruschetta.

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Even though it was dark outside and still cold, the bruschetta was great as always. It’s such a perfect mixture of flavors. The freshness of the tomatoes and basil mixed with the hardiness of the olive oil. The crunch of the toasted bread which once you bite, reveals a soft, doughy interior that immediately soaks in the flavor of the topping. The hint of parmesan to balance it all out. We ate it up happily in the quiet of our family room being slightly disturbed by the crunch of our every bites. This is one of Lola’s most favorite things and not only did she like it, she began yearning for the summer as I was. Bruschetta is pretty versatile too. You can put all kinds of topping on there. I have made one for a brunch which was topped with marscapone cheese and some fresh fruit. It always delivers and that’s a tribute to the delight of French bread.

Apropos of nothing, I also made a Double Chocolate Banana Bread today. My cousin Clare had sent me the recipe after I had made a banana bread saying that this recipe was a sure fire winner. It’s been on my mind and I just happened to have three bananas that were perfect for it. It was super easy to make and Clare did not lie, it was outstanding! I know it doesn’t fall in my celebration agenda, but I realized two things. One, I enjoy taking requests and suggestions. One of the joys of this is knowing who is reading and what they are thinking about when they are following along. And two, if I learned anything from this quest it’s that I kind of enjoy cooking. It’s something I can do and it’s almost relaxing to bang something out. That’s why making this was a joy. Plus we have a delicious banana bread on our kitchen table waiting for us to dig in when we get a hankering.

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French bread is one of those things in life that become common to us but we never really pause and take the time to appreciate what it is. Somehow, when that loaf of fresh bread gets lost in the stack of groceries in our cart, we forget that craftsmanship and love that a baker puts into each loaf. That’s what the French really learned to appreciate. They made this bread part of their culture. Part of the enjoyment of life. It’s not something that ends up on the side of the plate, it is part of the whole experience and sometime THE experience. I can get behind that kind of bread love. That’s kind of how I feel about Apicella’s bread. And even though that’s Italian, today was true testament to the French attitude toward good bread. It brings us happiness and hope. Célébrez le pain!

Next Up: National Bavarian Crepes Day 

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