Today was April Fool’s Day which is always kind of a holiday to me although to be honest, I held back this year. As someone who is generally known as a prankster, a day devoted to mischief and fun is right up my alley. As a youngster I did all the typical April Fools Day things – taping the button on the spray handle in the kitchen sink, whoopee cushions on the kitchen chairs, hiding my mom’s glasses. I liked the reactions I would get. I had a good education for it. When I was older, I’d keep the tradition going and working in restaurants, there were lots of things you could do to celebrate the day: put whipped cream on the phone receiver then call the number, tell a waiter that the person at a particular table was deaf so make sure you talk loud and clear to them, send in a fake order for 20 burgers to the kitchen one minute before the grill closes. The cooks loved that one. When I was at an office job, I would send out memos to the whole company on April Fools Day with odd instructions that some people would actually believe. I sent one that said managers were now required to wear capes while working. Another said that in order to make the restaurants feel more like an authentic Mexican restaurant, we would start to have live chickens roaming the floors. My classic however remains one that said we would rotate managers every month so managers in Maine would rotate to Connecticut and then to New Hampshire, etc. for an entire year. I got a talking to for that one because one manager believed me and was really pissed – almost ready to quit on the spot. But after the District Manager assured him it was a joke and I was just being silly, he stayed on. I’d always put little clues in the memos that gave it away like effective February 31st, but sometimes you hit the right note and even the silliest of ideas are believed. Lesson learned.
What I realized today was that I have achieved a master level for April Fools Day. That means that I don’t have to do anything and people are on high alert around me. Your past actions have spoken loud and clear and now people just wait for something to happen. Lola was on high alert today. There was a moment of hesitation every time she turned on the kitchen sink. A slow peak around each corner. A general disbelief in whatever I asked her to do. That’s master level status. You just put the doubt in their minds by just being there. Mission accomplished. Of course this works best when you don’t actually do anything. You let their caution and fear work itself out. That was my April Fools Day. Next year I’ll have to do something because otherwise your master status wears off. Yep, you have to keep them on their toes. and I just gave Lola a one year warning that something is coming.
Today was also National Sourdough Day and that was an easy one to celebrate. I had picked up a loaf of sourdough at the grocery store earlier in the day and was ready for what they day brought. I figured having the bread in house was half the battle. Sourdough bread is not that hard to find these days. I feel it had a boom in popularity over the last fifteen years, perhaps it coincided with the rise of the panini, and now it is a fixture in every bakery and bakery section. The loaf I got was relatively small, probably the size of a football, with a good crusty exterior and that fresh, sour smell of a good loaf of this special bread.
Sourdough is the oldest and most original form of leavened bread and dates back to ancient Egyptian times. According to “The History of Sourdough” from KitchenProject.com, the Egyptians probably already had access to flat bread which was unleavened, but they discovered, most likely by accident, that “if you mix any ground up grain with a liquid such as water or milk and let it sit in the open air at room temperature, wild yeasts in the air will settle in the mix, eat the natural sugars and convert them into lactic (and other) acids which give it a sour flavor. They also give off alcohol and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is what will cause the bread to rise. When worked into a bread dough, the bubbles get trapped into the structure of the bread, and that is the little holes that you see.” The Egyptians were also known to make a lot of beer as they were innovators to the whole brewing process. The breweries and the bakeries were often in the same place, so a batch of flour may have been mixed with beer and produced a light loaf of bread, or the wild yeast spores were thick from the brewing and they got into the bread doughs and caused them to rise considerably more than the usual wild sourdoughs. No matter what happened, the yeasts hopped in to the dough and the rest is history. Fast forward to the 1840’s when the Gold Rush was happening, a baker in the San Fransisco realized that the yeast cultures in that area were very unique and gave the bread a different and special taste. The bakers who opened the Boudin Bakery in 1849 have been using the same sourdough culture and recipe ever since. The Boudin family calls it the “Mother dough” and it is so important to their success that it was heroically saved by Louise Boudin during the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. It’s still being used today and it is why we often associate sourdough bread with San Francisco.
I doubt that the original yeast culture from San Fransisco was used in the bread I bought today, but it still had that usual sourdough smell and I was anxious to cut in to it. In the end, I decided that the best use of the bread would be as part of a grilled cheese sandwich. Like I said, I think this all derives from when paninis started popping up as the “it” sandwich and nearly all of them in the beginning were served on sourdough. There was something about how the outside would grill up so nicely that paired well with the melted cheese inside a sandwich. That was my vision and I told Lola that it was going to be grilled cheeses for dinner to see if she was ok with that. She was and not only was she ok, she also wanted to hear about my vision. What kind of cheese was I going to use? My plan was to use a mixture of Pepper Jack cheese with some American and a slice of tomato. That was not Lola’s vision. She pictured cheddar cheese. Lola will sometimes have the vision of a particular food in her head and she will want that food recreated. When I said Grilled Cheese, she imagined the grilled cheese that Jon Favreau makes for himself in the movie Chef. We watched that movie well over a year ago and still Lola pictured the grilled cheese that he eats at a random moment in the movie. It’s a good looking sandwich and it somehow has been swirling in Lola’s head for over a year as the grilled cheese she wanted.
Watching this scene again, I knew what Lola was looking for: crunch on the sandwich and gooey, melty cheese. And even though I couldn’t recreate it exactly, I knew what the end result should be. I cut the bread into 1/4 inch slices. There was a gaping hole at the center of the bread which will happen with sourdough bread depending on how the dough rises. It was fine but not was not ideal for grilled cheeses. I had to cut a couple of extra slices to get the right pieces. I put some butter down on our grill pan and then soaked the bread with the melted butter. I then put down the cheese on each slice of bread. I stuck with the Pepper Jack and the American but for Lola’s, I used the Pepper Jack and then some shredded cheddar cheese on top. I let that cook for a few minutes until it looked like the cheese was getting a little melty, then I closed up each of the slices into two sandwiches (I added in a grilled tomato to mine before butting the top on). I then watched it cook making sure the outside was browning nicely and not burning. I put a lid over the whole pan to help melt the cheese too. They came out golden brown on the outside and when I cut them in half, they cut with a nice crunch and gooey cheese oozed out. Perfection.
When Lola finished hers, she said it was the best grilled cheese she had ever had and she was even debating having another. That was a great compliment, but I can’t really take the credit. It’s all about the bread. Sourdough has that outer crust to give a certain crunch but when you grill it with plenty of butter, it toasts beautifully with the doughy white bread turning to a golden crisp texture with a warm doughy inside. The taste has a sour twinge to it but when you add the sweetness and creaminess of the cheese and the butter, it balances out perfectly. It’s the prefect bread for a grilled cheese. Jon Favreau would have been proud. Lola agreed about the sourdough saying that the bread is great because it’s firm and holds strong. She even called all other bread flaccid in comparison. Our cheese choices were perfect too. I love the creaminess of American cheese and I was craving a nice tomato on the inside. Lola wanted that cheddar especially for it’s sharpness to contrast the sour bread and the spice of the pepper jack. We really nailed this one.
You have to love a bread that has a history that’s probably nearly 10,000 years old that still makes a simple meal like a grilled cheese something special. That’s what happened today and we were grateful for it. With anything, and this is probably what you can learn from the Chef clip, you can make the simplest of things special by taking the time and doing it right – crafting a masterpiece. That’s the joy of creativity and the joy of the right ingredients. That’s the best way to celebrate a historic food item – for the joy it brings. So keep those loaves coming because we have more cheeses to grill. In fact, we just placed an order for two dozen loaves in your name. It will be delivered on March 32nd.
Next Up: National Peanut Butter and Jelly Day