For your toasting pleasure

A few weeks ago, Mia had her First Sick. It was of the fever and tummy trouble variety. Through the worst of it one night, we set a timer and fed her milk with a dropper every twenty, then fifteen, then ten minutes, a few ccs at a time, only as much as she could keep down. When I finally felt her head plop against my shoulder and her body drop into sleep, I said to Eli, “I think we’ve been initiated.” We were real parents now.

By the time I sat down to write that last post, the one about celery, Mia was feeling quite well again. I was feeling well, too. It was Monday; the week was still mine! I was here with all of you, gearing up to talk celery! But as I typed, I began to wish a little bit that I were talking about something else, because celery, well, suddenly it didn’t sound so good. It wasn’t the celery, of course, but me. No sooner did I hit “Publish,” I was struck down. “Grown-ups can’t catch a bug like this from a baby,” Eli had (wishfully) surmised. Famous last words. He too was felled. Two healthy parents and a sick kid is one thing. Two sick parents – welcome to our real initiation.

When the fever lifted and standing in a fully upright position no longer seemed like a task for the mighty, I took myself on a tour of the apartment and surveyed the wreckage. There, on the coffee table, on the kitchen counter, on the floor by the sofa, on a plate in the bed, was forty-eight hours’ worth of evidence of my feeble attempts at solid food consumption: Toast. It was everywhere. At some point, I must have decided that getting bread to toaster, to plate, to bed, was victory enough, since one day-old specimen was not a crumb short of a fully formed slice. The remaining pieces were also whole to varying degrees, with just a corner, maybe two, missing from each one. From the looks of my apartment, this was no illness, but some kind of odd life experiment in which I had repeatedly tried, and failed, to eat toast.

Since we last spoke, I’ve been doing my best to make up for it.

It’s been a lot to get caught up on, all that toast. Loaf by loaf, though, I’ve been closing the gap.

That I have a thing for toast is no secret. Did you know that toast was the subject of the second post that I ever wrote on this site? That feels like a lifetime ago (technically, I guess it was, and then some), but what can I say? I will never get over toast. I must talk about it more than I even realize, because back at the end of January, when I mentioned on Twitter that “day-old corn bread from Hi-Rise Bread Company makes terrific cinnamon toast” (a public service announcement, really), my friend Nishta replied, “Jess, you think everything makes terrific cinnamon toast.” She has a point.

Between you and me, you can leave off the cinnamon, and her statement still holds.

I am proud to have delivered some prime toasting material to your computer screens over the life of this blog. You might recall this soda bread, the stuff of my friend Eitan’s “ideal toast” and, once upon a time, these buttermilk biscuits, which become different creatures completely when toasted. Today, I bring you something new for your toasting pleasure: a corn bread-cum-sandwich loaf from my neighborhood bakery.

I’ve been a fan of Hi-Rise corn bread for years, but these things go in cycles for me, which means that a favorite thing will often slip my mind for months, until one day, out of nowhere, hell-OOO, corn bread. It's not half bad, getting to rediscover my favorite things on a fairly regular basis. (Does this happen to you?)

Anyway, I rediscovered Hi-Rise corn bread just after the first of the year and started bringing home a loaf a week. Then, I found the recipe. It makes a couple of loaves at a time, so we’ve now been going through two loaves a week. (Closing the gap, I tell you, closing the gap.) What gets me about this corn bread is how unexpected it is. I don’t think I’ve ever used the words “corn bread” and “loaf” in the same sentence, but today, I get to. This is no skillet-baked, soda-leavened snacking cake, but an honest to goodness bread. It’s got yeast, and bread flour, and at first glance, looks like standard sandwich bread (if particularly golden-crusted). It is so far removed from what we typically think of when we hear the words “corn bread” that some might say it isn’t corn bread at all. It is, though, with a cup each of corn meal and whole corn kernels to prove it.

You can see here that the first time I baked this bread, it came out with a giant hump. I’m not sure what caused it – it hasn’t happened since – but in any case, it didn’t do any harm. I actually think it’s kind of cute. Here’s that hump from the other side, and a peek at the inside of the loaf to give you a better sense of the thing:

(If you click on that photo, you can see it big.)

This bread has a lot in common with other toast-worthy breads: the slightly moist crumb that’s somehow dense and airy at the same time, the crust that is already on its way to crisp just out of the oven and, once toasted, shatters and flakes when you bite into it. (One end piece for me, please. Two, if no one else wants.) These estimable qualities mean a piece of toast that is 100% toast on the surface – brown, stiff, crumbly; you know, typical toast stuff – but only about 75% toast within, where the bread is warm but still slightly springy to the touch. And that’s before we even get to the corn factor. If you’ve ever taken a corn muffin or a square of traditional corn bread, a corn scone or a glorious wedge of custard-filled corn bread, yes, if you’ve ever taken a corn anything at all, and stuck it in the toaster oven, you know that the corn factor is a very real, very wonderful thing. Cornmeal, toasted, is special. It’s its own flavor, really, and hard to describe. The words “buttery” and “round” come to mind. To me, toasted corn bread tastes sort of like how corn smells when it’s popping, if that makes any sense, only sweeter, in a way that makes me want to drop everything (except for the toast; I’ll finish eating first, thanks) and bake a full-on cornmeal cake. Toasting does nice things to the texture of cornmeal, too, making the grains feel more like crunchy seeds than crumbs.

I bet this bread would be great in a panade, or as the base of a stuffing or a summer bread salad. I'll let you know. If I ever get past the toast.

Hi-Rise Corn Bread
Adapted from Artisan Baking, by Maggie Glezer

If yeasted breads make you nervous, this corn bread is an excellent starting point. It’s rated as a “beginner” recipe in the cookbook where I found it, and I want to tell you a few things here to encourage you to give it a go:

:: This dough is one of the most agreeable I’ve ever worked with, in part because if you have a stand mixer, you barely have to work with it at all. It’s a fairly soft, wet dough, but not overly sticky. Just keep your surfaces floured, and when you dump it out on the counter and start rolling and folding it, you won’t have a problem.

:: Let’s talk about poolish. I feel like that word might scare some people off, but it’s really just a fancy word for a starter, and a very low-maintenance one, at that. You just stir together some flour, water, and instant yeast, and leave it alone for a couple of hours. Ta da! Poolish.

:: A word about timing. The original recipe has you make the bread from poolish, to dough, to fully-baked loaves on a single day. I prefer to break up the steps between two days with an overnight rise in the fridge. I feel it’s simpler this way, so that’s how I suggest you do it in my version of the recipe. If you want to make the bread all in one day, then instead of putting the dough in the fridge for the first rise, let it rise at room temperature until it triples in size (or comes close). That should take between 1½ and 3 hours, depending on how warm your room is. Watch the dough, not the clock.

:: It will be a while until corn season here, so I use (thawed) frozen corn, and it works just fine.

:: The recipe calls for stone-ground white corn meal, but I used Bob’s Red Mill stone-ground yellow corn meal, medium grind. My bread flour is King Arthur’s.

Finally: With so much fuss over toast, I want to be clear that even thoroughly untoasted, this bread is as nice as can be. And how about this for a happy medium: Pop the entire cooled loaf into a 300-degree oven for 7-10 minutes before serving. The crust doesn’t get quite toasted, but it does become something wonderful. Flakey, crunchy, delicious.

For the poolish:
1¼ c. (190 g) bread flour
1½ tsp. instant yeast
¾ c. (190 g) + 2/3 c. lukewarm water (160 g), divided

For the dough:
Fermented poolish
2½ c. (375 g) bread flour
1 c. plus 2 Tbsps. (140g) stone-ground cornmeal, medium grind
Fresh corn kernels from one large ear, or about ¾ c. (115 g) frozen corn kernels
2 large eggs
2 Tbsps. honey
1½ Tbsps. olive or vegetable oil
1 Tbsp. salt

For the glaze:
1 large egg, lightly beaten

Make the poolish:
The evening before you want to bake the bread, whisk together the flour and the yeast in a mixing bowl, then beat in the ¾ c. water. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and leave it alone until it’s quite bubbly, about 2 hours. I usually do this step in the early evening, before dinner.

Make the dough:
When the poolish is nice and bubbly, add the remaining 2/3 c. water, and stir to loosen it from the bowl.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, and corn. Add the poolish, and all of the remaining ingredients except for the salt, and stir with your hand or a wooden spoon to make a rough dough. Mix with a dough hook on medium speed until the dough is smooth, about 5 minutes. Add the salt, then continue mixing with the hook for another 1-2 minutes. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.*

The next morning (12-18 hours later), take the dough out of the fridge and leave it (in the bowl, still covered) on the counter for an hour or two.

Generously butter or oil two 9 x 5-inch loaf pans, and dust your counter with flour. Scoop out about a third of a cup of flour to keep by your work area in case your dough starts to stick.

When the dough is about three times larger than what you started out with the night before, dump it onto your floured surface and cut it in half with a pastry scraper. Dust the first half with flour, and roll it out into a square-ish sheet that’s about ¼-inch thick. Press out the air bubbles as you go. Fold the left and right sides of the dough into the center, letting them overlap by about an inch. I use a pastry scraper to coax the dough up from the counter, and I find it very helpful.

Roll out the dough again from folded edge to folded edge (that is, left to right, parallel to the edge of your counter) until you have a rectangle of dough that’s as long as your loaf pans. Then, starting with the long edge of dough that’s closest to you, roll it up like a carpet. Lay the cylinder seam-side down in one of the prepared pans. (It will look small in there; it will grow.)

Repeat with the second piece of dough.

Cover the loaves with plastic wrap, and let rise until the dough is about an inch above the pans, about 2-3 hours.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Brush the loaves with the remaining egg and bake for 50-60 minutes. Remove the breads from the pans – they should be a deep, glowy brown, and sound hollow when you thump them on the bottom – and let them cool on a rack.

Yield: Two loaves.

*I’ve only made the dough in my stand mixer, but you can also knead it entirely by hand. It will just take longer. Try to use as little extra flour as possible. The original recipe suggests using your pastry scraper to help you crush the corn kernels as you knead. You can also make this dough in a food processor: combine the dry ingredients in the bowl and pulse a few times. Add the poolish, eggs, honey, and oil, and process the dough until the bowl fogs, about 30 seconds. Remove the dough from the bowl and hand knead it for a few turns to cool it down and redistribute the heat. Return the dough to the bowl, add the salt, and process it for 3 or 4 more 30-second intervals, hand kneading it between intervals, until it is tighter and very smooth.

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