Saturday, November 7, 2009

when you assume...

Of all the pleasures involved in procuring food, I find that one of the greatest is going to a bakery. (I dearly love bread in all its forms, and am fully capable of polishing off, say, an entire full-size baguette by myself in a single sitting.)

By some quirk of geography, I live within walking distance of four or five bakeries, all with very different specialties, and thus I am rather spoiled for choice. I admit that I sometimes go for a walk and stop by one of these bakeries, not because I am in any particular need of bread, but just because I enjoy breathing in the warm, fragrant air and contemplating the selection of baked goods on offer.

So it should come as no surprise that I've chosen a short story about a bakery for the Fall 2009 edition of Novel Food. "Witches' Loaves," by O. Henry, a turn-of-the-century American writer known for his clever writing and twist endings, is a wonderful cautionary tale of the danger of making assumptions.

Miss Martha Meacham is the owner of a small bakery. She is forty, has two thousand dollars in the bank, and possesses "two false teeth and a sympathetic heart." Adds the narrator: "Many people have married whose chances to do so were much inferior to Miss Martha's."

One of Miss Martha's regular customers is a middle-aged man with spectacles, a brown beard, and a strong German accent. His clothes are worn and darned, but he looks neat, and his manners are good. He comes in two or three times a week, and his purchase is always the same: two loaves of stale bread. "Never a cake, never a pie, never one of her delicious Sally Lunns." Just stale bread, every time.

After a few exchanges with her customer, Miss Martha decides that he must be a struggling artist. She longs to add something else to his purchase, but lacks the courage. But then:

One day the customer came in as usual, laid his nickel on the showcase, and called for his stale loaves. While Miss Martha was reaching for them there was a great tooting and clanging, and a fire-engine came lumbering past.

The customer hurried to the door to look, as any one will. Suddenly inspired, Miss Martha seized the opportunity.

On the bottom shelf behind the counter was a pound of fresh butter that the dairyman had left ten minutes before. With a bread knife Miss Martha made a deep slash in each of the stale loaves, inserted a generous quantity of butter, and pressed the loaves tight again.

When the customer turned once more she was tying the paper around them.

I won't spoil the rest (you can read the whole story at the link above), but suffice to say, there's more than one use for stale bread, and as Miss Martha discovers, not all of them mix well with butter.

Stale bread and butter are a better combination in a Brown Betty, an old American colonial dessert. It consists of spiced fruit (typically apples), butter and sugar, layered with cubes of stale bread to produce a sort of pared-down bread pudding that combines the pleasure of baked apples with that of cinnamon toast. It's a quick weeknight dessert, and good comfort food - even if it may only be cold comfort to poor Miss Martha.

Apple-Maple Brown Betty

White sandwich bread is the usual choice for this dessert, though bread with dried fruit or nuts also works well.

(Recipe for one, or several, depending. I'm sure Miss Martha would like it best if it served two.)

Preheat oven to 350F.

Decide how many servings you'd like, and generously butter a glass or ceramic baking dish of the appropriate size. Sprinkle the bottom lightly with brown sugar.

Take two slices of good-quality stale bread per person, and cut them into very small cubes. Set aside.

Peel, core and slice one small apple per person. Take half the apple slices and arrange them in the baking dish. Season with a sprinkling of cinnamon and nutmeg. Drizzle lightly with dark (Grade B) maple syrup. Cover with half the stale bread cubes. Sprinkle with more brown sugar.

Take the remaining apple slices, and arrange them over the bread cubes. Sprinkle with cinnamon and nutmeg. Drizzle with more maple syrup. Cover with the remaining bread cubes.

Dot the bread cubes with slices of butter, roughly a tablespoon per person. Sprinkle with more brown sugar, and a little more cinnamon.

Bake for forty to forty-five minutes, or until the top is slightly browned. Serve warm, preferably with whipped cream.


Simona said...

I love the way you end your telling of the story: It's too late now, but tomorrow I will certainly find out how Martha's customer used stale bread. Very nice, comforting recipe. Thanks for participating.

adele said...

Simona - It was something I'd heard of, but wouldn't really think about if you asked me what I would do with a loaf of stale bread. O. Henry really does write wonderful stories with a twist. :)

Thanks again for hosting!

Lindsey@pickyeatings said...

I too love bakeries. I don't know what it is about them, but they're fantastic. I can't resist a loaf of bread straight out of the oven. Or pastries.

Lisa said...

Looking forward to reading this story; your intro to it has me intrigued. Great idea to incorporate stale bread into such a delicious-sounding dessert. Thank you for enriching our Novel Food event once again!

adele said...

Lindsey - I think it's something about the warm air and all the delicious things that are right there, just waiting to be purchased and eaten. :)

Lisa - I live alone, and I can't get through a whole loaf of bread without some of it going stale, so I'm always keeping an eye out for stale bread recipes. :)

Joh said...

I love brown betty. I haven't actually made one in years. I think it's time. :)

Also, I love this story. Especially because I imagine the horrible things he must be shouting in German. :)

adele said...

Joh - It's such a good fall dessert. And yes, he's probably shouting some dreadful things. :)

~~louise~~ said...

How lucky are you to live in the vicinity of so many bakeries:)

I haven't been to a bakery in ever so long and I don't even want to think about the last time I thought about reading O. Henry. Don't quote me on this but I do believe it was O. Henry that first used the term "filet mignon" in his book The Four Million.

As for that recipe for Apple-Maple Brown Betty, I do believe I will give it a whirl when the kids come. It's the perfect recipe to introduce them to a taste of New England. Thanks for sharing, Adele...

adele said...

Louise - I am quite spoiled. :)

I'd be interested to know if O. Henry did introduce the term "filet mignon." His stories are full of food - I could use them as inspiration for Novel Food for years!

~~louise~~ said...

Hi Adele,
I visited you just before laying my head down to rest last night and was so worried I may have given you the wrong information, I just had to check. Here is one source I found in the wee hours of the morning. (scroll down:) Hope this helps. His book The Four Million is available online @ Project Gutenberg.

adele said...

Louise - Oh dear. I didn't mean to keep you up late! Thank you for the link!

librariane said...

I'm always on the lookout for variations on Apple Brown Betty, ever since I lost the recipe I liked best... I will give this one a try to see if it matches up! Of course, they're all competing with a memory now.

And that's a great book talk--just enough information to hook someone.

adele said...

Librariane - Thank you! I hope you enjoyed the story.

Maybe, in the course of trying various apple brown betty recipes, you'll discover a new favorite? :)