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.
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.