Do you like sandwiches? I know that I do. Do you know why? Because I am a fucking human being, that’s why. People and sandwiches have been getting along for a long time, and in a deep way. If you don’t enjoy sandwiches, you might consider the likely possibility that you are not a human being. They’re fast, convenient, ubiquitous, and come in countless forms. So what’s not to like? This post will be the first of two on the topic of sandwiches. I mean this as a tribute to the ultimate everyman food, and a humble attempt to master it. Here’s to sandwiches!
The first step on the path to a great sandwich is, naturally, the bread. However, even as the first step of many, the question of bread is more complicated than you may think, and as with the sandwich in its entirety, there are numberless directions that one may take. What follows is a bread recipe that I have concluded is my favorite for nearly any type of sandwich. I do not claim that it is the best sandwich bread recipe in the world; it is simply my preference. After all, part of the charm of the sandwich is its adaptability to the fancy of individuals. The recipe combines elements from Mark Bittman’s Easiest and Best French Bread and James Beard’s Basic White Bread, with a few important changes of my own, as we shall see.
First, combine in a large mixing bowl 1 teaspoon sugar, 2 teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon active dry yeast (half of a normal packet), and 1 pound all-purpose white flour (about 3 1/2 cups- unbleached is preferable if you have it, but not necessary). The late and honorable James Beard would have you proof the yeast first in some warm water to verify it’s livelihood, but I find that if you are confident in the freshness of your yeast, this is not necessary. Briefly combine these dry ingredients, and then gradually add in a GENEROUS 1 1/2 cups slightly warm water (perhaps even 1 3/4 cups if necessary to get the right consistency) while thoroughly mixing. If you don’t have an electric bread mixer (who does?) I recommend a sturdy fork for the mixing, as it will give you more leverage than a whisk in a dough that will take some strength to really stir around. Adding a generous amount of water here is absolutely essential to the recipe, and my main point of divergence from the techniques of both Mr. Bittman and Mr. Beard. The point is to slightly overload the dough with water so that later on when it rises, the inner structure of the bread will be too weak to support itself and the loaf will collapse into the lovely wide, flattened sandwich bread that we’re looking for. At the end of the mixing, the dough should be formed into a single mass but still quite sticky, to the point that you would not be able to knead it by hand. When this consistency is achieved, turn the mass of dough into a lightly buttered bowl and rotate it completely to cover the outside of the dough in a thin coating of fat (this prevents the outer layer of dough from drying and forming an unwanted first crust while rising).
Loosely cover the bowl with a towel and let the dough rise until it has doubled in volume, usually in 2 to 3 hours depending on the temperature and humidity of your kitchen. You would be surprised by how much rising it takes for dough to double its size, so don’t be afraid to let it sit a bit longer if you’re not sure that it’s ready.
When your dough has sufficiently risen, turn it out onto a floured surface, deflate it as much as you can, and start to knead the dough into a workable ball. You’ll need to use quite a bit of flour here to keep it from sticking to everything too much, but don’t worry about ruining the weakened-structure plan, as the inner workings of the dough are already set. When you’ve worked the ball into a smooth, recognizably bread dough-like consistency (you’ll know it when you see it), divide the mass into two equal portions and shape each into approximately round balls of dough.
Loosely cover the dough again with a towel and let rise for about 20 minutes. Then on the same floured surface, deflate each ball as before and knead each into a flattened, roughly rectangular shape. Fold each of these rectangles onto themselves hot dog style (as opposed to hamburger style- that is, along the longer vs. the shorter axis), and flatten these shapes into new, longer and narrower rectangles. Repeat this flattening and folding with each mass of dough, and this time press the folded seams together to create somewhat rounded, baguette-like forms. Lay these on a greased baking sheet and loosely cover again. Let these rise for 45 minutes to 1 1/2 hours, or until they have approximately doubled in WIDTH, rather than height or overall volume. This is where the effect of over-watering the dough will become most noticeable. It helps the dough to collapse nicely at this point if you have a slightly warm surface to set the baking sheet on, such as the top of a gas stove (the pilot light is warm enough, and if you don’t have access to this, it doesn’t matter- it only helps to speed up the process).
The loaves should at this point be 3 to 4 inches wide and about 2 inches tall. Sprinkle the top of each with a bit of flour and make a few slashes with a razor blade (or, if you don’t have one, the sharpest knife you do have), both to help keep the loaves from cracking open in the oven from too much gas build-up, and because it makes for very pleasing (and professional) looking bread. Insert the pan into a 450 degree oven and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the bottom of the loaves sound hollow when rapped with the blunt end of a knife. It helps to develop a nicely colored crust if you splash a shot glass full of water on the bottom of the oven to create steam. This is easily the most theatrical step in the process, so enjoy it. I generally do this right when I put the bread in the oven, then once more after 10 minutes of baking (and sometimes a third time if I haven’t much else to do).
When it’s finished baking, this makes for excellent sandwich bread. The taste is pleasing yet subtle enough to not overpower the flavors of your sandwich fillings, and the flat shape provides a wide and sturdy palette on which to load a preposterously large amount of delicious ingredients. In spirit, this is submarine sandwich bread, but FAR superior to the Wonder-loaves people are used to at most fast-food sandwich shops. Also, the thought of having made your own bread for a sandwich is very rewarding (and a simple way to impress people), and I assure you that no bread will taste better than that which results from your own handiwork. Part 2 to come soon.