Published on January 14th, 2016 | by TLV News0
Croutons, Bread Crumbs, Central heating, and Such
In Russia we have a great respect for bread. We call it “Father,” say “Bread is the staff of life,” take a pride in having a fresh loaf every day, do not throw it on the ground, and have a big respect to this ancient fragrant product – a true lifesaver during the wars, travels, and just hard times, which my country experienced in full.
We eat lots of rye bread, the kind you can’t find here in US – heavy, with a crispy crust, wonderfully acidic, dark, earthy. We have big bread factories in every city with a few small stores where you always can buy a fresh, sometimes still-warm loaf of rye and a baguette of white.
Sales woman calls the factory when she runs out of fresh bread and they deliver it immediately.
Moms do not appreciate when kids are asking for snacks between meals, but a good slice of rye bread rubbed with garlic, salt and sunflower oil tasted so good when you played with friends in the yard for a few hours, measured all puddles, jumped from all fences, but dinner is still not ready!
We greet important guests with a round rye bread on a hand-embroidered long towel, with a small salt dish on a top. A guest is supposed to break a piece of bread, dip it in salt and bite a piece as a sign of friendship and good intentions. Same is for the wedding ceremony, when a bride and a groom are welcomed with the “karavai”- an ornate round bread.
I was missing a normal rye bread here in US, every year more and more, desperately trying to make my own, with some very pathetic results, until I finally looked up a recipe online and realized that I was doing everything wrong. You need to make not just a simple yeast dough. You prepare a starter first, let it bubble and age — it takes a few days. Every day you feed it with a fresh flour and a bit of sugar, and then finally make a batch and bake. While in the oven, it smells just right!
I was so happy tasting the first small loaf, that I didn’t notice how it was all gone! Now I am baking a few loafs every now and then, and my rye bread tastes amazing!
We try not to waste any bread, and turn leftovers into croutons- it is so easy! Just cut your yesterday’s bread in cubes, sprinkle with salt, olive oil (optional), and garlic powder and bake on low in the oven for just enough time to dry it out and make crispy. You also can use a sweet variance of it with some sugar and cinnamon.
Most of the cities in Russia use a central heat, coming from the “heat factory.” In the early fall it usually is not on yet, and it is getting pretty cold in the apartments, so people use electric spot heaters. When I was a child, we had a portable electric oven for that purpose – I think it was handmade! I found a picture which looks very similar to it. Thick walls, zinc-covered metal shell, heavy and wonderful, it was our oasis of warmth and coziness during the cold weeks of fall, when government decided to wait with providing the heat and to save some coal.
We were warming up, sitting around that hot, bulky, almost alive contraption, and made some wonderful croutons. It was not energy efficient at all, electric bill was getting pretty high, so Grandma was trying to use it at the same time for cooking as much as she could. She baked some late apples in it, covered with a brown sugar crust. She also made my favorite dish, named “charlottka”- bread pudding layered with sliced apples- in a deep aluminum skillet.
The recipe was simple- take a loaf of french bread, slice, generously soak it in the mix of eggs, milk, and sugar just like you make a french toast, but more wet. Oil the pan, lay bread on a bottom, cover it with sliced apples, cover apples with a second layer of bread, pour the rest of the eggs/milk mix, sprinkle with some sugar and cinnamon, add a few slices of butter, bake on 350 for about an hour until the top layer gets golden.
I love how bread on a bottom tastes different from the top part- bottom layer gets soggy, wet, heavy, and the top crust is crispy and sugary.
This time of the year felt somehow temporary, romantic, nostalgic – like we were having a picnic without leaving the house, with the oven making some crackling sounds, apples bubbling and hissing, croutons turning golden and crispy.