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Apart from its importance at table, bread, in many of the recipes in this book, has an important place: Stale or completely dried out, it accompanies soups; crumbs, soft or dried, are used for certain gratins and for breading; soaked and squeezed dry, it is a major element in other gratins and a minor but vital one in many pâtés and stuffings; it is cooked crisp in butter for croutons and croûtes and baked in puddings.

For our purposes, the best of American breads are less than ideal because of over-sweetness and their much-admired soft and tender texture. The long loaves marketed as French bread in American bakeries leave much to be desired, as do the plastic-wrapped, preservative-drenched baguettes flown in from France, but I have found very good bread in Italian neighborhood bakeries in New York—large, round, crusty loaves reminiscent at the same time of Tuscan country loaves and of French peasant bread.
Superior-quality commercialized American breads—those with a firm-textured, heavy crumb—can be serviceable for croutons, for breading, or as crumbs for gratins, the native flavor and texture being sublimated to nutty, butter-flavored crispness and, when soaked in small quantity to lend smoothness and consistency to the body of well-seasoned stuffings or terrines, the disagreeable sweetness is imperceptible.
The dried crusts in a soup, on the other hand, should resemble, as nearly as possible, rough, tough old slices of peasant bread—the result, otherwise, will simply not be good. Many people think of bread saved and used in this way as a foolish, skinflintish economy measure and a repellent idea. They do not know and refuse to believe that it is, in fact, not only delicious but often integral to the soup’s character.
Good bread is increasingly difficult to find in France, although sentimental memories of that of the past abound—of the great sourdough loaves prepared in the homes and brought to the village ovens, brick igloos preheated with the coals of wood fires. Anecdotal tradition claims that, during the winter, the bread dough often shared the honors of the conjugal bed, thus profiting from body heat to raise during the night while gaining in homely flavor as well.

I gave a recipe in The French Menu Cookbook for an approximation of the French country loaf of bread which I continue to find adequate. Instructions for oven temperatures and lengths of cooking times vary greatly among authors (and so they should, depending on the size of the loaves and the desired thickness of the crust). Any of the recipes, either for American white bread or for French bread, to be found in American cookbooks (French cookbooks simply don’t give bread recipes—they expect you to buy your bread at the baker’s) will give good results if you cut out the milk, shortening, and sugar and bake the loaf on a flat surface rather than in a bread tin (my oven contains a heavy plaque rather than the grill to be found in most kitchens and I have taken to the habit of putting the loaf to raise on a sheet of aluminum foil that has been sprinkled with semolina, a stiff cardboard beneath it, and, with an abrupt motion, slipping the aluminum foil directly onto the hot oven plaque). A pan of water should be kept in the bottom of the oven. It is valuable to experiment with different flours (I have had interesting results with small additions of barley flour—about ½ cup to 3 or 4 cups of regular flour) and, in particular, one might profit from the current health food fashion to use the unbleached, stone-ground flours available. Those I have found in France have a fine flavor—they raise less than the more highly refined flours and give a heavier crumb.