Loafing through our nation’s history

By: Marialisa Calta
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Yield: 1 loaf
1 cup water
1/2 cup dried cherries or dried cranberries
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup light brown sugar, packed
2 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
2 cups all-purpose flour (preferably unbleached)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup bittersweet chocolate chunks (such as Scharffen Berger Bittersweet Baking Chunks)
Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8-by-4-inch loaf pan.
Bring the water to a boil. Put the dried fruit in a small bowl and pour boiling water over it. Let sit for 15 to 30 minutes.
When oven has reached baking temperature, pour the almonds into an ovenproof skillet, or baking pan with sides, and toast for 4 to 6 minutes, until beginning to color. Remove from oven and set aside.
In a large bowl, using an electric mixer (a stand mixer works well), cream the butter and brown sugar together until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl frequently. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating and scraping between additions. Add the buttermilk and almond extract and mix well.
In a separate bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Gradually mix these dry ingredients into the wet ingredients in the mixer bowl, beating just until combined. Drain the dried fruit and, using a wooden spoon, stir into the dough, along with the toasted almonds and chocolate. Mix just until well distributed.
Using a rubber spatula, scrape dough into prepared pan and bake 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes, or until a tester inserted in the middle comes out clean. Allow to cool on a rack for 10 minutes before unmolding. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Recipe slightly adapted from “United States of Bread” by Adrienne Kane; Running Press, 2014.

There’s a reason why some “heirloom” or “heritage” recipes have gone the way of the horse and buggy. Few tears have been shed for liver dumplings, Spam with pineapple, dandelion wine and Salmon Pea Wiggle as they have disappeared from our tables. There are a few old-timey dishes that persist, but which some of us would also love to bid adieu: the “classic” green bean casserole with canned onion sticks, the sourdough “friendship loaf” that gets passed around like a chain letter, and Salisbury steak with brown gravy.
But there are other heirloom recipes that we are still thrilled to make or eat, or ones discovered by food historians or researchers that we are delighted to embrace. Cookbook author Adrienne Kane has found a number of them in her “United States of Bread,” which chronicles, as the subtitle proclaims, “our nation’s home-baking heritage, from sandwich loaves to sourdough.”
Kane – also the author of “The United States of Pie,” a book with which I hope to become acquainted – begins by saying that most Americans, when asked to think of an “artisan” loaf, picture a baguette, boule or batard. “These are all lovely breads,” she writes, “but none are particularly American.” She took it upon herself to research our country’s bread-baking heritage, and found it rich not just in gluten, but also in recipes.
In the mid-19th century, Kane discovered, 100,000 grist mills dotted our countryside, grinding regional grains into flours for regional recipes: corn in New England for cornbread and Anadama bread; soft wheat in the South for lighter-than-air biscuits; and all manner of grains – white, whole wheat and rye – in the Midwest, which was known as “the nation’s breadbasket” for a reason.
Kane’s book offers scores of recipes for every bread you’ve ever heard of (sourdough, banana, cinnamon-raisin, potato, brown and cornbread among them, as well as Parker House rolls, bagels and Monkey Bread), and many you probably haven’t. A Pullman Loaf, for example, is a squared-off brick of bread formed to save space in the dining cars of trains. Bride’s Biscuits were so named because the addition of a bit of yeast gave even the inept newlywed a chance to make light biscuits. Graham Bread is a stern loaf advocated by health-nut Sylvester Graham, he of graham cracker fame.
Then there’s Bishop’s Bread, a delightful treat that apparently got its name in the 1800s, when proud housewives served it with ceremony when local clergy came to visit. Traditional recipes use candied fruit, but Kane argues that dried fruit, plumped in hot water, gives a more “sumptuous” feel and flavor. She also adds almonds and bittersweet chocolate, making this a loaf that any clergy would bless.
“In America our bread-making history is not about recreating bakery-style bread; it’s all about making home-baked bread,” she writes.
So celebrate and savor our history, loaf by loaf.