Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Vive le Crouton!

Stop buying peanuts!
Stop buying crisps (potato chips)!
Stop buying bretzels!
Stop throwing away old bread!

Make Croutons!

Croutons 1.0.1
  • Cut old bread into 1cm cubes (about 25/64" ).
  • Toss in olive oil & whatever else you like.
  • Put in oven at 200°C.
  • Take out after 15 minutes.
  • Don't burn your fingers trying to eat too soon.
  • Try to leave some for later.
Gourmet Guide to Croutons.

You all know the rancid bread syndrome.
You buy nice warm fresh bread every 3 or 4 days.
When you get it home all warm & odorous, you still have half a loaf from last time.
If you are "economical" (I daren't say "Scottish"…) then you put the new bread away & force yourself to eat the old stuff until it is hard or green.
Then you eat the new bread, except it is anything but new bread any more.
And so on – you keep buying new bread but you never get to eat new bread.

The other approach is to rush home with the new bread, make six black cherry jam sandwiches with the butter just melting through, skip dinner, throw the old bread away & buy another new loaf the next day.
(As an aside, I once threw a loaf of bread out of a moving car at a horse in a field, but it bounced off the fence & hit a passing motorcyclist, so I am more careful how I throw bread away these days).
If you are "economical" again, you can try giving the old bread to birds, or making bread pudding &/or bread sauce, or going fishing, but it will beat you in the end.

Then somebody invented croutons & all our problems were over!

Now when you get home with the new bread, you put the old bread in a bag in the freezer marked "croutons".
When you have enough (about half a loaf is enough) or when you can't wait any longer, you get it out of the freezer & wait hours till it is soft enough to cut. That is the worst bit. (You can cheat & use the microwave.)
Then cut it carefully into cubes, and 1cm is about right.
You will get a better, cleaner, result, with less crumbs, using a really sharp carving knife than using the normal serrated bread knife.
You don't need to cut the crust off, or to discard the triangular bits at the end – that just adds variety to your croutons.
If you have time, leave it several hours like that to harden a bit – it will be easier to handle & be less mushy when you add the oil, but don't worry if not.

Now you need to coat the cubes in olive oil.
There are spray tools for this, which probably work well, but I have not tried.
Say 10cc of oil for 250gm bread, but you will need to experiment, depending on your bread & your idea of a good crouton.
Put the cubes in a big bowl so you can toss & stir without getting them all over the floor.
If you just pour the oil onto the bread, it will all be absorbed by the first croutons, leaving none to spread around on the others.
There may be better solutions, but I try to turn my oil into a thick creamy emulsion first, by adding some water & beating with a little electric blender, introducing air too.
Then it does not soak in too quickly & you can toss, then stir, the bread cubes to get them lightly oiled all over.

While you are blending, is the time to add all the exciting stuff to get your own unique custom-flavoured croutons.
No limits here. Send me your suggestions.
Good starters would be lots & lots of crushed garlic & some pepper.
Other interesting ideas include: soy sauce, worcestershire sauce, tomato ketchup, curry paste/powder, chopped onions, etc.
Don't add herbs at this point, they just get carbonized, but you can add them afterwards.
In fact, this is one aspect I am still experimenting on – at what point to inject interesting flavours so they don't get burnt off.

Preheat the oven to 180/200°C, spread the oiled cubes on a Teflon-coated tray, put the tray in the oven & don't go away.
They should be ready in about 15 minutes, but that will depend on the exact temperature, type of bread, size of cubes & on how you like them.

Leave them to cool on the tray and add any extra savoury items you fancy & which would not have survived the oven.
Herbs, Piment Doux, maybe a very tiny sprinkle of salt?

Then put in a sealed bowl.
Theoretically they should keep for 6 weeks, but they never get a chance…

With soup, traditionally they are floated on top, but I find that a soggy waste & prefer to nibble them crisp from a side-plate.
They are also delicious in salads & replacing, say, potatoes in all kinds of meals, not to mention as appetizers & snacks.

Trouble-shooting your croutons:
  • Too crunchy all through – cubes too small.
  • White bread in the middle – cubes too big.
  • Black – forgot to take out of oven.
  • White – forgot to put into oven.
  • Nice colour, but too much like toast – not enough oil.
  • Rather greasy – yes, you're getting the hang of it already…
  • None of the above – just keep quiet & eat them before somebody else does!

Parting thot: "Wise men talk about ideas, intellectuals about facts, and the ordinary man talks about what he eats." - Mongolian Proverb

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