Monday, April 12, 2010

Square Loaf in a Round Hole

Someone once described pain de mie as what Wonder Bread wishes it could be. To get this bread right has been a goal of mine since I was introduced to tramezzini, luscious over-stuffed sandwiches that I first encountered in Venice.

Tramezzini are never grilled like their skinny cousins the panini. You see heaps of them on display in bars, cut in triangles to reveal their plentiful fillings. It is understood that one would never order two halves with the same filling, any more than the Italian electorate would censure a politician for having a wife and a mistress. Such homogeneity would be an offense to the spirit of dolce vita, but as usual I digress.

Pain de mie should have a thin golden crust and tight, fine crumb. It doesn’t compete for attention, but is strong enough to hold up under the temptations of silky mayonnaise or a hunky slab of vine ripened tomato. I have tried two or three recipes, but was not truly happy with any of them.

Then I stumbled on a recipe by the venerable Beard. It produced a loaf of perfect proportions but unpleasant density. I scaled back the flour from 6 ½ cups to 4 and . . . perfection. Fun for a beginner, this bread is baked in a Pullman pan which is straight-sided with a sliding lid to give you a perfectly square loaf. I believe the name Pullman is a corruption of pain de mie, but I have also read that this bread was served on trains and christened in Pullman in honor of the cars (you will also see this bread called a Pullman loaf).

Give it a try. Slice it thin, fill your sandwich generously, then open wide and say mmmmmm.

Page turning podcasts redux

As promised, here are some more great book-related podcasts.

· NPR Topics: Books – this is a fiction and non-fiction potluck, with authors and topics drawn from all over the NPR network.

· World Book Club – BBC World Service – typically each episode features an author and one of their best known works, with an interview and readings followed by questions from the audience, via telephone and e-mail.

· Writers & Company – CBC Radio – Eleanor Wachtel is a national treasure who has introduced me to authors I would never have otherwise read including Nuala O’Faolain and David Leavitt, but it is Wachtel’s encyclopedic knowledge of literature and profound humanity that make these interviews so compelling.

Diana Athill is another author I would never have read if Eleanor Wachtel hadn’t pointed me in her direction. I began with her memoir Somewhere Near the End and just finished Yesterday Morning, her memoir of childhood. Stet – An Editor’s Life records her nearly 50 years as a director of AndrĂ© Deutsch where she worked with Mordecai Richler and Brian Moore to name a few. Stet, of course, is the now practically obsolete copy editor’s mark for “leave it in” and is as much a reflection of Athill’s honesty as her career.

She reminds me of Orwell in his essays and journalism. They are similar in their awareness of the privileges that are theirs by accident of birth and equally unembarrassed to record their experiences truthfully. They are different in that Athill records her pleasures with zest. She is also without self pity and therefore poignant about the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to – regardless of class – from the effects of being a child of unhappy parents to the losses that are part of aging.

If Diana Athill were my aunt, I can’t help feeling my parents wouldn’t have left me alone with her for the evening without providing a list of topics she was not to talk about, (probably prefaced with “for God’s sake” underscored with eye rolling). Since I no longer need a sitter, but am still eager for provocative observations and tales from a life well and fully lived, I look forward to learning from her latest book, Life Classes.

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