Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sioux Falls Grocery Scene: In-Store Bakeries

Okay, so back to the ranting and raving about our local food stores.  The subject today is the bakery department with a particular focus on breads.  But first, an acknowledgment: We are really lucky to have places like Breadsmith,  Panera, and Queen City available to fulfill our needs for well-made artisanal breads and baked goods.  Anyone who has ever tried to bake really good breads or attempted to turn out a batch of puff pastry at home should recognize that the skill set for baking is entirely different than that for cooking.  One of the very few intelligent things I heard Emeril Lagasse utter between "Bams!" on Emeril Live when it used to be on Food Network was that baking requires the use of formulas instead of the recipes used for cooking. Producing a good crusty baguette requires time, skill, and  a proper appreciation for exactly how much protein ought to be in the flour.  Oh, and an oven that intermittently injects steam into the baking chamber doesn't hurt either.  It's fun to play with this stuff at home, but for the time and trouble, you can probably buy a superior loaf of brioche, ciabatta, or a baguette at Breadsmith or Panera.

One other acknowledgement:  The selection of baked goods at the Sioux Falls chain grocery stores is much better than it used to be.  Remember when bagels were a novelty?  Remember when the only place to get a decent baguette was the Minerva's 26th Street Market?

I tend to be very particular about breads.  Although I don't care what pre-sliced, in the plastic sack sort of bread we have around the house for the Secret Teaspoon to make toast or to use for the occasional quick peanut butter sandwich for lunch, breads for other things must meet certain requirements.  For instance, French bread should have a decent crust- not one that might chip a tooth- but one that requires a little effort to chomp into.  Rolls for grilled sausages (generally either Italian sausage or bratwurst) should be a bit chewy, but not crusty like a good baguette.  It's also nice to be able to get things like ciabatta rolls for grilled burgers or fancy sandwiches.  

To get to the point about the grocery stores: You are not going to find these sorts of things there.  Hy Vee produces various sizes and shapes of baked rolls and breads- little dinner rolls, hot dog buns, hamburger buns, brat buns, etc.  Unfortunately, all those sizes and shapes are produced from the same ubiquitous, generally soft and un-crusty white or wheat bread dough.  The white bread dough also seems to form the backbone for the loaves of French bread (in long, fat and twin-loaf sizes) and its identical twin sibling Italian bread.

For the most part, the same thing seems to be true at Sunshine and that other place, Wal-something-or-other.  The various store-baked breads are just the same dough in different shapes. 

The same thing is pretty much true of the other baked goods, particularly the pastries.  Sure the doughnuts are pretty good, but try to get a good danish made with puff pastry.  You're probably not going to find them.

The unavailability of some of these items in Sioux Falls is indeed puzzling.  If you find yourself out in the West River Country- particularly in Rapid City or Spearfish visit a Safeway store.  Safeway manages to turn out very decent loaves of French breads with nice crusts.  Safeway also offers interesting selections of bagels and pastries.  So, I know it's doable, but for whatever reason the grocers here in Sioux Falls refuse to kick up the quality.

In an effort to sell breads that the groceries are either unwilling or unable to make you can pick up breads like French baguettes or ciabatta rolls that are sealed in cellophane plastic and require a heat-and-eat treatment.  Nice to have this option, especially when a trip to Breadsmith or Panera is not possible, but those breads are relatively expensive and where do they come from, anyway?

Don't get me wrong, the soft breads from the groceries have their place and all.  If you want the really good stuff, however, you are going to have to do a little planning and a little driving.  For breads, no one in Sioux Falls can compete with Breadsmith and Panera.  In terms of other baked goods (cakes, scones, quiche) no one can give these treats the magic treatment like the folks at Queen City Bakery at 8th and Weber.

I've also managed to find a reasonable substitute for the kind of bread needed for a good sausage.  Jimmy Johns.  No kidding.  For 50 cents, you can buy "day old" loaves of the French bread they make in-store for their sandwiches.  If they don't have any of those, you can buy a "fresh" loaf for about 2 bucks.  A little steep for what you get, especially considering that you probably cannot discern that much difference between the "day old" bread and the fresh stuff.  Anyway, the bread at Jimmy Johns makes a pretty decent vessel for getting spicy grilled Italian sausages, grilled peppers and onions, and a heaping few spoonfuls of oily, spicy giardinera from plate to face.  It's just the right width- just slice into the required lengths and pluck out a little of the soft innards.

P.S.  If you want to gain a much deeper appreciation for what it takes to make a really good artisanal bread, go find a copy of the masterpiece written by Julia Child and Simone Beck- Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  As I sit here I cannot remember if it is volume one or two that you will need.  At any rate, over the course of something like eleven pages Julia sets forth a method for making French bread at home.  Considering the only ingredients for this bread are flour, water, yeast, and salt you'll get a good idea of the process and care required to develop the flavor, crust, and shapes of good French bread.  

You might also look for a copy of The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Berenbaum.  As I recall, Rose was a chemistry major in college and she applies the same level of precision and understanding of the process to baking that a researcher for duPont would employ to develop better Teflon. The woman doesn't simply measure ingredients, she weighs them- including water and eggs.  Rose also authored The Cake Bible and the Pie and Pastry Bible.  You'll learn a lot from these books, although you may never be brave enough, patient enough, or OCD enough to attempt some of the recipes.

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