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While writing her forthcoming cookbook, The Banh Mi Handbook (July 2014), California-based author Andrea Nguyen went on a mission to create the perfect bread recipe for the Vietnamese sandwiches. She wanted it to be crispy but not too crusty on the outside, and light and airy within. “You don’t want that fancy bread that has a long ferment,” she says. “That will tear up the roof of your mouth.” What she learned along the way: It’s actually very hard to master lowbrow white bread. Here, she explains the process behind creating a perfect recipe.
1. Start with existing recipes. “There are a lot of recipes out there that call for rice flour, with people saying that’s why the Vietnamese loaves are so light. Well, those came out like lead.”
2. Go to the source. “I started asking Vietnamese bakers for advice and no one would share a thing. Even my parents tried helping me out, trying to convince the bakers that I was a just a writer. Everyone was suspicious. They thought I was going to reveal their secrets and their business would go down the drain. Finally, one baker told me that a lot of the bakers use dough conditioners—something to make the bread extra light. These conditioners were never listed on the labels and no one would admit to using them.”
3. Expand the search. “I realized that banh mi rolls are a bit like the Mexican bolillo rolls. Cookbook author Kate Leahy started doing some research and learned that in Mexico, there’s something called mejorante para pan—bread improver—sold at most markets. I went to some local Mexican markets and I couldn’t find it.
“When I was down in East L.A., where there is a strong Mexican American community, I stopped in a market where they had the bolillo rolls. I mustered up all of my junior high and high school Spanish and asked if they sold the mejorante para pan. ‘What?’ the cashier replied, in perfect English.
“I’m looking for this stuff that makes bread dough rise,” I told her, while pointing to the rolls. The cashier led me to the back, to the older woman in a closet-size office. She didn’t know what I was talking about. She dragged out the baker. He didn’t use anything in his bread but flour, yeast and maseca, the corn flour.
“I asked chef Mary Sue Milliken, who uses similar bread for her cubano sandwiches, if they make bread at the restaurant. ‘No way,’ she told me. ‘It’s very hard to make that crap bread.’”
4. Get help from a chef. “I eventually met with Bryant Ng (an F&W Best New Chef 2012), who co-owns Spice Table in L.A. They had hired a Vietnamese baker to make the rolls for the banh mi they used to serve at lunch. The baker’s hands were completely stiff from baking bread for decades but he showed me everything. All he used was flour, yeast, sugar and water but there was something in his ratios and technique that made the bread the way it was.”
5. Start testing. “After I met with the baker at Spice Table, I worked on the recipe for three months. When I finally baked the bread for my parents, they told me, ‘This is how bread used to be in Vietnam.’ That validation meant so much.”
Nguyen will reveal the final bread recipe in her book, The Banh Mi Handbook: Recipes for Crazy-Delicious Vietnamese Sandwiches, out from Ten Speed Press in July 2014.
Kristin Donnelly is a former Food & Wine editor and co-founder of Stewart & Claire, an all-natural line of lip balms made in Brooklyn.