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Active Ingredient: Going Dutch Crunch

Ed. note: This week, we are debuting a new bi-weekly food column (with a recipe) by Karen Leibowitz. Best known for founding Mission Street Food with husband Anthony Myint, she has co-written a new cookbook (with Myint, natch) called "Mission Street Food: Ideas and Recipes from an Improbable Restaurant," published by McSweeney's. For The Bay Citizen, she'll be looking at one ingredient —or an element of a dish —with an eye towards the food's history and current use by Bay Area chefs. Let us know what you think in the comments and be sure to scroll over the blue text to see more factoids on this week's featured food, Dutch Crunch. Bon appetit! 

Dense and crusty, San Francisco’s relationship with sourdough bread is the stuff of legend—and branding opportunities, as tourists line up to eat soup in a sourdough bread bowl at Fisherman’s Wharf and loaves across America are advertised as “San Francisco style.”

But when pondering what kind of gluten-filled product best represents the Bay Area, consider a less well-known carb: Dutch crunch.

This humble bread will be recognizable to many, even if the name isn’t familiar. Sharply textured, slightly sweet and usually medium brown, it is found commonly in corner stores and sandwich shops around Northern California, adding an extra dimension to lunch.

While Bay Area natives may take it for granted, it is as much of a local specialty as burritos or cioppino. Until recently, Dutch crunch was largely unknown outside of the Bay Area and the Netherlands, but the rest of the world is starting to catch on.

Technically, Dutch crunch is not a unique species of bread, but rather a topping that may be applied to any kind of loaf. You can get sourdough decorated with the crackle of Dutch crunch at Boudin Bakery, if you want the ultimate Bay Area bread, but it’s more often found on sweet French rolls and served at a deli counter.

To make Dutch crunch, a baker will brush unbaked loaves with a mixture of rice flour, yeast, sugar, salt, oil, and water. The distinctive Dutch crunch crust has a dappled pattern, whose darkness will depend on how long the yeast has been allowed to rise.

In the Netherlands, they call this kind of loaf “Tijgerbrood,” or tiger bread, after the spotted look of the crust. (The Dutch don’t call it Dutch crunch—that would be like French fries in France—and the Dutch expression for “going Dutch” means something like “American party.”) Food historians have speculated that the idea of coating bread with a rice paste may have originated with Dutch traders traveling to Indonesia in the early seventeenth century. Much more recently, “tiger bread” has taken England by storm: first introduced to supermarkets in 2006, it is now the most popular bread sold at Tesco, the second-biggest grocery chain in the world. And now Wegman’s, a mid-Atlantic supermarket chain from Rochester, New York has introduced an item called “Marco Polo bread,” which looks suspiciously like our old tigrine friend.

A recent arrival to London and New York, Dutch crunch has a long history in the Bay Area. Galli’s Sanitary Bakery has been baking Dutch Crunch in South San Francisco for over a hundred years, and at Wedemeyer Bakery, established in 1936, Dutch crunch has been made for decades and currently accounts for about 40% of the rolls delivered to local sandwich shops. Even national chains like Safeway and Whole Foods bake their own Dutch Crunch rolls in California, and of course, you can find it at smaller vendors, like North Beach’s venerable Italian French Baking Company, which creates the sandwich bread served at delis like Molinari, Mastrelli, and Lucca.

As a staple of the deli case, Dutch crunch scarcely registers on the Bay Area’s popular imagination, though it is a distinctive part of our culinary heritage. In the last few years, however, a few local sandwich shops have started to experiment with the form. Could Dutch crunch be the palette from which a new art of the sandwich will be drawn?

At Ike’s Place, in Stanford and San Francisco, they bake the bread to order, and Dutch crunch is the acknowledged favorite; you can even get the Kryptonite sandwich, which requires two rolls of Dutch crunch to accommodate all thirteen of its ingredients. Meanwhile, at Mr. Pickles locations sprinkled around Northern California and Nevada, you can get a toasted peanut butter and jelly sandwich, on Dutch crunch for just $3.99, but the brilliant part is that they use chunky peanut butter, so it’s insanely crunchy.

At Cheese ‘n’ Stuff, on the ground floor of a parking lot in Berkeley, a Turkey Delight on Dutch Crunch comes with freshly baked turkey, avocado, cranberry sauce, and shredded lettuce piled so high that the crunchy bits on the upper crust can scrape the roof of your mouth. Granted, the rough texture of Dutch crunch can be a hazard. The solution? Placing your sandwich into your mouth upside-down. You heard it here first.

Photo of Dutch crunch bread Photo of Dutch crunch bread Photo of Dutch crunch bread Photo of Dutch crunch bread

The Active Ingredient Recipe

To make Dutch crunch at home, adapt your favorite bread recipe by applying the topping before the final proofing stage, after you have shaped the dough into loaves. For best results, choose a bread style that is not particularly crusty, so that that the Dutch crunch topping will stand out. The following recipe is reprinted with permission from The Bread Baker's Apprentice by Peter Reinhart, copyright © 2001. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.

Dutch Crunch Topping (Makes 2-4 Loaves)
To make the topping, whisk together 1 tablespoon bread flour, ¾ cup rice flour, ¾ teaspoon instant yeast, 2 teaspoons granulated sugar, ¼ teaspoon salt, 2 teaspoons vegetable oil, and 6 to 8 tablespoons of water to make a paste.

If it seems too thin to spread without running off the top of the dough, add more rice flour. It should be thick enough to spread with a brush, but not so thick that it sits like a lump of mud. This makes enough for 2 to 4 loaves.

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