One dreary, cold and grey Prague day, I came home and just wanted some Pan de Sal. A soft, slightly sweet and spongy bread roll that I would fill anywhere from butter to jam to cheese to peanut butter and eventually dip into my hot cup of cocoa. For me, it spells …C-O-M-F-O-R-T F-O-O-D. Growing up in Queens, NY my parents often purchased this bread from our local Filipino grocery store and when I have visited the Philippines, we would have freshly baked pan de sal delivered to our home in little brown packages still piping hot. There were never any left over and of course you could never just have one.
A major challenge in living abroad for me, is being able to delight in the flavors I grew up with and savored. Prague has just begun to open itself up to diverse ethnic restaurants and few grocery stores carry the products to create dishes that are not local or familiar. A major benefit to living abroad for me, is the growing development of my interest in cooking and finding creative ways to recreate the foods and flavors of my childhood. This interest did not just begin while living in Prague. My first time living away from home was in Italy, and there were many phone calls home asking my mother or my Grandma how to cook things. These requests were often met with laughter and sympathy, as they too had also experienced this particular type of homesickness. As my Valencian father-in-law, often likes to say “La necessitat és la millor universitat.” Well, the necessity here is to indulge and enjoy the foods I love!
So here I was, perusing through my many cookbooks and surfing the web for Pan de Sal recipes. On my last visit to the Philippines, I had purchased a cookbook on baking, but to my dismay, this one did not have an entry on Pan de Sal and neither did any of my other books. The women in my family had never baked Pan de Sal, so I couldn’t look to them for help. In the end, my main resource was the web. There were a number of recipes available, some which required a bread machine (which I don’t have), some that got bad reviews and some that looked worth trying. I narrowed it down to two. And yes, I did try both!
What I enjoy most about making bread is the softness of the dough when you touch it, punching it down after watching it rise and with this particular recipe, rolling the dough in a mound of breadcrumbs, marking the distinction of this bread from the others. Furthermore, there is the scent of the bread baking, floating throughout our red kitchen and seeping into the other rooms of our home, stirring up the appetite and awakening the senses. And so it was, after 20 minutes of prepping the dough, an hour of rising, shaping it, another 10 minutes of rising and 15 minutes in the oven, we had Pan de Sal for breakfast. Unfortunately, there was no mango jam at hand, but a delicious jar of apricot instead served as a satisfying substitute. Slicing the roll down the middle, the butter quickly melted and spread easily across the warm dough. Lastly, a final touch of jam to bring the two slices back together created a simple, yet satiating breakfast. All that effort brought me back to the kitchen I grew up in, on Highland Avenue.