There are few things better than the smell of freshly baked bread coming out of an oven. Itâ€™s not just an opinion. Apparently scientists/researchers have proven that the smell of freshly baked bread triggers all kinds of good feelingsâ€¦ergo the commercial application of strategically positioning bread ovens near the entrances and exits of groceries and supermarkets or in malls… I have fond memories of pan de sal (salted bread) throughout my life. As a kid, pan de sal with butter. Pan de sal with cheese and butter, with butter and jam, with peanut butter and jelly, with quesong puti (carabao’s milk cheese), with corned beef, with spam, with ham, with vienna sausage, with tuna salad, with cheese pimiento, with chorizo out of its skins, etc. I can remember the look and feel of the different pan de sals at home (delivered hot every morning), at elementary school and definitely during high school. It is also one of the first 10 things I learned how to bake as a teenager. My sister taught me her recipe which I have not made myself in decades and it was fascinating to see the dough rise and turn into something so incredibly good. Now if only I could find that recipe…
But this closeness to bread is in the blood. My grandmother, besides being part of the first class of graduating doctors that included females in the 1920â€™s, also owned a bakery in the 1950â€™s that apparently had the most terrific brick ovens and dedicated bakers. I donâ€™t remember the bakery at all but my two oldest siblings have great memories of it. In fact, my sister learned how to bake there. How could you not become an expert when your grandmother set before you the best classroom, teachers and unlimited materialsâ€¦ didnâ€™t get that ensaimada quite right? Do it again and again and again. Until perfect, thanks. At any rate, there is history in this fixation on pan de sal. Having said that, I could almost write a rant on how bad the pan de sal has gotten in Manila in recent years. There are few if any commercial pan de sals that come anywhere close to the pan de sals of the 50â€™s and 60â€™s. Many variations today are too small, too sweet (it’s a salty bread!), too airy, possess no crust, have a strange shape, etc. etc. I am not sure if it the quality of flour, bad yeast, added sugar, lazy bakers, whateverâ€¦but this is a national treasure that has been allowed to deteriorate. In France, there are standards around their baguette, here we have price controls that result in size diminution.
Several years ago on the way to the Dimasalang Wholesale Flower Market, I used to pass one of the first outlets of Pan de Manila which baked pan de sal in wood fired ovens. It wasnâ€™t the best but it was good enough particularly when you chanced upon them coming right out of the oven. Dozens of branches of this bakery have since sprung up around Metro Manila and I am almost certain that the quality has deteriorated. It is still pretty good for the first 15-30 minutes it emerges from the oven but it tastes dreadful several hours later. It doesnâ€™t have the typical shape of a pan de sal and itâ€™s airier than it should be. It doesnt re-heat well at all. But itâ€™s better than making it myselfâ€¦ So the question of the day for all you folks out there is this: what is your all time favorite palaman (filling) for your pan de sal???