Francesca Sandwich Rolls

Rick Cooks Home Francesca Rolls
Monterey Bay Italian Sandwich Rolls

Pittsburg, California, sits at the meeting of the Sacramento River and San Joaquin River. It started as a fishing and canning town, then became a steel town. These industries attracted a large number of Sicilian immigrants, but many more than could find work in either the fishing or steel industries.

Many of these Sicilians found their way to Monterey, where the fishing and canning industries were still robust. They found a paradise where they could hold on to their Siciliani ways. In spite of its Spanish/Mexican heritage, the  Monterey of today owes much of its character to these Sicilian-Americans from Pittsburg.

Which brings us to the bread. The Monterey Bay has many fine bakeries, and they all bake rustic, European-style breads which originate in the Italian community and can be found only in the Monterey Bay. We've all heard of sourdough bread and ciabatta, available just about anywhere, even beyond San Francisco. But one sandwich roll called "Francesca" is found only in Monterey and Santa Cruz.

This is not pane francese, a rustic Italian bread. Most recipes for pane francese actually produce a crusty, chewy, open-holed, tangy (slightly sour) bread almost indistinguishable from ciabatta. It's quite good, and makes a great sandwich bread, but it's not the Francesca bread you'll find in Monterey. The similarity between francese and Francesca (a feminine Italian name) is a source of confusion and will hamper any search for the recipe.

Pane francese means "French bread" in Italian. My guess is that a customer described it to a Sicilian baker and he produced it based on the description and his own recipe for ciabatta. But if you really want French bread today, you can get it, and it won't resemble pane francese. Also, the term "Italian bread" is meaningless in Italian communities like Monterey, where nearly all of their varied breads are Italian in origin.

So my guess is that Francesca bread was probably created by an Sicilian baker in Monterey who named it after his mother or grandmother who gave him the recipe.

Francesca bread is soft instead of crusty, sweet instead of sour, crumbly instead of chewy, and fine instead of open-holed. So it's quite the opposite of Italian rustic breads like ciabatta. It isn't slashed, nor formed into a lofty loaf or baguette, nor baked until a hard, chewy, or crispy crust is formed. That's why it's usually sold as rolls rather than loaves, because it's mostly used for sandwiches. Like eggplant sandwiches.

Here's my recipe for Francesca rolls. If you can find a more authentic one, such as what they use at Paris Bakery in Monterey or Kelly's French Pastry in Santa Cruz, please send it to me.

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Francesca Sandwich Rolls

*Makes 4 rolls*

2 t active dry yeast
c warm water
6 c bread flour
2 t sugar
2 t salt
2 c ice-cold water

Dissolve the yeast in the warm water.

Mix six cups of flour with the salt and sugar in a good size bowl. Add the yeast and two cups of ice-cold water into the flour. It's going to make a pretty soupy bread dough. That is the secret here. Beat until the dough is elastic and slightly sticky. It's going to take about twenty minutes by hand (or five minutes with the mixer). The dough should develop a stringy texture.

Let the dough rise in a warm place covered with plastic wrap until it doubles in size in about two hours.

Once the bread has risen, sprinkle a handful of flower over the dough and scrape it out on to a well-floured board. Divide the dough in half, then each half in half again, making four large sandwich loaves (or divide each in half again to make 8 small sandwich loaves). With floured hands, pat the each dough portion into an 8 inch- (or 4 inch)-long rectangle. Starting on a short side, roll the dough, pressing each roll into the unrolled portion with the heel of your hand. Place the dough seam side down on the board. Sprinkle a good deal of flour under the loaves and lightly over them. Let the loaves rest, covered loosely with plastic wrap, for thirty minutes.

Gently pick up each loaf and place them on a large greased baking sheet, side-by-side. As you move them, you are going to gently stretch the loaves to the length of your baking sheet. Cover them loosely again with plastic wrap and let them rest another ten minutes. Preheat the oven to 475 degrees F.

Place the loaves in the oven and immediately turn it down to 425. Bake until the loaves are golden all over, about twenty to twenty-five minutes. Remove from the pan and cool on a bread rack.