If you listen to the health food alarmists, eating a slice of white bread is about as good for you as drinking a glass of West Virginia tap water. They could be right, but I don't think that science has caught up to their claims. It could be that the whole "refined wheat = death" movement is just another health fad (except for a small group who are truly allergic to it). Remember that just a few years ago the "experts" were touting wheat bran as a universal cure-all?
So until we get some reproducible results from large-scale, long-term research studies, I'm going to keep enjoying my bread, including an occasional slice of white topped with cream cheese and strawberry jam.
I grew up on Pepperidge Farm white bread, which way back when was considered the counterculture alternative to squishy supermarket loaves. Today, I look at its label and ask myself why I need high fructose corn syrup in my bread. If I want to try a good, simple white bread, I'll pick up a loaf of Orwasher's White Pullman (small, $4). This puffy loaf has a soft but faintly crackly crust and a fluffy crumb with a fine flour aroma. It's made from unbleached white wheat flour, water, yeast, and salt. It's the archetypical white bread.
Many of the city's better bakeries offer "pain de mie" as their white bread alternative. This is a Pullman-type loaf that's been enriched with butter, milk, and sugar to give the crumb a dense but soft texture and buttery aroma. My pain de mie of the moment is made by Tribeca's always-creative Takahachi Bakery. I've already extolled their baker's excellent plain and black sesame loaves; their latest invention is the Tofu Loaf ($5.50), made from tofu, unbleached flour, salt, water, milk, sugar, butter, and yeast. To make it, they simply blend blocks of firm tofu into the dough. Tofu doesn't change the flavor, which is still rich and buttery, but imparts a particularly moist and dense texture. It almost melts in your mouth.
For a more traditional loaf, I would turn to Maison Kayser's Pain de Mie ($7.95). This one comes out of the pan with its cap shaped in two large gluteal mounds. It's made from organic white and high-gluten flours, milk, liquid levain, and sugar. Without butter, it's a little lighter than most pains de mie. The top is given a glossy sugar glaze that makes a slice a bit sticky to handle. Toasted, it makes a great base for a creamy pâté.
The least white of my favorite white breads is Bien Cuit's Pain de Mie (whole $12, half $6). Its bakers add eggs to the traditional flour, yeast, milk, salt, sugar, and butter mixture, giving the loaves a golden hue. It's baked in a lidded Pullman pan so the loaf comes in clean, geometric lines. Inside the crumb is dense, slightly on the drier side, and rich with a buttery, eggy aroma. You can slice it thinly and into all kinds of shapes, making it a perfect platform for smoked salmon and caviar.
But the whitest bread I know is still Wonder Bread Classic White ($2.99), which recently returned to supermarket shelves. It's a descendant of the soft white Vienna breads of the late 19th century that were reinvented by generations of food scientists seeking to lower costs and extend shelf life. The new owners of the brand have tweaked the recipe yet again. I remember that the old version had a chemical-y bite; the new loaf has a mellow, almost buttery flavor. After enriched flour, water, high fructose corn syrup, and yeast, the list of ingredients list still contains a long line of chemicals that you need a degree to understand—but no butter! It's a miracle of science, but I'll stick with loaves made with fewer ingredients.