Monday 20 November 2017

Fresh ideas from Rachel Allen for the forgotten loaf

Don't throw away your stale bread, as Rachel Allen has a variety of recipes to make some delicious meals using that forgotten loaf. Photography by Tony Gavin

Rachel Allen's bread, wine and cheese. Photo: Tony Gavin
Rachel Allen's bread, wine and cheese. Photo: Tony Gavin
Rachel Allen's tomato and basil bread-and-butter pudding. Photo: Tony Gavin.

Unlike us, our frugal friends over in France, Italy and Spain are huge fans of bread that is stale. We, on the other hand, throw away more bread nowadays than any other food, which is such a shame, when you consider how many delicious dishes can be conjured up from the stuff.

Bread loves to absorb moisture and flavour when it's stale, much more than when it's fresh. For centuries, the Italians have been using bread that is three or more days old in soups and salads. Big chunks of a white yeast loaf soak up the hearty rustic flavours in a classic Tuscan ribollita, opposite. Meanwhile, panzanella offers toasted bread that's a few days old as the real body in an otherwise light, crunchy salad.

One of my favourite ways of using up stale bread is to make French toast. In France, this is called pain perdu, meaning 'lost bread', as it's a way of using up bread that would otherwise be lost. Dip the slices of just-stale bread in whisked egg with a bit of sugar, perhaps a dash of cream and maybe some cinnamon, then fry them in butter on both sides. Just perfect with a cup of milky coffee.

When we were on holiday in the Alps recently, we enjoyed a delicious, very simple lunch of bread, cheese and wine in the way that the French know how to do so well: all together in a gratin dish and cooked till golden and bubbling. A bit like a savoury bread-and-butter pudding, without the eggs and cream. When you're sitting on top of a snowy mountain after a morning's skiing, this is insanely good comfort food at its best.

Ribollita is a wonderfully hearty Tuscan soup of vegetables, bread and beans. It literally means 'twice boiled', or 're-boiled'. I love to use cavolo nero (Tuscan kale) in this recipe, but any other robust greens could also be used, such as the dark green leaves from a head of savoy cabbage, Swiss chard, or even broccoli - I especially love purple sprouting broccoli.

Bread, wine and cheese

Serves 4.

You will need:

1 teaspoon butter

150g (5oz) lardons of bacon

150g (5oz) mixed wild or button mushrooms

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

100g (3½oz) Cheddar cheese, grated

3 teaspoons Dijon mustard

150g (about ½ a loaf) of stale white yeast bread or sourdough bread

75ml (2½oz) dry white wine

450g (1lb) semi-soft or soft cheese such as Gubbeen, Durrus, Milleens, or a mixture

1 teaspoon chopped thyme leaves

You'll need a 2L capacity, 23cm x 30cm (9in x 12in) gratin dish. Preheat the oven to 220°C, 425°F, Gas 7. Place a frying pan on a high heat and add the butter. Add the lardons of bacon and cook them for 6-8 minutes until they are golden. Lift the bacon lardons out, leaving any fat in the pan, and set them aside. Tip the sliced wild or button mushrooms, whichever you're using, into the pan and season them with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cook them for five minutes until they are soft and golden.

Mix the grated Cheddar cheese and the Dijon mustard and spread the mixture over the base of the gratin dish. Break the stale white yeast bread or stale sourdough bread, whichever you're using, into big chunks, about 4cm (2in) in size, and spread them over the cheese and mustard mixture in the gratin dish.

Drizzle the dry white wine over the top and place the dish in the preheated oven. Cook for 10-15 minutes, until the bread is slightly golden around the edges. Take it out of the oven, and add the lardons and the mushrooms.

Cut the semi-soft or soft cheese, whichever you're using, with all its rind, into wedges about 2cm (1in) wide at their widest and arrange them on top of the mushrooms, then scatter over the thyme. The dish can be prepared ahead up to this point. Put it back in the oven and cook it again for another 10-15 minutes until it is golden and bubbling.


Serves 6-8.

You will need:

125g (4½oz) dried cannellini or borlotti beans or 1 x 400g (14oz) tin of cannellini or borlotti beans; reserve the cooking liquid or the liquid from the tin

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling

2 large red onions, peeled and chopped

6 celery stalks, trimmed and chopped 1cm (about ½in) dice

3 medium or 2 large carrots, peeled and chopped in 1cm (about ½in) dice

3 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped finely

1 large handful of chopped parsley

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 x 400g (14oz) tin of tomatoes

1 teaspoon sugar

300ml (½pt) vegetable stock or chicken stock

1kg (2¼lb) of cavolo nero (Tuscan kale), destalked (weigh with stalks on) and shredded

1 small loaf of stale ciabatta or white yeast bead, crusts removed and torn into chunks roughly 2cm (about 1in) in size

15g (½oz) mature Coolea or Parmesan cheese, finely grated

If you're using dried cannellini or borlotti beans, first soak whichever type you're using in plenty of cold water overnight. Next day, drain the beans. Put them in a saucepan and cover them with fresh cold water. Place the saucepan on a medium to high heat, and boil the beans for 45-70 minutes until they are soft.

Meanwhile, get the soup started. Place three tablespoons of the extra-virgin olive oil in a saucepan (a large one that will hold all the soup) on a medium to high heat and add in the chopped red onions, the chopped celery, the chopped carrots, the finely chopped garlic and half the handful of chopped parsley.

Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper and cook, uncovered, for about 20 minutes until the vegetables are almost soft. Add in the tinned tomatoes, the sugar and the vegetable stock or the chicken stock, whichever you're using, and cook for 20-30 minutes until the tomatoes have broken down.

Place half of the cooked beans or the tinned beans, whichever you're using, into a food processor, along with some of the liquid from the bean cooking pot, or the tin, and whizz to a smooth mixture. Otherwise, you could use a potato masher. Make sure to keep all of the remaining bean liquid for use later.

Add the mashed beans, and the rest of the whole beans to the saucepan. Add the shredded kale and cook for 15 minutes until the kale is tender.

Add in the chunks of stale bread, the remaining chopped parsley, the remaining three tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil and some more salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add some more bean cooking liquid or liquid from the tin, whichever you're using, to the soup if it is is too thick, but do keep in mind that it is supposed to be thick and hearty. Allow it to bubble for another minute before serving in big warm bowls, with a little extra-virgin olive oil drizzled over the top and with a generous and fine grating of Coolea or Parmesan cheese, whichever you're using, on top.

Tomato and basil bread-and-butter pudding

Serves 4.

You will need:

25g (1oz) butter, softened

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

4 thick slices of stale white bread

12 cherry tomatoes

1 tablespoon basil or marjoram, chopped

400ml (14fl oz) milk

100ml (3½fl oz) cream

3 eggs

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

75g (2½oz) Cheddar or other leftover hard cheeses, grated

Preheat the oven to 180°C, 350°F, Gas 4. Mix the softened butter and the finely chopped garlic together, then use a little of the mixture to grease a shallow baking dish or tin. Use the rest to butter the stale slices of white bread, then cut them in half diagonally.

Arrange the buttered bread slices in the baking dish, making sure they overlap. Tuck the cherry tomatoes in and around the slices of bread. Sprinkle over the chopped basil or marjoram, whichever you're using.

Whisk the milk, the cream and the eggs together, seasoning with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Pour this mixture over the bread and gently push the slices down in the liquid. Leave to stand for five minutes.

Scatter the grated hard cheese over the top, then bake for 35-40 minutes until the dish is golden and just set.

Rachel recommends

For the best stale bread to use in these recipes, it's worth starting with a great loaf. Even recipes with stale bread will taste better if the bread itself was delicious to start with. Any bread from Pana Bakery will not disappoint. Pavel the baker started a couple of years ago in east Cork, selling his delicious hand-made breads to local markets and shops, and just before Christmas, he also opened a fantastic new bakery shop in Merchants Quay Shopping Centre in Cork city. Go there to find every type of artisan bread imaginable. Just a warning: don't leave without a custard and almond brioche!


Rachel's tip

Don't forget that any old bread can be used to make breadcrumbs that can be easily frozen. Just whizz up the slightly stale bread (removing the crusts first, if you wish) in a food processor or liquidiser and use them straight away, or freeze.

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