Dead Bread. Dante Alighieri. And the Tenth Circle of Hell.
As sometimes happens in life, several elements of my universe have collided in a most surprising way during this Festival of InBetween. We have several loaves of good bread left over from Christmas lunch which need attention; I was given a Kindle as a present; and on these long, languid days when I don’t even know what day it is, I am falling, helpless, into my reading while chaos, dishes, other people’s dirty linen and unanswered emails all pile up relentlessly around me.
In his Inferno, (available on Kindle), Dante and his guide Virgil, search the 9 circles of Hell to find his beloved Beatrice, cast there by Lucifer. Rome’s greatest poet, Virgil, leads the poet and narrator, Dante, through the nine concentric circles of Hell, each circle representing a gradual increase in wickedness, and culminating at the centre of the earth, where Lucifer is held in bondage. The sinners of each circle are punished for eternity in a fashion befitting their crimes: each punishment is a contrapasso, a symbolic example of poetic justice. For example, in the circle of Heresy, Dante and Virgil encounter fortune-tellers who must walk with their heads on backward, unable to see where they are going, because they tried to see the future.
Antonio Manetti: Everything reduced to a single level
Photo credit: wikipedia
(Antonio Manetti 1423-1497 was a mathematician and architect from Florence. He is famous for his investigations into the site, shape and size of Dante's Inferno.)
The pair begin, of course, in the outer circle of Limbo, where the unbaptised wallow in misery: “we have no hope and yet we live in longing”. The poets pass through the circles of Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Anger, Heresy, Violence. In each circle, they encounter figures from history – they meet Cleopatra, Dido, Helen of Troy, Achilles – all who have given their souls to unbridled passion in the circle of Lust.
Together, Dante and Virgil, move on to the circle of Fraud where politicians end their days in fierce heat and torment. I am working my way through Dorothy L. Sayers’ translation of Inferno. Yes, the crime writer and creator of sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey is a noted scholar of Dante and has translated La Commedia Divina , The Divine Comedy. Why did I think that the writer of such a capricious character as Lord Peter Wimsey could lighten the burden of Dante’s abyss? Anyway, I find out now that her translation is not highly regarded by other academics. What would I know? The vagaries of translation aside, I find her commentaries quite useful and I must confess, I have skipped a couple of Circles – yes, nearly finished! I will be sent to the Circle of Fraud and encounter politicians I have never voted for and some that I have.
This is a far more terrifying view of Lower Hell, inside the walls of Dis, in an illustration by Bruges- born painter,Stradanus, 1523-1605. There is a drop from the sixth circle to the three rings of the seventh circle, then again to the ten rings of the eighth circle, and, at the bottom, to the icy ninth circle.
Stradanus - Illustration of Dante's Inferno.
Photo credit: wikipedia.
And, finally, after many terrifying adventures, the two poets make their way to the Circle of Treachery. This last circle is reserved for those people who betrayed their loved ones, friends, employers and even their countries. The greatest sin here is pride and egotism and the inhabitants attempt to kill Dante and Virgil with their freezing breath. Who resides in this icy, frozen chasm? According to Lucifer, he has ensnared the souls of Cassius, Brutus and Judas along with Ulysses of Ithaca, Alexander the Great, and Attila the Hun. No doubt, we can add many modern names to the list of duplicitous, evil narcissists who have betrayed humanity itself.
And so, to stale bread. A natural progression.
May we speculate as to which circle of hell Dante would assign a person who throws away bread? Perhaps we should contemplate a tenth circle, the most ferocious, for the greatest transgression of them all. My mother told me that the hottest spot in hell was reserved for someone who wasted bread. She had never read Dante. But together, my mother and the great poet, could happily fashion a contrapasso, a fitting punishment. What would it be, I wonder?
Whenever she made bread, my mother would make the sign of the cross over the dough and whisper a prayer before the pale loaves went into the oven. Three doors away from us was a Spanish family who always invited the neighbourhood children to eat “torrijas” at the start of the Easter holidays when our mothers were still at work. There we sat in polite anticipation as the stale bread was resurrected as delicious “French toast” – all eggy, fried, honeyed goodness. Now I know that Justo and Maria always seasoned the batter with a few drops of sweet Malaga wine. The innocence of Youth.
Master Baker Rocco Tedesco producing wonderful breads in my kitchen for Prospect Eco Market. Small amounts of yeast and long levitation times makes the breads easy to digest and improves their texture.
Nothing will beat the aroma of yeasty, fresh bread as it emerges from the oven. But, sometimes we get carried away. We make too much or we buy an extra loaf, because, well, it looks and smells so fantastic. Before we know it, we have a problem.
None of the following recipes will work if you only have white, sliced, mass produced bread. I am assuming that we all support local bakers whose products are wonderful freshly baked but just as sustaining a week or so later.
This is the kind of bread that will make the recipes spectacular. Made by my friend, Mark, from a sour dough starter that he looks after lovingly. We are not apologetically using left overs, but creating masterpieces anew.
ROMESCO and WALNUT SANDWICHES
In this recipe, I make the sauce drier and firmer than usual so that I can make about 20 walnut ‘sandwiches’. The recipe makes about 200 ml. Use Romesco sauce with meatballs, fish or vegetables.
1 large red capsicum
1-2 cloves garlic
2 ripe tomatoes
80 g roasted, blanched almonds
1-2 slices stale bread, cut up into chunks
½ tsp hot, smoked paprika
salt and pepper
red wine vinegar
At least 40 walnut halves, dry roasted in the oven
Preheat the oven to 210C. Cut the capsicum in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Put onto a baking paper lined baking tray, skin side up. Peel the garlic and put onto the tray. Cut the tomatoes in half and add to the tray. Bake until the capsicum is black and blistered. Remove from the oven. When cool enough to handle, remove the skins from the capsicum and tomato. Put the peeled capsicum, garlic, tomatoes, roasted almonds, bread, paprika, salt and pepper into a food processor and process with small drizzles of olive oil until you have a chunky sauce. Adjust the seasoning and add a small amount of red wine vinegar to taste. Add more bread if it is too loose for this recipe.
Use a small amount to join two halves of walnuts together.
BRACIOLE DI MELANZANE
This particular version has pork and veal mince but very often I make them meatless. Just add an extra eggplant and increase the amount of fresh breadcrumbs and parmesan to make a firm paste. Don't add any more eggs, though.
2 large eggplant, peel it in large strips so that a little of the skin remains
1 clove of garlic
few sprigs of parsley
1 cup of fresh bread crumbs, made from 1-2 day old bread
½ a cup of grated parmesan or pecorino
100g veal mince
100g pork mince
olive oil for frying
Put a large pot of water to boil. Cut the eggplant in half. Mince the garlic. Finely chop the parsley. Once water is boiling, plunge the eggplant in until it softens, about 5 to 6 minutes. Remove from the boiling water and allow to cool. Meanwhile mix the rest of the ingredients together and add the egg. Mix it all thoroughly. Then, squeeze any liquid from the eggplant. Chop it reasonably fine and add it to the mixture. Add some salt. Fry a small amount of the mixture, see if it holds together and taste it. If needed, add more salt until it tastes just right. Take a tablespoon and scoop some of the mixture. Make an egg shaped patty. Fry on both sides in olive oil over a medium heat. Serve plain, hot or cold with a crisp white wine from Calabria or a beer.
I like to serve them as a first course with tomato sugo.
For the sugo: ¼ onion finely chopped, 2 tins of chopped tomato.
After frying the braciole, remove them from the pan. Fry the onion in the same pan. Once it has become translucent and soft but not coloured, add the 2 tins of chopped tomato, bring to a simmer. Place the braciole back into the sauce and simmer for a 20 minutes or so. Scatter a few leaves of shredded basil.
PAPPA AL POMODORO
Photo credit: Tony Lewis for SALife. Recipe and styling: Rosa Matto for SALife.
Without a doubt, this is my all time favourite summer recipe. In Tuscany, where it originates, they often eat it at room temperature and the bread becomes quite mushy, which is what "pappa" implies. I like my version to be hot, or at least warm, and a bit more soupy. However you serve it, the success of the dish depends on three things: the ripeness of the tomatoes, the close texture of the bread and the fruitiness and pungency of the olive oil. Many modern versions substitute basil for sage. Don't.
extra virgin olive oil
20 extra sage leaves, left whole
1 slice close texture bread, at least one day old, per person
6 cloves garlic
2 very ripe, sweet tomatoes, per person
1/ 2 bunch fresh sage, chopped
salt and pepper
Heat up some olive oil and fry the 20 sage leaves until they are crisp. Set these on a paper towel for the garnish. In the same oil, fry the slices of bread in batches, adding more oil as you need. Remove the golden bread from the pan and while still warm, rub with cut garlic. Set the bread aside. Blanch the tomatoes very briefly in boiling water, remove, and working over a bowl to capture all the tomato juices, peel them and chop them coarsely. Heat about 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a saucepan and saute 4 whole, peeled garlic, without burning, until the oil is nicely fragrant. Remove and discard the garlic. Add half the chopped sage to the oil over very low heat. Now break up the bread roughly and add to the oil with all the tomatoes but reserve the juice which will become your "stock". Season well. Add the remaining chopped sage. Just before serving, add the reserved juices and extra water for a 'softer' consistency. Scatter the fried sage leaves and anoint each serving with a drizzle of olive oil. Don't be tempted to add the juices too early as the bread will soak it all up.
BOYOS DE PAN
This Sephardic Jewish snack is an inventive and delicious way of using stale bread. Boyos de pan made from leftover Sabbath challa are the best of all because the dough is enriched with egg, sugar and oil. This dish is also a wonderful light lunch served with a salad. The traditional cheeses are kasseri and pecorino Romano but I often use up ends of cheeses, creating interesting surprises each time I make boyos.
1 loaf stale bread to yield about 6 cups of bread pieces
5 large eggs
65 ml olive oil
3 cups grated cheese (always include some parmesan or pecorino)
2 cups plain flour
Preheat oven to 180C and line two baking sheets with paper. Cut bread into chunks and soak in cold water. Allow bread to soften, then drain and squeeze dry. Place all ingredients into a bowl and mix well with your hands. Dip your hands into water and shape the mixture into balls. place on baking paper and flatten slightly with a spatula. Bake for 20-30 minutes or until boyos are golden brown. Serve warm.
CIRCASSIAN CHICKEN WITH POMEGRANATE SEEDS
We had this gorgeous, fragrant dish in Istanbul, where it is celebrated as one of the masterpieces of Ottoman cuisine. It is sort of a shredded, chunky pate and it needs plenty of hot, chargrilled bread and a fattoush salad to use up even more stale bread.
This recipe feeds 6 hungry people for a simple lunch
4 pieces maryland chicken
1 small onion, cut into quarters
1 stick celery, sliced
1 sprig thyme
2 bay leaves
12 white peppercorns
1 whole fresh chilli
3 slices stale dense sourdough bread, crusts removed
chicken stock from the poaching of the chicken
1 brown onion, peeled and finely diced
30 ml olive oil
2 tsp sweet paprika
1/2 tsp hot paprika
2 cloves garlic minced
150 g walnuts
salt and pepper
squeeze of lemon juice
60 ml walnut oil
2 tsp sweet paprika
120 g Greek style yoghurt
3/4 cup coriander leaves, torn
pomegranate seeds in season
Poach chicken with all the other ingredients with enough water to just cover. Skim off any impurities that rise to the surface, then simmer for about 40 minutes. Allow the chicken to cool in the stock. Shred meat off the bone finely. Strain the stock and reserve.
To make the walnut sauce: soak bread in a little of the poaching stock until mushy. Set aside. Cook onion until soft but not coloured. Add the two kinds of paprika. In a food processor, pulse walnuts to a paste, add bread, garlic, salt, pepper and lemon juice. With the motor running, add enough of the stock to produce a thick sauce. You may choose to eschew machinery and do all this with a mortar and pestle - just don't judge me.
Meanwhile, prepare the garnish: heat walnut oil and paprika in a small pan until just warm, taking great care not to burn the spice. Off the heat, allow to infuse for 30 minutes or so.
Add the shredded chicken to the walnut sauce, and add the yoghurt and coriander, gently mixing together. Taste for seasoning.
On each plate, place a scoop of chicken. Using a teaspoon, make an indentation in the top - this will hold a little of the walnut oil mixture. Bejewel with a few pomegranate seeds. Serve with hot, grilled bread and a fattoush salad.
This is the famous precursor of gazpacho, milky white with occasional flecks of brown almond skin and bread, rather than red with tomatoes. Heavily laced with garlic, it is deliciously refreshing on a hot day and has a history that goes back 1000 years to the Moorish occupation of Spain. This recipe, with sherry vinegar from Jerez, comes from Malaga, where it is garnished with sweet muscat grapes. Accompany it with a sherry or the new season Malaga wine, Pedriot, which I found quite sweet. For this soup, I prefer the Seco Anejo which is at least a year old.
In the Footsteps of the Moors tour, October, 2011
3/4 cup almonds, blanched and peeled
2-3 cloves, garlic, peeled
4 slices stale bread, crusts removed
4 cups iced water
5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2-3 tbsp sherry vinegar
4 slices bread, extra, crusts removed, cut in neat cubes
1 cup seedless white grapes
In a food processor, pulverise almonds with garlic cloves and a large pinch of salt. Soak the bread in one cup of the water, then squeeze to extract moisture. Discard this water. Add bread to the almonds, then add olive oil, water and vinegar and blend until very smooth. Season with additional salt and vinegar, if necessary. Chill. Meanwhile, toss bread cubes with olive oil and bake until golden and crispy in a moderate oven.
Serve soup icy cold, garnished with croutons, grapes and one or two blanched almonds.
A BAKER'S DOZEN: 13 THINGS TO DO WITH STALE BREAD
1. breadcrumbs - in my recipes I often ask you to cut off the crusts. Use these to make fine, dry crumbs. Firstly, dry out the bread in a low-heat oven, then pulse in a food processor. No need to refrigerate if they are completely dry. "Fresh" breadcrumbs are made from 2-3 day old bread, processed until coarse. Spread out on a tray until dry and then bag or freeze.*see next recipe.
2. croutons - cut bread into regular sized cubes, toss in olive oil and bake until golden. Use these to add 'crunch' to a salad or soup.
*see following recipe
3. "poor man's parmesan" - fresh breadcrumbs cooked until golden in olive oil. Sprinkle on seafood pasta dishes.
4. crostini/bruschetta - brush one side with olive oil, bake until golden, then, while it's still warm, rub with a cut clove of garlic.
5. go Greek - the Greeks have truly wondrous ways with stale bread: skordalia, taramasalata, dakos salad which is reminiscent of the Pugliese salads incorporating dried friselle bread.
6. gratin - combine fresh crumbs with parsley, parmesan, pepper and dollops of butter. Top scallops or mussels, blanched fennel slices or chicken breast before grilling.
7. meatballs and meatloaves - an excellent rye crumb will add flavour as well as structure.
8. summer pudding - use stale brioche bun or bread which is at least two days old, otherwise the puddings are pulpy and slimy.
9. bread soups - my great weakness is to pop a slice of well-toasted bread in the bottom of a soup bowl, then pour my soup over it. Aaah!
10. dumplings - "semmelknoedel" are German bread dumplings - gorgeous in winter with mushroom sauce.
11. stuffings, of course - but add some French tarragon to light rye crumbs and stuff this under the breast skin for a delicious roast chicken. Add lemon zest to sourdough crumbs for fish, and sage and lemon thyme to wholemeal crumbs for lamb.
12. in Spain we had panada - a sort of savoury bread and butter pudding. Crusty bread was layered with sauteed onions and manchego cheese with lots of garlic and chopped parsley, then baked until crispy and golden on top.
13. a well made loaf of bread will stay fresh enough for toasting or grilling for a least four days if stored in a roomy paper bag. After that, I let it dry out completely and make crumbs. Do not keep your bread in the fridge - if a loaf is too much, cut it into manageable portions, wrap well and freeze. (always remember to label and date anything that goes into the freezer. No. You won't remember.)
BAKED SALMON WITH BREAD AND HERB STUFFING
Photo credit: Tony Lewis for SALife, Rosa Matto Cooks. Recipe and styling: Rosa Matto for SALife Rosa Matto Cooks.
2 thick slices stale sourdough, roughly cut
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts
1 clove garlic, mashed with salt
handful mixed herbs - parsley, oregano, dill - chopped
fresh chilli, as much as you like, chopped
extra virgin olive oil
salt and black pepper
2 kg side salmon, skin on, pin bones removed
2 large lemons, thinly sliced
extra dill for garnish
Preheat oven to 180C. Pulse the bread in a machine to produce coarse crumbs. Add the pine nuts, garlic, herbs, chilli and salt and pepper. Bind with olive oil and season well.
Cut the salmon in half lengthwise. Place a quarter of the lemon slices on the bottom half and then press the bread stuffing on top. Add another layer of lemon slices. Cover with the top half of fish and the dill.
Tie securely with string. Lay remaining lemon slices on a tray and place the fish on top. Drizzle with olive oil.
Bake for 40 minutes or until cooked to your liking. Serve on a platter and cut the string at the table.
WILTED BITTER GREENS WITH RAISINS AND FRIED BREAD
This is the kind of Spanish/Sicilian food I could eat every day in summer. I would tweak it every so often so I didn't get bored. Then, I'd sit in the shade with my new Kindle in one hand and a piece of bread in the other to mop up the oily goodness. Oh, wait. How will I manage my glass of Sicilian white wine?
1 cup boiling water
1/4 cup each sultans and raisins
4 slices sourdough bread, cut into rough croutons
1- 2 cloves garlic, cut into slivers
extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper and chilli, if you like
2 bunches bitter greens - broccolini di rape, or curly endive, or kale, or swiss chard or a mixture
4 anchovy fillets
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted
Pour boiling water over the sultanas and raisins and leave for 15 minutes or so. Drain well.
Preheat the oven to 200C. Warm half the garlic in the oil, taking care not to let it burn. Discard the garlic. Toss the bread in the garlicky oil and season with salt, pepper and chilli. Bake until golden all over, about 10 minutes.
Trim the greens and wash well. Prepare a large stockpot of salted water. If you are using broccolini di rape, blanch separately for 10 minutes first. Then plunge all the greens in together and blanch for just a few minutes. Drain well.
In the meantime, warm up some oil in a very large frypan (I use a large wok). Add the anchovies over a low fire and mash with a fork until they almost 'melt' into the oil. Add the remaining garlic. Now throw in the well drained greens, tossing with tongs until the oil coats all the leaves. Add the toasted pine nuts, the bread croutons and the drained sultanas and raisins. Check for seasoning again.
Now, find yourself a shady tree, pour a glass of wine and take up your new Kindle. Buon Appetito!
I suppose I must conclude my exploration of 'dead bread', though I could go on forever. There are so many recipes I haven't shared with you, but I guess you get the picture. I will leave you with a surprising recipe for a Vietnamese 'bread and butter' pudding.
BANH CHUOI NUONG
Makes 1 x 20 cm springform tin or 5-6 individual ramekins
Preheat the oven to 180C.
I was in Vietnam in 2013 and again in 2014 and I loved this very comforting pudding usually served in the evening at room temperature. It has the added bonus of taking care of the last few remaining bananas in the fruit bowl as well. People in our group often asked for coconut or vanilla icecream but I think it is luscious enough as it is.
500 g approx. ripe bananas, more rather than less
220 g coconut sugar
1 cup coconut cream, well mixed
1 tsp vanilla essence
60 g melted butter
12-15 slices white vienna loaf, at least 2 days old, crusts removed
2 tbsp coconut sugar mixed with 1 tbsp powdered cinnamon
Slice bananas in long, thin strips and sprinkle with half the sugar. Dissolve the remaining sugar in warmed coconut cream to which you have added the vanilla. Soak the bread briefly in the sweetened coconut cream.
Use the melted butter to grease a 20 cm spring form tin or individual ramekins and line the bottom with greased baking paper. Arrange a layer of bananas on the bottom. Cover with a layer of bread, then bananas, then bread and finish with a layer of bananas. Drizzle the remaining butter over the top, cover with alfoil and bake for an hour. Remove the foil for the last ten minutes to allow the cake to caramelise. Allow to cool completely in the tin and serve sprinkled with cinnamon sugar.
Well, Dante warned us: "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here". I have detained you somewhat in this post but I hope you'll want to get into the kitchen and turn waste into taste.