It wasn't that long ago that one might have thought that ciabatta referred to an Italian sports car and brioche was a piece of woman's jewelry. Happily, times have changed and these and other good breads are readily available.
Artisan bakeries and the bakeries in many supermarkets produce a variety of crusty, very good breads, handmade in small batches. Most of these breads, made from flour, yeast, salt and water, are best stored for about two days. Storing them in a tightly closed paper bag or an old-fashioned bread box is best, but once they are cut, a plastic bag will keep them from drying out.
These breads are too good to waste even a crumb. The good news is that after a couple of days, they are at the perfect stage to become the most important ingredient in a new dish. Another plus is that these "waste not, want not" dishes are best made hours or a day ahead.
Ribollita, which means reboiled, is an Italian soup that probably originated as a way of using leftover vegetable soup to make another meal. The soup is best made a day ahead but can be served the first day. The ingredients are flexible and any of them can be increased or decreased to taste. A food processor makes quick work of the necessary fine chopping of the vegetables.
A fairly dense and crusty Tuscan, country or rustic bread is a good choice for this, but ciabatta will work as well.
When the soup is layered with slices of bread and reheated, it becomes so thick that a soup spoon will almost stand up in it. As with many "leftover" ideas, ribollita turned out to be so good that it is now a classic and popular in its own right.
Panzanella is usually considered a summer salad that is made with ripe summer tomatoes. This cool-weather version roasts canned tomatoes with fresh basil and garlic. The roasting brings out the sweet tomato flavor, and roasted sweet yellow peppers add color. It is a comfort version of panzanella.
Bread for panzanella often is soaked in water, squeezed dry and then tossed with the salad to form bread-crumb pieces. I prefer to lightly toast torn pieces of bread and toss them in the dressing. These ciabatta bits absorb the wonderful salad flavors but retain some of their crusty crunch and chewy texture. Piave cheese is an Italian cheese with a sweet and slightly nutty flavor and is worth trying, but if you can't find it, parmesan will be a fine substitute.
Strata is a popular brunch dish that in its basic form layers bread, an egg-milk custard and cheese. Ham, Swiss cheese, mustard and rye bread combine a favorite sandwich with the strata concept. The layers go together quickly and ahead of time, then bake into a bubbling casserole suitable for brunch, lunch or dinner.
A sweet bread pudding calls for an egg-rich and buttery brioche or an egg-rich challah. These are soft breads with flavors that go well with the sweet chocolate and cherries.
Atwater's Bread at Belvedere Square Market makes a chocolate-cherry bread that would also make a good choice for this pudding. It is a good idea to call ahead to check when it is available.
Where you can get the bread
Stone Mill Bakery, Bonaparte Breads, Atwater's Bread, Fenwick Bakery and Uptown Bakers are Baltimore bakeries that produce all or some of the breads mentioned in these recipes. Their information is below. You also may find the breads at large supermarkets.
Stone Mill Bakery, 10751 Falls Road, Lutherville, 410-821-1358, stonemillbakery.com
Bonaparte Breads, 903 S. Ann St., 410-342-4000
Atwater's Bread, Belvedere Square Market, 529 E. Belvedere Ave., 410-323-2396, atwaters.biz
Fenwick Bakery, 7219 Harford Road, 410-444-6410, thefenwickbakery.com
Uptown Bakers at 32nd Street Saturday morning farmers' market in Waverly, uptownbakers.com
Chocolate-Cherry Bread Pudding
8 cups brioche, challah or chocolate-cherry bread cubes (about 1 inch) with crust, about six 1/2 -inch-thick slices
3/4 cup dried, pitted cherries
6 ounces semisweet chocolate, cut into pieces
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 egg yolks
1 cup cold heavy cream whipped to soft peaks with 1 teaspoon vanilla extract and 1 tablespoon confectioners' sugar (optional)
Position a rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter a 9-inch-by- 9-inch-by-2-inch baking dish or pan. Put the bread cubes in the baking dish and bake for 5 minutes to toast the bread slightly, stirring once. Sprinkle the cherries and chocolate over the bread. Set aside.
In a medium saucepan heat the butter, sugar and milk over low heat until the butter melts and the sugar dissolves. Pour the mixture into a large bowl, stir in the vanilla and set aside for 5 minutes to cool slightly.
Whisking constantly, whisk the egg yolks into the warm milk mixture. Pour this custard over the bread mixture in the baking dish.
Bake about 55 minutes, until the top is lightly browned and crusty, the custard is absorbed and the pudding is set if you give it a slight jiggle.
Let the pudding sit for about 10 minutes and serve warm with whipped cream, if desired.
Per serving (with whipped cream): 566 calories, 8 grams protein, 34 grams fat, 20 grams saturated fat, 62 grams carbohydrate, 5 grams fiber, 129 milligrams cholesterol, 290 milligrams sodium
Winter Panzanella Salad
Makes 6 to 8 servings
one 28-ounce can whole tomatoes, drained
2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
14 to 16 fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 pound (about 1/2 loaf) ciabatta bread with crust, torn into bite-size pieces
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
6 tablespoons olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 roasted sweet peppers, yellow preferred, cut into large bite-size pieces
1/2 cup lightly packed basil leaves, torn into pieces
1/4 pound piave or parmesan cheese, cut into small pieces
1/2 pound fresh mozzarella cheese (optional)
1/4 cup pitted black olives, oil-cured preferred
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line a baking sheet with 2 layers of parchment paper.
Cut the tomatoes in half and discard most or all of the seeds. Spread the tomatoes in a single layer on the baking sheet. You will have 14 to 16 halves. Put a slice of garlic and a basil leaf on each and sprinkle with the olive oil. Bake for about 1 hour and 15 minutes, until the tomatoes begin to color on their edges. The liquid will blacken slightly on the paper liner as the tomatoes cook. Leave the oven on.
Discard the basil and garlic slices. Transfer the tomatoes to a bowl and set aside to cool slightly. Or, cover and refrigerate for up to 2 days.
For the salad, spread the bread pieces on a baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes to toast them lightly, stirring once. Set aside. In a small bowl, whisk the garlic, vinegar and lemon juice to blend them. Continue whisking while adding the oil in a stream. Add salt and pepper to taste.
In a bowl, put the tomatoes, peppers, basil and bread. Toss with the garlic dressing mixture to coat evenly. Add the piave or parmesan cheese and mozzarella (if desired) and toss again. Sprinkle the olives over the top and let sit for 30 minutes for the bread to absorb the dressing. Serve.
Per serving (based on 8 servings): 287 calories, 9 grams protein, 19 grams fat, 5 grams saturated fat, 22 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams fiber, 10 milligrams cholesterol, 573 milligrams sodium
Ribollita: Vegetable-and-Bread Soup
Makes 8 servings
1 cup dried white beans (with 1 onion and 1 bay leaf) or 3 cups canned white beans, drained and rinsed
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil (divided use)
3 medium onions, finely chopped
3 carrots, finely chopped
3 large stalks celery, finely chopped
1 cup lightly packed fresh basil leaves, torn into pieces
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh sage leaves (about 8 leaves)
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
2 peeled garlic cloves
5 cups beef broth, low-sodium if canned
1 pound Swiss chard, escarole or savoy cabbage, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 bay leaf
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
8 to 10 slices day-old Tuscan or country bread
freshly grated parmesan cheese for serving
If using dried beans, put the beans in a pot with 1 onion cut in half and a bay leaf. Cover with 2 inches of water and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat and let sit 30 minutes, then bring to a gentle boil, cover and cook until the beans are tender, about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Remove the bay leaf and onion and discard them. Drain the beans. The beans are ready to use or they can be covered and refrigerated overnight.
In a large saucepan, heat the 1/4 cup olive oil over low-medium heat. Add the chopped onions, carrots and celery and cook them until softened, stirring often, about 20 minutes. Add the basil, sage, parsley and garlic and cook until softened slightly, about 5 more minutes.
Add the beef broth, chard or other greens, tomato paste, bay leaf and cooked beans. Cover loosely and adjust the heat to cook at a gentle simmer until the vegetables are soft, about 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Discard the bay leaf.
Transfer 2 cups of soup, making sure to include the 2 cooked garlic cloves, to a food processor and process to a puree. Return the puree to the soup. Add salt and pepper to taste. (The soup can be baked with the bread at this point and served or, preferably, cooled for 1 hour, covered and refrigerated overnight before baking.)
When ready to serve the soup, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Cover the bottom of a 3-quart- deep baking dish with bread slices. Ladle in half of the soup. Cover with bread slices and ladle in the remaining soup. Drizzle the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil over the top. Bake until the soup is hot, about 15 minutes.
Ladle into bowls, digging down to the bottom of the baking dish to serve the bread layers with the soup. Pass parmesan cheese to sprinkle over the top.
Per serving: 306 calories, 13 grams protein, 12 grams fat, 2 grams saturated fat, 38 grams carbohydrate, 11 grams fiber, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 354 milligrams sodium