Category: Desserts

“Very” Rustic Bread Pudding—Torta Di Pane

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Bread was generally not served with most meals in my home when I was growing up, although I can still hear my grandfather saying, as we sat around the large family dining table during the holidays, “bread is the staff of life,” or something close to that.

It wasn’t until much later in my early adult life that I developed an appreciation for a good loaf of artisan baked bread instead of the mass-produced prepackaged breads that line the grocery store shelves. I often go out of my way to find well-made breads, developing sources both locally and even sometimes ordering bread from online bake shops. From my perspective, the better the bread, the better the dish!

Bread should be eaten within the first couple of days after purchasing, or can be divided, if the loaf is large enough, and frozen so you can enjoy it over time. With this in mind, when the remainder of a loaf reaches a point where it begins to dry out and becomes a little harder I repurpose and freeze it for later use in dishes such as the recipe to follow. I also grind it for breadcrumbs, use it in soups, such as ribolitta or pappa al pomodoro, for croutons in a salad or soup, or the main ingredient in that holiday stuffing. Like the man said—“staff of life.”

Instead of cutting the leftover bread into perfect little squares, I tear it into irregular, ragged shaped pieces. Some edges get charred when lightly toasted, which adds more flavor to a dish. The irregular shapes and sizes allow for some pieces to get crisper than others, making the bread more interesting. And, even if a recipe calls for removing the crust, I never do, because the crust adds another dimension to the overall flavor and texture of the dish when bread is added.

Around this time of the year, as we approach the holidays when family and friends gather together for meals large and small, I find I always have a good stash of torn, repurposed bread pieces in my freezer. Over the years I have prepared a large roasting pan filled with a savory bread pudding that was always a more interesting substitute for a holiday stuffing or a starchy side dish. But I seem to recall that perhaps only once did I ever prepare a bread pudding as a dessert, and it seems so long ago that I don’t even remember exactly what all of the ingredients were that I used. So the motivation behind this post was to revisit that, and develop a recipe where I could use all the stashed bread in a dessert.

Reading through my cookbooks I gathered ideas, ingredient combinations, and approaches leading to the recipe I am sharing with you in this post. Fundamentally, I wanted the recipe to be easy to prepare and assemble, using mainly ingredients found in most home pantries, not too sweet, be “very” rustic when finished, and fun for the kids to help with.

 

“Very” Rustic Bread Pudding

Ingredients (serves 8 to 10)

12 generous cups bread pieces

5 large apples, peeled, quartered, cored, quarters halved then thinly sliced across into smaller pieces. Yellow Delicious apples were used in this recipe, although Honey Crisp, Granny Smith, or Fuji would all be fine substitutes.

Zest and juice of 1 large lemon

12 tablespoons sweet butter + more for the baking pan + topping

2 whole cinnamon sticks

3 generous tablespoons brown sugar

¼ cup grappa, Nonino grappa il merlot was used in this recipe, although any other grappa, vodka, or limoncello would work just as well.

¼ cup finely chopped candied orange rinds (optional)

1 cup walnuts, or pecans, or a mix of both, lightly toasted and rough chopped

1 teaspoon vanilla beans

4 large eggs

3½ cups Half & Half

 

Method

Generously butter and lightly flour a 9 x 13 baking pan and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 365 degrees.

Finely zest the lemon and set aside. Juice the lemon into a large work bowl along with the apple pieces prepared as previously described. Using your hands, toss and coat the apples with the lemon juice. Sprinkle the brown sugar over, then toss and coat the apples again.

In a large sauté pan, melt 3 tablespoons of butter over moderate heat. When the butter sizzles and begins to lightly brown, add the apples, cinnamon sticks, and grappa, stirring to coat and combine. Raise the heat and cook the apples, stirring often, until most all the grappa has cooked off and the apples are lightly caramelized.

Apple sauté

Discard the cinnamon sticks and set the pan aside to cool.

In a small saucepan, melt 6 tablespoons of butter and set aside.

Using the same work bowl, add the torn bread pieces, the lemon zest, and the finely chopped candied orange rind, if using, and pour the 6 tablespoons of melted butter over. Mix to thoroughly distribute the zest and rind. Add the cooled apples along with the chopped nuts and mix again.

Dry mix

Whisk the eggs, Half & Half, and vanilla beans until combined, then pour the custard over the bread and apples, mixing again so that the bread is thoroughly coated and begins to absorb the liquid.

Pour the mixture into the prepared baking pan and distribute evenly. If the bread appears to be a little dry, add another ½ cup or so of the Half & Half, pouring it around evenly.

Dust the top with 2 generous tablespoons of sugar, and dot with 3 tablespoons of butter cut into ¼-inch-square pieces.

Ready for baking

Place the baking pan on the center shelf of the preheated oven and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour until the pudding is set and some of the bread has some charred edges.

Baked

Allow the pudding to rest and cool on a rack before cutting and serving. Best served warm and accompanied by a spoonful of whipped ricotta, crème fraiche, or Greek yogurt, along with a spoonful of your favorite jam or preserve. I plan to try one of my homemade preserves, either green tomato and lemon marmalade, blood orange marmalade, or Italian plum jam. A rich apple butter might be a nice option as well.

Plated

This is a rustic dessert to try for the holidays, making good use of what you have on hand in the pantry and without a lot of fuss. Do give this recipe a try.

Be well. Eat Well.

DM

Good food doesn’t have to be complicated. One of the best things about cooking is that it is an on-going learning experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Zucchini and the Endless Summer

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On September 22, according to my calendar, the first day of fall officially arrived. If you follow all that is currently being written in the culinary publications, newspaper columns, and the myriad of food-centric digital platforms, culinary blogs, and alike, we should all be focusing our attention toward hardier meals, long slow-braised dishes, fall fruit, and other produce. However, judging by the type of weather we are having, at least here on the eastern side of the country, it seems that mother nature is not yet ready to give up on summer! So why not prepare a few more meals featuring late season produce that still might be available in some of the local farmer’s markets.

One of those vegetables—that can continue to grow in such abundance late into the season that the farmers are practically giving them away—is zucchini. Green, yellow straight neck, large, small, and if you are lucky you might even find a basket of the yellow blossoms like I was able to do.

Although zucchini and the yellow straight neck squash are available all year round, they are at their best in the late spring through the early fall. They are a versatile vegetable, lending themselves to being prepared and served in a variety of ways. They have a mild flavor that can be brought to life by sautéing to a sweet nutty browness, or slow cooking in a gratin since zucchini pairs well with many cheeses, or charring on the grill to concentrate the flavor. Fresh herbs and garlic help bring the flavor of zucchini to life.

Zucchini are best for most dishes either when they can be sourced very young–no more than a few inches long or at about 8 inches in length since that is the size most often available. Larger monster size zucchini left unattended in the garden at the end of the season work best on the grill or stuffed and baked.

Keep in mind that zucchini contain a lot of water in general, especially the larger ones that can dilute their flavor in a dish, so season liberally. When they reach that overgrown size they may have to be seeded first before cooking.

Finding the zucchini blossoms at season’s end is an extra bonus because they are a great and colorful addition to many dishes. Sure, they can be stuffed or dipped in a light batter and fried and that is how they are most often prepared, but there are other more interesting ways to use the blossoms. For example, try adding the blossoms to a risotto or pasta dish, topping a pizza, using in a soup, or as an ingredient in a stuffing, just to mention a few other options.

So after a quick stop at a couple of local farmer’s markets I came away with both zucchini and the blossoms which I prepared in the four ways I am sharing with you in this post: a bruschetta, a frittata, a sauce for pasta, and a pound cake.

 

Zucchini Bruschetta

It has been written that bruschetta was the original garlic bread. In its simplest form a piece of rich country bread is lightly rubbed with olive oil, charred on the grill on both sides, and while still warm, rubbed with a fresh cut garlic clove, sprinkled with sea salt and eaten just that way with no further topping. Depending upon the quality of the bread and the olive oil, that simple bruschetta offering can be quite good. However, at times I like to dress up the bruschetta making it just a little more interesting. Not only that, the bruschetta, and its cousin the crostini (little toast), are often used to open a meal, to excite the diner’s palates and invite them to anticipate the meal to follow.

I chose this dressed-up approach in developing this zucchini bruschetta recipe and then instead for a light evening meal, served them as the main course accompanied by a salad and good bottle of wine.

In this case, instead of firing up the wood-burning grill for a small serving for two, I opted to use a grill pan not only to char the bread but also to grill the zucchini to concentrate its flavor and cook off some of the water content. Also, instead of using olive oil on the bread I lightly coated it with mayonnaise, as I often do with grilled cheese sandwiches, since the mayonnaise yields a nicely charred finish.

 

Ingredients (serves 2)

For the bread:

Large baguette or ciabatta cut into 6 pieces on the diagonal

2 tablespoons good-quality mayonnaise

Salt

For the topping:

2 medium-size zucchini squash (green and yellow)

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 medium shallot, minced

2 scallions, green tops only, thinly sliced on the diagonal

6 to 8 large basil leaves, thinly sliced

Olive oil

Salt and pepper

To finish:

Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or an aged Pecorino

Finely minced parsley (optional)

 

Method

Slice the bread across the loaf diagonally for 6 large slices. Lightly coat each slice on both sides with mayonnaise.

If using a wood-fired grill like I use, establish a nice bed of white-hot coals without any high flames before placing the bread slices on the heated grate. If you are using a gas-fired grill or a grill pan on the stovetop, heat either to a medium high temperature before placing the bread down. The grill pan should be dry.

Working quickly, turn the slices a quarter turn after 2 minutes on the down side, then after 2 minutes more turn them over. Toast the second side for 2 minutes and turn them a quarter turn again for another two minutes. The results should be nicely charred, crisp bread slices that you then place on top of a parchment-covered sheet pan, setting aside for finishing in the oven.

Grilled bread

To prepare the topping, mince the garlic and shallot, and thinly slice the scallion greens and basil, placing this aromatic mix in a large work bowl. Drizzle with two tablespoons of olive oil and lightly sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cover the bowl with a hand towel and allow the mix to macerate for 30 minutes.

Herb and aromatic mix

Meanwhile, after trimming the ends of the squash, slice each down the middle lengthwise, brush with a little olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Using the same grill or grill pan arrangement described for the bread, cook the squash on both sides until it can be pierced gently with the point of a knife and has a nicely charred finish. Allow the squash halves to cool enough to handle and roughly chop them into bite-size pieces.

Grilled zucchini

When the aromatic mix is ready, add the chopped squash to the bowl and gently but thoroughly combine the topping. Check and correct the seasoning as needed and add a drizzle of olive oil as well.

Zucchini and herb mix combined

Using a tablespoon, top each bread slice with the zucchini mixture until it is evenly distributed. Place the sheet pan under the broiler in the oven about 4 inches away from the heat source and broil just until the topping sizzles.

Ready for oven

Remove the pan from the oven, sprinkle the grated cheese over the top of each toast along with the minced parsley if using. Serve immediately.

Ready to serve

 

Zucchini Squash, Zucchini Blossom, and Ricotta Frittata

A frittata is a flat round omelet, however it has been written that the frittata may have preceded the omelet. It makes no difference to me which came first, a frittata is a favorite of mine because of its ease in preparation, its versatility, and how it provides a common way to repurpose leftovers as is often done in Italy.

They can be prepared simply or enriched, incorporating such ingredients as meats, vegetables, cheese, even pasta. They are served warm or at room temperature, generally plain, or can be sauced. Frittatas are often served as part of an antipasti, or a first course, even as a dinner, in a sandwich, or taken along on a picnic.

I have read recipes where the instructions call for cooking the frittata in the sauté pan on one side and then flipping it over onto a platter and sliding it back into the pan to cook the second side. From my perspective, that method is somewhat over conceptualized and a little risky handling a hot pan in that manner. All of the frittatas I prepare start out on the stovetop and finish in the oven, making them easy to handle with consistent results.

The key to the oven method is to use an ovenproof, well-seasoned pan or a non-stick pan. The pan should be coated with an adequate amount of oil or butter properly heated so that the egg custard sets up as soon as it hits the pan’s surface and cooks evenly on the bottom without sticking.

Once in the oven the frittata is baked until the top sets and is no longer liquid. Then a final finish is done under the broiler for just a minute or two to lightly crisp the top.

Once done, the frittata should cool in the pan, shaken or gently pried with a spatula and slid out onto a platter to slice and serve.

 

Ingredients (serves 6)

6 large eggs

2 medium-size zucchini

1 large garlic clove

6 squash blossoms

4 oz cow’s milk or sheep’s milk ricotta

6 to 8 large basil leaves

Olive oil

Salt and pepper

Frittata mise en place

Method

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a large work bowl, add the eggs. After trimming the ends, use a box grater to coarsely grate the squash. Take the grated squash in two batches and squeeze as much moisture out as possible using a clean kitchen towel. Place the grated squash into the work bowl.

Finely mince the garlic and thinly slice the basil, adding to the work bowl along with the ricotta and season with salt and pepper.

Using a large whisk, vigorously mix the egg custard until all the ingredients are fully combined, set aside.

Egg custard

Heat 3 to 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a 10-inch sauté pan over medium-high temperature until it is hot but not smoking. To test if the pan is hot enough, place a drop or two of the egg custard in the center. If it sizzles and sets up quickly the pan is ready.

Pour the egg custard mixture across the pan, shaking gently to evenly distribute the mix. Using a rubber spatula, run it around the edge of the pan so that any oil is incorporated into and under the egg custard allowing the edges set up evenly while continuing to gently shake the pan back and forth.

As the custard is cooking, place the squash blossoms in a circular pattern evenly around the circumference of the frittata. Gently press them down so they sink in about half way.

Pan sauté

Once the bottom is set and the top begins to cook, place the pan into the preheated oven to finish the overall cooking. Check after a few minutes to make sure the top of the frittata has fully set up, and then switch the oven to broil and crisp the top for 2 minutes more. Remove the pan from the oven and allow the frittata to cool in the pan before sliding it out onto a platter to serve.

Out of the oven and ready to plate

Pasta Sauced with Zucchini and Zucchini Blossoms

You will never get any objections to serving a dish of pasta for a dinner meal around our house. One of the easiest and more flavorful sauces I often prepare during the season is a sauté of zucchini with a few simple aromatic ingredients such as sweet onion, garlic, and basil. I finished the pasta in this dish with thinly sliced zucchini blossoms, enriched the sauce with the addition of an arugula and ramp greens pesto I had prepared in the early spring and froze, and topped it all with grated ricotta salata.

What makes this dish fun for me to prepare is that there are only a few ingredients required, it lends itself to many different pasta shapes, and allows you to sit down to a colorful and satisfying pasta main in less than 30 minutes.

The pasta I used was Fusilli dei Preti, a hand-rolled elongated and twisted shape. It is similar to the more familiar Cavatelli or another favorite, Strozzapreti (priest-strangler, a name derived from Italian fokelore) popular in the provinces of Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, and Marche. Here’s how to get it done.

 

Ingredients (serves 2)

1 medium sweet onion, diced

1 large garlic clove, minced

2 medium zucchini, rough chopped

6 to 8 zucchini blossoms, thinly sliced

6 large basil leaves, sliced (optional)

2 generous tablespoons pesto (optional)

½ lb dried pasta

Salt and pepper

Grated ricotta salata, or Parmigiano-Reggiano, or and aged Pecorino

Pasta mise en place

Method

Prepare the vegetables as described, and set aside. Place a large pot of generously salted water to boil and cook the pasta 1 minute less than the package directions.  While the pasta is cooking, set a large sauté pan over medium to high temperature and heat 3 to 4 tablespoons of olive oil until it is hot but not smoking.

Add the onions to start the sauté, seasoning with salt and pepper, cooking until they begin to soften and very lightly color. Add the minced garlic and the chopped squash, stirring to coat and combine. Continue the sauté until all the vegetables have softened. If using the pesto, add it at this time and thoroughly mix to distribute it within the vegetables. Lower the heat and add a ladle of the pasta water to loosen the sauce and enrich it with the starch from the cooking pasta.

Sauté

Once the pasta is cooked, drain it and add it to the pan with the sauce along with another ladle of the pasta water. Raise the heat and distribute the sliced zucchini blossoms over the pasta. Mix and turn over the pasta and sauce to distribute the blossoms throughout. The heat of the pasta and sauce will gently wilt and cook the blossoms. Check and correct the seasoning as necessary and sprinkle the thinly sliced basil leaves around if using.

Pasta with blossoms

Assembled in pan

Plate the pasta and top with the grated cheese and a sprinkle of fresh pepper to serve.

Plated

And now for a dessert …

 

Zucchini Pound Cake with Pine Nuts

This recipe is an adaptation of the one featured in the late Roger Verge’s book Vegetables in the French Style. When I first tried it many years ago I thought is was a more interesting way to incorporate zucchini into a loaf-type cake rather than the myriad of zucchini breads that abounded back in the 1970s. I have been making it ever since. One recipe note to keep in mind, Verge requires a 6-cup loaf pan of which I realized I did not have. Breaking one of the fundamental rules of baking by not following the recipe exactly as written, I split the batter between two smaller loaf pans yielding smaller, flatter loaves in 45 minutes instead of the one large loaf in the hour baking time called for in the recipe. This pound cake keeps well in the refrigerator but should be served at room temperature and best when lightly toasted.

 

Ingredients (enough for 1 large loaf or 2 smaller loaves)

10 tablespoons of butter

1 large zucchini, 8 to 10 inches

4 large eggs

1 ¼ cups sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon sea salt

1 ½ teaspoons baking powder

2/3 cups pine nuts, lightly toasted in a dry pan, careful not to burn

1/8 teaspoon finely ground caraway using a spice grinder

 

Method

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Melt the butter over very low heat, set aside.

Using a box grater, coarsely grate the zucchini, wrap it in a clean kitchen towel and squeeze as much water out of the zucchini as possible, set aside.

In a large work bowl whisk the eggs, melted butter, sugar, and vanilla extract until thoroughly combined.

In another large work bowl, mix the flour, salt, baking powder, and caraway, then add the toasted pine nuts, gently mixing so that they are dusted with the flour and will not bunch together when mixed into the batter.

Add this dry mixture to the wet ingredients and thoroughly combine to form the batter. Finally add the grated zucchini to the batter and again mix to thoroughly combine and incorporate the zucchini into the batter.

Generously butter the loaf pan(s) and using a rubber spatula pour the batter in, gently tapping the pan on the counter and smooth the top.

Bake for 10 minutes at 425 degrees, then lower the temperature to 350 degrees and bake for another 45 minutes if using 2 pans or 1 hour if using the one larger loaf pan.

Test the loaf to determine if it is baked completely through, place the pan on a rack and once cool enough to handle, unmold the loaf to finish cooling on the rack, slice, lightly toast, and serve. Pairs nicely with a good cup of coffee!

Cooling on the rack

Sliced

The recipes featured here as a starter, a main, and a dessert are just a few good examples of how versatile zucchini can be to cook with. With any luck you may yet be able to source some blossoms, but if not there is always next season. Meanwhile, I do hope you get an opportunity to prepare one of these recipes, the pasta is great! Enjoy.

Eat well. Be well.

DM

Some paths do not become apparent until you travel a ways down them. Every dish is a work in progress that I am still developing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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