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A staggering amount of bread is wasted every year. I live in Austria, and Vienna, the largest city in the country, throws out as much bread as my city, Graz, consumes daily. Enough bread to feed a quarter of a million people is simply wasted. On the other side of the Atlantic, food waste costs America around $165 billion every year, while 25 percent of all the freshwater used in the country goes to produce food that no-one will ever eat.
In the UK, 40 percent of bread produced is thrown away. A fantastic start-up company called Toast is using some of the wasted bread to brew beer. If that’s not witchcraft, then I don’t know what is. Amazing as that may be, I fear it’s a little ambitious for most of us. In an ideal world, we would all have chickens or ducks, and supermarkets would sell or donate any waste bread to local pig farmers, but in many areas, the practice of using stale bread as animal feed is prohibited, and not everyone has space for poultry.
I think that bread is a great place to start looking at reducing our household food wastage. Unlike a piece of meat which has started to go a funny colour or smell a bit iffy, eating stale bread isn’t going to do you any harm. Some of the waste can be reduced by buying types of bread which last longer, the old-fashioned German black breads and sourdough loaves will still be good up to a week after baking, but they can be expensive and are not available everywhere. If you bake your own, adding fat to the dough in the form of butter, lard, cream or full-fat yoghurt may help extend the shelf-life of your bread.
Old-Fashioned Uses for Stale Bread
In the past, grain was a precious resource and no-one would want to waste bread, so some ingenious dishes were developed to use up old bread. Searching through old-fashioned cookbooks turns up a wealth of ideas to use up stale bread. Frying the bread in a little olive oil is a good way to make croutons, which can then be used to top salads and soups, but what about cooking the bread directly in the soup to make a thick and delicious stew-like broth?
I must admit, I was a little skeptical about this, but then I tried ribbolita. The bread thickens the soup to make it filling enough to be a main course, and through long slow cooking it absorbs all the wonderful flavours. Other delicious bread soups include the traditional Cornish kiddly broth, which is made in a similar way, but with onions, bacon and milk for flavouring instead of the punchy Italian tomato flavours, and the Portuguese bread soup açorda à alentejana, which is made with plenty of garlic and cilantro, and topped with poached eggs.
French onion soup is not a bread soup like the others, as a slice of toast is floated on the top of each bowl and topped with cheese before being grilled. This is one of my favourite soups, but the key ingredient is a hefty dose of patience. Stew a pound of sliced onions very slowly for up to an hour before adding a glass of red wine and boiling off the alcohol. Use enough strong beef stock to make the thickness that you like and season well with pepper. Although most recipes suggest a piece of baguette, I think it tastes particularly good when a strong dark bread is used as the topping.
Stale bread is an essential component of the Italian salad panzanella, which is a perfect midsummer salad starring ripe tomatoes, but bread drizzled with olive oil is a great addition to any salad, either toasted or left plain. An old French recipe from the fifties I once read suggested rubbing garlic over a piece of stale bread and putting it at the bottom of the salad bowl. The scent of the garlic in the salad is mild, and then any real garlic fiend in the family can eat the dressing-soaked bread afterwards.
Semmelknödel or serviettenknödel are Austrian bread dumplings and are brilliant served as a side to any kind of meat dish, especially pork with sauerkraut. You can find the recipe I wrote for them here. If you have leftover dumplings, they can be fried with scrambled eggs to make the traditional gasthaus dish, Knödel mit Ei.
Leftover bread transforms wonderfully into sweet and cuddly nursery suppers. French toast was the first thing I ever learned to cook, and would make it for my sister every time I babysat her. It is easy enough for a nine-year old to cook and soft enough for a baby to gum. Whilst it is still very good made with plain white bread, and a simple egg and milk mix, try using fluffy sweet breads like croissant or brioche, and adding a little cream and cinnamon to the mix. Served with maple syrup or compote, and re-named pain perdu, it’s good enough to serve to anyone. Summer pudding is an easy no-cook dessert for the hottest months when there is a wealth of fruit ripening in the garden. A bowl is lined with slices of bread, crusts removed, and filled with a mixture of slightly stewed berries. After a night’s chilling in the fridge, the bread has absorbed all the wonderful juices and the ruby-red dessert is ready to turn out of the bowl onto a plate to serve.
When adding liquid to bread, it is important always to err on the side of caution. You can always add more if you need it, but you can’t retrieve a soggy collapsed mess. This was the problem I had when I first made the bread and butter pudding below. After I halved the amount of liquid, the finished result resembled a moist, delicious fruitcake, with a crispy toasted topping. Treacle tart is another old favourite. Here stale bread is pulsed in the mixer to make large breadcrumbs, then mixed with honey or syrup and lemon juice and one egg to make a rich, moist pie filling, deliciously crisp on top. If you have extra breadcrumbs, bag them up and store them in the freezer, to use as a coating for fish or chicken.
How to make Ribbolita
• 2 carrots
• 1 onion
• 2 cloves garlic
• 2 sticks celery
• 1 tsp crushed fennel seeds
• ½ tsp chilli flakes or according to taste
• 1 cup cooked white beans
• 2/3 handfuls of chopped kale or Savoy Cabbage
• Good-quality stale bread
1. Fry onions, carrots, garlic and celery in olive oil until soft.
2. Add crushed fennel seeds and flaked chilli, along with cooked white beans and good-quality canned tomatoes.
3. Add the kale or savoy cabbage, using more than you think you will need as it reduces down a lot.
4. Cook until beginning to soften, bearing in mind that kale will take a lot longer than savoy cabbage, then add a few handfuls of stale bread, torn up into chunks.
5. Top up with enough water so that the soup is thick, but not dry.
6. Cook gently, stirring occasionally, for up to an hour, or until the bread appears to have dissolved into the soup, and the kale or cabbage is cooked.
7. Season generously with salt and pepper.
Bread and Butter Pudding
(Note: exact quantities depend on how much leftover bread you have)
• enough bread, brioche or croissant to fill your ovenproof dish
• ½ cup raisins
• ½ cup brown sugar
• 1 tsp cinnamon
• 2 eggs
• 1 cup milk, or a mixture of milk and cream (approximately)
1. Mix the cinnamon and the sugar together.
2. Slice the bread quite thickly, and put one layer on the bottom of your dish.
3. Sprinkle a few raisins on top, and then about ½ Tbsp sugar. Continue to layer the bread, raisins and sugar, until you have used up all the bread, reserving about 1 tbsp of sugar.
4. Mix the eggs with the milk or milk and cream, and pour it over the bread. The level of liquid should come a little over half way up the level of the bread, so add a little more milk if you need to.
5. If you have time, allow the bread to absorb the milk for half an hour.
6. Top the pudding with the reserved sugar and bake in a medium oven for thirty minutes.
7. Serve warm as a pudding, or cold, sliced like a cake.
Note: You could also try using home-made applesauce or fruit preserves instead of raisins in between the bread slices.
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