I can (and do) thank the Tuscans for teaching me what virtually every traditional culture on earth already knows: you never throw away anything that’s still edible, and that includes bread pushing hard on being stale. Over the centuries, as in Tuscany, cultures and cuisines have found tons of ways to make old breads taste new again – up to and including our beloved French toast and bread pudding.
As a New Orleans native, I probably should have guessed this truth already, since French toast in my hometown isn’t usually called “French toast.” In French, it’s typically called “Pain perdu,” which I always thought was colorful. The words mean “lost bread,” of course – and definitely, to go all Scriptural for a second, this is bread that had been lost but now found. The basic process of rejuvenating dried-out bread by soaking it in some combination of eggs and milk is a very useful trick. It’s “rejuvenate. ” Like “re-JOVEN-ate” in Spanish. To re-YOUNG again.
Still, it was many years ago, working on a PBS cooking series with companion cookbook about Tuscany that the truth really hit me. The Tuscans, it turns out, have always been a frugal race. As in the Texas Hill Country, the land they live on is beautiful but a tad begrudging. Go back long enough, and bread was most of what people in Tuscany had to eat. Which explains the “bread soup” called ribolitta made with any leftovers in the kitchen thickened with bread. It certainly explains the “bread salad” called panzanella, in which the oil and vinegar dressing handles the rejuvenating.
For all these revelations about stale or almost-stale bread, it never occurred to me to turn the concept into a cookbook. That was left to Carole Lalli, my first cookbook editor at Simon & Schuster in the 1980s. Long after she shuffled off the mortal coils of S&S and its too-many parent companies, Carole published a wonderful book called “Yesterday’s Bread: 100 Creative Recipes for Not-Quite-Fresh Bread.” You can still get a copy on Amazon, of course. As the publisher’s copy puts it: “Yesterday’s bread is today’s good news.”
And speaking of Good News. Had I been Carole Lalli, I would have been sorely tempted to title the cookbook “Born-Again Bread.” After you make and serve the bread pudding recipe below, I bet I can get an Amen to that.
Story by John DeMers