Bread is sacred in Italy and letting it go to waste would be a sin. Part of almost every family meal, Italian home cooks repurpose their leftover loaves in a number of tasty dishes with aplomb – from rustic orecchiette pasta to the sweet bread cake, torta di pane.
"Nothing goes to waste in an Italian kitchen and bread is no exception," says Italian cook and author Julia Busuttil Nishimura. "Used in salads like Panzanella, turned into breadcrumbs for crumbing, or to top pasta... day-old bread has a myriad of uses and a good cook knows never to throw it away."
Some would even say it's better than potatoes the second time around, including host of Cook like an Italian, Silvia Colloca. "In Italy, bread is holy, and resurrecting it can taste divine," says Colloca, who bakes an average of three loaves a week. "The Romans built shrines for it and to Christians it’s a symbol of faith,” she says.
Here are five ways to turn stale bread into a gift that keeps on giving.
In place of parmesan
Breadcrumbs are often the first port of call when it comes to using up stale bread, and for good reason – a generous sprinkle over a classic Italian pasta can really finish off the dish.
"Italians have been making and eating orecchiette pasta for almost 700 years," says Colloca, whose recipe includes cime di rapa, a leafy vegetable known in Australia as rapini or broccoli rabe that's classic of the Puglia region. Colloca skips pecorino in favour of breadcrumbs, which add a nice crunch. "You just whizz it in a food processor, fry it off in a little bit of extra virgin olive oil in a hot pan and season with salt," she says.
"You just whizz it in a food processor, fry it off in a little bit of extra virgin olive oil in a hot pan and season with salt."
Busuttil Nishimura loves to prepare busiate with pesto alla trapanese – a simple pasta dish with a pesto of ripe summer tomatoes, fresh basil, garlic, blanched almonds and extra virgin olive oil – using her day-old bread as a topper in place of cheese. "The crunchy breadcrumbs, often called, ‘poor man’s parmesan’ are what makes this dish so special," she says.
Soaked up in a soup
Tossing torn up bread into a bubbling pot of country-style soup like pappa al pomodoro, acquacotta, or ribollita is another great way to use up those crusty ends, adds Busuttil Nishimura. Ribollita, which literally means 'reboiled', is about as comforting as Italian classics get – this hearty peasant dish replaces meat with soaked bread, alongside beans, tomatoes, celery and dark greens. Ribollita is traditionally enjoyed the second (and third) day after being re-heated with some olive oil, deepening in flavour each time.
Send it back to the oven
Baked ling is one of Colloca's favourite uses for stale bread. "The people from the coastal towns of the Abruzzo region where my mum comes from adore their baked fish," says Colloca. "Firstly because it’s healthy, but once it’s cooked with olives, tomatoes and salty capers, its aromas are irresistible."
Colloca makes a simple sauce with pantry staples such as anchovies, olives, capers, cherry tomatoes, thyme and a splash of white wine. The bread is dunked strategically so that it's a bit in and a bit out, creating the perfect combination of softness and crunch.
"Nothing goes to waste in an Italian kitchen and bread is no exception."
Tossed through a salad
Panzanella salad is a simple example of Italians putting leftovers to good use. The recipe has a few variations, although it generally involves tossing toasted bread with diced tomato, onions and basil, along with a generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
This dish is a staple of la cucina povera, an Italian phrase that means 'cooking of the poor', whereby humble ingredients are transformed into a healthy and delicious meal and nothing in the kitchen goes to waste. "This ability to turn something so simple and humble, like stale bread, into an incredibly delicious meal is at the heart of Italian cooking," says Busuttil Nishimura.
Baked into a cake
Leftover bread not only lends itself to savoury recipes – it also makes the loveliest cake batter, says Colloca. "My mum used to make Torta di Pane, leftover bread cake, so many times when we were little."
Colloca gives her mother's recipe a modern twist by swapping grappa-soaked sultanas for red cherries. "It’s a very flexible recipe but with fresh cherries balancing out the richness of the chocolate, I think this is a very luxurious style of dessert that is super easy to make."
The batter is created by soaking stale bread in milk, with a handful of additions including eggs, extra virgin olive oil, sugar, cocoa powder, vanilla paste and the tiniest amount of flour. "To think that this was born out of stale bread," says Colloca. "Isn’t this miraculous?"
Find Silvia Colloca sharing family secrets from her very own kitchen in the brand-new series Cook like an Italian on SBS On Demand. Head to the website for recipes, articles, tips and more. Follow the 'like an Italian' series here.