A NEW COOKBOOK got me thinking in a whole new way about bread, which actually involved my thinking about bread in a whole old way: more like my grandmother did, when not a crumb was wasted, and bread crumbs didn’t come prefab in cardboard canisters.
The book, appropriately called “Bread Toast Crumbs,” by Alexandra Stafford, got me thinking about not just bread for, say, a sandwich, but about bread as an ingredient in the simple, delicious recipes I can concoct with my upcoming garden produce. Examples: a thick, roasted tomato and bread soup, or orecchietti pasta with brown butter, Brussels sprouts leaves and homemade bread crumbs, or a salad that becomes a meal when it’s a version of panzanella–reviving even stale bread in the best, delicious Tuscan fashion.
Alexandra Stafford is the creator of the popular food website Alexandra’s Kitchen at alexandracooks dot com. Though “Bread Toast Crumbs: Recipes for No-Knead Loaves and Meals to Savor Every Slice” is Ali’s debut cookbook, it has earned raves from some of the baking world’s bestselling authors, including Dorie Greenspan and David Lebovitz.
I am also glad to say Ali will be doing an event near me, at HGS Home Chef in Hillsdale, New York on April 8 so those of us lucky enough to be nearby can see “Bread Toast Crumbs” in action, and meet (and taste) the no-knead, so-simple peasant loaf that is the basis of her bread adventure. (For event information, click here.)
Read along as you listen to the March 20, 2107 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
no-knead bread (and using every crumb), with alexandra stafford
Q. Congratulations on the new book. It takes longer than a loaf of bread to bake a book. [Laughter.]
A. It does. But this is the fun part: getting ready to release it into the world.
Q. Looking at the book, it took me back, and made me think of bread in a much homier way. I hate that bread has gotten beaten up lately–between worries about diet in general, and gluten concerns, and so on. Not to minimize those things, but I feel like maybe we’ve overcorrected. In your family, bread has quite the powerful provenance. Tell us.
A. I can’t imagine growing up without bread rising on the counter all the time, and eating it at every meal. I didn’t really think it was anything special growing up, because it was what was always around, because my mother was always baking bread—and not just this peasant bread, though that was often around. It was breads from the “Bakery Lane Soup Bowl” cookbook, that we would toast and slice for breakfast. Bread at dinner; bread for sandwiches at lunch.
And I am now doing the same: Every single morning I slice the peasant bread, then toast it and put butter and cinnamon and sugar on it for my children, and I make them sandwiches for lunch with the bread—and often at dinner we are having bread alongside whatever we are eating.
Q. So bread is good. [Laughter.] Especially homemade bread, and you just mentioned that peasant bread, which is kind of the centerpiece or the starting point of this book. It’s a recipe that your mother handed down to you, is that right?
A. It is; she has been baking for over 40 years now probably. It was something she had adapted from an old French bread recipe that was much fussier. She found a way to fit it into a busy lifestyle without having to knead it, and to bake it in these buttered bowls, and not have to dirty and flour a countertop, and just keep the rises short and simple. It has just worked, and persisted.
Q. I have been treated to one of these loaves, and what strikes me about it—and you just said a few of the other things—is that they’re not giant. A lot of times today loaves are so big, and a slice of bread is this giant thing, enough for two sandwiches. But this is not a giant bread—you said it’s baked in bowls, so tell us more about this basic peasant loaf that’s the foundation of the book.
A. It’s a no-knead dough: It’s flour, salt, sugar, water, yeast. It can be mixed in less than five minutes. The first rise is about an hour and a half; you punch it down with forks, and separate it. For the ideal size, we’ve kind of played with the vessel over the years. When my mother was baking it when we were younger, she used a different Pyrex bowl, and it was a little bit wider and squatter, and the loaves would come out just a little bit shorter.
Over the years we have found that this one-quart Pyrex bowl is the perfect size for just a nice dinner boule or for nice slices for breakfast toast or sandwiches. The one-quart Pyrex bowl was part of the appeal, because often people have it; it’s the smallest bowl in the nesting set.
Q. Right, in the nesting set.
A. So even if you are on vacation in some sort of rental kitchen, you can always find one of these bowls. And you can bake it, of course, in a larger bowl—it just somehow rises nicely in this one-quart bowl; it peeks above the rim nicely. It just comes out to be this perfect shape.
Q. Before I met you and you brought these loaves and the bowls, I never even thought of Pyrex, which is one of my favorite things, speaking of grandmotherly things. I think I may still have some of hers, oddly enough, since it lasts forever (unless you break it).
You think, oh, I have to have a bread pan, and it has to be just right so the bread doesn’t burn on the bottom. But the bowl: wow, that’s better.
A. There is something about it, and I don’t even know what it is. Part of the trick is greasing the bowls very well with butter, and that creates this especially delicious and golden crust. But it won’t be an artisan, crackling crust that people try to create when they preheat a Dutch oven or do tricks to turn their ovens into steam pans, or spraying it. There is none of that here. But it still is crusty and delicious.
Q. I can attest to the fact that it is delicious. And it can be adapted. As the book’s title says, it’s bread toast crumbs: from making the bread, through using the bread in the more obvious ways, to even making bread crumbs and using them in different recipes—and we will get to that.
Besides the fact that each loaf of bread has all these potential evolutions, the basic peasant loaf that you are talking about that’s so dead simple, can also be adapted. In the beginning of the book you talk about changing out a little of the flour, or adding some seeds—doing things to it. Give us some examples of what this loaf can become.
A. The funny thing about that, is that before I posted my mother’s recipe on my blog, I had never strayed from the recipe or formula. I followed it to a T.
Q. Good girl; good girl. [Laughter.]
A. Once I posted it, people would write in and they would say, “Can I substitute this kind of flour?” or “How would you suggest adding cheese, and seeds?” And some people would actually write in and say, “I added a cup of Monterey Jack cheese and put in some chili flakes, and it was delicious.”
So it was the people reading it and commenting that inspired me to make variations. [Below, Ali’s variation called Oatmeal-Maple Bread.]
A. What I also found when we were testing recipes for the book, was that really simple changes—like just adding a cup containing three toasted seeds (sunflower, pumpkin and sesame—but you could use any three). You just toast them, and let them cool, and whisk them right in with the flour, and that’s it. It adds some nice texture to the bread, and nice color.
Another really simple one is the quinoa and flax. Again, you don’t cook the quinoa, or toast it—you just add the quinoa and the flax seed to the flour, and the bread when it comes out of the oven is just studded with the quinoa and flax. I really like using red quinoa.
Q. It’s beautiful.
A. You can use herbs; you can do so much. What I suggest to people when they make their own variations is to stick to changing one ingredient at a time.
Q. Yes. [Laughter.]
A. Sometimes you go crazy and you make all these changes and for whatever reason it may not turn out—and it’s hard to determine what the reason was that it didn’t turn out as you had hoped.
Q. So whether we start out with our home-baked peasant loaf in or one-quart Pyrex bowl, or whether we have some bread that we have bought from the store, bread as an ingredient is a really important part of this book. It’s not just about making bread, but about using bread—and not wasting a crumb, literally.
For instance, in the whole middle section—the toast section—there are so many things you could serve for lunches or as appetizers or at a cocktail party; wonderful toast things. But then we get into bread as an ingredient—like in that soup I mentioned. Oh my goodness, I was wanting to have ripe tomatoes right now for that Roasted Tomato and Bread Soup. [Above: Roasted Tomato Bread Soup from the book; the recipe is here.]
A. That’s a classic example of how bread has been used loaf to crumb for many, many years. It’s probably considered an Italian peasant dish, and it was just a way to stretch things. When you add bread to it, it increases the amount of soup, and is a way to feed many mouths on this thing that is just lying around your kitchen, that in its stale form isn’t very good. But once it’s swelled and absorbing all the flavors of the tomatoes and the broth, it’s delicious.
Q. So we roast the tomatoes first?
A. You do. Traditional tomato and bread soup is probably very simple—it’s just fresh tomatoes that you cook with water or stock. But in this one, you roast them with other vegetables [above] for a long time.
Q. It just looked amazing—the color. From the picture, I could almost taste it right off the page.
A. I do love that one.
Q. And of course there is bread in meatballs, and in so many things. Those panzanella salads—you did three variations. It’s something I always forget to do. I’ll be making a salad, and want to make it a meal, and maybe add cheese but forget about adding the bread.
A. The crumbs chapter was sort of the most fun and surprising one for me to work on. As we were creating the recipe list for the book, people know to use bread for French toast and bread pudding and stuffing, and it kind of made those uses for it seems sort of less resourceful. Of course French toast is a great way to use up stale bread, but you’re soaking it in milk and cream and eggs and sugar—so how bad can that be? [Laughter.]
In the crumbs chapter, I kind of came across all these recipes. I think the Italians were really good at using up day-old bread—though I know many cuisines find a way to incorporate it.
Like one recipe in particular, this Pancotto, which literally means cooked bread. I was lucky enough to have this old Italian woman teach me how to make it, and she made it with greens—broccoli raab—that she had grown, and blanched and frozen from the fall. She thawed them, cooked them in water with olive oil and garlic, and then added a ton of just this day-old bread.
All of a sudden we sat down to this really porridge-y, hearty, delicious meal, made from just such basic ingredients.
The same thing with the panzanella salad—it’s just that once the day-old bread is soaking up the juices from the vegetables and the olive oil, it revives. You realize how long the life of a loaf of bread can be.
Q. And the crumbs! In the introduction to the crumbs chapter, there is this beautiful spread that explains that they can be used for breading, or for garnish, or for topping. So even the idea that with macaroni and cheese—talk about a crowd-pleasing recipe—but then you add this extra little element, this texture on top of the baking dish of your macaroni and cheese, it’s like wow.
A. And it’s the best part. [Laughter.]
Q. [Laughter.] I know. We like the topping.
And that crumbs can even be a thickener—that surprised me. I got that it can be used in meatballs, like I said before, and even veggie burgers—but it can even thicken dressings, right?
A. That was another one of those surprising uses for it. You soak it with vinegar, and you let the bread kind of swell, and then you add oil and it emulsifies into this thick, luscious dressing that you think has to have egg yolks or cream or mayonnaise or something. But it’s just the bread acting as a binder. It does that in soups, too, like Ajo Blanco—the white or green gazpacho. The bread swells and just gives body to the soup.
There are so many uses for the crumbs. And one of those old sauces…
Q. …like romesco, which I think has nuts and bread, right, plus vegetables?
A. Yes, almonds and the bread. There were countless examples the farther I searched.
Q. I guess I have to ask: How do you make crumbs, if the answer is not, “Go to the supermarket and buy a cardboard canister of them”? Those are a whole different animal from what I was seeing in the book.
A. When I get down to a half a loaf of bread or a quarter of a loaf of bread and I am already making more, I usually stash all those heels in the freezer, for when I am ready to make crumbs. When I am ready to make crumbs, I will thaw them, puree them in the food processor, spread them on a sheet pan, and then I like to dry them in the oven slowly.
You can do it at a higher temperature and then in 15 minutes you can have crumbs, but they get a little more golden. If you do them low and slow for about an hour, they will take on very little color, and will be very dry. If you want them to be even finer afterward, you can put them back in the food processor so that they are really fine.
Once they are dry, they basically will store at room temperature for a long time. Those are great.
I will admit I do sometimes buy panko breadcrumbs, because those are so handy to have on hand, but once you know that you can salvage those heels of bread by just whizzing them in the food processor, it makes it a little bit harder to buy those crumbs at the store.
Q. There are various pastas in the book, like the ear-shaped orecchietti pasta, and the Brussels sprouts leaves that are the same shape [above]. But the fact that you don’t just put them together and put on a little oil and a little cheese like I might do at home—but you add the crumbs. It makes all the difference.
A. It does, and that was another sort of old Italian trick. I think it’s called pangrattato [grated bread]. I never was able to find a reliable source for it being considered a poor-man’s Parmesan in certain parts of Italy, but that’s sort of a nickname that it has been given. You toast up these fresh crumbs with olive oil and a little bit of salt, and they just become these irresistible morsels. They are particularly good on pasta, but also on vegetables—on anything. It just brings the dish to another level. [Ali’s Whole Roasted Cauliflower With Fried Capers and Brown-Butter Breadcrumbs.]
Q. Both the texture, or “tooth, so to speak, of the dish, and also the flavor. And again: I thought, “Why don’t I do that? Why aren’t I putting the heels of my bread in the freezer and making crumbs?” I’m imagining, looking at the photos and reading the recipes, that it’s quite different experience from those very, very dry version of bread crumb that was manufactured, so to speak, and is in the canister. [Laughter.]
A. Totally. I cannot even imagine using that to crisp and put over pasta or salads or vegetables.
Q. Too hard.
I should have asked you at the beginning, but I will now instead: How in the world did you get to cooking—what was your journey?
A. I always loved cooking. I grew up with my mother, who was always cooking and baking. And also my aunt, who was in Vermont, but I felt like every time I was in the kitchen, my mother was on the phone with her sister, talking about whatever they were cooking or wanted to cook. So I always loved cooking.
Then after college, I moved to Philadelphia to be with my boyfriend-now-husband, and enrolled in a six-month cooking school. I didn’t want to the whole two-year program that it was part of—a more involved management training—so I just wanted to do the cooking portion.
Then I worked at a catering company called Peachtree and Ward, which is all around the outside of Philadelphia, and then I worked in restaurants. I spent over two years in the Fork kitchen, which was the best experience. That changed my life; I think about my time in that kitchen every single day.
The chef at the time was such an incredible influence on my cooking and also my eating—we went out to eat all the time, and not to fancy restaurants. To Vietnamese and Chinese and Thai places; we ate so well.
Q. It really expanded your appreciation and engagement with food.
more from alexandra stafford
- Learn about Ali’s April 8, 2017 class and demonstration events in Hillsdale, New York
- Visit her website, Alexandra’s Kitchen, which is about much more than bread
- Visit her popular Facebook page
- Pre-order the book (out April 4, 2017)
- Get Ali’s mother’s peasant bread recipe
- A gluten-free version of Ali’s peasant bread
enter to win ‘bread toast crumbs’
I’LL BUY A COPY of Alexandra Stafford’s new cookbook, “Bread Toast Crumbs” for one luck reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page, after the last comment:
What’s your own bread story? Do you bake it, eat it, cook with it?
No answer, or feeling shy? Simply say something like “Count me in” in the comments, and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Monday, March 27, 2017. Good luck to all. U.S. and Canada only.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the March 20, 2017 show right here. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
(Photographs from Alexandra Stafford’s book “Bread Toast Crumbs” by Eva Kolenko, except images of loaves with bowls and of roasting vegetables, which are from the Alexandra’s Kitchen website. Used with permission.)