Recipes for stale bread: Pappa al Pomodoro or Panata Dolce

Here, I trust, will be helpful counsel for Colorado cooks who neither own nor take care of ducks. Now then, a couple of recipes for using up stale bread.

Many cultures and cuisines make do with leftover bread. It’s a smart move, not merely a frugal one. Leftover bread adds much flavor and a yeoman’s heft to the foods with which it is cooked. And it’s a better stretcher than most anything else available. Without it, we would have far less gazpacho, migas (the delicious Spanish vegetable and sausage dish), romesco sauce or good meatloaf.

It’s the base of “pain perdu” (“lost bread”), the original French name for what we call “French toast.” Without it, there would be no down-home American bread pudding, Apple Brown Betty or even Thanksgiving dinner’s stuffing, all of which profitably use up stale bread.

But, for my palate, no one bests an Italian (especially a Tuscan) at cooking with leftover, days-old bread. What elevates summertime’s panzanella —  chopped fresh tomato, onion, olive oil and basil — but the bread? There’s no gut-heating to a ribollita — that twice-cooked Tuscan stew of black cabbage, beans and other vegetables — without its stale crusts.

You’ll find pappa al pomodoro cooked throughout Italy; perhaps, just perhaps, Tuscany’s is best. The recipe here is aimed for winter eating because it utilizes the best canned or jarred tomatoes that you can find.

“Pappa” is Italian for “pap,” as in porridge or a child’s pabulum. The word fittingly describes the texture; the finished dish would benefit from the crunch of a crouton or six.

In his “Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well,” Pellegrino Artusi writes a recipe for what he calls “panata,” a mix of crumbled leftover bread, eggs, nutmeg, broth and nutty cheese. Reading it, I couldn’t help but think it a sort of dessert, so I’ve changed out the recipe’s original water or broth for hot milk, added some honey and ended with toppers of sweet butter.

The ample Parmigiano-Reggiano makes of it a sweet-savory dessert, if you like that sort. Use ricotta or mascarpone instead if your sweet tooth is calling the shots on the dessert course. Just mind the texture going into the pot: sloshy, not batter-like.

Artusi’s recipe instructs to “grate” the chunks of stale bread. He didn’t have the happy pulses of a food processor. We do.

Pappa al Pomodoro

Adapted from, and Serves 4 as a main dish, 6-8 as a side.


  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and chopped small
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled and slivered or minced
  • 1/4 to 3/8 teaspoon dried pepper flakes, to taste
  • 1 28-ounce jar or can whole peeled tomatoes
  • 4 large or 6 medium leaves basil, stemmed and roughly torn
  • 4 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 12 ounces stale bread, torn up small or cubed (about 4 cups lightly packed)
  • 4 cups vegetable broth or water
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • Additional basil leaves, in chiffonade, for garnish
  • Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling


In a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, over medium heat, warm the oil and, in it, cook the chopped onions, covered, stirring a couple of times, until they are translucent, about 6-7 minutes. Raise the heat slightly, add the garlic and pepper flakes, stirring them in, and cook just until the garlic is aromatic, about 90 seconds more.

Add the tomatoes, either crushing them well with your hands as you add them or with a potato masher against the bottom of the pot, then the torn basil leaves, tomato paste and honey. Stir everything well and continue mashing the tomatoes until they are mushy. Cook for 3-4 minutes until heated through.

Add the bread pieces and stir to coat. Add the broth (or water), bring to a simmer and cook at a simmer for 25-30 minutes, stirring occasionally and mashing again, if necessary, until the pappa resembles well-cooked oatmeal. Correct for salt and black pepper (you may need a good amount of salt, especially if serving at room temperature or cooler).

Serve hot, warm or even cooler, garnished with basil chiffonade and swirls of olive oil.

Panata Dolce

Adapted from Pellegrino Artusi, “Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well,” (University of Toronto Press, 2003). Serves 3-4.


  • 4.5 ounces (1 heaping cup) stale bread, grated
  • 4 large eggs, lightly whisked
  • 2 ounces (2/3 cup) Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated
  • Pinch of nutmeg
  • Pinch of salt
  • 3 tablespoons honey
  • 1-2 cups heated whole milk, depending on dryness of bread


Mix everything together but the milk and then incorporate the milk until you get a slurry that is lighter than pancake batter but thicker than cream. Let the mix sit for 1/2 hour to thicken slightly (as the bread begins absorbing the eggs and milk). If stiffer than pancake batter, add a bit more warmed milk. What cooks next should be about as dense as pre-whipped heavy cream.

Ready a double boiler with simmering water, or fashion one out of a large, low pot 1/3 filled with simmering water into which easily fits a medium-large saucepan. Pour the panata mixture into the top part of the double boiler or into the saucepan and let the mix begin to thicken over the heat, stirring occasionally.

Once it begins to set markedly, about 5 minutes in, use a wooden or silicon spatula to gather it gently but frequently into the center, scraping the cooked portion from the bottom and sides, mounting it into the center. Neither let it stiffen into a solid mass nor overly break it up, as with curds of scrambled eggs.

Serve the panata by making an indentation in each serving and filling that with a small knob of room temperature unsalted butter.

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