Lifestyle & Culture

Kitchen Detail: Celebrate Stale Bread


By Nancy Pollard

After owning one of the best cooking stores in the US for 47 years—La Cuisine: The Cook’s Resource in Alexandria, Virginia—Nancy Pollard writes Kitchen Detail, a blog about food in all its aspects—recipes, film, books, travel, superior sources, and food-related issues. 

REMEMBER THOSE early Covid shortages? Not the serious ones (ventilators, masks, etc.) but the funnier ones. They are in the rear-view mirror now, but in Italy, it was pasta and rice, in the UK it was tea and then flour, and in the US it was toilet paper and then flour. Clearly there was a tsunami of cake, pie, biscuit, and bread baking going on, as my Instagram feed went from too many pictures of dogs and cats to too many images of sourdough starters.

But the trend led me to return to dishes I actually make when an attack of frugality hits me. I am not sure internationally which country is in the lead on how to use stale bread, but there is even a breadcrumb fairy in the story of Sleeping Beauty. Her name is  Miettes Qui Tombent, which literally means “falling breadcrumbs.” This fairy in both the story and the ballet symbolizes generosity, since in Russian culture bread and its crumbs are symbols of welcome and good fortune. So as Miette’s good wish or blessing for the princess,  she sprinkles breadcrumbs in the baby’s cradle. Tchaikovsky’s music to Miette’s solo is enchanting to me.

Beyond Croutons

Maida Heatter's Book Of Great Desserts original pringitng

Maida Heatter’s “Book of Great Desserts,” original printing.

Even as a fan of the real Caesar salad, and panzanella, there are just so many more dishes you can make with stale bread. Bread Pudding is on top of my list, but certain rules apply. It cannot taste stodgy the next day. Water baths are essential. Crusts should be removed. It is better to start with a hot-water-filled pan than just filling it in with cold water when you put your baking dish in. Either put the roasting pan over a burner or two to start the water simmering and then, with potholders of course, lower it into the oven, or start it in the oven while you are making the pudding, or fill a tea kettle with water, bring it to a boil and then pour it into the roasting pan once you have placed the prepared pudding in its container into the water-bath pan.  Here are two desserts that you should consider before throwing out those last slices of bread that seem too stiff to be resuscitated.

flour for breadMaida Heatter wins again, as she combines sandwich-bread slices with a light custard for  this large bread pudding. You can switch out the raisins for dried cherries or cranberries. I steam them in a liqueur like port, cassis, or marsala. This recipe is from her original book, Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts. The  bread requirement that is non-negotiable is that it be some sort of sandwich loaf. Brioche slices are also acceptable, as is challah. When I made this with cubes of baguette and other levain-based breads, it was acceptable but not as yummy. Miettes would be disappointed.

Bread Pudding

Serves 10
A big bread pudding for a brunch. It is my favorite version.
Recipe by Maida Heatter.
Adapted from Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts.
  1. ½ cup (71 gr) raisins, dried cherries, or dried cranberries
  2. 20 slices (454gr) thin sliced sandwich bread, approximately a 1-pound loaf
  3. 3 ounces soft butter (85gr) (I used unsalted, but she did not specify)
  4. 1 cup (200gr) caster sugar
  5. 6 large eggs
  6. 4 cups (946ml) whole milk
  7. 1 cup (237ml) light cream (you can mix half heavy cream and whole milk)
  8. 2 teaspoons (10ml) vanilla extract
  9. Dash of almond extract (you can add more if you like a more pronounced almond flavor)
  10. Pinch of fine sea salt
  1. Steam the raisins in a splash of water or marsala (or cherries/cranberries in cassis) for 5 minutes, then set aside.
  2. Trim the crusts of the bread slices and then butter each slice on one side.
  3. Stack in piles of five slices each and cut each stack into thirds to make fingers.
  4. Butter a shallow 3-quart (2¾L) baking dish.
  5. Place a layer of the bread fingers, buttered side up, leaving some space in between.
  6. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of the sugar and some of the raisins or cherries/cranberries.
  7. Continue stacking the fingers into layers, alternating the direction of the bread, using about half of the sugar and all of the raisins or cherries/cranberries.
  8. Do not sprinkle the fruit on the top layer.
  9. Whisk the eggs in a bowl gently so that they get thoroughly mixed, but not bubbly or frothy.
  10. In the top of a double boiler or in a heavy-gauge copper pan, over moderate heat, scald the milk and cream just until you see tiny bubbles around the edge.
  11. Gradually add the hot milk to the egg mixture while whisking, and gradually add ¼ cup of the remaining sugar, the vanilla, and the almond extract (I taste to see if I want to add more almond extract).
  12. Whisk in the salt and transfer to a pitcher for pouring.
  13. Pour this custard into the baking dish, going around the bread and into the corners and sides. Avoid pouring over the top of the bread.
  14. Let stand for at least an hour. You can press down with a wide spatula to help the bread absorb the custard from the bottom.
  15. Preheat the oven to 350F (175C) and use a lower rack to place the water bath.
  16. Sprinkle the remaining sugar over the top of the pudding.
  17. Put the pudding into a roasting pan that already has simmering water in it.
  18. Bake for about 40 minutes—a knife inserted should come out barely clean and the sugar should also caramelize lightly.
  19. Remove from the water and serve warm or at room temperature.
  1. I used the almond essence from Grasse, which you can get from Simply Gourmand. We strongly recommend picking up the almond and vanilla extracts from our friends over at Simply Gourmand.
  2. This is still delicious even after refrigeration.
Diana Henry pistachio lemon bread crumb cake in KD kitchen

Diana Henry’s pistachio lemon breadcrumb cake, photo taken in he Kitchen Detail kitchen.

Change OF Appetite by Diana HenryThe second dessert using stale breadcrumbs is actually a cake from a cookbook written by Diana Henry titled A Change of Appetite. She has written an astonishing number of cookbooks, and I have hoarded many of them.  This cake seems almost Sicilian in its use of ground pistachios and breadcrumbs. In fact, some of the most intriguing recipes I have found have come from Italian sources: passatelli and canederli, which is the Italian version of the German Knoedel, are just two examples of what I tried to master with my quarantine time and stale bread. But this cake was a delightful and surprising success. A nice picnic cake or even with coffee or tea. I have served it with mixed seasonal fruits (with a splash of liqueur) and whipped cream. I use the Bronte Sicilian pistachios as their flavor and color are more intense than the ones from California.


Pistachio and Lemon Cake

Serves 8
What a way to used up breadcrumbs! Delicious!
Recipe by Diana Henry.
Adapted from A Change Of Appetite
  1. 1 cup (237ml) olive oil, plus enough to oil the pan
  2. 1 cup (100gr) unsalted pistachios, shelled
  3. 1 cup (125gr) stale breadcrumbs
  4. 1¼ cups (506gr) caster sugar
  5. 2½ teaspoons (12gr) baking powder
  6. Finely grated zest of 1 lemon plus the juice of 2
  7. 4 eggs, beaten
  1. Oil an 8-inch (20cm) x 2-inch (5cm) cake pan and line the bottom with parchment paper.
  2. Put ¾ of the pistachios in a spice grinder or coffee blender and grind to a powder. You can pulse in a food processor, but the end result will not be as fine.
  3. Mix the ground pistachios with the breadcrumbs and 1 cup of the sugar, the baking powder, and the lemon zest.
  4. Mix together the oil and eggs, beating lightly with a fork, and then stir that into the dry ingredients.
  5. Scrape into the prepared pan and place into a cold oven.
  6. Then set the oven to 350F (175C) and bake the cake for about 50 to 60 minutes. It should come away from the sides of the pan.
  7. While the cake is baking, put the lemon juice and the ¼ cup (50gr) sugar in a saucepan with ½ cup (118ml) water and stir over medium heat until the sugar dissolves.
  8. Bring this syrup to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for about 7 minutes.
  9. Turn the cake out of the pan, peel off the paper and place the cake on a plate, baked side up.
  10. While it is still warm, pierce it all over with a toothpick.
  11. Slowly pour the syrup over the top and let it sink in, then cool the cake.
  12. Just before serving, chop the remaining pistachios so that some are fine and others coarse and sprinkle them over the top of the cake. 

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One thought on “Kitchen Detail: Celebrate Stale Bread

  1. Nancy G says:

    I don’t generally have bread in the house, but the Maida Heatter recipe looks interesting for when all the kids are with us. I actually have that cookbook, one of the first I ever bought as a young married over 50 years ago. Might try the pistachio one also.

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