Use your loaf

For a woman like me, who struggles with bread management, Italy has been good. In part because bread is still bought daily from the local forno by weight: un mezzo filone, un quarto di pagnotta, un pezzo, un po, cosi, a way of shopping that, although no guarantee of perfect daily bread estimation, encourages bread thoughtfulness. But principally because if there is any old, stale bread in the kitchen, it’s not perceived as a problem, a doorstop or a guilty reminder of culinary mismanagement and wastefulness, but as an ingredient.

Old, stale bread is moistened back to life with a little cold water, squeezed dry, torn and then tossed with coarsely chopped tomatoes – fruity, fleshy and flavorsome ones, torn basil, maybe a little sliced red onion and then dressed with plenty of extra virgin olive oil, vinegar and salt. This marvelous muddle known as Panzanella is then left to sit – so the bread absorbs the tomato juice and dressing – before being served. For the Tuscan specialty Ribollita (which means re-boiled) a thick bean and vegetable soup prepared the day before is recooked, then served spooned over slices of stale bread – toasted or hardened in the oven – and blessed with extra virgin olive oil. In the case of Pappa al pomodoro (papa means mush, pomodoro, of course, tomato) ‘Mature’ bread is toasted and then cooked gently with garlic and excellent tomatoes in plenty of olive oil to make a gloriously good soup/mush. Every night in thousands of Italian kitchens stale bread is dampened with milk and then mixed with ground beef, parsley, parmesan and a grating of nutmeg to make Polpette (meatballs) to be simmered in rich tomato sauce.

And in Liguria, the narrow arc of a region on the coast below Piemonte, the Riviera di Fiori, stale bread is soaked in whole milk and then mixed with pounded walnuts, garlic, olive oil and freshly grated parmesan to make quite possibly my favourite (new) recipe this year, a glorious cream the colour of my Burbury trench coat, salsa di noci or walnut sauce.

I’d made walnut sauce before, I’ve posted about it in fact, but it didn’t involve stale bread and you see, stale bread is the key. As are good walnuts, the wrinkly lobes of the kitchen, the curious shaped King of nuts (the Queen of course is almond and the Prince, hazelnut but I digress.) Stale bread, from a coarse, country loaf and good walnuts, like those from Sorrento in Campania, creamy and with a wonderful oily, sweet, waxy texture but also slight bitterness and mild astringent nature. Curious nuts that look a little like something out of a specimen jar in a biology lab.

You can of course make your walnut sauce in a food processor. However, when it comes to this kind of sauce /pesto, the machine that has revolutionized our kitchens, lives and timing, can’t help but obliterates all the ingredients into a monotonous, textureless whole, the sauce equivalent of an airbrushed photo of, lets say Nicole Kidman: smooth as can be, but really rather boring.

I’d suggest using a pestle and mortar, or the plastic bag/ rolling-pin /think of someone immensely irritating technique to pound the walnuts into a coarse powder. Then use an immersion blender, for as briefly as possible, to blitz the pounded walnuts, milk sodden bread and garlic into a rough paste. Finally stir in the olive oil and freshly grated parmesan by hand with a wooden spoon. The combination of hand and machine produces a properly creamy sauce but one with real texture and personality. A sauce that is ready to be spooned into a jar.

And what good and surprising sauce. Well surprising to me at least! After a little reading it seems I am the last walnut lover to discover what the French (aillade), Italians, Turks (tarator) and Giorgians have known for centuries, the charm of walnuts, olive oil, garlic, usually bread and possibly cheese reduced a creamy, nutty, soft, intriguing and rounded sauce.

It may seem a little odd to smear bread on bread, but I like salsa di noci on hot toast or rounds of ciabatta (crostini) baked until crisp and golden in the oven. A great antipasti,  best served with a glass of chilled white wine or in the coming months a glass of full-bodied, room temperature red. Walnut sauce goes brilliantly with roast meat, particularly roast chicken, a sort of nutty Ligurian take on one of my favorites: English bread sauce. But best of all is salsa di noci with pasta, ideally Pansoti – which literally means pot-bellied – triangular wild herb ravioli from Liguria. But until we learn to make Pansoti, we shall eat our salsa di noci tossed with al dente spaghetti, tagliatelle or thick ribbons of fettucine cooked with some fine green beans.

I think it goes without saying we are talking about good bread here, a coarse, country-style loaf, one which ages decently and gracefully. Ideally the olive oil should be a light and delicately flavored variety. Last thing, I have given specific quantities, but they are merely guidelines, use your loaf, keeping in mind the sauce should be creamy and thick enough to stand a spoon up in, but still soft and spoonable.

Salsa di noci  Walnut sauce.

Makes a jar of sauce. More than enough to dress pasta for four and some left over for on toast the next day.

  • 80 g of crustless, coarse country bread
  • 200 ml whole milk (plus a little extra to loosen sauce if necessary)
  • 150 g shelled walnuts
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 40 g grated parmesan
  • 5 – 7 tablespoons light extra virgin olive oil
  • salt and pepper

In a small pan warm the milk gently until it is tepid and then remove it from the heat. Tear the bread into smallish pieces and add it to the pan. Leave to soak for 10 minutes.

In a pestle and mortar crush the walnuts. Peel the garlic and crush it with the back of a knife.

Tip the crushed walnuts, milk sodden bread and garlic into a bowl. Using an immersion/stick blender blitz everything into a thick coarse cream.

Add the olive oil and gated parmesan to the bowl and then – using a wooden spoon – beat the mixture firmly. Taste and season to taste with salt and freshly grated black pepper.

With pasta and green beans

For four people as a main course, I’d suggest 500 g of pasta  (spaghetti, tagliatelle or fettuccine) and 300 g of fine green beans. Bring a large pan of well salted water to the boil. Add the beans and pasta to the pan and cook until the pasta is al dente. Meanwhile put roughly 3/4 of your jar of walnut sauce in a warm bowl and thin it slightly with a little of the pasta cooking water (use a ladle to scoop some out while the pasta is cooking). Drain the pasta and beans, saving a little more of the cooking water. Mix the pasta and beans with the walnut sauce, adding a little more cooking water if you feel it need loosening even more. Divide between four warm bowls and serve with more freshly grated parmesan and a glass of Pigato.


Filed under food, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, recipes, sauces, walnuts

46 responses to “Use your loaf

  1. Sitting in the office here on the Isle of Wight on a dreary September day and reading this fantastic post that has just popped into my in box. Remembering holidays in Italy and the Black Cat restaurant at Lake Como where I had this or at least an approximation of it. And wishing I was there!

    • rachel

      The Isle of wight just doesn’t sound like a dreary kind of place! Anyway glad to bring back good memories. Wishing I was in lake Como too, back to school in september is always pretty grim for me.

  2. What a lovely way to use stale bread, I am guilty of giving it to the chickens far more than I should. You can only eat so much bread pudding!

    • rachel

      Bread pudding, bread pudding, bread pudding, God I miss bread pudding. There is of course no reason why I shouldn’t make it here. Bread pudding, bread sauce, we brits are pretty good with stale bread too! I imagine it is all back to school for you all, me too, limping.

  3. Cle

    Bread is holy here in Italy!
    Even more its leftovers.

  4. I am smitten with your blue and white pot, a good loaf of bread and, of course, a nice bowl of pasta or two with walnut sauce. Bread on bread—yes.

    How you manage to write so beautifully and crush walnuts so elegantly with a tiny Luca underfoot—well, I just find it amazing and charming. It just is.

    • rachel

      You can fill your suitcase with blue and white tin pots, pan and plates! I will take you too the stall on Testccio market! They are very light so perfect.
      TIny, mischievous Luca was trying to climb in the washing machine and shortly after the picture was taken I trod on him.
      I think you and Roberto will like this sauce, hope you try x

  5. Lovely lovely post. I will have to give this a try ….In our household, bread and pasta always goes together.
    You reference to Nicole Kidman made me laugh….so true what you said!

  6. Will definitely give this a try next time my “bread thoughtfulness” (!) is off, which is often, being, as I ma, stuck buying entire loaves at a time.

  7. Great post, very frugal. what a wonderful way to use left-over bread!

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  9. Amy

    Ah and this is why I want to live in Italy. My twin sister is just about to study abroad in Rome for the next 4 months, and she was asking me about how she should eat, whether she should just go out to eat all the time, etc. I sent her the link to your blog and said “eat and cook like her.” I had never thought walnut sauce (or stale bread, for that matter) was that appetizing… but oh how you’ve changed my mind! The whole thought process of this dish, from the mature bread up through it being draped over some pasta was so nice to read.

    • rachel

      Lucky twin sister! And will you get to visit? I hope so! It took me a while to come round to the idea of walnut sauce, but I am a convert. So nice to have you reading

  10. It’s such a simple idea and I look forward to making this walnut sauce. I’ve eaten tarator at restaurants, but never given it much thought. I’m so glad you brought it to my attention.

  11. laura

    Well, Rachel, your appreciation for bread, stale bread and this new way to use stale bread certainly came through and have convinced me to try “salsa di noci”. As Tracy remarked, it is absolutely amazing what exceptional cooking, writing and photography you manage to concoct while being the young mother of a young boy. However you do it, we are very grateful.

    • rachel

      You are very sweet, The reality of my cooking and kitchen is not quite so exceptional. I feel a bit of a fraud sometimes! But thank you it is lovely to hear. Oh god child about to fall in toilet!

  12. A truly accurate description of Italian cuisine and its use of stale bread.

  13. I love your writing. Your stories and explanations are always lovely, your words well chosen. Also: this looks delicious!

    • rachel

      It is, delicious that is, well I think so, so does my nearly I year old, he also likes smearing it too, all over everything. Oh and thank you.

  14. eastofedencook

    What a scrumptious post! A tasty ode to savoring every bit of usable food. We Americans are prone to be wasteful! The Walnut Sauce is new to me and worthy of a try with my next bit of leftover bread!

  15. mmm! i scrolled before reading and thought “bread on pasta? how wonderfully over-the-top.” but bread on bread? almost cannibalistic somehow. i love it! delicious-sounding recipe and writing as usual. hope you’re well!

  16. last year, an Italian-American friend introduced me to Pansoti and its spectacular walnut-stale bread sauce, just as you described. Wonderful wonderful food. She was giving a class in her home (Cucina Paradiso.) I know that you could master making the little stuffed pot-belly triangles easy-peasy.

    • rachel

      Pansoti have been on my (long messy) list of things to learn to make ever since I ate then in Liguria about 3 years ago. Becoming proficient in the art of filled pasta making is also on my list. Maybe now is the time! I just wish I had friend to show me the way, cooking is always easier and nicer with a good teacher. Luca’s first birthday picnic yesterday – he had a lovely day crawling in the soil and licking mini pizza’s.

  17. Hi, It looks yummy and mouthwatering.i tried this at home , my family and lid loved it. Thanks for this good posting.Your description is very nice any one can follow easily.
    All the best keep posting……….

  18. This post is a treasure. I struggle with bread management, too! Though last night I triumphed: I cubed what was left of our crusty loaf, tossed with olive oil in a hot cast iron skillet, then set aside, put some tomatoes and arugula in the skillet, and then dumped everything into a couple of bowls — and topped with a couple of fried eggs. Eli called it “hot bread salad.” Delicious.

  19. Perfect bread management if you ask me!

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  21. Sara

    Dear Rachel, I read tons and tons of culinary blogs. This is something that jsut means me reading them, not so often also to trying the recipes written inside.
    So I just wanted t let you know that your recipe pushed me to cook it!
    I just preparesd it for a friends gathering today at lunch..I tasted it and all of a sudden I was back to my ten years when I had a friend in Liguria and her granny prepared us tons and tons of pansoti con la salsa di noci.
    Thanks for this remembering!

    • rachel

      Hello Sara,
      It is so nice to hear that you were inspired to make the sauce, Also thank you for taking the time to tell me so.

  22. JB

    I finally got around to making this and I love love love it! I’m continually amazed by how bread can make soups and sauces so silky. Also, I used buttermilk because that was all I had and worked just beautifully.
    Hurrah for leftover bread!

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  25. Claire

    We had the leftover sauce on toast with spinach and a poached egg for breakfast this morning. Delicious!

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