For all the excitement of bringing home a freshly baked loaf, crisp enough to shatter under the bread knife, with a chewy crust that is usually removed, buttered and devoured before I even have my coat off, there is inevitably some left after a day or two that is beyond toast.
The weather was so cold this week I layered half a loaf, toasted and lavishly buttered, in a baking dish with cheese, ham and the sort of creamy custard you might use in a quiche. The result, a sort of savoury bread and butter pudding, had a deep, soul-warming quality second only to tartiflette. Custard-soaked sourdough, strings of cheese, thyme-scented ham and a crisp Parmesan crust, the sort of dinner you dream about when you have become numb with cold.
Like quiche, this is a recipe that is improved by giving it a while to calm down. A good 10 minutes in a warm place after baking will allow the juices to soak into the bread and the texture to settle. Make no mistake, it is best eaten hot, but it will retain the heat.
I could have used stale bread, but there is rarely any in our house. Probably because we eat so much soup. Even the stalest crust is often resuscitated by a ladleful of chicken broth. The uses of a past-it loaf, though, are never ending. A favourite is a mixture of crumbs fried in butter till crunchy, flavoured with orange zest, black pepper, chopped parsley and pine kernels as a crust for baked tomatoes, aubergines or mackerel. Another has become something of a habit, that of putting a thick slice of bread under a small roast, a pheasant or piece of pork loin perhaps. The bread soaks up the roasting juices as it crisps. I tear it to pieces and eat it while carving the meat.
I like biscotti or shortbread with poached fruit, an apple fool or a syllabub. The joy of the crisp and the soft. But bread, cut into soldiers, as you might slice it for a boiled egg, can do splendidly, too. Butter the bread, sprinkle it with caster sugar and grill it until the sugar melts, or do as I did this week, spreading the toasted bread generously with marmalade and caramelising it under the grill. Something for stewed apple, mango fool or poached rhubarb.
Bread pudding with ham, Comté and Taleggio
Don’t feel tied to tracking down Comté or Taleggio, even though they feel perfect for this. You need a firm-textured, punchy cheese for slicing and another that will melt into strings, such as Fontina. (Mozzarella is a bit on the mild side for this.)
bread 400g, crusty white and rustic
butter 150g, softened
ham 400g, roasted
thyme 12 small sprigs
egg yolks 4
double cream 250ml
milk 300ml, full-cream
You will also need a baking dish measuring approximately 20x24cm, lightly buttered.
Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. Cut the bread into slices, leaving the crusts on, about 1cm in thickness. Lay the slices flat on a baking sheet place in the oven for 10 minutes, turning once, until lightly crisp.
You need a firm-textured, punchy cheese for slicing and another that will melt into strings
Remove the bread from the oven and spread generously with the butter. Cut the Comté and Taleggio into 1cm thick slices. Tear the ham into large bite-sized pieces. Pull the thyme leaves from their stems.
Place a single layer of the buttered bread on the bottom of the dish, tucking the slices together snugly. Place some of the cheese and ham on top, add a little black pepper, some thyme leaves then another layer of buttered bread and more of the cheese and ham. Continue until the ingredients are used up.
Finely grate most of the Parmesan into a small mixing bowl, add the egg yolks, then mix in the double cream and milk with a fork or small whisk. Season with a little salt then pour over the bread letting it trickle down through the layers. Grate the reserved Parmesan over the surface.
Cover the top of the dish with foil and bake for 35 minutes. Remove the foil and continue baking for a further 10 minutes until the top is golden. Remove from the oven and leave to settle for 10 minutes before serving.
Rhubarb and orange with marmalade soldiers
Use your loaf: rhubarb and orange with marmalade soldiers. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin for the Observer
Good though this is when the rhubarb is served warm, I like the contrast with the hot, crisp marmalade toasts when the fruit is served chilled. Either way, the simplicity of the whole thing is thoroughly refreshing.
young rhubarb 500g
blood oranges 2
caster sugar 2 tbsp
white or brown loaf 4 slices
marmalade 5-6 tbsp
Trim the rhubarb, discarding any dry ends. Cut the stems into short lengths, about the size of a wine cork, then put them in a heavy-based saucepan or casserole.
Finely grate the blood oranges and put the zest in with the rhubarb. Cut the oranges in half and squeeze the juice into the rhubarb. Add the sugar to the pan and bring to the boil.
Immediately lower the heat, partially cover with a lid and let the rhubarb simmer for 5-10 minutes until tender, basting it occasionally with the juice in the pan. Try to catch it before it collapses. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Toast the bread under an oven grill till golden. Remove from the heat and cut each slice into 3 wide strips. Spread each piece generously with marmalade, place on a grill pan or baking sheet then return briefly to the grill for 2-3 minutes to warm and lightly caramelise.
Spoon the rhubarb and juice into bowls. Serve with the hot soldiers.
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