Benvenuti to the first Cucina Conversations post of the new year! This month, our topic is bread, specifically what Italians call pane raffermo (stale bread). To an inexperienced cook, the phrase “stale bread” can have negative connotations as it brings to mind hard-as-a-rock, inedible bread that is past its soft, crusty, chewy prime. But in the Italian kitchen, pane raffermo becomes a valuable ingredient that was born of the cucina povera (“cooking of the poor”), where no ingredient was wasted and less-desirable parts of animals and vegetables were creatively cooked into recipes that continue to thrive in homes and trattorie across the peninsula. Bread in Italy is an essential component of every meal and it is a fundamental to the gastronomy of Italy. It can accompany every type of food, and a small basket is brought to the table–either at home or at a restaurant–to welcome the diners. It is eaten either on its own, used to guide food onto the fork, dunked in soup or broth, or used to mop up savory sauces on the plate (a practice known as fare la scarpetta). When I was growing up, I frequently heard the Italian adage, il pane non si butta (“bread is not thrown away”) and I always saw pane raffermo put to use in a variety of delicious ways. During my childhood summers spent in the Veneto, I even saw my paternal nonna Ada use days-old bread soaked it in water to feed her chickens. I’ve since taken this culinary lesson into my own kitchen, where I often turn pane raffermo into breadcrumbs to mix into my polpettone (meatloaf), polpette (meatballs), to bread my favorite fettine panate (breaded cutlets), or to sprinkle onto pasta. For my recipe contribution this month, I’m using pane raffermo a little differently and adding cubed stale bread to the mixture for these artichoke croquettes.
The beauty of using pane raffermo lies in its texture. In her book The Oxford Companion to Italian Food, Gillian Riley explains that the hardening of bread is known as “starch retrogradation”, a fancy way of describing water molecules moving from one structure to another. When stale bread is heated (such as through toasting or grilling), this process is reversed, and once it is allowed to soak up moisture, it keeps its shape. Recipes using pane raffermo span all of Italy and each one is unique to the region. Toscana’s specialty, panzanella, is a salad of water-soaked bread mixed with tomatoes, cucumber, onion, and basil which is then dressed with olive oil and vinegar. In the Veneto, panada is made with slices of day-old bread soaked in beef broth that is flavored with cinnamon and olive oil, and served with an abundant grating Parmigiano. Farther north, in the region of Trentino-Alto Adige, bread dumplings known as canederli are made using stale bread enriched with flavorful pancetta (or spek), onion, garlic, and parsley, and then cooked in simmering in chicken broth. Throughout Italy, stale bread is also used to make pan cotto (“cooked bread”), a generic name for a soup that combines day-old bread with a variety of vegetables and seasonings depending on the region where it is made. For example, in Calabria, pan cotto calabrese is made using lightly toasted day-old bread rolls that are softened in a well-seasoned vegetable broth and then served with generous amounts of Pecorino (sometimes with the addition of eggs scrambled into the cooking broth). The list of recipes using pane raffermo goes on and there is no shortage of creative and delicious ways Italians have devised ways to make it a star ingredient.
For these artichoke croquettes, pane raffermo is used to help bind the artichoke mixture together so that the croquettes hold their shape when formed. This recipe is a great example of taking Italian pantry staples and using them creatively. It’s also a fun example of how Italians can take almost any leftover or pantry ingredient and turn it into delectable crocchette. The food processor does all the work to make the impasto (mixture), which makes this recipe come together quickly and efficiently. Using a cookie scoop or Tablespoon measure ensures your croquettes are all the same size so that they cook evenly and at the same rate.
The artichoke croquettes are seasoned simply with salt and pepper, along with some fresh garlic and parsley for added flavor and color. A generous grating of Parmigiano imparts its signature salty-nutty flavor to the tender interior of each morsel. The flourish is a small piece of mozzarella tucked into the center of each croquette so that when you take a bite, the melted cheese pulls into a string–what Italians describe as cuore filante (“stringy heart”). Crocchette make the perfect snack to nibble on with an aperitivo, but they’re just as welcome in a fritto misto (mixed fry) for lunch or dinner.
My fellow Cucina Conversations friends are all sharing unique recipes that make delicious use of pane raffermo. Francesca made a gorgeous tangle of spaghetti with breadcrumbs, tuna, and lemon. If you haven’t eaten breadcrumbs on pasta, you’re missing out–it’s fantastic! Daniela went the sweet route and is showcasing paciarella, a cake from the city of Martesana in the region of Lombardia. Carmen also took toasted breadcrumbs and added them to her pasta mollicata, which she combines with savory anchovies, fresh herbs, and spicy chili flakes. Marialuisa put her pane raffermo to use in polpettone del recupero, a meatloaf stuffed with a delicious array of left-overs to make a completely new meal. Rosemarie is presenting beautiful Piedmontese stuffed onions, filled with a sweet-savory mixture of day-old bread, Parmigiano, raisins, crushed amaretti cookies, and perfumed with cinnamon and cloves. Finally, Lisa is sharing a beautiful and colorful winter antipasto of bruschetta with radicchio and spek, perfect for serving with a chilled glass of Prosecco during aperitivo hour.
I hope our recipes inspire you to give new life to pane raffermo in your kitchen. Buon appetito!
Adapted by Giallo Zafferano
Use a cookie scoop to make each croquette the same size (a 2-Tablespoon scoop is ideal). If you do not have a cookie scoop, use a Tablespoon measure to portion out equal amounts of the mixture.
For the Croquettes
1 pound (454 grams) frozen artichoke quarters, thawed
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
3½ cups (150 grams) cubed stale bread
½ cup (25 grams) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (or Grana Padano)
1 large egg
1 clove fresh garlic, peeled and crushed
½ cup (12 grams) finely chopped fresh parsley
4 ounces (117 grams) fresh mozzarella, patted dry and cubed
Breading + Frying
2 cups breadcrumbs (more if needed)
Vegetable oil, for frying (the amount you use will depend on the size of your cooking vessel)
Prepare the Croquettes
Line a baking sheet with wax paper. Set aside.
Line a second baking sheet with 2-3 layers of paper towels. Set aside.
Boil the thawed artichoke quarters in boiling salted water until cooked through, approximately 15-20 minutes (the tip of a sharp paring knife should pierce easily through the thickest part). Drain the artichoke quarters through a colander and set aside to cool slightly.
Place the artichoke quarters in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Process the artichokes until they are completely puréed. Season the artichoke purée with the salt and pepper and add in the cubed stale bread, the Parmigiano-Reggiano, the egg, and the garlic clove. Mix until all the ingredients are incorporated. Add in the chopped fresh parsley and pulse a few times to combine it evenly throughout the mixture.
Using a cookie scoop or Tablespoon measure, scoop out 2 Tablespoons of the artichoke mixture and place it into the palm of your hand. Use the tip of your finger to make a small indentation in the center of the mixture and place one cube of mozzarella in the indentation. Wrap the artichoke mixture around the mozzarella and form the mixture into a ball. Place the formed croquettes onto the wax paper-lined baking sheet. Repeat this process until you have formed all the croquettes.
Breading + Frying the Croquettes
In a shallow bowl, beat the eggs thoroughly. Place the breadcrumbs in a second shallow bowl.
Working with only 2-3 croquettes at a time, dip them into the egg and then dredge them through the breadcrumbs until they are evenly coated. Place the breaded croquettes back onto the wax paper-lined baking sheet. Repeat this process until all the croquettes have been breaded.
Heat a cast iron skillet (or heavy-bottomed pot) over medium heat and add in enough oil to come up no more than ⅓ or halfway up the side. The amount of oil you use will depend on the size of your frying vessel. Heat the oil until it registers 350℉ (180℃) on an oil/candy or instant-read thermometer (alternately, you can add a small sprinkle of breadcrumbs into the pan to see if they sizzle once they hit the oil). Working in batches, fry the croquettes until they are deep golden on all sides, about 1 minute per side. Turn the croquettes only one to two times during the frying process. Use a slotted spoon or spider to remove the cooked croquettes to the paper towel-lined baking sheet. Serve immediately, but careful…they’re hot!
Note: You can make the croquettes 1-2 hours in advance. Once the croquettes are all finished frying, place them on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet and place them in a 250℉ (130℃) oven until ready to serve.
Storage: The croquettes are best eaten the day they are made. Refrigerate leftover croquettes in a tightly sealed container and reheat on a baking sheet in the oven heated to 350℉ (180℃) for 5-10 minutes.