Panzanella and Tuscan Bread

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Panzanella and Tuscan Bread

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Published prior to 2008

When preparing a salad, most cooks take care to add the croutons just before serving, so that they don't become soggy. The following salad flies in the face of tradition (American tradition, that is) by making sure the "croutons" (in this case, slightly stale Italian or French bread cubes) are allowed to sit just long enough in the salad and dressing that they absorb some of the good flavor of both, becoming slightly soft and chewy in the process. With its anchovies, eggs and touch of Parmesan cheese, this salad is reminiscent in flavor of Caesar salad.

Panzanella Toscana has been a favorite of residents of Italy's Tuscany region for at least 500 years. Although we have here a recipe for you to follow, most Tuscans simply combine chewy bread cubes with fresh vegetables (whatever's on hand), fresh basil, tomatoes and good olive oil, in varying combinations and amounts. Feel free to experiment till you come up with a salad that's just to your taste. Step-by-step photos illustrating how to make panzanella are available at Bakers’ Banter, our King Arthur blog.

4 cups crouton-sized cubes of Italian or French bread (or Tuscan Bread, recipe follows), lightly toasted
1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded and diced
2 medium-sized tomatoes, diced
1 small sweet pepper (any color), seeded, deribbed and diced
1 medium-sized red onion, finely sliced
3 or 4 large romaine lettuce leaves, torn into bite-sized pieces
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil, or 1 teaspoon dried
2 hard-cooked eggs, cut into wedges
2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese

1/2 cup olive oil
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 medium garlic clove, finely chopped
salt and pepper to taste
6 flat anchovy fillets
1 1/2 tablespoons capers

In a large bowl, combine the bread, cucumber, tomatoes, pepper, onion, lettuce and basil. Make the dressing by beating together the olive oil, vinegar, garlic, salt and pepper. Mash the anchovies and drained capers together; add to the oil/vinegar mixture. Pour over the salad and toss gently. Garnish with hard-cooked egg wedges. Cover and chill for about 30 minutes. When ready to serve, remove from the refrigerator and sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese. Serves 8 as a first course.

Note: I ordinarily ignore recipe directions which call for you to seed cucumbers and tomatoes, but in this case it's a good idea; before adding the dressing, you want this salad to be as dry as possible. The dressing -- rather than any liquid from the vegetables -- should provide the moisture.

Tuscan Bread
Pane Toscano

This traditional Tuscan bread is as simple as bread can be: it's just yeast, water and flour mixed together, kneaded, shaped and baked. Salt is the missing element here. Because Tuscans often eat their bread with very spicy main dishes, or top it with salty, strong-flavored meats or cheeses, it is very bland tasting by itself, so as not to interfere with other tastes it's teamed with. Unless you're on a salt-free diet and are used to saltless food, this bread probably won't taste very appealing to you, if eaten by itself. But pair it with a salty prosciutto or a strong Parmesan cheese; or broil it, then spread with olive oil and crushed garlic; or eat it with a savory stew, and you'll see why Tuscans have baked and loved their saltless bread for many centuries.

    1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
    2/3 cup lukewarm (110°F) water
    1 1/3 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour

    1 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
    1/3 cup warm water
    1 cup room-temperature water
    3 3/4 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
Make the sponge the night before you want to make bread. Stir the 1/4 teaspoon yeast into the 2/3 cup warm water. Let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes. Add the 1 1/3 cups flour and mix well. Cover and let stand at room temperature overnight.

The next day, stir the 1 1/4 teaspoons yeast into the 1/3 cup warm water. Let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes. Add the sponge and 1 cup of water. Mix well. Beat in the flour until dough is stiff enough to knead. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Place the dough in a well-greased bowl, turning to coat all sides, cover and let rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface without punching it down or handling it roughly. Gently form it into a large, round loaf by pulling all the edges underneath, gathering them and squeezing them together, leaving the top smooth. If you have a baking stone , place the loaf on a sheet of parchment paper; if you're using a pan, sprinkle some cornmeal on the bottom of the pan, and place loaf on it. Cover with a towel, and set aside to rise until doubled, about 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Slash the top of the bread in a tic-tac-toe pattern. If you're using a baking stone, use a peel to transfer the loaf, parchment paper and all, to the stone in the oven. Otherwise, put the pan of bread into the oven. Bake for 15 minutes, misting bread with water from a spray bottle three times during the 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 400°F and bake 25 to 30 minutes longer. Makes 1 large loaf of bread.

This recipe reprinted from The Baking Sheet Newsletter, Vol. II, No. 7, July 1991 issue.