So the other day I finally had a chance to make something that had been kicking around in the back of my mind for awhile, and it was a resounding success: melding the flavors and elements of pizza—canned plum tomatoes, onions, garlic, mozzarella, Pecorino, and Parmesan—onto a panade.
A panade—related to but not the same as that other panade, those milk-soaked breadcrumbs used to bind and moisten dishes such as meatballs and meatloaf—is a French dish using old bread that is soup, stew, gratin, stuffing, and pudding all at once, and yet also so much more than any of those dishes. It’s also the best use for leftover crusty bread there is, and an excellent reason for saving the remnants of every loaf. Best of all, it works with old bread of any vintage, from day old to months old, dried out to rock hard.
The archetypal panade is an all-onion one, and is, according to Richard Olney, “surely the ancestor and still the best of all the onion soups” (Simple French Food, p. 266). Imagine French onion soup, but with loads more bread, sliced or torn into chunks, tossed together with the caramelized onions and Gruyère and/or Parmesan cheese. The dish contains so much bread, in fact, that practically no liquid remains free-flowing. It’s cooked so gently and for so long that the starches in the bread dissolve completely into the surrounding liquid, leaving behind a quivering, gelatinous matrix so delicate it melts in the mouth. (Those liberated starches, meanwhile, help to stabilize the milk proteins in the cheeses, skirting the risk of curdling and allowing the cheese to diffuse completely throughout the dish.) Unless you’ve already eaten panade, this is a texture of bread you have never experienced before, I promise you, and it is wonderful.
Panades were brought to American audiences by the late, great chef Judy Rodgers, who served them at her San Fransisco restaurant Zuni Cafe, and wrote lovingly about them in her Zuni Cafe Cookbook. (The book includes a recipe for an onion panade along with a Swiss chard and onion one, and both are worth making.) And I was introduced to panades by my friend Robyn Eckhardt, who—while staying with us awhile back to work on the photographs for her and Dave Hagerman’s essential book on Turkish cuisine, Istanbul and Beyond—made dinner for us using the bowl of bread chunks she found on my kitchen counter. It was love at first spoonful.
The Italian panade I made the other day is definitely a deviation from the standard model, but it shows just how versatile the dish can be. (And it does have an analogue in Italian cuisine, in the tomato-bread soup ‘pappa al pomodoro’, though that is usually made with mashed bread, and lacks the addition of melty cheeses.) While I wrote up a recipe for you, panade is usually the sort of dish that I tend to just improvise, provided I have onions and old bread on hand, and I hope I’ve provided enough detail to get you started.
As for old bread, if you aren’t already saving it, now’s the time to start. (I’ll have other uses for it to share with you soon, including an old-bread bread that uses breadcrumbs in place of a good portion of the flour.) Just be sure to cut or tear the bread into 1 inch-ish chunks while it’s still pliable; it’s no fun trying to bust it up once it has fully petrified. My usual MO is to just hack up the ends of my loaves and leave them in a wide bowl until they are fully dried out, which might take a few weeks. (In the summer I rotate the pieces to avoid mold, but otherwise I just tend to let them pile up.) I then transfer them to zipper-lock bags and stash them somewhere cool until needed. (Bone-dry bread keeps for months in this form, with no loss in quality.)