It is hard to talk about Tuscan cooking without mentioning our bland bread, a loaf made without salt. It has a crisp golden crust and a soft, dense crumb. It is not easy to get used to this bland bread, I know. It is the first thing everyone mentions during a cooking class. The food here in Tuscany is exceptional, but what happened to the bread? For me and for everyone born in this land, though, for those who have been eating this bread since the early days with prosciutto, jam, tomato or just good olive oil and salt, this is the bread.
I realized that there wasn’t a recipe for Tuscan bread on the blog, so here I am to give you the ingredient you will need to make all the most classic recipes in Tuscan cooking. You can probably buy cannellini beans, a good olive oil and sun ripened tomatoes, but you might need to bake this bread to discover the real taste of pappa al pomodoro.
Tuscan bread loaf made with sourdough starter
You can read the original recipe in La Cucina dei Mercati in Toscana, where I use fresh brewer’s yeast and a poolish which matures overnight. This is a modified version with sourdough starter.
The ingredients required to make a Tuscan bread are few and essential: flour, yeast and water. Use a strong flour – or bread flour – just for the starter, which will give the bread its unique aroma. To knead your loaf of Tuscan bread, though, use a weak flour*, or an all purpose flour, which will give the loaf its typical texture, a crisp crust and a fairly dense crumb.
When the stale bread is soaked to make panzanella or pappa al pomodoro, the weak flour used in the dough will make the bread come to life again. You’ll be able to squeeze the excess water out and crumb it, without ending with a gluey and sticky clump.
To bake this bread I used 50% of all purpose flour and 50% of a darker and coarser wheat flour, as I like its nutty taste in the bread. That’s the reason why in today’s photos the bread is slightly darker than what you can usually find in Tuscany.
*Read more about the different type of flours here.
- 400 g of sourdough starter 100% hydration
- 1 kg of plain unbleached flour
- 500 g of water
- Extra virgin olive oil
Add in a stand-mixer bowl the sourdough starter, the flour and half of the water. Mix all the ingredients with the hook attachment at low speed and gradually add the remaining water, kneading until you get a smooth and homogeneous dough. Do not over mix, as the weak flour does not tolerate a long kneading.
Let the dough rest for about half an hour in a bowl greased with extra virgin olive oil, then divide it into four loaves.
Form the loaves of Tuscan bread rolling each ball of dough onto itself, pressing well with your fingers to close it tightly, then thin down the ends by rolling them out with your hands.
Place each loaf seam-side down onto a kitchen towel dusted with flour and keep them in a warm room. Let them rise until the bread is doubled in volume.
Heat the oven to 200°C and keep the tray where you're going to bake the bread inside, so that it will be hot when needed. Do the same even if you are using a refractory stone.
Gently turn the loaves seam-side up over the baking tray. You can now score the surface to help the rising in the oven and mist some water onto the loaves.
Bake for about 45 minutes, or until they are golden brown. Take the bread out of the oven and tap it on the bottom, if it sounds hollow, it is done.
Recipes which use stale Tuscan bread
Pappa al pomodoro, tomato bread soup. Cooking class after class, summer after summer, I came to my own version, which sits right in the middle in between Florence and Siena, just like me, just like the Val d’Elsa. For my pappa al pomodoro just a bunch of ingredients: fresh tomatoes, stale bread, garlic, salt, basil and your best extra virgin olive oil.
Panzanella, tomato and cucumber salad. A blank canvas to colour with garden produce, during summer panzanella is a staple recipe in Tuscany. It’s uniqueness lies in the subtle note of vinegar which tickles your appetite and cools you down even in the hottest summer, binding together tomatoes, cucumbers and onions.
Minestra di pane, bean and bread soup. This is one of the most popular dishes in Tuscany during the cold months, it is an old recipe, typical of farmers of all times, one of those dishes you could make each and every single day for months. When the bread soup is cooked again (ri-bollita) the next day, often in a cast iron pan, it turns into the most classic and best-known ribollita.
Acquacotta, onion and tomato soup. It is a typical soup of Maremma, another good example of peasant cooking along with many other recipes that have as main ingredients stale bread and some seasonal vegetables. It is a nomad dish that followed the people from the mountain Amiata who moved in winter to the plain of Maremma in search of work, bringing with them a few ingredients, among which there were always onions.
Stuffed roast chicken. The stale bread is mixed with fresh sausages and becomes a flavorful filling for a festive roast chicken. It is also an irreplaceable ingredient in meatballs, which become immediately softer.
How I eat my Tuscan bread
Pane e olio, bread and extra virgin olive oil. Simplicity in its purest form, it doesn’t even require garlic. A spare sprinkling of sea salt and a generous drizzle of olive oil are enough, especially when the oil soaks the bread. The olive oil will run through your fingers, leaking through the dense crumb. Mop the olive il with a crusty piece of bread, do not waste a single drop . You might cough, if the extra virgin olive oil is bitter and intense, especially if just collected at your local olive oil mill. It is all part of the game.
Pane e pomodoro, bread and tomatoes. My summer afternoon snack when I was a child, sometimes even an essential dinner. A ripe tomato rubbed on bread, simpler than a bruschetta, as the tomato is used as a pastel, which colours the bread with a red hue and soaks it in summer. Do not be shy with extra virgin olive oil. Salt and dried oregano will require some modesty, though. Sometimes basil will be show up unexpected to add a balmy note. The bread softens up, drenched with tomato juices, but the crust will remain crisp and firm to your bites.
Pane, mascarpone e cioccolato, bread, mascarpone and chocolate spread. When mum used to make the tiramisu, this was a treat which had the flavour of a forbidden pleasure. A slice of bread, a thick layer of mascarpone and chocolate spread on top. At that time it was Nutella, now I choose my favourite Rigoni di Asiago. The mascarpone is buttery and dense, it smooths the sweetness of chocolate. Have you ever tried it? When I bite into it, the world around me pauses for a while, it is a tiny moment of perfection.
- Read this New York Times article on Tuscan bread. To this day, the bread served in Florence and throughout Tuscany is unlike that of other regions. The large, thick-crusted oval loaves are made without salt. Flat bread, schiacciata rusks, focaccia and breadsticks are also salt free.
- This is something I have already written here on the blog on bread, an ode to the state ingredient of Tuscan cooking.
- We spent two relaxing days of staycation at home, and this article from Bon Appetit has been the inspiration for my activities (more on this in the next newsletter. Haven’t you subscribed yet? Do it here!)