In Italy, the baking of bread is called l’arte bianco (the white art). Bread provides nourishment and sustenance through the life-giving, almost magical properties of yeast. Bread is to be respected. If you’ve read many of my posts in this blog, you know that I do not waste food, not even bread … not even the crumbs (especially the crumbs).
Briciola di pane, (crumbs of bread) used for stuffing, coating, binding, thickening and sprinkling over vegetables and pasta, are an essential ingredient in Sicilian cooking! With so many uses, it should not be surprising that there are different bread-crumbs for different purposes.
I used to watch my grandmother make Pangrattato (plain bread-crumbs) out of good stale bread. She used a box grater to make the course crumbs from very dry day-old bread (crusts included). She then toasted them in a dry cast iron skillet for a minute or two (you can also toast crumbs in the oven). What she didn’t use that day, she put in a mason jar and stored in the pantry (cool dry place).
Pangrattato is a key ingredient in Carcioffi Ripieni (Stuffed Artichokes). I use it as breading for the eggplant in Eggs Nola and to coat the pans in Sformato di Cavolfiore and Melanzane e Spaghetti Torta.
I rarely use a box grater for bread-crumbs, choosing my little food processor instead.
Pangrattato that has been browned in olive oil until lightly toasted is called Mollica. Originally used as an inexpensive substitute for cheese, (when one could not afford the real thing) Mollica di Pane, is a traditional garnish that can turn the simplest dish into something special. It must be cooked over a low heat, stirred constantly and watched carefully, as it can burn in the blink of an eye. Sometimes I add a little garlic too. Try it on vegetables, pasta and fish for a flavorful topping. Mollica needs to be used the same day it is made.
Another type of bread-crumb is Pangrattato alle erbe (seas0ned bread-crumbs). To make this, she would simply take the plain crumbs and add an equal portion of grated Pecorino cheese, some chopped Italian parsley, a bit of minced garlic and season with a pinch of salt. This can be used in meatloaf, as a stuffing for chicken or beef, (Braciolone) sprinkled over pasta or to turn vegetables into a gratin.
Soft bread crumbs, are made from fresh bread and are perfect for using in fillings for stuffed mushrooms and making meatballs. The crumbs are larger than dry bread crumbs and result in a softer texture. My grandmother would simply put a slice or two of bread in a bowl, cover it with a little milk (let it soak for a minute or two) and then squeeze out the milk. Or, you can tear fresh bread into pieces and pulse in food processor 2-3 times for course crumbs.
To Italians, bread is a symbol of providence that should be treated with reverence … even the crumbs.