Pappa al Pomodoro: The Tuscan Tomato Soup for Every Season

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This Tuscan bread-and-tomato soup is one of the best ways to enjoy tomatoes in the winter. [Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

I was flipping through several of my 19th-century cookbooks recently, and was reminded of how different they were back then. One of the most surprising things was the frequent inclusion of whole chapters on feeding the ill and infirm. Cookbooks from those times weren't just aspirational guides full of fancy dinner ideas, or windows into a chef's genius; they were there to help people—usually women—through their domestic duties. Remedies for dyspepsia, therefore, were mere pages away from the johnnycake recipes.

At first, that seemed off-putting. It's not exactly appetizing to read about the paps, mushes, and gruels that are most easily gummed. But then I caught myself: What's so bad about soft, liquid food—I like soup, don't I? And then I remembered that one of my favorite tomato-based dishes is a true pap, both in substance and in name. Pappa al pomodoro, which translates as "tomato pap," is a Tuscan dish that's made by simmering bread with a tomato-based sauce until the bread is completely soft and custardy. It's delicious, regardless of your age or number of teeth.*

* For a similar but tomato-free bread soup recipe, check out this Portuguese version, known as açorda à Alentejana.

Most people describe pappa al pomodoro as a summertime bread-and-tomato soup made with fresh tomatoes, but that's always seemed a little odd to me. In the summer, when I have beautiful tomatoes, the only bread-and-tomato dishes I'm interested in making involve uncooked fresh tomatoes—panzanella, for instance, or gazpacho. A cooked tomato soup, on the other hand, is the kind of thing I'll save for the colder months, when I'm relying on canned tomatoes, since they've already been cooked anyway.

That means that right now is the start of my pappa al pomodoro season.

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Stale, oven-dried, and fresh breads.

Traditionally, pappa al pomodoro is one of those recipes, like panzanella and gazpacho, that transforms stale bread into something not just edible, but wonderful. But stale bread isn't necessarily required. When making panzanella, for instance, I'll often dry fresh bread in the oven instead. I've long found (and Kenji's tests have confirmed) that dried bread actually makes a better dish than stale bread. If the difference between the two seems trivial, it might help to know that staling and drying are two different, though often concurrent, processes: Staling refers to the recrystallization of the bread's starch, while drying describes a loss of moisture through evaporation. Staling leads to bread that's unpleasantly tough and firm, while drying (in the absence of staling) leads to a light, crisp texture, like that of a fresh crouton.

For pappa al pomodoro, I was curious to see what the differences were between stale, dried, and fresh bread, so I whipped up three batches, each using one type. Just like with panzanella, dried bread worked better than stale, softening much faster in the tomato liquid. But even more interesting was that fresh bread worked just as well as dried—which isn't true of a dish like panzanella.

The reason has to do with the end goals in each case. With panzanella, the idea is to create a salad in which the bread is soaked with tomato juices and olive oil, while still maintaining crisp bits here and there for textural contrast. Drying the bread fully allows it to soak up much more of those liquids and still have some crunch left over.

With pappa al pomodoro, though, the goal is to completely reduce the bread to mush, with no crispness at all. The tomatoes alone aren't juicy enough to get you there, so you have to add some more liquid to the pot to fully soften the bread. I typically use a quick and easy vegetable stock for my extra liquid, but having the bread already fresh just means that you're even closer to the finish line as soon as you start.

In the end, I tasted no noticeable difference between the fresh-bread and dried-bread versions, but the fresh was much faster to make than the dried-bread one.

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The rest is very simple: Simmer a simple tomato sauce in a large saucepan by sweating minced onion and garlic in olive oil, then adding canned tomatoes. I like to crush them by hand to maintain some tomato chunks in the finished soup, but if you want a smoother texture, you can purée them in a blender first instead.

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Then I add the bread in torn chunks and spoon stock on top to fully saturate it. I simmer the mixture, spooning more stock in as needed, until the bread has completely softened to a custardy texture and the soup has thickened to a similarly custardy consistency.

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For the final touches, which are incredibly important to the finished soup's success, generously drizzle some good olive oil on top, grind fresh black pepper all over, and scatter torn fresh basil leaves for their aroma.

Don't wait until you've got dentures to try this.