Every cook has, at one point or another, a colossal disaster in the kitchen to talk about. Knowing how to deal with it shows quick thinking, creativity, and experience…and an ability to deal with the disaster with a certain sang-froid. Emblazoned in my memory was the time my mother, hosting and cooking an elegant, multi-course dinner for twelve guests in our apartment in Rome. The table was beautifully laid out with the best china and silver, flowers, crystal glasses, and waiters circulated with hors d’oeuvres and cocktails. For that occasion, my mother had brought back from Pisa some beautifully cut and tender filet mignon steaks (Tuscan beef being renowned for its high quality) and had placed them in the broiler to be supervised by the wait staff. In the course of the dinner, she was frantically summoned to the kitchen by a horrified server. The scene is seared into my memory of my mother approaching the stove and beholding the blackened lumpy remains of charred meat. Without missing a beat, she turned to the refrigerator and pulled out some veal steakettes, directed one of the waiters to cut the meat in thin slices, flour them and saute quickly in butter with a little added wine. She returned to the dinner table as if nothing had happened and later received high compliments from her dinner guests for the lovely veal dish, how original and tasty it was!. It was a powerful cooking lesson for me about how to manage a disaster…that there is always a solution in the kitchen. And so it happened a week ago when I forgot the bread baking in the oven. I had timed it so that it would be baked and ready to serve with dinner, but I got distracted by the cheerful banter around me and getting food on the table. We had dinner outside al fresco as usual and as I came inside to clear the dishes, I smelled the familiar aroma of burnt bread. Oh no!
It may not look like a disaster…but it was pretty toasted! I packed the pagnotta in foil and threw it in the cupboard in disgust. But one thing I hate the most is to throw away food…so I had to find a solution. And I did in ….mazzamurru! It is a Sardinian dish that hails from the Cagliari area, a poor food to be sure, that makes use of scraps of old bread and turns it into a lovely dish that resembles a cross between a bread pudding, a panzanella, and a lasagna. It is a layered bread dish with tomato sauce and pecorino cheese. Use a bread that has some heft, such as a focaccia loaf or sourdough. Cut into slices (I took off the crust which was too burnt for use – that will go to feed the chickens) about 1/4 inch thick and soak in milk.
4 large tomatoes, peeled and chopped coarsely
3 tablespoons olive oil and 2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup small diced onion
salt and pepper
Make a light tomato sauce, preferably from fresh tomatoes (I used 4 large). Scald the tomatoes and remove the skin. Chop coarsely. In a heated pan with olive oil and butter, add the onion and saute lightly. Add the tomatoes, salt and pepper, and about a half a cup of water. Cook for about 20 minutes or until the sauce is no longer watery. Place one layer of bread soaked in milk in a well oiled baking dish, top with sauce and sprinkle with cheese.
The original recipes call for pecorino, but I used whatever stumps of cheese lay about in my refrigerator. Grate it coarsely (about 2 cups). Layer with more bread, sauce, cheese. I made three layers, but two will work. Bake in a 350 oven for 30-40 minutes or until golden in top. Let it cool a bit before serving.
Some additional thoughts: I think adding some basil leaves or even black olives would work well in this dish.I noticed that some recipes added it to the layers. I wanted to stay as close to tradition as possible. Substituting broth for the milk would work too.
As you can see, the layers are pretty pronounced. The dish makes an excellent side to meat, chicken, grilled vegetables…easy on a buffet or an idea to use when you are cleaning out your refrigerator!