With desserts, I'm pretty lazy. If there are too many ingredients that I don't already have in the cupboard, I'll be reluctant to make it. Besides the fact that my sweet tooth is small, health-wise I don't mind if there isn't something sweet around. It could have something to do with the few months of my life where I ate a sweet muffin at least every other day (a whole other story), or maybe it's that small guilt factor that comes with pouring a cup of sugar into a bowl with half a block a butter already sitting in it. Of course, sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do but I'd probably save the guilt for a cheeseburger.
Our annual office picnic in the weekend however did call for desserts and I thought long and hard about my contribution. A raspberry chocolate brownie? A flourless black doris plum upside down cake? Both personal favourites when the occasion arises but I was feeling lazy for baking. And I had no chocolate in the pantry. Fresh fruit salad? I did need to go to the local fruit and vege market anyway...
I turned to Heidi Swanson for some inspiration. Award-winning author of the blog 101 Cookbooks and books Super Natural Cooking and Super Natural Every Day, she had made a name for herself through her natural and whole food cooking philosophy made easy, delicious and accessible through her blog and publications. I hadn't read much of her work before I picked up Super Natural Every Day in Portland's Powell's bookstore, but I was already in a phase of wanting to cook with less processed ingredients. I was sold.
So, I turned straight to the dessert or 'Sweet Treats' section and slowed down straight away. As I mentioned in my first post, I like reading cookbooks just to read and in the urgency of needing to find a dish to make, I couldn't help myself. Gorgeous recipes such as Watermelon Salad and Membrillo Cake led the chapter, though were out of my reach due to not having any medjool dates, quince paste or rose water around. Then, the perfect simple recipe: Sweet Panzanella.
Panzanella is traditionally an Italian savoury bread salad often made up of stale bread tossed in typical Italian flavours such as tomatoes, onions, basil, capers and olives, in a oil and vinegar dressing. A beautifully easy summer's picnic lunch, making Swanson's sweet variation fit for my occasion. The list of ingredients exceeded no more than 6 and I only needed to buy a loaf of whole grain seed bread and some fresh fruit. The original recipe calls for raspberries but suggests the option of using either plums, peaches or nectarines - all fruit fiercely in season right now. My plan was to find the cheapest juiciest option at the market, and cheap and juicy I found: Plum Delights for $1.99/kg. Yahtzee.
The other magnificent thing about the recipe was that it appeared so simple to make, doable in the hour before needing to leave for the picnic itself with potentially time to spare. I'd found a winner. The taste was divine: a lovely combination of lightly toasted sugary-buttery yet seedy-and-savoury bread with the sweet, slightly tart, chunky plum 'dressing'. A bit different, granted, and no match against a decadent creamy cheesecake for crowd favourite but I secretly loved my sweet panzanella the best. Read it the way you want but I was stoked that there was a fair amount leftover to take home with me, even if it didn't get the kids excited. (I'm sure they had just filled up on the roast beef and sausages... Maybe the chocolate muffins too.)
This is truly Heidi Swanson's recipe but I have rewritten it with my variations. I think many fruits could work in place of the plums or raspberries and I'm particularly curious about trying grapes with the addition of a few sliced almonds. I would have liked to have added a few crushed toasted hazelnuts to my rendition but, we'd run out. The addition of honey into the dressing was a means for adding another dimension of sweetness to the sugar and natural fruit sugars; and, the loaf of bread I used was from Brezelmania, a good local bakery with a few stores in Wellington.
1 (450 g/medium size) day-old preferably wholegrain loaf of bakery bread with plenty of seeds (if using white bread, sprinkle a mix of toasted seeds (e.g. sunflower, pumpkin, sesame, flaxseed, etc) in as you are adding the 'dressing')
60 g unsalted butter
6 Tbsp muscovado or brown sugar
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
2 cups fresh plums (or other stone fruit or berries), deseeded and chopped into small chunks
1 tsp runny honey (optional)
Heat oven to 180 deg C. Cut loaf into chunks around 2 cm square (though no need to be religious about it) using a bread knife. Straight cuts will help the bread to toast up evenly, unlike a savoury panzanella, where rough torn pieces are preferable for soaking up dressing and big flavours.
In a pan large enough to hold the bread, heat butter over medium heat and add 4 Tbsp of sugar and stir until sugar dissolves. Add salt and turn off heat. Toss bread thoroughly so each piece gains a slight sugary shine. Lay out on a baking sheet in a single layer and place in the middle rack of the oven for 15 minutes. Check at 5 minute intervals, turning bread over each time to ensure each side is evenly toasted. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool for at least 10 minutes.
While bread is toasting, place half of the fruit in a small bowl. Add the remaining sugar and honey (if using) and mash together until fruit breaks down to become a plump and juicy 'dressing'. In a large serving bowl, combine bread with dressing shortly before serving and lovingly toss remaining fruit in at the last minute. If using nuts, sprinkle over to serve. And if using strawberries or raspberries, I think a few finely chopped mint leaves would make a fine addition.
Buon appetito! X