These hot broths and breads soothe the soul

My life starts whirling in fall, one of my two busiest seasons, and my soup-making mode kicks in. Soup means bread, so a marathon morning of cooking pleasure ensues, as I make several soups and breads ready to pull out of the fridge or freezer.

This time, I found my friend Betty Rosbottom's cookbook, "Sunday Soups," on my bookshelf. It includes some last-minute soups that appealed to me in my ongoing quest for something different. I adapted the recipe because she lives in the North and I live in the South. For instance, I never use walnuts, only pecans. I used chives that grow in my garden, in part because when else would I use them? And I opine that turnip greens could be used in place of spinach.

These adaptations are second nature to me, but I guarantee you'll enjoy her book without them.

The bread, which I've been making for several weeks now, is the bread originally extolled in Mark Bittman's column in The New York Times as the no-knead bread. It operates under the theory that the bread kneads itself if left alone, combined. Amazingly, it does.

It is the perfect beginner's bread. I've tested it on beginners who have failed at bread before, and they breezed through it.

It freezes well, too, but needs to be recrisped in a hot oven to regain its artisan crust, which encases it in deep brown.

A note from Nathalie: I think of this as fondue soup; it so reminds me of cheese fondue. It's amazingly comforting and cries for good bread. Betty Rosbottom uses green onions in "Sunday Soups," and I used chives.

White cheddar creams with crispy bacon

Serves 6

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 1/2 cups finely chopped onion

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1/4 cup flour

4 1/2 cups chicken stock

1 1/2 cups half-and-half

Cayenne pepper to taste

1/4 cup dry white wine

12 ounces grated sharp white cheddar cheese

Kosher salt

6 cooked bacon slices, broken into 1-inch pieces

6 green onions, including green tops, or fresh snipped chives

- Heat the butter in a large, heavy pot over medium heat. When hot, add the onion and cook until soft, 3-4 minutes. Add the garlic and cook briefly.

- Stir in the flour for a couple of minutes. Stir in the stock and half-and-half, bring to a boil and reduce the heat to a simmer.

- Add cayenne pepper judiciously to taste, the wine and the grated cheese.

- Taste and add salt as desired.

- This can be prepared one or two days ahead, cooled, refrigerated and covered until needed. When ready to serve, ladle hot soup into 6 bowls and garnish with bacon and onions or chives.

A note from Nathalie: This recipe from "Sunday Soups" uses a vegetable stock, but any stock will do. To make her stock, Betty cooks 1 cup chopped leeks with 1 medium carrot, a bay leaf, thyme sprig and a can of tomato juices for 10 minutes. Then she strains it and returns it to the pot. I've done a little twist, not being able to stand throwing the tomatoes away.

Chickpea and pasta soup with rosemary

Serves 4

3 cups vegetable or chicken stock

1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes

1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed

1 cup small short dried pasta, such as tubetti, ditalini or mini-penne

2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary

Salt to taste

3 ounces (about 3 cups) baby spinach or turnip green leaves

One 3- to 4-ounce piece of parmesan cheese, preferably Parmigiano-Reggiano

- Pour the stock into a pan and add the tomatoes. Add 1/2 cup of chickpeas.

- With an immersion blender, puree the soup mixture. (If desired, remove the solids, puree in a blender or food processor and return to the pot.)

- Add the remaining chickpeas, bring to a boil, add the pasta, chopped rosemary and salt to taste. Return to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until the pasta is al dente, about 6 to 8 minutes. (If the soup cooks down too much, add 1 to 1 1/2 cups additional stock or water and return to a simmer.)

- Add the spinach or greens and cook until wilted. Taste and season with salt if needed.

- May be made several days ahead, and frozen up to three months. To serve, ladle hot soup into 4 bowls, and peel thin strips of parmesan over each serving.

A note from Nathalie: Either "pumpkin pie" pumpkin, a special variety of pumpkin, or butternut squash can be used. Betty used creme fraiche to finish, while I stirred in whipping cream, which I had in the house.

Pumpkin soup with toasted nuts and rosemary

6 servings

1 (5-pound) "pumpkin pie" pumpkin, or 8 cups cubed or roughly chopped butternut squash

2 tablespoons butter

1 1/2 cups chopped leeks, white and light green parts only (about two leeks)

6 cups chicken stock

1 teaspoon crushed dried rosemary or chopped fresh

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 1/3 cups creme fraiche or heavy whipping cream, divided use

1/2 cup walnuts or pecans, toasted and chopped

6 sprigs fresh rosemary or thyme

- If using pumpkin: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut the pumpkin through the stem, scoop out and discard seeds and cut into 4-inch pieces. Move, cut side down, to a large, heavy baking pan. Add enough water to measure 1 inch up sides. Bake until tender, 45-50 minutes. Cool and remove skin.

- If using butternut squash: Add to the cooked leeks (below) and saute together 6 minutes, then proceed.

- Heat the butter in a large, heavy pan over medium heat. When hot, add leeks and cook, stirring until soft, about 3 minutes. Add the pumpkin or squash, stock, rosemary, salt and cayenne pepper. Stir to combine and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat, cover and cook for 10 minutes to meld flavors.

- Puree the soup using an immersion blender. (Or in batches in a food processor, blender or food mill and return to pot.) Whisk in 1 cup of the creme fraiche or all of the heavy whipping cream. Taste and season with salt as needed.

- Soup can be prepared two days head. Cool, cover and refrigerate. Reheat over low heat. To serve, ladle soup into 6 soup bowls. Garnish with remaining 1/3 cup creme fraiche. If desired, sprinkle with nuts and garnish with rosemary or thyme.

A note from Nathalie: I have adapted this bread recipe, making it two breads and using a plastic bag to cut back on dishes. The lidded heavy pot creates an oven that gives a crisp dough. Although any covered heat-proof pan can be used, I think Le Creuset is substantially better. I've used several sizes and shapes, including a loaf pan, all to good effect. For smaller sizes, I halve the risen dough.

Mark Bittman's speedy no-knead bread

1-2 loaves

3 cups bread or all-purpose flour

1 packet ( 1/4 ounce) dry yeast

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 1/2 cups water

Oil as needed

- Stir together flour, yeast and salt in bowl. Stir in 1 1/2 cups water, making a rough dough. Do not knead. Let the dough rest in the bowl, covered with plastic wrap, or move to an oiled plastic bag, about 4 hours in a warm room (70 degrees).

- Lightly oil or flour a clean board or counter, slide the dough out and move it to the board. (Divide in two if making two loaves.) Gently fold each dough piece roughly in half, and repeat that motion. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit another half-hour.

- Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. For one loaf, put a 6- to 8-quart heavy lidded pot (cast iron, enamel, pyrex or ceramic) in the oven while it preheats, so the pot becomes hot. For two loaves, put two 3- to 4-quart heavy lidded pots in the oven.

- Moving quickly and carefully, remove the pot(s) from the oven and close the door of the oven to keep it hot. Quickly and gently pick up the dough, uncover the pot and set the dough or its half in the middle of the pot.

- Gently shake the pot to make the dough rest evenly in the pot if necessary. (It will readjust itself a bit in the oven.) Cover with lid, return to the hot oven and bake 30 minutes. Remove lid and bake, uncovered, 15 to 30 minutes until browned. Remove bread from the pot and cool on a rack.

- Sprinkle with flour for a rough-baked finish. When cool, the bread will last up to four days or may be frozen up to three months. Whether fresh or frozen, to recrisp crust, reheat in a 400-degree oven 10-15 minutes. (It toasts beautifully.)

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