loving spoonful

When I eat in a restaurant for the first time, I always order bread pudding. There are two reasons for this: I love the dessert, and I’m curious about how the restaurant makes its version. I probably should keep an annotated list of all the bread puddings I’ve eaten, in the same way that birders keep a list of their sightings, but I’m not that disciplined.

I do know that every bread pudding is different, that every cook has his or her own style and that the result is almost always good. Certainly there are great variations in quality, but bread pudding is usually a reliable dessert, even in very simple surroundings.

Bread pudding is extremely popular in Louisiana, particularly, it seems, in the southern part of the state, but the dessert can be found in various guises throughout the world. It originates in the home kitchen, not in the realm of professional chefs, and likely began as an economical way to turn stale bread into a delicious and heartwarming dish.

A telling example of bread pudding’s domestic roots can be found in the name of the Egyptian version, Om Ali, which means “Ali’s mother.” According to Claudia Roden in The New Book of Middle Eastern Food, “It is the most popular sweet in Egypt.”

Despite bread pudding’s humble origins, it sometimes appears on the menus of sophisticated restaurants. (The sublime bread pudding soufflé at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans immediately comes to mind.) In his Le Guide Culinaire, the bible of classical cuisine, the great French chef Auguste Escoffier gave recipes for four versions of bread pudding – English, French, German and Scotch, each an elegant interpretation of a simple theme.

Early Louisiana cookbooks include several recipes for bread pudding. Creole Cookery, published in 1885 by the Christian Women’s Exchange in New Orleans, includes two recipes, one baked and one boiled. Lafcadio Hearn’s La Cuisine Creole, also published in 1885, gives two recipes for the dessert, one with a meringue (called “meringue pudding”), of which Hearn wrote, “This is considered an elegant dish for any occasion.” The 1901 edition of The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book includes a bread pudding recipe, as well as one for the same pudding made with stale cake.

Those early Louisiana recipes are strikingly similar to modern bread puddings – stale bread (bread crumbs in one, rolls in another) combined with a sweetened milk-and-egg custard. Some of them incorporate raisins or currants or citron. Vanilla extract, lemon extract, rose water, butter and nutmeg are other ingredients that make an appearance. The Picayune recipe calls for serving a hard sauce, a cream sauce, a brandy sauce or a lemon sauce with the pudding.

Today, bread puddings are made in a variety of ways. In addition to French bread, sliced sandwich bread, brioche, whole-grain breads, fruit-and-nut breads, chocolate bread, phyllo, biscuits and even doughnuts are used to make the dessert. Some recipes call for discarding the bread crusts. At the opposite extreme, one young man from Abbeville told me that his favorite bread pudding is made from the crusts that are left over from preparing wedding sandwiches.

Now, that’s economy.

Other variations include the addition of fruits, berries or nuts to the pudding mixture. Hard sauces made with bourbon, brandy or rum; custard sauces (with or without liquor); fruit sauces; and whipped cream are served with bread puddings.

What accounts for the widespread and enduring popularity of bread pudding? I’m not sure, but I think it has to do with the essential role that bread plays in our collective consciousness, the fundamental connection between bread and being. The simplest bread puddings speak to this basic relationship; more elaborate versions embody our dreams.

In a sense, then, bread pudding is the most democratic of desserts, a humble, homespun sweet, admirable in its simplicity but one that can aspire to greater heights. In the wrong hands, however, it can become too elaborate, thereby compromising its character and losing what made it desirable in the first place.

In truth, I’ve rarely met a bread pudding I didn’t like, but here are recipes for two of my current favorites.

Coconut Bread Pudding with Meringue and Custard Sauce
If this reminds you of coconut-cream pie, it’s no wonder: They both contain the same elements – coconut, custard and meringue.

1/2 cup sweetened coconut
4 cups French bread torn into small pieces
4 tablespoons melted butter
2 eggs
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups milk, warmed
2 large pinches nutmeg
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Meringue (recipe follows)
Custard sauce (recipe follows)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread coconut on a baking sheet, and bake until lightly toasted, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Butter a standard loaf pan, and add bread. Drizzle bread with melted butter, and toss to coat. In a mixing bowl, add eggs, sugar, milk, nutmeg and vanilla, and whisk until smooth. Add toasted coconut, and whisk.

Pour mixture over bread in loaf pan; press bread down to saturate. Bake for 45 minutes. Remove to a cooling rack, and let pudding settle for 10 minutes or so before adding meringue.

For Meringue:
4 egg whites (reserve yolks for custard sauce)
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons sweetened coconut

Beat egg whites and sugar until stiff. Spread meringue on pudding, forming peaks; sprinkle with coconut; and bake in 350 degree oven until browned, about 10 minutes. Serve pudding at room temperature with cold custard sauce.

Serves 6-8.

Custard Sauce:
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
4 egg yolks
2 cups milk, warmed
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

In a heat-proof mixing bowl, whisk sugar and cornstarch to combine. Add egg yolks and milk while whisking. Place bowl over a pot of simmering water, and cook, stirring constantly, until custard thickens and coats the back of a spoon. Remove bowl from heat, and place in a container of ice water until cool, stirring occasionally. Add vanilla, and refrigerate until chilled. Makes about 2 cups.

Bittersweet Chocolate Bread Pudding with Whipped Cream
If you love the combination of bread and chocolate, this pudding will have a special appeal.

4 ounces bittersweet chocolate
2 cups milk
4 cups French bread torn into small pieces
4 tablespoons melted butter
2 eggs, separated
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 tablespoons bourbon, dark rum or brandy

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a standard loaf pan. Break chocolate into pieces, combine with milk in a small saucepan, and heat, stirring occasionally, just until chocolate melts. Drizzle bread with melted butter in a small bowl, and toss to coat. In a mixing bowl, combine egg yolks, sugar, vanilla and liquor. While whisking, add melted chocolate and milk. Add bread, and combine. Beat egg whites until stiff, and fold into bread mixture. Turn into loaf pan, and bake until set in the center, about 40 minutes. Serve warm with whipped cream (recipe follows). Serves 6-8.

Whipped Cream
1/2 pint very cold heavy cream
3 tablespoons powdered sugar

Whip cream until it begins to thicken. Add sugar, and whip until soft peaks form. Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

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