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Thursday, August 11

Gapers Block

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I mentioned last December that I'm not a good baker. This doesn't mean that I limit myself to desserts made by somebody else. I've got a disgustingly easy, delectable and definitely not-good-for-you dessert up my sleeve when I feel the need to make something sweet for lots of people.

Say for example that you're going to be having several people over for a barbecue and you're not sure how many people are going to be interested in dessert, but you know there will be quantities of alcohol consumed and you want to provide a dessert that will have absorptive qualities but won't be too sweet. What should you make?

Bread pudding, of course. This dessert was incredibly popular a hundred years ago, but has fallen out of favor lately. Not sure why. It seems like the perfect thing for a host or hostess to offer. These desserts can be simplified or doctored up as much as you want based on what type of taste and texture you're going for.

Essentially, bread pudding is a custard with bread cooked in it. The main ingredients are bread cubes, milk, eggs and flavorings. Any type of yeasty bread can be used; those biscuits or muffins made with baking powder or soda aren't suitable. Really light egg breads like challah or brioche produce an incredibly airy and spongy pudding, whereas denser breads will create a denser pudding.

The really nice thing about bread pudding is you can determine how rich it is. You can either use heavy cream and egg yolks to create an incredibly rich dessert or whole milk and whole eggs to create a less-rich dessert. Any combinations of milk and eggs will work. I know that using lower-fat milk will cause the texture to be grainy and lumpy -- if anyone tries soy milk or egg substitutes, please let me know how it works out.

Since the recipe itself is so simple, the quality of the ingredients is going to make a drastic difference in the flavor. I can actually taste a difference between those generic eggs and the cage-free organic eggs that cost a whole dollar or two more than their styrofoam-packed cousins. For spices and extracts I've fallen in love with The Spice House. They have several different types of cinnamon and vanilla extract. Their "Ceylon'true' cinnamon" is my personal favorite. And their "Mexican pure vanilla extract" is the one that I've grown accustomed to using.

The other main ingredient that matters is the bread. My bread of choice is actually all those loaf ends of Italian or French bread that I never manage to finish eating before they become croutons. I simply store them in their non-airtight package until I have the equivalent of a loaf or a loaf-and-a-half. I also occasionally purchase some rolls from the Mexican bakeries in my neighborhood that dry out before I can eat them. I've already mentioned challah or brioche, but just about any type of bread will work. If you get a bread with a very defined crust, you're going to want to cut it off. Tell your mom I said it was OK.

If you have soft or semi-soft bread, that's fine. You'll be able to make larger slices of bread and pack them tightly. If you have crouton-bread, you're going to want to cut them into large bite-sized pieces. No matter what bread you use, you're going to want to save all those crumbs. They'll help fill in cracks and crevices.

With this basic knowledge, you're ready to get started.

2 tablespoons butter or margarine
1 pound of bread (slightly more if it is fresh)
3 large eggs
4 cups of whole milk
2 cups of sugar
2 tablespoons vanilla
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Grease a large casserole dish with the butter. I prefer my 9"x12" rectangular glass dish. (Glass seems to give it a better crust, but feel free to use whatever you have.) Cut the bread into half-inch-thick slices that will be the same height as the top of the dish. (If using dried bread, cut into 1-inch or smaller cubes rather than slices.) Pour crumbs over the top. Whisk the eggs together in a large bowl until there is a large covering of air bubbles on top of the eggs. You don't want to whisk it until it looks like a meringue, but you want to do more than just break the yolks. Now whisk in the milk, sugar, vanilla and cinnamon. Pour the mixture over the bread crumbs, cover it with plastic wrap and let it sit on a counter for an hour. You'll probably want to set it on a cookie sheet. You're going to press the tops of the bread down a couple of times with the palms of your hands while it sits to get the tops of the bread to soak up liquid as well. Preheat your oven to 375°. Place the pudding (and the safety net of a cookie sheet) into the middle of the oven for an hour, then turn off the oven and let it sit for about a half an hour. Scoop the creamy but thick mixture into bowls, drizzle a sauce across the top or serve with a dollop of ice cream. Feel free to quietly accept everyone's accolades about what a great baker you are. It'll be our secret.

Now this is the basic recipe. If you want a richer dessert you can substitute 3 egg yolks for each whole egg or use heavy cream or half-and-half instead of milk. You can sprinkle dried fruit, toasted nuts or chocolate chips across in with the bread crumbs. Got some brandy, sherry, bourbon, etc. that you don't know what to do with? Add about 3 tablespoons to the liquid mixture. Maybe you like ground ginger or nutmeg instead of cinnamon. Or perhaps you substitute almond extract for the vanilla and add some amaretto to the liquid mix. Maybe you add a couple of tablespoons of cocoa powder to the liquid mix and sprinkle chocolate or butterscotch chips between the bread cubes. Run wild with your imagination and add whatever you like.

Maybe you want to keep the basic simple recipe above and just purchase a gourmet chocolate sauce to let people pour on top to their desire. Or maybe you want to take that extra step and create a delicious adult sauce. Like a Southern Whiskey Sauce:

1 stick of butter (8 tablespoons)
1 cup of sugar
1/4 cup of bourbon or whiskey
2 tablespoons of water
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon salt (a really large pinch)
1 egg

Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan over low heat. Stir in the sugar, whiskey, water, nutmeg, and salt with a wooden spoon or heat-proof spatula. Stir until the sugar is dissolved, then remove from the heat. Crack the egg into a heat-proof mixing bowl and break the yolk. Add a tablespoon or two of the whiskey sauce to the egg and stir until blended, then add a little more, etc. (This "tempers" the egg, or slowly raises the temperature so you don't end up cooking the egg.) Pour the mixture back into the sauce pan and whisk until light and frothy. Set the sauce back onto low heat and stir gently for a minute to let the syrup thicken. This can be stored at room temperature for about eight hours or covered in the refrigerator for about three days. If the mixture separates, remove from the heat and whisk in a tablespoon or two of warm water.

Of course you can substitute any other liquor or liquer. If you think this will create a too-potent mixture, substitute half of the whiskey with water, or you can simply omit the water and add in two more tablespoons of alcohol. Of course you can mix alcohol types as well.

This will easily create 10 large servings and 20 smaller servings so it is perfect for serving your small or large group of friends. The total prep time takes about 10 to 15 minutes, and baking the dessert will permit a delightful aroma to waft across your guests as they begin to eat dinner. Unfortunately, you're going to have your oven on for more than an hour, which means your home will heat up. But this is the perfect weather for it. Cool breezes coming in your windows will keep your kitchen from becoming too warm, and people will be delighted by a warm dessert.

If you've got a cooking question, or have wanted to know what you can make with X, Y, and Z ingredients, feel free to throw a challenge my way. Think my recipes are too simple, or too complicated, let me know. Essentially, I'm asking for feedback which can be sent to inboxgapersblockcom.

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paul / June 1, 2004 9:43 AM

Gale Gand has a chocolate-crossiant bread pudding in her new book, Short + Sweet. I've neglected to put the recipe and photo on my page because it's almost too good to share.

Use 4-6 day-old croissants. I've cheated by cutting them into cubes and drying them out in a 200F oven. Don't rush it and use fresh bread, it'll turn to mush.

Heat 2 cups of half and half and 2 cups of heavy cream over medium heat until just simmering, then whisk in 4 ozs. of semi-sweet chocolate until melted.

In a big bowl, whisk 6 eggs (yes, 6) and a cup of sugar together and then whisk in the melted chocolate mixture.

Put the croissant cubes into a medium sized baking dish like Cinnamon advises and strain the egg, sugar, cream and chocolate mixture over the cubes, coating them completely. Gale says to let them soak in the frig for at least 15 minutes but you could let them stay in there for up to a day, a good idea for prepping for the next day's dessert. just fold the mixture a few times to make sure all the pieces are soaking.

Put the baking dish in a water bath (a larger dish filled with water that will come up half way to the baking dish), in a 350F oven, until the center of the pudding is set in the center - 40-45 minutes. Serve with a scoop of ice cream or Cinnamon's Southern Whiskey Sauce.

jenny / June 1, 2004 4:15 PM

I could give you my Grandma Marion's bread pudding recipe...but then I'd have to kill you.

You're right, Cinnamon, bread-pudding is an oft-neglected downhome dessert; a couple of favorite variations include pudding with a rum sauce (stolen from my OTHER grandmother's rum cake), or shaved chocolate, or walnuts and caramelized banana.

jenny / June 3, 2004 12:49 PM

Cinnamon, apparently not everyone finds pudding as scintillating as those of us on the inside-pudding-track. Here's a question; what strange-but-good pudding-based desserts have you come across?

Shylo / June 4, 2004 2:54 PM

When I was jonesing for sugar in college, I'd make some Jell-O butterscotch pudding. Love. It.

Shasta MacNasty / June 4, 2004 4:33 PM

I LOVE bread pudding. There is a place in Arizona called Charleston's that makes this AWESOME bread pudding with a chantilly cream sauce. :::weeping from the joy:::

Your post has given me inspiration to actually THINK about making bread pudding on my own one day:) I know in Jamaica, we make a potato pudding that has raisins, cinnamon, etc., then is cut into small squares. It's not chucky like bread pudding, yet very dense. One of my favs.

Cinnamon / June 4, 2004 5:50 PM

Oh, Shasta, that sounds interesting. Do you use sweet potatoes, or regular baking potatoes? Sounds like something to file away for later experimentation.

robin / June 7, 2004 5:14 PM

then of course there's kugel- Jewish noodle pudding with raisins and cinnamon and milk and eggs.

also, if anyone knows how to make a whole wheat or gluten free pudding with soymilk and stevia or splenda- there's a sugar,dairy,and white flour free gal here missing all those lovely puddingses!


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