Saturday, August 25, 2012

Bread Pudding: Why Write About Something That I Hate?

The title of this post is clear: I hate, loathe, abhor bread pudding.  But I can't deny that it's useful.

The Bloomingdale Farmers Market is only three block away from my house, and has approximately 10-15 vendors.  There is one bakery stall where you can get amazingly good bread.  They are a wholesale bakery (they make the bread for lots of high-end DC restaurants).  I don't know where the bakers are from originally, but they may be from France.  I'm not good with French accents so they may also be from a previously French-colonised country.  All I can tell you is that they talk to you in French first, and I've heard them having conversations in French with other customers.  They were very polite when I said my one pathetic French sentence to them: Je ne parle pas Francais.  Sometimes I am listening when Twin talks to me.  Sometimes.

So I buy a rustic baguette every Sunday around noon and gorge myself on it, making havarti and tomato sandwiches.  And every Tuesday I look at the leftover half-baguette and feel guilty about throwing it out, but how much baguette can one person eat?  Patches loves toast and would eat the entire rest of the loaf and wind up with bunny diabetes.  So this week I decided not to be one of those Americans who throw away 40% of their food and instead make something with the stale bread.

Bread pudding is the standard way to make something edible out of old, stale bread.  You soak it in an uncooked custard mixture, add whatever fruits or nuts you want, and bake it until the bread is soft and the custard is solid.  A google search for bread pudding recipes returns about 5 million results.  That's a lot of different recipes for something that always has the same basic form.

There is one divide amongst bread pudding recipes: savory or sweet.  My mother's bread pudding was on the savory side and was used as a replacement for oatmeal at breakfast.  Most Americans seem to think that bread pudding is a kind of dessert. Those recipes can have up to a cup of sugar (or more).  I really dislike bread pudding that is too sweet, especially the recipes where all you can taste is sugar and the aftertaste of whatever alcohol the dried fruits were soaked in.  I know that "pudding" is the English word for dessert and that it's likely that bread pudding really is supposed to be a dessert, but reality has never gotten in my way before and it's not going to now.

Since I hate overly sweet, soggy, and dense foods, bread pudding is a trifecta of failure.  My mother usually used leftover hallah for bread pudding.  Trust me when I tell you that this is not a good choice for bread pudding.

The bread pudding that I made from the leftover farmer's market baguette turned out to be one of the least repulsive bread puddings I've ever had.  If you do happen to like the hideousness that is bread pudding, you'll definitely want to give it a try with pieces from a baguette with a thick, crunchy crust.

I also happened to have a box of cherries from Trader Joe's that was about to go bad, so they were incredibly juicy.  I split them in half with my thumb and pulled out the stones, then set them in a bowl of rum for an hour.  Bacardi Gold is a good cooking and baking rum.  If you happen to have a litre of rum sitting around like I do, pour about a third of it over the cherries.  If you like to drink rum like I don't, then you probably won't want to do that.  The cherries baked up nice and firm, still slightly juicy, and the custard mixed well with the cherry juices.  The consistency of the ripe cherries went well with the sogginess of the custard-y bread, even when the custard had become solid.

Generally people add dried fruits and nuts to bread pudding.  I'm sure you're not surprised to learn that I hate bread pudding with dried fruits and nuts in it.  It just makes the entire bread pudding experience that much worse to have a hard and crunchy nut or a squishy, hard-to-chew dried fruit in the middle of a mouthful of gloppy bread.  Yuck.

So if you absolutely have to make bread pudding, or if you're one of those culture-less Philistines who actually likes the stuff, go ahead and give this recipe a try.

Tips: a baguette is a good bread to use for bread pudding because it has a stiff crust which doesn't disappear so much in the custard.  It gives a little difference to the consistency of a mouthful of bread pudding.

The more eggs you use in the custard mixture, the heavier your bread pudding will be.  I prefer three eggs to two cups of milk or cream.  If you want a more custard-y pudding, add in another egg or two.  You will also need a little more bread to soak up the extra moisture.

The flavoring of the custard comes from the spices you add to it, so you need to make sure and taste test it before you add in the bread.  It will taste the same after you bake it.  You really do need to check the custard mix or you will end up with bad bread pudding.  In the recipe below, I'm estimating the amounts of extracts and cinnamon that I threw in the custard.  I just dumped it in until I liked the taste.

For the custard, you can use any liquid dairy product you like.  Unfortunately I don't know how soy milk or almond milk will work in bread pudding.  I made my bread pudding with non-fat milk because that's what I had, but a lot of people will make it with half-and-half or heavy cream (or some combination of the three) to make the custard heavier.  I prefer the custard to be lighter.  You can play around with the diary component until you get the texture you desire.

It's important to let the bread cubes sit in the custard mixture to absorb it before the bread pudding is baked.  Many bread pudding recipes will tell you that it's fine to skip this step.  You end up with over-baked, crunchy bread on the top and bread in the middle that still has the stale bread consistency mixed with custard.  It's a good idea to let the bread cubes sit in the custard mixture for at least 30 minutes.

Bread Pudding a la My Weird Taste Buds

Ingredients

Roughly 3 cups of 1-inch baguette cubes (approximately half of a rounder rustic loaf, or a whole long, skinny baguette)
2 tablespoons butter, melted
3 large eggs
2 cups of milk, half-and-half, or heavy cream, or a combination
1/3 cup of sugar (white, turbinado, or half white and half brown)*
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract (do NOT use imitation extract)
1/2 tablespoon ground cinnamon**
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 box fresh cherries
about 1/3 cup rum (optional)

whipped cream to top, if desired

* If you want sweet bread pudding instead of savory, use 3/4 cup of sugar.  I think that this is too sweet, especially if you're adding any kind of fresh fruit with alcohol.
** In the autumn and winter, you may want to add the same spices that are used in pumpkin pies (cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice) to get a Thanksgiving flavor.

Directions

Slice the bread up into 1-inch cubes.  Start by slicing 1-inch slices, then stack several slices on top of each other and cut 1-inch slices at 90 degrees to the original slices.  Check that the cubes fill up the baking dish that you're planning on using.  I used a 1 3/4 quart ceramic baking dish with about 3 cups of bread cubes.

In a large bowl, mix together the eggs and milk.  Make sure you blend them well.  A hand-held egg beater is very useful for this step.  Mix in the sugar.  It will liquify in the egg mixture after about a minute or so, and then you will be able to stir it into the eggs and milk easily.  Add the extracts and spices, adding more if the taste isn't strong enough.

Put the bread cubes into the baking pan and pour the melted butter across the top of them.  The pour all of the custard mixture onto the cubes, filling up most of the baking pan.  Press the cubes down firmly with a fork to ensure that they have been covered with the custard mixture.  Let the cubes sit in the mixture for an hour to absorb it.

If you are going to use rum-soaked cherries or other fresh fruit, pop out the cherry stones or chop up the fruit.  Place the chopped fruit or cherry halves in a normal bowl and pour rum over the fruit until it's completely covered.  If you don't want to use so much rum, you can pour a smaller amount but you will need to come back every 3 to 5 minutes to stir the fruit so that it's evenly soaked.  Let it soak for the same hour that the bread is sitting in the custard mixture.

Once the hour is up, preheat the oven to 350 F.  Drain the fruit if you've soaked it in the rum, or chop it up if you're using it fresh.  Mix the fruit into the soaked bread.  Bake for 20 minutes, then check to see how fast it's cooking.  If you've put any kind of fresh fruit in, the juices will come out during the first 20 minutes and the bread pudding will still appear to be completely uncooked.  Bake for intervals of 10 to 20 minutes, checking to see how it's coming along by inserting a toothpick or a knife blade into the middle of the dish.

You will see the custard solidifying from the outside edges of the dish into the middle.  Once the custard around the edges of the baking dish solidifies, bake for another 10 to 20 minutes more and check the center.  When the bread pudding is done, the liquid in the center will be fruit juices instead of uncooked custard mixture and the top of the pudding will be visibly browner than when you put the dish in the oven.  My bread pudding took approximately 55 to 60 minutes to bake.

If you did not add any fresh fruit, check the consistency after 20 minutes.  You will need to check every 5 to 10 minutes after that to see how fast it's baking.  The time to bake depends on the type of bread you've used and how many eggs you've put in.

Those are cherry halves, not black olives.

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