Mardi Gras is just around the corner, so this is a great time to practice your bread pudding skills. This is a very generic recipe — no dried fruit or other fillings or flavorings. You can take the general ratio from this and turn it into whatever you want. Try adding fruit, chocolate or even roasted root vegetables in the fall.
Making bread pudding is a way to utilize stale bread — the drier the bread, the better. Dry bread allows more of the custard to soak in. If you have ever dealt with old bread, you know the hard stuff is not easy to cut. Wrap the bread with a damp paper towel for a few minutes, unwrap it and then put the bread into the oven for a few minutes. It will be warm and much easier to cut. You can also wrap hard bread with a damp paper towel and microwave for 10 seconds at a time until it becomes soft. If you are using fresh bread for your pudding, it helps to dry the diced bread in the oven for 10 minutes to allow more custard to be absorbed.
There are many different ways to make the custard for bread pudding. The two main components are eggs and dairy products. Some recipes use only cream for a thicker custard or milk for a thinner custard. Egg yolks will make richer custard; egg whites or whole eggs yield an airier custard.
Most custards contain sugar, but it is not mandatory. Savory bread puddings with root vegetables are great for fall. The sweeter the custard, the more eggs needed to thicken. Sugar inhibits the coagulation of the eggs; savory custard requires only a quarter to half the amount of eggs to thicken. There are many different ways of introducing the custard to the bread. Some cooks temper the eggs into the hot cream, then mix into the bread. This will create smoother custard that cooks quickly. I prefer to mix all of the custard ingredients while cold, then mix with the bread. It won’t cook as fast, but this method allows quicker assembly.
Custards need to bake at a low temperature; too high and too fast and you will have scrambled eggs. How to cook and how long depends on the size and depth of the pan you are using. When making bread pudding, think of the final outcome before choosing a pan. If you want the pudding dry and dense, spread it out onto a large pan, making the mixture as thin as possible. This works well if you are going to break the bread pudding up later to use in another recipe like bread pudding soufflé, or you want it to be a firmer component of a plated dessert. If you want your pudding light and moist, cook it in a smaller, deeper pan. You will need to cook it slowly to cook evenly; some prefer to cook it in a water bath. The pan with the bread pudding is inserted into a larger pan that is filled half to three-quarters full with water, which helps the pudding cook evenly. I prefer to put the bread pudding into a medium-depth pan and cook at 275 to 300 degrees until the custard has just started to set, but remains slightly runny. That way, when it is removed it will carry-over cook the center (continue cooking off of the residual heat) and stay incredibly moist.
The sauce is a very important component. This pulls the dish together. There are many different ways to make a bread pudding sauce. One thing I like to consider is when the bread pudding will be eaten. If you are making the bread pudding for a dinner or event and the entire pan will be eaten at once, I like an emulsified sauce such as one from the recipe that follows. It does not hold or reheat well, but if done correctly, it is delicious.
Another variety is a sweetened cream sauce. It will hold and reheat well (recipe follows). It works especially well if you plan to eat some of the bread pudding when you cook it and snack on the rest later.
8 to 12 servings
2 baguettes cut in to large cubes (about 20 ounces fresh bread, 15 ounces dried bread)
6 large eggs
2 cups cream
2 cups milk
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 pinch salt
Dice bread. If using new bread, dry in oven at 300 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes. Whisk rest of ingredients together. Place bread into a 9-by-13-inch pan and pour custard over bread. Mix bread into custard and let sit for 5 to 10 minutes. Mix bread into custard again and place into a 275-degree oven for 30 to 45 minutes.
When done, the custard should just start to set in the center (jiggle all at once). Remove pan from oven and allow to cool slightly. The bread pudding can be served warm or cooled, refrigerated and served at another time.
Emulsified Whiskey Sauce
½ cup whiskey or bourbon (can substitute 2 tablespoons vanilla and 3 ounces water)
1 cup sugar
2 egg yolks
½ pound butter diced
Put whiskey, sugar and salt into a saucepan. Bring to a simmer; slowly whisk an ounce or so of hot mixture into yolks to temper. Whisk yolks back into saucepan and bring to a simmer again. Remove from heat and allow to cool for about 5 minutes. Place 1 or 2 ounces of butter into the saucepan at a time, whisking continuously to emulsify. Repeat until all butter is mixed into the sauce. Serve sauce with bread pudding as desired. If you need to warm it, do so over extremely low heat while whisking continuously.
Whiskey Cream Sauce
1 cup cream
½ cup sugar
2 ounces whiskey or bourbon (can substitute 2 tablespoons vanilla)
2 tablespoons cornstarch slurry (2 tablespoons cornstarch with 2 tablespoons water, mixed to the consistency of skim milk)
Mix cream and sugar in small sauce pot; bring to a simmer. Add whiskey, and slowly whisk cornstarch slurry until sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Sauce can be used immediately or cooled and warmed when needed.
Brook Harlan is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He is a culinary arts instructor at the Columbia Area Career Center.