Any follower of practical gastronomy can easily draw a connecting line between the baking of bread and bread pudding. Bread on hand eventually means stale bread, and our ancestors were rarely likely to waste it. Sopping it with milk, some sort of sweetener and eventually fat (usually butter) seems a logical explanation for how we arrived at one of the simplest of desserts that’s become so popular this time of year.
Connecting the dots – or in this case, bread crumbs – doesn’t begin to describe its myriad transformations over the centuries, or – perhaps more important – how beloved it’s become. Bread pudding has been fattening happy tummies in one mode or another for a very long time.
“It is safe to assume that from the very distant past cooks have sometimes turned stale bread into a sweet pudding,” writes author Alan Davidson in “The Oxford Companion to Food” (Oxford University Press, 1999), as proof of the pudding.
The custom, according to Davidson, probably started with the popularity of sopping, where bread is used as a way of soaking up anything left on the plate, or as a vessel for soups and stews. The custardy clan that includes bread pudding extends to hasty pudding and plum pudding, too – distant cousins that are all considered particularly English in origin. Indeed, bread pudding conjures old English market scenes rife with cloved oranges hanging over baskets of nuts and dried fruits, straight out of Dickens.
The Colonists brought versions of it from their homelands, and even though its prudent utilization is present in countless cultures, from Mexico’s capirotada to Egyptian om ali, bread pudding has become as American as apple pie. It’s the sweet end to a meal in New Orleans, where its rich, French-inspired custard is bathed in whiskey sauce. Or the “brood met appelen” (bread and apples) of Dutch Americans who settled across Western Pennsylvania and the Midwest. Where there was bread, there was usually bread pudding.
Early Americans took a great liking to it, perhaps because of its innate frugality. It was practical; it served a purpose: It used what was on hand. And it just so happened to taste good.
Eventually prosperity (and creative cooks) began enhancing bread pudding with the addition of anything from dried fruits and nuts to fresh fruit, most commonly apples, but peaches, cherries and plums are often used in summer. The bread used changed from stale leftovers to lavish brioche, or rich challah. Early spices of nutmeg and cinnamon are aggrandized with cardamom, allspice, even chilies and pepper.
But while there’s virtually no wrong way to flavor it, there are some caveats to baking it:
Bread pudding is technically a custard (it’s rich in eggs and cream or milk, sometimes both), so it should be baked in a low oven (300 to 325 degrees Farenheit). Most recipes won’t call for a water bath, but it’s practical to use one for even, gentle heating, especially in a convection oven. If your bread pudding is baking too dry, try a water bath as the first fix.
To create the creamiest marriage between the custard and the bread, the milk (or cream and milk) should be heated before “sopping” the bread with it. This allows the bread to better absorb the milk. Once the milk is added, letting the bread and milk sit and soak for anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes will create a creamy, soft custard.
Some recipes will call for tempering the eggs or egg yolks with the scalding milk, then adding this liaison to the bread. Others heat the milk and add the eggs separately. Either way, take care not to burn the yolks with the hot milk.
If your recipe calls for dried fruit, plump it in warm water for at least 30 minutes, then drain, before using it. Better yet, macerate the fruit in whiskey or Grand Marnier overnight to plump. This way the fruits won’t dry out the pudding.
Use a superior vanilla extract in all custards, or use a vanilla bean if desired (infuse it in the milk as it heats, then scrape the bean). Don’t kid yourself: The vanilla used will make a big difference in the flavor of the final custard.
Coupling a bread pudding with whipped cream, ice cream and whiskey or caramel sauce (or all of the above, and why not?) elevates the experience even more, transforming what was once an appropriation of kitchen scraps into a modern indulgence, perfect – and easy – for holiday gatherings.
Create your own special bread pudding with our master recipe. You can also try a variation based on leftover biscuits or the classic Dutch Brood Met Appelen.
Bread Pudding Master Recipe
This is a basic bread pudding that can use any kind of bread, but let it stale overnight for better results. (To stale, leave slices or cubes spread out on a baking pan in the oven overnight.) Keep in mind that the heavier the bread, the heavier the pudding. Add dried fruits, bourbon or whiskey, or toss in a handful of chocolate chips for variations.
East Texas Biscuit Pudding
My mother’s rural upbringing in East Texas during the 1920s and ’30s has made for many a great recipe to be handed down in our family. This one utilizes leftover biscuits – a staple – with cocoa when it was available. I’ve formalized the tradition into a recipe, but my grandmother made it from sight, taste and memory. The pudding is moist, but not cloyingly sweet, so it pairs wonderfully with warm Vanilla Sauce (see recipe).
This quick sauce is a classic to dress up any bread pudding. Adding bourbon gives it an extra kick.
Brood Met Appelen (Bread with Apples)
Adapted from one of my most treasured cookbooks, “The United States Regional Cookbook” (Book Production Industries, 1947), this recipe is from the Michigan Dutch section of cookery. Frying the bread in the butter before soaking gives the pudding an almost caramelized, French toast flavor. Add a “nip” of bourbon for a festive touch.