My first taste of bread pudding is lost in fuzzy history, but its sweet, homey spirit managed to make an indelible mark on my memory. This shouldn’t be surprising—after all, bread pudding was never intended to be a striking “oh, mama!” of a dessert but just something delicious that a smart, frugal mom would have made for the family with what was around. And what was around couldn’t have been more humble: good, stale bread saturated with butter, milk, eggs, and sugar and baked to a firm yet giving denseness.
I know some people who like their bread puddings to be bready and weighty; others go for lighter versions that are all about the custard. I’m not opposed to either extreme, but my preference usually falls somewhere in between. I aim for that happy medium where the bread gets wonderfully suffused with custard. This gives you a pudding that’s rich and full-bodied but that doesn’t drag you down.
The bread dictates the style
The bread you choose has a huge effect on the style of your pudding. An opentextured loaf with lots of holes makes a lighter pudding—those random holes become serendipitous little pockets of custard. If you choose a bread like ciabatta or pugliese, a country-style loaf, or a French baguette, which are airy but have good chew, your pudding will strike a satisfying balance between lightness and body.
In contrast, a loaf with a tight crumb makes a compact pudding with a dense texture (and although that may not sound appealing at first, imagine it served in elegantly thin, overlapping slices on a plate and drizzled with whisky sauce). If I want a special party pudding that’s not only rich but also seductively delicate, I choose a light, eggy, and buttery loaf like challah, brioche, or Portuguese sweet bread. Traditional homemade-style white bread makes an excellent pudding with medium body, as long as the bread has some character.
One type of bread I wouldn’t waste my time and ingredients on is inferior factory white bread; like the bread itself, the pudding will be flaccid and gummy.
I’ve tried recipes in old cookbooks for puddings made from just crumbs, but I’ve yet to taste one that provides the sort of toothy satisfaction I’m looking for. Instead, I cut the bread into slices or cubes or rip it into smallish rough chunks. Be sure to cut the bread before it dries out completely; rock-hard bread is difficult to saw into.
Once the bread is dried, butter it well. If you’re working with slices, spread one side with softened butter (or brush or drizzle on melted butter instead). If you’re using cubes, toss them with melted butter or sauté them in butter until their edges toast to a golden color.
The custard is what binds the bread together and creates the pudding’s lusciousness. Milk, eggs, and sugar are its basic elements, but I like to use either heavy cream or sour cream (in addition to milk) for extra richness. The sour cream also adds the barest hint of sourness, not surprisingly, which I really like when the pudding is sweetened with brown sugar.
But the key to a good custard is the eggs since it’s the proteins in them that gel to create a moist, smooth, delicate solid. I like to add extra yolks to the mixture, turning a good custard into a silken one with even richer flavor.
An eggy custard holds it together
Assembling bread pudding couldn’t be easier. Just put the buttered bread in a buttered baking dish and pour the warm custard on top. Other flavorings, like fresh or dried fruit, can be layered in as well (see variations panel). I let the unbaked pudding sit for about half an hour, long enough to let the custard completely soak through the bread. The top layer of bread has a habit of floating above the custard instead of in it, so I help things along by pressing down on the bread a few times during the soak. When you’re ready to bake, all the bread should be swollen and soft, which promises a nice, moist pudding.
As with most baked custards, bread pudding bakes in a hot water bath, which ensures even, slow cooking for a smooth, velvety result. For this, you’ll need a roasting pan, or any pan that’s larger than and at least as deep as the bread pudding pan itself. I get a jumpstart on the water bath by filling the roasting pan one-quarter of the way with hot water and putting it in the heating oven as the pudding soaks. This way, when the pudding is ready to be baked, the hot water bath is ready to go. (When the pudding pan goes in, the water level should rise to about halfway up the sides; if it doesn’t, add more from the tap.)
The pudding is done when the top starts to crust, brown, and puff and when a wooden skewer poked into the center comes out clean. Remove the pudding from the water bath and let it cool just long enough so it’s still warm. You can dress it up with whisky sauce or with your own favorite sauce. I like bread pudding best simply topped with unsweetened whipped cream as cool, luxurious foil.
Delicious variations for your pudding
Here are a few bread pudding variations that you can apply to the recipes (Bittersweet Chocolate Marble Bread Pudding, Browned Apple Bread Pudding, Bread & Butter Pudding with Raisins) or that can form the basis of your own recipe.
• Scatter dried fruit into the buttered pan or toss with bread cubes before adding the custard. Apricots and prunes work well together. If the fruit is dry or chewy, first plump it in simmering water for a few minutes; drain and dry on paper towels. Cut larger fruit into bitesize pieces.
• Tuck fresh fruit between slices of buttered bread. Try pitted, halved cherries, sliced pears, Italian plums, or sautéed apple slices.
• Infuse the custard with a strip of lemon or orange zest. Remove the zest before pouring the custard over the bread.
• Replace the nutmeg and cinnamon in a recipe with a lesser amount of mace or ground ginger, or combine them with a-pinch of cloves for a spiced pudding.
• Sprinkle cinnamon sugar on the buttered bread as you layer the slices in the pan.
• Toss small pieces of crystallized ginger with the bread in the pan.
• Flavor the custard with 1 or 2 Tbs. of liqueur, such as Amaretto, kirsch, or rum.