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.
For lighter bread puddings with pockets of rich custard, use airy loaves like ciabatta, pugliese, or focaccia.
For weightier bread puddings with a compact texture, choose bread with a tight crumb, such as home-style white bread or challah.
Eggs, milk, and sugar are all it takes, but adding extra yolks and heavy cream delivers richer flavor.
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.