Given its genesis from leftovers, bread pudding is essentially a humble dessert, but it's easy to make it decadent, with add-ins and flavorings. The seemingly endless variations are part of the fun of making bread puddings. With one basic recipe you can create a comforting treat for your family, or you can jazz it up for a richer dessert suitable for guests.
Below I share my easy step-by-step method for making bread pudding. There’s a bit of planning involved in that the puddings are soaked overnight before baking, but the actual time spent prepping this dessert is minimal. A few other tricks will help make this dessert a simple and irresistible one that you’ll want to make over and over.
Yields one 9x13-inch bread pudding; serves twelve.
Prep the bread
Bread is the heart of this pudding, so choose something you love. If you start with a chewy French bread, your pudding will have a little more heft and texture than if you use a delicate brioche or croissant, but it’s mostly a matter of personal preference. Regardless of what you choose, it’s important that the bread be a little stale, so that it more readily absorbs the custard base, making your final product much more tender and flavorful.
Cut 10 cups of 1-inch cubes from your chosen bread (see options below). You'll need to start with about 1 lb. of bread, depending on the type. Leave the out uncovered to dry overnight.
Choose your bread (you'll need about 1 lb.)
Make the custard
Heating the half-and-half before mixing it into the eggs and sugar ensures that the final base will be thoroughly combined and the sugar will be totally dissolved. It also allows any flavorings that are enhanced by heat (such as vanilla bean) to steep in the custard base. Just be sure to whisk the hot half-and-half slowly into the sugar and egg mixture; if you add it too quickly you run the risk of scrambling your eggs.
Before starting, be sure that you have prepped your optional custard flavorings (see options below) and that you know when to add them.
In a large heatproof bowl, whisk 7 large egg yolks and 3 large eggs. Slowly whisk in 1 cup granulated sugar and 1 tsp. table salt until thoroughly combined.
Pour 6 cups half-and-half into a medium saucepan. Split 1 half vanilla bean and scrape the seeds into the half-and-half (if you prefer, you can use vanilla extract, but don't add it just yet). Add the scraped bean to the pan, too. Heat over medium-high heat until steaming but not bubbling.
Slowly whisk the half-and-half into the egg mixture until thoroughly combined. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve into a large Pyrex measuring cup or heatproof bowl. If you didn't use a vanilla bean already, add 1 Tbs. pure vanilla extract to the custard.
Choose a custard flavoring (optional)
Almond: Add 1-1/2 tsp. almond extract to the strained custard.
Chocolate: Add 2 cups chopped bittersweet chocolate to the hot half-and-half. Whisk to melt.
Coffee: Add 2 tsp. instant espresso powder to the hot half-and-half. Whisk to dissolve.
Add 1/2 cup finely chopped fresh ginger to the half-and-half before
heating. After heating, let steep off the heat for 10 minutes before
adding to the eggs.
Lemon: Add the finely grated zest of 3 lemons to
the half-and-half before heating. Whisk the juice from 3 lemons (about
1/2 cup) into the strained custard.
Pumpkin: Whisk 1-1/4 cups pure
canned pumpkin, 1 tsp. ground cinnamon, and 1/4 tsp. freshly grated
nutmeg into the strained custard.
Rum: Increase the sugar by 1/4 cup and add 1/3 cup dark rum to the strained custard.
Soak the bread
If you have time, the pudding benefits from an overnight soak before baking. The longer it sits, the more thoroughly the custard soaks into the bread, giving you great texture and loads of flavor.
Put the bread cubes in a 9x13-inch baking dish and pour the custard on top. Make sure the bread is as submerged in the custard as possible and let cool at room temperature for about an hour. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 5 and up to 24 hours.
Fold in the add-ins
Add-ins boost the flavor and texture of your bread pudding, but don’t go overboard: more than two and they’ll overwhelm the velvety custard.
If you’re including add-ins (see options below), transfer the bread mixture to a large mixing bowl and gently fold in the add-ins just before baking. Return the mixture to the baking dish.
Choose one or two add-ins (optional)
bananas: 2, thinly sliced
toasted sweetened, shredded coconut: 1-1/2 cups
fresh or frozen berries: 3-1/2 cups (blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, or a mix)
toasted coarsely chopped pecans: 1-1/2 cups
chopped bittersweet or semisweet chocolate: 1 cup
chopped dried apricots: 1 cup, soaked in very hot water for 30 minutes and drained thoroughly
golden raisins: 1 cup, soaked in very hot water for 30 minutes and drained thoroughly
1/2 cup chopped crystallized ginger
Bake and serve the pudding
Many custards are baked in a water bath, to protect eggs from overcooking and curdling, but for ease and simplicity, I bake bread puddings directly in the oven at a very low temperature—around 325ºF. Because the puddings are so full of bread and are baked slowly, they do take a long time in the oven—nearly two hours. But you can bake them before dinner and serve them just barely warm.
Cover the pudding loosely with foil and bake at 325ºF for 70 minutes. Remove the foil and continue to bake until no liquid custard is visible when you poke a small hole in the center with a paring knife, 20 to 40 minutes more, depending on the type of custard and add-ins.
Let the pudding cool on a rack. Serve warm, at room temperature, or chilled, with a dollop of whipped cream, if desired.