Rarely does my husband, Drake, pass up a chance to order bread pudding in a restaurant. To me, that’s like ordering a hamburger. Really, I always think, how hard is that to make at home? I’ll opt for a tart or soufflé, something I’m unlikely to try in my own kitchen. And yet, I always end up eating half of his dessert.
This happened recently at a restaurant in Flagstaff, Arizona, called Criollo Latin Kitchen. Drake ordered apple-cranberry bread pudding. I couldn’t keep my fork away from his plate.
Because I grew up eating in New Orleans where bread pudding appeared on most restaurant menus, I assumed the dessert originated in France. In fact, it originated in 12th-century England. Sometimes called bread and butter pudding, white pot or hasty pudding, it was then, as now, a way to use leftover bread.
Any kind of bread will do, from brioche to rough European-style bread to hamburger buns. Last year, this column featured a holiday bread pudding made with panettone – an easy, delicious version with nuts and dried fruits already built into the bread. Whatever bread is used, it needs to be dry. If the bread is not already stale, toast it in the oven. Otherwise, the pudding will be too squishy.
New Orleans restaurants offer inventive variations of this simple dessert: Tujague’s rendition incorporates bananas and banana liqueur; Antoine’s features pecans, cinnamon and raisins with a caramel rum sauce. The mother of all bread puddings, as well as the most complicated to make, is Commander’s Palace’s stunning bread pudding soufflé, featured in the restaurant’s eponymous cookbook. This one requires leaving the table to make at the last minute, but if you want to impress your guests, it’s worth the effort.
On the other hand, Criollo’s bread pudding can be made hours before serving. This time of year you can substitute pears for apples or use a mixture of both. In summer, try it with peaches or plums. Warm up leftovers for a tasty breakfast. The extra sauce won’t be wasted either. Spoon it over vanilla ice cream.
The recipe below isn’t Criollo’s, which is known only to its chef. It’s my version using a very basic bread pudding formula. You can vary it in dozens of ways to suit your own tastes. The spice in Criollo’s pudding tasted slightly unfamiliar, most likely Mexican cinnamon, which I haven’t found in local groceries. To give it a similarly mysterious aromatic quality, I added a pinch of cardamom. It’s magical.
Apple Bread Pudding with Brown Sugar Sauce
12 cups French bread or ciabatta, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 Tbsp. salted butter
3 large apples, peeled, cut into ½-inch pieces
¼ cup light brown or white sugar
½ tsp. cinnamon
¼ tsp. cardamom
Pinch of nutmeg
¼ cup rum or brandy
Optional: ½ cup dried cranberries or raisins, soaked in hot water for ½ hour
4 large eggs, beaten
3 cups milk or half-and-half
¾ cup white sugar
Pinch of salt
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2-3 Tbsp. salted butter, melted
Sweetened whipped cream for serving
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Spread the bread cubes on a large rimmed baking sheet and toast for about 15 minutes, until dry. Let cool.
Meanwhile, in a large skillet, melt 2 tablespoons of butter. Add the apples and ¼ cup white or light brown sugar to the skillet and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the apples are golden and softened, about 15 minutes. Stir in the spices and liquor of choice. Cook another minute or so until juices thicken a bit.
Butter an 8×11 baking dish. Add the bread and apples to the dish, mixing to distribute apples (and cranberries or raisins, if using) evenly.
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs with the milk, vanilla, ¾ cup white sugar and pinch of salt.
Pour the egg-milk mixture into the pan. Let stand for at least 15 minutes to allow the bread to absorb the liquid, pushing the bread down if needed.
Drizzle 2 to 3 tablespoons melted butter on top and bake at 350 F for about 50 minutes, or until set.
Serve pudding warm with whipped cream and brown sugar sauce (see below). Serves 12-14.
Brown Sugar Sauce
1 cup heavy cream
1 ½ cups light brown sugar
Pinch of salt
3 Tbsp. salted butter
2 Tbsp. rum or brandy
1 tsp. vanilla
In a medium saucepan, bring the cream to a simmer. Add brown sugar and salt and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat and add remaining ingredients, stirring well until the sauce is smooth.