by Kara Johnson
Growing up in New Orleans mandates a love affair with bread pudding. I don’t remember the first time I ate it, but my grandmother made one of the best I’ve ever tasted. If food is love, (and I know that some part of it is), we were most certainly cared for and treasured by my grandmother. Born Evelina, she shortened her name to Evelyn, and we called her Nina. After school, my cousins and I would all go to my great grandparents’ home in the 7th Ward. The house was a double shotgun, renovated into a single, located caddy-corner to Valena C. Jones Elementary School. It was the gathering place for my family. Nina would have the most amazing dinners waiting for us, and they always included my favorite part of any meal, the dessert. Chocolate covered turtles, Strawberry shortcake, peach cobbler, pound cake, all made from scratch. My grandmother is my inspiration. It is my desire to share with you the love I felt growing up. Every evening I looked forward to seeing my family and anticipated the wonderful delights I knew Nina would have waiting. The world needs to have a good plate of bread pudding with whisky sauce every once in a while. I’m convinced it would go a long way toward creating world peace.
When I researched the origins of bread pudding, I was fascinated to learn that it can be savory or sweet. In Louisiana, it’s primarily a dessert, made with stale bread, milk, vanilla and a host of other good things. Food historians believe bread pudding dates back to the early 11th century. Known as the poor man’s pudding in 13th century London, bread pudding has humble beginnings. A dish originally created so as not to waste food, it has become a staple around the world and can actually be quite fancy.
I stumbled across the blog of bread pudding enthusiast, Portia Little. She’s known as the Queen of Bread Pudding and is certainly the premier connoisseur on this matter. She calls it the ultimate comfort food. Please visit her blog “Bread Pudding All Day”, for every kind of bread pudding you can imagine, from sweet halloween holiday specials mixed with miniature chocolate snickers bars, twix and other popular All Hallows Eve treats, to savory meals using sausage, cheese and onion.
Locally, some bread pudding desserts include coconut shavings and or fruit cocktail or raisins. Commanders Palace is known for it’s white chocolate bread pudding souffle. And just last week, I had the most amazingly decadent toffee bread pudding at Balise Restaurant. I was initially intent on bringing you the bread pudding that delighted me in my youth, but when I saw all the variations, I have to admit I was intrigued and my mouth literally watered when I read of some of the savory versions. I feel that along with my grandmother’s bread pudding, I must also bring you a recipe for one of the savory dishes I never knew existed, but was compelled to try. I picked the Croque Monsieur Savory Bread Pudding found on the Salt & Wind website.
There are literally thousands of different takes on this once simple dish. I discussed my findings with a friend, very excited to share what I learned and was surprised by the response I received. He simply could not accept that bread pudding can be savory. “Maybe that’s a stuffing or possibly quiche, but it’s not bread pudding,” he reasoned. Well, I’ll let you be the judge. Please explore and experiment and let me know what you discover.
NINA’S BREAD PUDDING WITH WHISKY SAUCE:
1 Stale loaf of Leidenheimer French bread
(If bread is not already stale, leave out over night or place in oven heated to 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 minutes.)
1 stick of butter
3 large eggs
2 tablespoons of vanilla extract
3 cups of evaporated milk
3 cups of water
1 cup of granulated sugar
1 cup of raisins
(Soak the raisins overnight in whisky. My grandmother preferred bourbon and that’s what I’m using for this recipe. If you don’t want to use alcohol, use water. It’s important to soak the raisins so they become plump before baking.)
Set the mood: “Ella and Louis”, an album by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong is what you should listen to. A strong cup of coffee with chicory is perfect with this dessert.
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and grease your baking pan. The pan should be 9″ x 13″ x 2″ deep. Break the French bread into thick chunks. Fill a bowl with water and place the chunks of bread into the water. Let sit for 5 minutes, then remove the bread and with your hands, squeeze out the excess water and place on the side. Next use a large bowl and add the water, milk and vanilla together. Now add the sugar. You can taste it to determine if you’d like it to be sweeter and add more sugar, if necessary. The stick of butter should be soft/room temperature and beaten together with the eggs. Add them to the water, milk, sugar and vanilla. Whisk all the ingredients together.
Drain the raisins and add them to the mixture. Stir well. The bread is the last ingredient you will add. Again, stir all the ingredients together, then pour the bread pudding into the baking pan. Make sure the bread is completely covered by the liquid. Place in oven and bake 40-50 minutes. (After 40 minutes, you can test whether the pudding is done by sticking a knife in the middle. If the knife is clean when you pull it out, your bread pudding is ready!)
1 soft stick of butter
1 cup of sugar
1 cup of whisky. My grandmother preferred bourbon.
Using a hand blender, mix the butter and sugar together until perfectly whipped and light and fluffy. Add the bourbon in slowly while continuing to blend the sauce.
CROQUE MONSIEUR SAVORY BREAD PUDDING:
Is there anything better than a great ham and cheese sandwich? Well, if there ever was a contender, I’d say it’d be this recipe for Croque Monsieur Savory Bread Pudding. Or Strata. Or whatever the heck you want to call it. This recipe is basically a giant deconstructed Croque Monsieur (aka ham, cheese, French Bread, and all things delicious). With caramelized onions, fresh thyme, nutty cheese, and all sorts of toasty, crunchy bits, it’s make ahead and easy to put together, which makes it pretty much perfect for lazy days and long brunches that I can only hope make up your New Year celebrations.
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
plus extra for coating pan
1 yellow onion
roughly chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
4 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon roughly chopped fresh thyme leaves
plus one teaspoon for garnish
8 large eggs
1 1/2 cups half-and-half
2 tablespoons Dijon Mustard
1/2 teaspoon hot sauce
plus more for garnish
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 pound loaf French bread
stale or toasted, cut into 1-inch dice
2 cups shredded Gruyere cheese
(about 4.5 ounces)
1 pound Canadian Bacon
cut into 1/2-inch dice
1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
(about 1 ounce)
Set the mood: Sarah Vaughan’s compilation “Young Sassy”. Jazz standards go great with brunch, and Ms. Vaughan’s silky, sultry, voice is a perfect way to ease into the day. I suggest serving this with a pineapple mimosa made of equal parts champagne and pineapple juice. Sweet and savory are always a winning combination.
Coat a 2-quart (about 11-by-7-inch) baking dish with butter and set aside. Place a large frying pan over medium heat and add butter. When it foams, add onion, season with salt, stir, and cook until just softened, about 3 to 4 minutes Add garlic, season with salt and pepper, and cook until beginning to soften and fragrant, about 1 minute. Remove from heat and stir in thyme.
Whisk eggs, half-and-half, mustard, hot sauce, and salt in a large bowl until evenly combined. Arrange half of the bread in bottom of prepared dish. Sprinkle with 1 cup of the Gruyere and half each of onion mix and ham. Repeat layering with remaining bread, onion mixture, ham, and Gruyere cheese. Pour egg mixture over top.
Push to ensure bread is submerged in egg custard, cover with plastic wrap, put a plate and a 1-pound weight on top (a large can of tomatoes or rice in a re-sealable plastic bag works well), place in refrigerator for 3 to 12 hours.
When ready to bake, heat oven to 325°F and arrange rack in the middle. Let strata sit at room temperature while oven heats, at least 20 minutes. Bake for 20 minutes, then increase temperature to 375°F. Sprinkle parmesan over the strata and bake for another 15 to 20 minutes until puffed and edges pull away slightly. Remove from oven and sprinkle over remaining thyme. Cool for at least 5 minutes before serving. Serve with hot sauce on the side.
Footnotes: From “saltandwind.com”