The results of my "comfort dessert" survey are in and it appears that Bread Pudding remains the stepchild of desserts, the bastard at the family reunion, a dessert with humble origins but with so much potential. Bread Pudding need not feel ashamed among the glossy ganache laden Chocolate Cake, the towering Croquembouche, the charming Pavlova, or the ostentatious Black Forest Torte. No, it must stand tall and proud, ultimately outshining its pretentious fellow desserts with its genuine intentions and warm approach. Originally devised in England as a way to use up leftover stale bread, Bread Pudding now shows up on the menus of many upscale restaurants, making it a legitimate and welcome member of the dessert cart.
My former husband was repelled by the very mention of Bread Pudding. When he was a youngster, he attended a Catholic military grammar school for boys run by nuns (yes, you read that correctly). As it so happens, I was educated through grammar school and prep school by the very same congregation of sisters, although my educational experience was normal - at least in a Catholic school sort of way. Beginning in about the fourth grade, whenever any of the boys in my class would act mischievious, the nuns would threaten to send them to their military school 25 miles away. Sometimes we'd acquire a new teacher who had taught at said military school, and we'd be frightened to death. "Sister Mary Eva Braun taught at St. John the Terrifying so you had better watch out!" Yikes!
When I met my then husband-to-be and we were going through the requisite disclosure of our respective childhoods, his attendance at the military school was unveiled (he's the youngster to the right of the priest) I was mesmerized. At last I'd get the real story, a behind-the-scenes revelation of what actually happened at this gulag. It was like seeing something you weren't supposed to see (like the convent laundry room). I discovered that these poor kids had to go to school six days a week! They had some sort of military drills on Saturday mornings that were commanded by a retired United States Army General, which I think was followed by chopping rocks. Our nuns were strict and God knows we had better tow the line and show up for First Friday Mass, but drill instruction? No way.
Meals at the military academy were undoubtedly designed to quash one's spirit. According to my former spouse, this was no more apparent than in the Bread Pudding - a grey and soggy mass of questionable origin. A spurious "dessert" crafted to remind the children that they must indeed do penance to pay for their sins. I decided when we married that this was a past that could not be overcome, a mountain that I could not hope to scale.
I baked cookies and cakes and pies and muffins. I prepared Chocolate Mousse and Raspberry Roulades. I frosted and whipped and plated - but I did not dare wander into the land of Bread Pudding. Years later, after we had divorced, I had a small family gathering to celebrate my daughter's birthday. We had Basque Chicken and I fashioned a tall and impressive cake with a mountain of buttercream and snowy flaked coconut. As the chicken dish already had potatoes, I pondered the realm of possible side dishes. I came across a Savory Bread Pudding with mushrooms, artichoke hearts and strips of red bell pepper. Like a Breakfast Strata, it could be prepared the night before and refrigerated and then just popped in the oven the next day. Perfect! I told my guests it was a "Souffle" whose origins were in Orléans, France. My former husband had been stationed there while in the army and was taken with the town (home to "Joanie on the Pony" - his humorous reference to St. Joan of Arc). Success! The "Souffle" was gobbled up with gusto. Could he have a second helping? Why certainly - have all you like! Back in the 50s, my mother used to serve Beef Stroganoff at dinner parties. Her secred ingredient? Anchovy paste! An infintisimal amount designed to enrich the sauce. Mom never told anyone - not even my father (I was sworn to secrecy) and there were never any leftovers. Lesson learned.
Bread Pudding is one of my favorite desserts. This is evidenced by the fact that I have 57 dedicated recipes for this comforting sweet - all kept in its own special file. All are fantasic. Some have dried apricots, others use cherries or blueberries. Some are graced with a generous dose of Chinese cinnamon (cassia) and raisins and others use pumpkin puree or cranberries. There are a few that contain chunks of chocolate - dark, milk, or white and still others that are swirled with tart lemon curd. One is full of apples and walnuts and ribboned with caramel. Some are served in squares, others in individual white porcelein ramekins. My favorite way of serving Bread Pudding is spooned directly out of a deep gratin dish. They are all rich with eggs, whole milk, and cream and almost all of them are intended to be christened with some sort of boozy sauce - Whiskey, Rum, Cognac, Grand Mariner, Kirsch, or Framboise. Perhaps if the good nuns at St. John the Terrifying had managed a little Whiskey Sauce, everyone would have been a little happier, Saturday drills would have eliminated, and Bread Pudding would have been a Thursday night regular at our house.
BREAD PUDDING WITH BLUEBERRIES AND GRAND MARINER SAUCE
1 large 2-day-old challah or day-old French bread (about 8 ounces)
2 tablespoons soft unsalted butter (for buttering the gratin dish)
2 cups half-and-half
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 cup buttermilk
6 large eggs
1 cup sugar
zest of one medium orange (colored part only)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 teaspoons pure orange extract
1/4 teaspoon non-iodized salt
2 cups fresh or Individually Quick Frozen* blueberries, divided (see note)
Preheat the oven to 350°. Cut the bread into 1/2 cubes and spread them on a baking sheet. Toast the bread until light golden brown, about 20 minutes - tossing the bread around with a spatula after 10 minutes. Leave the oven at 350° if you plan to bake the bread pudding within an hour.
Generously butter a 2-1/2-quart gratin dish. In a large bowl, whisk together the half-and-half, cream, eggs, sugar, orange rind, extracts and salt. Add the bread cubes and 1 cup of the blueberries and toss together gently with a large spoon. Transfer to the gratin dish and refrigerate for 1 hour and up to 8 hours so that the bread soaks up the liquid.
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350°. Cover the pan with aluminum foil (preferably nonstick foil) and place the dish in a larger pan such as a roasting pan. Pour in enough hot water (from a tea kettle) to reach about an inch. Bake the pudding in the water bath (bain-marie) for about 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake another 10 minutes until the pudding is set. Remove the pudding from the larger pan very carefully with oven mitts so as not to burn yourself. Let the pudding rest for 10-15 minutes before serving with the sauce. The pudding can be cut into squares or spooned out of the baking dish and may be served warm, or at room temperature.
GRAND MARINER SAUCE
1 cup light brown sugar, packed
1-1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
1/3 cup Grand Marinier or Gran Gala Liqueur
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon non-iodized salt
1 cup blueberries
In a heavy medium saucepan, stir together the brown sugar, salt, and cornstarch until well blended. Stir in the cream, orange liqueur, corn syrup and butter. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring all the while and cook for 1 minute. Add the blueberries and cook for another minute or two until the blueberries soften a bit and release their juices. Take the pan off the heat, cover, and let the sauce thicken further for about 10 minutes. Serve with the bread pudding.
Note: Individually Quick Frozen blueberries (IQF), are flash frozen at extremely low temperatures. This gives the blueberry an individual fruit identity. You can tell if blueberries are IQF if they appear separate when you open the bag. Other frozen or canned blueberries will turn the bread pudding an unappetizing greyish color.