THESE days, when just about any topic can provoke a debate, you can add bread pudding to the list.
How is that possible, you might wonder, with something so homey and comforting and, well, inert? Blame it on the chefs. They’ve taken this beloved dessert and tweaked and twisted it into so many variations that sometimes it’s hard to tell that it’s bread pudding at all.
Take a look at some of the town’s top restaurants -- bread pudding shows up on almost every menu. And, truth be told, there are some fascinating variations. Cinch in Santa Monica serves a rum-raisin bread-and-butter pudding topped with banana ice cream. There’s a vanilla brioche pudding with caramel sauce at Zazou in Redondo Beach. At the Grill on the Alley in Beverly Hills, the bread pudding is made with sourdough bread, chocolate chips and whiskey sauce. Then there’s the over-the-top version by Jan Purdy, pastry chef at Max in Sherman Oaks, who bakes her own brioche, brownies and chocolate cake only to cut them up into a pudding layered with chocolate chips, hazelnut streusel, a caramel sauce and a vanilla cream sauce laced with Frangelico.
Whew. We made a fair number of the new bread puddings. Dished them up, expected to hear contented sighs. Hah. Every last one had its fierce defenders and insistent detractors. This is a food that apparently inspires nursery-bred loyalty (texture was a big point of contention -- the custardy-smooths versus the slightly chewies).
In the end, three very different recipes emerged as the overall favorites. One is made with crusty croissants and chocolate, another with French bread and caramel and a third with baguettes, polenta and a couple of luscious sauces. They’re all terrific in their own right -- just stay away from any discussion of what makes true bread pudding.
The chocolate-croissant version at Pinot Bistro in Studio City is so popular that customers practically rioted when it was dropped from the menu. The pudding was back the next day. “It’s our signature dessert,” says chef Miki Zivkovic. “It’s very straightforward. The croissants stick out a little bit, so when we bake them they become very crunchy.”
Pinot’s pudding is laced with chunks of bittersweet chocolate, and finished with a sauce that contains Wild Turkey Liqueur, one of the few liqueurs that are made with bourbon. “It’s an excellent combination,” says Zivkovic, who credits Joachim Splichal with the recipe.
Xiomara Ardolina, owner of the restaurants Cafe Atlantic and Xiomara in Pasadena, serves a bread pudding at Cafe Atlantic inspired by her mother’s budin diplomatico (or, diplomatic pudding -- now there’s a concept). Havana-born Ardolina explains that years ago, the premium hostess gift in Cuba was not a bottle of wine but something far more precious -- canned fruit cocktail. Her mother would put the fruit into bread pudding, which made it so distinguished it was called diplomatico. The Cafe Atlantic version is baked in a caramelized pan and contains raisins instead of fruit cocktail.
Traxx Restaurant at Union Station serves Christian de la Vara’s baguette and polenta pudding sweetened with Frangelico and honey. Dark Belgian chocolate sauce drips down the sides of the individual puddings onto a pool of creme anglaise.
“I was playing around and came out with the result I liked,” De la Vara says. Adding polenta was “something I did on a whim, and it seemed to work. It gives a little extra texture that a normal bread pudding is missing.”
Thrifty housewives once relied on bread pudding to use up stale bread. These chefs bake their own brioche, French bread and croissants for what’s now a high-end dessert. Yet stale bread isn’t scorned in all quarters. Alex Pena, head baker at La Morenita Bakery in Cypress Park, insists on it for the Mexican bread pudding called budin. “It acts like a sponge,” he says. “Fresh bread doesn’t take up the custard as well.”
Innocuous it may seem, but bread pudding has been the center of some dramatic events, and not just foodie disputes. Navraj Singh of Tantra restaurant tells the story of a military cadet in northern India who so loved the pudding served at his academy that he swam an icy river to get back before the other cadets ate it all. Unfortunately, he perished en route. That may be an extreme example, but it shows that for die-hard dessert lovers, not bread, but bread pudding is the staff of life.