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.
Wild Turkey sauce
In a small saucepan, Combine the milk, vanilla bean and seeds in a saucepan. Bring just to a boil. Remove from the heat; infuse for 5 minutes, then strain.
In an electric mixer or with a whisk, beat the egg yolks with the sugar until pale and thickened. Pour about one-fourth of the hot milk into the egg yolk mixture and mix until well combined, then return the yolk mixture to the pan with the rest of the milk and stir constantly over medium low heat until thickened. Do not allow to boil. Strain into a clean pan and add the liqueur. Chill.
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the croissant halves on a baking sheet and toast until golden brown, about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool. Break into half-inch pieces and set aside.
Heat the cream with the vanilla bean in a saucepan over medium low heat until it just simmers. Remove from the heat; infuse for 5 minutes. Remove vanilla bean.
In a medium mixing bowl, whisk the egg yolks and sugar together until pale and thickened. Gradually whisk the warm cream into the egg yolks, then return to a clean saucepan. Over medium low heat, bring the mixture to just below a boil, stirring constantly until thickened, about 8 minutes. Immediately remove from heat.
Combine the croissant pieces and chopped chocolate in a bowl. Divide mixture evenly among 6 (8-ounce) ramekins. Spoon the warm custard over the mixture, pressing down with a fork to be sure all the pieces of croissant are soaked.
Place the ramekins in a roasting pan and pour in enough very hot water to come halfway up their sides. Bake at 350 degrees, until just set, 25 to 30 minutes. At this stage, the puddings can be cooled and refrigerated for several hours or overnight.
Before serving, place in a 400-degree oven and heat for 4 to 5 minutes, or until warm throughout. Dust the top of each warm pudding with a little powdered sugar and serve with chilled sauce.
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