Built from bread, accomplished easily -- a union of earthy ingredients, a single pan, the heat of the oven -- a bread pudding is a disarmingly simple dish. Yet this unassuming nature hides a wealth of soulful flavors, of satisfying textures, of delicious possibilities. Dip your fork past the burnished crust, into the glorious bready interior, and taste the complex flavors such simplicity can occasion.
And if you need further proof of this pudding, try taking it savory instead of sweet. Because although it’s fantastic as a dessert, the rustic dish really comes into its own when laced with fresh herbs and excellent cheese, or shot through with shallots and bitter greens, even sausage or bacon.
A savory bread pudding may begin with kitchen conservation, but it can end up transforming your whole meal along with those surplus baguettes, leftover ends of sourdough boule and pain rustique.
Bread puddings have long been a thrifty cook’s secret recipe, but they’re a versatile platform for the creative cook too. To the basic ingredients -- kitchen mainstays of bread, milk and eggs -- all you do is add a few ingredients to create a flavor profile that fits your mood, the season and the contents of your refrigerator. Just mix everything up, let the mixture soak for half an hour in a baking dish, then bake it -- and you’ll have an easy, satisfying and surprisingly nuanced dish, a nice side or even a meal on its own.
First you’ll need about eight cups of cubed or torn stale bread. Although you can use most kinds of bread, a basic white or sourdough works best. If you use heartier breads such as whole wheat, rye, pumpernickel or other whole-grain breads, mix them with equal parts basic white to keep the pudding from becoming too dense and heavy.
The whole loaf
Consider the flavors of the bread: A whole wheat will give your pudding a nice, nutty depth, whereas a rye will not only add caraway, but also a good sour note. And use the crust too -- you’re not making finger sandwiches, but a homey dish that gets added texture and flavor from using all parts of the loaf.
Then make a custard-like filling that binds together the ingredients. Although you can simply mix the milk and eggs together, try heating the milk first and adding minced herbs, black pepper or garlic to the pot.
Bring up the mixture to just below a simmer, then take it off the heat and allow it to cool slightly. The flavors will steep while the milk cools down before the eggs are added (which prevents curdling).
While the milk mixture is cooling, grate cheese and saute any vegetables or meat you’d like to put into your bread pudding. You can use whatever cheeses you may have on hand, or a combination of them, again being sure to orchestrate your flavors.
Combine grated Parmesan with some nutty Emmentaler or Swiss, or smoked cheddar with a mild Fontina. Pair Gruyere with fresh corn kernels cooked in brown butter for a rich, heady combination. Or match a subtle goat cheese with wilted dandelion greens and bacon.
Or don’t add cheese. A hearty mixture of sweet Italian sausage and a hefty amount of caramelized fennel doesn’t need anything but a handful of fresh chopped parsley to complete it.
Like many rustic dishes, bread pudding is a very accommodating recipe: You can use many combinations of ingredients as long as you match the flavors and textures, and consider the density of your composition. If you’re using a heavier whole-grain bread, add an extra egg and up the amount of milk.
If your bread is very dry, add more liquid; likewise if you can’t wait until your bread is stale, simply dry it out for a few minutes in your oven. (Freshly baked bread, though glorious in its own right, makes for rather mushy bread pudding.)
When the additional ingredients are ready, whisk the eggs into the cooled milk and combine everything with the bread in a large bowl. Spoon the entire mixture into a buttered baking dish and, while you preheat the oven, let it rest for about 30 minutes. Go make the rest of your dinner or brew a cup of tea.
This is not an insignificant step: For half an hour, the stale bread will absorb the liquids, and the flavors will further blend in the pan.
It’s also, literally, a good indication of how things stand: The custard should coat the bread mixture and cover it when you press down the ingredients. You don’t want the bread to be swimming in custard, but you don’t want it too dry either.
At this stage, you can correct the mixture if you need to, adding a little milk or cream, or stirring in a handful of bread or pouring out a little bit of custard.
Baked to a glorious golden brown, savory bread pudding is a fantastic side to grilled steak or a roast chicken; it’s also perfect served as a main course, with just a simple salad to accompany it.
And if you want a more sophisticated take, simply divide the bread pudding mixture among ramekins and serve your guests individual portions. Or, when the season’s right, add asparagus or ramps, fresh morels or even some shaved truffles into the mix.
After you discover how easy and satisfying bread puddings are, the bits of leftover bread won’t lurk in your kitchen for long.
You may even find yourself buying bread just to make the puddings -- an ironic twist that a baker would surely appreciate.