I admit it. I'm a sucker for leftovers. For some reason they stir my creative juices, inspiring me to great heights in concocting sterling mixtures that either bomb abysmally and are quickly disposed of, or turn out to be so successful that even I am surprised. Rarely is there any middle ground when it comes to recycling food. It either works or it doesn't.
Perhaps my interest in leftovers reflects a peculiar love of the familiar, or maybe it's just that I like foods with comforting flavor. Whichever it is, probably the most irresistible and best of all leftover creations, to me, is bread pudding. When visiting parts of the country where bread puddings are an accepted part of everyday life, I make it a point to let others ooh and ahh over the latest trendy regional culinary offerings while I zero in on these wonderful desserts, both home-style and upscale. I'm always fascinated by the way home cooks as well as professional chefs adeptly handle flavors and textures to produce unforgettable culinary creations.
Thus it was that when attending the Newspaper Food Editors and Writers Assn. conference in New Orleans in October, I gained an unmentionable number of pounds sampling an almost amazing variety of these classic American sweets. None that I tasted were bad. A few were so-so, but the great majority were worth every calorie they added to my frame.
Bread puddings range in style and trendiness from the ultra plain, yet delicious, basic pudding made by Paul Prudhomme's sister Allie to the borderline silly, yet equally delicious, chocolate-cookie version shared by New Orlean cooking school owner/teacher, Joe Cahn.
All essentially are a means of using up stale baked goods. But there are differences in the types of baked goods used. Where the average household may not have a large variety of leftover cookies, pastries and breads, hotels and restaurants often do. And that sort of excess has inspired a number of creative professional Southern chefs to turn out spectacular versions of this frugal recycling of leftovers.
Bread puddings obviously were developed by cooks left with bread too stale and moistureless to eat in ordinary ways. Too cost conscious to simply toss good food away or to feed it to the livestock, someone somewhere came up with the bright idea of soaking the crusty bread with eggs and milk, adding a few seasonings and baking the result. Thus was a great dessert born. I doubt that some of those early cooks would recognize many of today's so-called bread puddings for what they are, but unquestionably they would enjoy them just the same.
In this day of preservatives in foods, it often is difficult to get a loaf of bread to stale. Instead it stays defiantly soft to the end. I once tried to get some bread to stale and let it sit out on the counter for six weeks. Watching what happened to it was fascinating. It finally turned completely black . . . but remained so soft to the touch even Mr. Whipple would have been impressed.
So the first rule for making bread pudding is to be sure to start with a bread (or any other baked product) that contains no preservatives. Otherwise, it will maintain a moisture level that will keep it from properly absorbing the milk and egg mixture that turns it into a pudding.
The recipes on Page 1 show the great variation of treatments given this classic old regional dessert today.
The ultimate basic bread pudding recipe can be found in The Prudhomme Family Cookbook (William Morrow & Co.: $19.95) by renowned New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme and his eleven brothers and sisters. Attributed to Paul's sister Allie and her husband, Etell Fontenot, this is a recipe that the Prudhomme family had on Sundays and special occasions.
Although Allie Fontenot indicates in the book that such goodies as raisins, nuts and even coconut could be added to the plain pudding to give it more oomph, she admits that she likes it plain. When tested without any additions in The Times test kitchen, her unadulterated version won kudos with all tasters. Some things just don't need improvement.
The other end of the bread pudding spectrum is the light and airy souffled pudding that is served with a rich, creamy whiskey sauce at Commander's Palace in New Orleans. This makes a spectacular party dessert and is easier to prepare than might be expected as it can be made ahead to some extent and given the final baking while guests are dining.
In between these two are several that are definitely not ordinary. One, from the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel in New Orleans, is unusual in that it combines stale French bread with leftover Danish pastries and croissants. The recipe for this slightly sweeter than normal pudding was shared by the hotel's executive chef, Randy Buck, who serves it warm with an excellent rum sauce.
Ran a Restaurant