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Pudding for the People 

savory bread puddings for winter nights

’Tis the season of hearty eating, and people keep coming over for dinner in ravenous droves. These are the kind of nights you want to sit around a table and schmooze and be warm. Meals have been complicated at Rancho Brotman this season by the variety of dietary needs of our neurotic friends; it can be challenging to find a delicious dish to accommodate everyone.

Savory bread pudding is an excellent crowd-pleasing choice; it can placate most foibles except anorexia, and it's rich and flavorful and starchy. I pity the fool who doesn't like rich, flavorful and starchy; in fact I doubt the fool's existence. It's probably not the best choice for vegans -- I 've searched high and low for a decent vegan bread pudding method, but haven't found one I'm happy with. Some say you can substitute a half cup of blended silken tofu as a substitue for an egg, and you could use soy milk in place of dairy, and vegetable oil instead of butter, but I've tried it and found it unsatisfactory. While it was edible, without the eggs providing a lift, it came out far too heavy and stodgy.

Savory bread puddings can be made without wheat and/or meat, can be made in advance, and serve lots of people. They are warming and filling, which is just what the doctor ordered now that Humboldt has become Frost Town. They are also excellent ways of using all the lovely winter vegetables, like squash and kale, that need longer cooking. What doesn't taste better baked in a rich batter? Hey, you have two weeks until New Year's Resolution guilt kicks in. Make the most of it.

I could also tout the virtue of using stale bread rather than throwing it away, but who really ever has stale bread in this quantity? I never just "forget" to eat a loaf of bread. These recipes are worth breaking down and buying bread or, in the case of the second, whippin' up some cornbread. You might want to have cornbread and chilli the night before, make extra cornbread and save the leftover portion for pudding.

Pancetta, Kale and Shittake Bread Pudding

Feeds 5 or 6.

NOTE: To make this vegetarian, leave out the pancetta and use vegetable stock. Use 3 T. butter and 2 T. olive oil instead of pancetta fat.

Ingredients:

1/2 pound pancetta, chopped (2 T. butter if lean)

1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped

5 to 9 garlic cloves to taste (I love garlic, so I use 9), minced

2 handfuls shittake mushrooms, or whatever mushrooms you have handy, cleaned and sliced

1 1/2 lb washed kale, de-stemmed, minced into linguine-width ribbons

1 1/2 baguettes, cut into 3/4-inch cubes, preferably stale, very lightly toasted for 3 or 4 minutes on a baking sheet in your preheating oven. If you have some stale whole wheat bread or sourdough, you can replace some of the baguette with it for a varied effect. (The baguette crust is nice though, so I wouldn't replace more than a third with other bread.)

4 eggs, beaten

3 cups milk

1 cup cream

1 cup chicken stock

1 t. chopped fresh tarragon or thyme (either is tasty)

1 T. chopped parsley (if handy - optional)

1 T. sherry or Marsala (optional)

1 T. salt

1 t. freshly ground pepper

Optional additions, any or all:

1 cup butternut, acorn or any winter squash, cubed 3/4 inch and roasted until soft (Note: if using squash, add 1 extra egg)

3/4 cup grated Gruyere, Comte or Parmesan cheese

1/4 cup toasted pine nuts

Method:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Fry pancetta on medium high heat in a large cast iron skillet until just turning crispy. (If your pancetta is lean, add 2 tablespoons or so of butter.)

Remove from pan and set aside.

Turn heat to medium.

Add onion and stir until translucent, about 5 minutes.

Add garlic and mushrooms and and cook for another few minutes, stirring occasionally.

Now add kale. Stir, add a tablespoon or so of water, and cover pan for three minutes to steam.

Uncover and cook for 2 or 3 more minutes, stirring.

Repair the vegetables to a large bowl, and toss with the bread.

If you are using the squash or pine nuts, add now.

Thoroughly butter a 3-quart baking dish.

Whisk the eggs with the liquids, seasoning and herbs in a bowl.

Pour over the bread and vegetables, add the pancetta and optional cheese and toss well.

Transfer the bread pudding to the prepared baking dish.

At this point, if you have any time, let the pudding sit for an hour to get more pudding-y absorption, but it also works if you just bake straight away.

Bake for about 1 hour. Let stand for 20 minutes before serving.

The bread pudding fixings can be prepared up to 12 hours in advance before baking; press plastic wrap down over the surface and refrigerate.

The next dish has more of a stuffing consistency and is less decadent than the previous bread pudding, but it's still delicious.

Wheat-free Mexican Cheese Pudding

Serves 4 to 6.

Ingredients:

4 eggs

2 cups milk

1/2 cup sour cream

1 cup Swiss or Compte Cheese

1/2 cup grated fresh Parmesan

4 - 5 cups cornbread, cut into 1 inch cubes

1 small jalapeno pepper chopped

1 red bell pepper, chopped and diced

1/4 t. each oregano, thyme and dill

1 T. salt

1 t. freshly ground pepper

1 small bunch chives, minced (optional)

Method:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Toast the cornbread cubes lightly for two or three minutes on a baking tray in the preheating oven, or just let them sit out for a few hours.

Beat together the eggs, milk and sour cream.

Add the cheese, peppers, herbs, salt and pepper.

Toss mixture with cornbread In a large bowl.

Lavishly butter a 9 inch square baking dish with fairly high sides.

Pour pudding mixture in, level, and bake for 45 minutes or until golden.

Sprinkle with optional chives.

Serve with a warmed spicy salsa.

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About The Author

Jada Calypso Brotman

Bio:
Jada Brotman grew up in Arcata before moving to the U.K. and then New York City, where she cut a wide swath in the world of cheese. Insert joke here. She returned to the home of her fathers four years ago, and now works as a journalist and seasons her crepe pans in downtown Arcata.

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