Monday, September 13, 2010

Bread Pudding

On Thursday night last week, Matt and I attended a gathering to honor the sudden autumn weather and the start to the football season—specifically, the New Orleans Saints. It was a quick party, a flash-like dinner before heading to the bar to watch the game. Most attendees were New Orleans natives, transplants to Boston like Matt. They sure do love their city, their football team, their home turf. Who Dat.

Our host made po’boys, the classic New Orleans submarine sandwich often filled with meat or seafood, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. That night, plump little shrimp were fried in a batter of cornmeal and spices and stuffed into crusty French bread. We ate them with ketchup, and a cold beer. Then: dessert.

Rewind a few hours. Earlier that afternoon, when I was at home stalling over blank Word Documents and attempts to schedule reporting interviews on the phone, I decided to bake. Because, hey, why not. “Procrasticooking,” as someone told me on Twitter. I’m an expert.

I took a cookbook down from the shelf—The New Orleans Cookbook, by Rima and Richard Collin, which Matt’s mother had given me for Christmas the year before. I had never cooked from it before, I’m now embarrassed to admit. It’s not that I don’t love the food in New Orleans. I do. I’ve traveled to that dynamic, Caribbean-style city a handful of times since I met Matt. And since my first visit, I’ve been entranced. It’s a place filled with energy and flavor; its copious sensual pleasures come with the same fierceness as its pains. There was my first jambalaya, gumbo, crawfish étouffée; billowy mouthfuls of beignets and greasy bites of muffalettas stuffed with salami and olive paste; countless cherry-flavored sno-balls from a stand on the side of the road. I often think about the fried frog’s legs that Matt and I ate down south in Creole county, and my first bananas foster, which was flambéed tableside by a well-coifed waiter before being scooped it into our individual plates.

But my food experiences in New Orleans have been so memorable in part because they have had such strong ties to moments, to feelings, to place. I figured that it was pointless to cook anything from that city while living here in the North East – it just wouldn’t be the same.

But in honor of the evening’s event, I opened the cookbook and flipped to page 215. There, I read the recipe for something very simple, something I don’t normally eat, let alone make. It’s not indelibly New Orleans, or even Louisiana. But it’s classic, it’s easy, and it turned out pretty damn good: Bread pudding, New Orleans style.

The ingredients were quick to mix, bright colors against my deep blue pot. The pudding slid into the oven, cooked for an hour, and then emerged all bronzed and crusty. The recipe included canned fruit, which seemed strange to me at first glance, but, as the authors write, “that’s the local touch—it is sweeter than fresh and its syrup becomes part of the pudding.”

I made a sauce out of milk and eggs, butter and vanilla, cloves and sugar and brandy. Heating on the stove, it filled the apartment with a happy scent—like the autumn crackle in the air, like Christmas, a tipsy party prop.

Later that night we poured the sauce—a rich, pale gray—around thick hunks of pudding, warm in a bowl. Lined up in a row, they looked like a strange archipelago of islands, each with its own miniature castle, surrounded by a cloudy moat.

Bread Pudding
Adapted from The New Orleans Cookbook
(for eight or more)

3 cups milk
1 twenty-four inch loaf of day-old French bread, cut into 1 ½ - 2 inch cubes (about 12 cups)
1 can fancy fruit cocktail, cherries removed, drained
1 can peach halves, drained, cut into large chunks
2/3 cup raisins
¼ cup (half a stick) of salted butter, melted
4 large eggs
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¾ teaspoon grated nutmeg
¼ teaspoon allspice
¼ teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Scald the milk in a heavy quart saucepan. Remove from heat and allow to cool for a few minutes. Then add the bread, fruit cocktail, canned peaches, raisins and melted butter. Mix. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and add the sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and salt. Mix thoroughly, and then add to the bread mixture and blend well.

Butter a 3 – 4 quart casserole dish (or baking dish, 3 – 4 inches deep). Pour the mixture within, distributing ingredients evenly. Bake uncovered for an hour and ten minutes, or until a knife inserted into the center comes out cleanly, and the top begins to brown and develop a rough crust. Allow to cool to room temperature. Serve with brandy sauce.

Brandy Sauce
(makes about one cup)

3 large eggs
¼ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup (half a stick) salted butter, melted
¼ cup brandy
1/8 teaspoon cloves
½ cup milk

In heavy saucepan, beat the eggs thoroughly. Add the sugar, vanilla, and melted butter and heat slowly, stirring constantly, until the mixture begins to thicken. (I wasn’t sure how long to stir here, but ended up doing it for about ten minutes, until the sauce was pretty thick, like heavy cream). Remove the pan from heat and add the brandy, cloves, and milk, stirring constantly. Pour into a blender and blend at high speed for 1 – 1 ½ minutes, until the sauce has an even thicker, creamier texture. Serve over bread pudding.

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