Still recovering from 10 days of Key West fine food and postprandial debauchery, I’m giving my site over today to my friend Stephanie Stiavetti (@sstiavetti), who writes The Culinary Life blog, and whose first book, Melt, will be published next year by Little, Brown (a fine book to which I happily contributed the introduction). I'll be back on Friday with a Key West–inspired cocktail to combat the winter grays. Take it away, Steph, and thanks for keeping it simple and discussing a critical cooking technique!—M.R.
by Stephanie Stiavetti
Bread pudding needn't be complicated. At its core, custard is a straightforward dish consisting of cream and egg yolks. For a sweet custard you add sugar, alongside tiny, fragrant vanilla beans (usually), and that's about as fussy as it gets. The best bread puddings are marked by their simplicity—I've read through some recipes that span two or three pages, some incorporating as many as 20 ingredients. These dishes can be good, but they've got nothing on the uncluttered elegance of a more traditional recipe.
When it comes to custard, what trips up a lot of people is the bain marie, also knows as a water bath. Custard likes to be heated slowly, lest it curdle, and the surrounding moat provides ample protection from cooking too quickly. The steam from the water bath also prevents the surface of a custard from drying out, which in a bread pudding can mean tough, pokey bits that are almost too hard to chew.
Don't let the water bath frighten you. Just know ahead of time that you will need to find a pan that comfortably holds an 8x8-inch baking dish while maintaining an inch or two of space around all sides for water—a roasting pan works well. If you don't own a pan large enough to hold your baking dish, you can divide the recipe into two large loaf pans, which fit easily into any number of standard oven-safe vessels. Just bake them one at a time, reducing your baking time by about 15 minutes (depending on your oven).
When your bread pudding is done baking, it's not a bad idea to remove the baking dish, leaving the water bath to cool down in the oven. That way, if you're at all clumsy and at risk of pouring a roasting pan's worth of water down your frontside, at least it won't be at near-boiling temperatures when the inevitable happens. Not that it's ever happened to me. Ahem.
One last note: Much like lasagne, I've found that bread pudding tastes best when it’s allowed to sit overnight in the refrigerator, then brought back up to room temperature before serving. If you can’t wait that long to dig in, temper your patience at least until the dish is completely cooled and the custard has solidified.
Cinnamon Raisin Bread Pudding
Makes one 8x8-inch pan
- Butter, for greasing
- ½ to ¾ loaf of cinnamon raisin bread, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 7 egg yolks, at room temperature
- ½ vanilla pod
- 1 ½ cups milk
- 1 ½ cups heavy cream
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ cup raisins (optional)
- Whipped cream or crème fraîche, for topping
- Generously butter a glass 8x8-inch baking dish. Pour bread cubes into the prepared dish, filling it completely. Push down on the bread to pack as much as you can into the pan. Set aside.
- Add egg yolks to a medium-sized metal bowl and beat well. Set aside.
- Slice the vanilla pod lengthwise and use a butter knife to scrape the tiny inner beans into a saucepan.* Pour the milk and cream into the saucepan and stir well. Heat over low flame until the cream is very hot but not boiling. You should see steam gently rising from the surface and bubbles forming around the edges of the pan, but it should not boil. (If you're measuring, the temperature should read between 160° and 170°F/71° and 77°C.) Remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in the cinnamon and salt.
- Temper the egg yolks by adding 2 tablespoons of hot cream, beating them quickly with a whisk. Repeat this step three more times. Slowly drizzle the rest of the hot custard into the eggs, whisking constantly. Do not combine too fast or you will scramble the eggs.
- Set aside ½ cup of hot custard and pour the rest over the bread cubes in the baking dish. Gently agitate to make sure all of the bread is covered with custard, stirring the cubes around to make sure they soak evenly. Allow to sit for 3 hours, occasionally folding the bread cubes into the custard to allow for even absorption.
- Set a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350°F/177°C. If using raisins, fold them into the bread pudding. Drizzle the remaining custard around the top of the bread cubes, soaking any bits that appear dryer than the others.
- Prepare a water bath by finding a deep, heat-proof dish that will comfortably fit your baking dish inside of it, with an inch or two of space around all sides. Place the baking dish in the larger pan, and fill the larger pan with water until it reaches halfway up the sides of the glass baking dish.
- Carefully slide the baking dish, with its water bath, into the oven and bake for 1 hour. When it’s done, the top of the pudding should be puffy but firm. If you like your bread pudding crispy on top, remove it from the water bath and slip it under the broiler for 3 or 4 minutes. The custard should be safe from curdling at this point.
- Remove the pudding from the oven and allow to cool to room temperature so that it solidifies before serving. Cut unto squares and top with a dollop of whipped cream or crème fraîche.
*Don't waste the spent pod from the vanilla bean! Slip it into a container of sugar to make vanilla sugar.
Other links you may like:
- My post on how to make brioche.
- How about making a crème anglaise to go with the bread pudding?
- An article on sweet and savory bread puddings from the NYT.
© 2013 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2013 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.