“Um… you don’t know me but your daughter has been run over by a car.”
Last week, one of my worst fears as a mother came true. My husband and I received THAT phone call. You know, the one where you’re told that something horrible has happened to your child while you were not with them to prevent it.
We were very fortunate that our daughter survived being hit by a car while she was crossing the street at a crosswalk, but there’s nothing which can erase the agony of those first few hours as the doctors ran tests and our daughter was in and out of consciousness.
Even when we knew she was going to be okay, though, and the world was once again filled with the light of what would eventually be, there was still this need for comfort, and while most of my comfort came through prayers and the support of friends and family, I came to a place one day where I knew I simply had to cook something, because, for me, cooking is soothing to my soul, and being able to cook something special for my daughter brought a different type of solace.
As I thought about what to make, the first thing which came to my mind was bread pudding. Now, bread pudding isn’t something which folks in my part of the United States make much these days, and that’s such a shame, because folks don’t realize what they’re missing. Bread pudding is a delicious, homey sort of dish which is also extremely versatile and easily adaptable for a lot of food allergies. It’s also a great way to use up leftovers of any type of bread product like loaf bread, muffins, bagels, croissants, or quick breads. Plus it can be anything from a sweet dessert to a savory side dish to a breakfast entree.
I happened to have some allergy friendly pumpkin muffins leftover (free of gluten, dairy, nuts, eggs, and sugar) so I decided to chop those up and mix it up with eggs, chocolate soy milk and chopped pears. It was so delicious! And I confess, I ate it for breakfast, too, since you know — eggs, pumpkin, fruit, milk — all good things to start your day, right? *grin*
There’s some general information, though, which you should know for making bread pudding, and I’ll share them below:
1. The egg to milk ratio: Search for bread pudding recipes in cookbooks and online, and you’ll find that people differ on the ratio of milk to eggs. For myself using at least 1/2 cup of milk per egg is the lowest ratio I use; using 1 cup of milk per egg is the most I’d suggest you’d use. You’re essentially making a custard for the bread to soak up. The milk contributes to the creaminess; the eggs bind it together. The more eggs, the firmer the custard; the more milk, the softer the custard.
2. The milk: The thicker your milk, the more rich your bread pudding, so heavy cream obviously makes for a richer bread pudding than skim milk. You can, however, use any type of milk you want, from skim to heavy cream, from cow milk to coconut, soy, almond, rice or flax milk. Since we have dairy and nut allergies, I use either soy milk or flax milk. Flax milk is thicker so it mimics more the consistency of whipping cream, and it has the added bonus of those omega 3s. Soy milk is nice because it adds some more protein. In addition you are not limited to plain milk. Flavored milks, of any type, are a great way to change up the bread pudding you’re making.
3. The eggs: Using whole eggs with both the whites and yolks makes for a creamier pudding, but you can also make bread pudding with only egg whites, with Eggbeaters, and even without eggs. While eggs do bind, simply using milk alone will work, too. You just need to remember that your liquid to bread ratio has to account for the loss in eggs, which requires using more milk.
4. The liquid to bread ratio: How much liquid you need really depends on your bread. Denser whole grain breads or leftover bagels or muffins will require more liquid than an airy French or Challah bread. As a general rule, though, a one to one ratio works well — one cup of liquid for every one cup of bread. So, for example, 4 cups of bread could be mixed with 4 eggs (which would equal one cup) and 3 cups of milk which would give you a four cup liquid yield to the 4 cups of bread. If you’re uncertain, start with half the amount you think you might need and then add more if necessary.
If you’re making a bread pudding in a 9 x 13 pan, usually you’ll be using at least 3 cups of bread for a shallower bread pudding and up to 6 cups for a thicker bread pudding.
5. Mixing the custard: If you are using both eggs and milk, it’s really important to mix them together before pouring the liquids onto the bread. You’ll sometimes find a recipe that soaks the bread with milk and then mixes in the eggs. You really don’t want to follow that recipe. The key to a good bread pudding is the bread evenly soaking up the liquid, so be sure to whisk your eggs and milk together before pouring them over the bread. Obviously if you’re only using milk, you have no issues.
It’s important that any flavorings or sweeteners or aromatics you use for your bread pudding, whether sweet or savory, are mixed into your custard so that the flavors will soak into the bread along with the custard liquid.
6. The bread: What’s lovely about bread pudding is that most anything will work. Any type of sliced bread, whether wheat based or gluten free, and any type of leftover muffins, bagels, cake pieces, scones, croissants, donuts, etc…. The advantages to using leftover baked products is that you’re using up something you might otherwise throw out and usually those products are already flavored so you don’t need to add any to the custard.
If you are using bread, though, you’ll note that people will say that it should be stale bread or they’ll have you toast the bread in the oven or lightly cook it on the stovetop. This is because the drier your bread, the more obviously it’ll soak up liquid. You don’t, however, need to wait until you have stale bread to make bread pudding. If using fresh bread, simply let the bread soak longer before you put it into the oven. The effect will be the same.
7. The bread shape: Here again you will find that people’s preferences vary. Some will say use cubed bread; others say to keep it sliced; a few will argue for large hunks; many suggest small pieces. Really, it’s all about what you’re looking for as the end product. When I made the chocolate pumpkin pear bread pudding, I actually crumbled the muffins because I wanted a smoother, creamier texture. If you keep the bread in slices, it’ll make for a denser, crispier texture. Bread chunks give you something to bite into. Small cubes make for a chewier texture. So, you decide.
8. The flavorings: Bread pudding can be both sweet or savory. If you want the bread pudding for a dessert, use cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, cloves, ginger or vanilla or fruit peels. If you want a savory side dish or something for breakfast use herbs like thyme, rosemary, oregano, marjoram or basil and/or aromatics like onions, garlic or celery.
9. The sweetener (for dessert puddings): If you’re making a sweet bread pudding, you can sweeten it with sugar, honey, maple syrup, molasses, agave, stevia, or coconut sugar. How much you add to your custard mixture really depends on your sweet tooth. Recipes vary from 1/4 cup to 2 cups for a 4 to 6 cups of cubed bread. I personally add chopped or pureed fruit or some mini chocolate chips if I’m making a sweet bread pudding and omit any other added sweetener.
10. The additions: Okay, the best part of bread pudding is that you can create whatever you want. As I mentioned, this time around I took leftover pumpkin muffins and added chopped up pears and used chocolate soy milk to make a chocolate-pumpkin-pear bread pudding.
You can add anything you like to a bread pudding. For sweet puddings add chopped or pureed fruits or chocolate chips or coconut flakes or dried chopped fruits. For savory puddings add chopped vegetables or pureed pumpkin or squash or sauteed vegetable aromatics like mushrooms and celery or add cheeses like romano or parmesan or even chopped up chicken or sausage.
What’s important is that you either mix the additions with the bread or sprinkle them onto the bread before you add the custard mixture. The custard mixture is always last.
11. Assembling a bread pudding: We’ve basically gone over this in pieces-parts: Prepare your bread, whatever it is, the way you want, whether crumbling, cubes, chunks or slices. If you’re going to mix in any additions, do so. Grease a pan with your preferred method of greasing. Spread the bread mixture evenly in the pan. Mix together your custard, whether it’s eggs and milk or just milk, with your flavorings. Pour the mixture over the bread. Let the bread soak up some of the custard before baking (This can be anything from 15 minutes to overnight.)
12. Cooking the bread pudding: Okay, this is where you decide what type of pudding you want. I like my bread puddings to be soft and creamy in texture. So, for my bread puddings I use a pan with a large overhanging edge and place that pan into a larger pan. Then I put the larger pan, holding the smaller pan, into the oven. Slowly I pour hot water from my tea kettle into the larger pan until the water comes up just under the overhanging edge of the smaller pan. As the pudding cooks and solidifies, the hot water bath more evenly cooks the pudding and the moisture keeps the pudding soft and creamy. If you prefer a heartier texture to your pudding, you can simply bake the bread pudding in the oven in its pan without any hot water bath.
Most bread puddings in a 9 x 13 pan will cook in about an hour at 350 degrees. You’ll know it’s done because the bread pudding won’t be liquidy but puffed and solid.
And bread puddings last for days and days in the fridge without going bad so you can go ahead and make that big 9 x 13 batch instead of the 8 x 8 which many recipes these days make!