The best bread pudding I ever tasted was prepared by Chef Gale Gand at a special Women Chefs and Restaurateurs benefit dinner at The American Restaurant in Kansas City. It was just a simple vanilla pudding (served with a rhubarb compote), but when I sampled it I immediately realized that I had never really tasted a proper bread pudding before. Light and custardy, it was the antithesis of the rich, heavy and rather solid versions that I had been eating up to that point. Even though I worked that event...and could have had any of the recipes I wanted...I somehow ended up without the recipe for that amazing dessert. I have always regretted this. That particular bread pudding has lived in my memory as the gold standard and I have used it as a pattern for all of the dessert bread puddings I have made since...including the one I am posting today: White Chocolate Bread Pudding with Dried Cranberries.
Two things made that bread pudding different. The first was the quantity of bread. As I occasionally caught glimpses of the preparation of the pudding that day, I noticed that there seemed to be more custard in proportion to the bread than I normally associated with bread pudding. The cubes of toasted bread (brioche, if memory serves)—even after soaking in the custard for a while—floated freely in the liquid. When made with this lesser quantity of bread, the finished pudding was mostly about creamy custard...with the bread providing textural interest on the surface.
|Unbaked bread puddings. Notice that there is visible custard |
surrounding the soaked cubes of bread.
Most bread puddings simply have too much bread. This is any easy mistake to make. The idea of the dessert is that the bread (stale or toasted) will absorb some of the custard—but it almost always absorbs more than you think it will. By the time most bread puddings go into the oven, they look like tightly packed pans of soggy, swollen bread—little (if any) custard remains visible in the mix. Bread puddings like this are all about the bread....which, when you think about it, is pretty uninteresting. The delicious part is the custard...and any other flavorings you might want to add (like white chocolate and dried cranberries...).
The other thing that set Chef Gand's bread pudding apart was the style of custard with which it was made. A lot of bread puddings are made with custards that incorporate a large quantity of egg yolks...similar to the kind of custard one might use to make a pot de crème. These styles of custards are dense and rich. Delicious in their own right, they need no bread to give them added substance. The double whammy of solid cubes of custard-saturated bread and dense custard is just too much. Gand's bread pudding used a whole egg custard—similar in style to what you would find in a simple, nutmeg-laced cup custard or a flan. Besides the fact that this type of custard gives a more ethereal result, it also produces a bread pudding that slices beautifully...
or, if made in individual sized ramekins, can even be turned out.
For those who have never made a bread pudding (or a custard) before, I'll finish with a couple of pointers. Because bread pudding is an egg custard it needs special treatment in the oven. Eggs begin to set between 145° and 150° and are fully set at around 160°. They will begin to curdle (separate into clumps of hard protein and water) when heated beyond 180°. It is therefore necessary to create an environment in the oven that will protect the custard from curdling in some spots before it is set in others. The best way to create this environment is with a hot water bath (sometimes called a bain-marie). To make one, you will need a roasting or baking pan that is several inches larger than the pan you are baking your pudding in (or one that will hold all of your individual molds without touching). Place a couple of paper towels or a kitchen towel on the bottom of the larger pan and then add your pan(s) of pudding. Add water that is just off the boil to the large, outer pan so that it comes half way up the sides of the pudding. This hot water bath protects the custard from the direct heat of the oven, insuring that the custard bakes evenly. The custard is done when it is puffed and just springy to the touch. If you insert a stainless steel knife (or the stem of your instant read thermometer) into the custard and it should come out clean.
I think anyone who likes custard, white chocolate and dried cranberries will like this bread pudding. And if you happen to be a person who truly enjoys the heavier, richer, bread-ier bread puddings that are so popular, then I have given a few pointers at the end of the recipe for adjusting it so that it will have more heft and/or richness. But I do hope you will try it the way it is written first. You just might discover that you too have never really tasted a proper bread pudding before.
White Chocolate & Cranberry Bread Pudding
1/3 c. orange juice
2/3 c. dried cranberries
1/3 of a loaf of bakery Challah (a scant 6 oz. bread), sliced 1/2-inch thick (you will have about 5 or 6 slices of bread)
2 T. melted butter
2/3 c. whole milk
1 1/2 c. heavy cream
1/3 c. plus 1 T. sugar
pinch of salt
4 oz. white chocolate, chopped
1/2 t. vanilla
Preheat the oven to 350°. Butter a shallow 2-quart baking pan or 6 to 8 individual ramekins/shallow baking dishes. Set aside.
Place the orange juice and cranberries in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer. Simmer until the cranberries are softened and all of the orange juice has been absorbed or is evaporated. Set aside.
Meanwhile, cut the crusts off of the bread and cut into 1/2-inch cubes. You should have about 2 1/2 cups of cubed bread. Toss the cubed bread with the melted butter and spread on a baking sheet. Toast in the oven until it is a light golden brown—about 10 to 15 minutes. Set aside to cool.
In a saucepan, bring the milk, cream, 1/3 cup of the sugar and salt to a boil. Remove from the heat and add the chocolate. Let the mixture sit for a moment or two without stirring to allow the heat to penetrate the chocolate. Whisk until smooth.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk the eggs and vanilla extract until smooth. Continue to whisk and gradually add the hot cream mixture. Strain the custard.
Scatter the cranberries over the bottom of the prepared baking dish(es). Follow with the bread. (If you are using individual-sized ramekins, be careful to divide the ingredients evenly.)
Pour the custard over all and use a fork or spatula to press the bread cubes down into the custard.
Cover loosely with plastic wrap and set aside for 30 minutes or so to allow the bread to absorb the custard.
When ready to bake, remove the plastic. Carefully press the bread down into the custard one more time (it will float back to the top, but you want to make sure it is well saturated with custard). Sprinkle the remaining tablespoon of sugar over the surface of the pudding. Place the baking dish in a roasting pan (lined with a kitchen towel or a couple layers of paper towels) and add boiling water to the roasting pan to come half way up the sides of the puddings. Transfer to the preheated oven and bake until the custard is set, puffed and golden on top (a knife inserted in the center will come out clean)—about 25 to 30 minutes for individual puddings and 30 to 45 minutes for a large pudding. Serve warm, dusted with powdered sugar. Serves 6 to 8.
(Recipe adapted from Butter Sugar Flour Eggs, by Gale Gand)
Notes & Variations:
- I prefer a bread pudding that is light on the bread and heavy on the custard. If you prefer a less custard-y bread pudding, double the amount of bread and butter.
- Omit the cranberries and orange juice for a plain white chocolate bread pudding.
- If you like, you may divide the cranberries, scattering half to two-thirds of them over the bottom of the baking dish and then scattering the remaining cranberries over the pudding right before baking.
- For a richer custard, replace one of the whole eggs with three egg yolks.