Sunday, February 23, 2014

A Simple Salad...inspired by a trip to a favorite restaurant

At the end of my last cooking class someone asked me to name my favorite restaurants in the Kansas City area.  It was a straightforward question, but one that is not really very easy for me to answer.  I just don't eat out that often—I really do love to cook at home.  But, after some thought,  I was able to come up with a couple of names.  I had a nagging feeling as I answered the question that I was forgetting a place.  Since I'm always tired at the end of a class, I just let it go, thinking it was probably not a significant omission.  As I drove home that night I remembered the one I left off the list:  Michael Smith's casual, tapas-style, Mediterranean restaurant Extra Virgin.   It was kind of strange that I had forgotten this one because I had a date with friends to have dinner there the very next night.  Furthermore, it is probably my favorite restaurant in Kansas City.  Certainly it is always one of the places I think of when someone says: "Let's go out for a bite."

I should admit up front that I am biased about Michael's restaurants (he has another...his fine dining and name's sake restaurant: Michael Smith—also excellent, but out of my price range most of the time).  Michael Smith and his then wife Debbie Gold were the executive chefs at The American Restaurant for most of the six years that I worked there.  These were formative years in my career and it would be impossible for me to measure their influence on my cooking.  The multitude of things I learned while in their kitchen pervade the way I cook and the way I think about food.  So when I go to eat at Extra Virgin, I know I will be served food that I can understand and appreciate in its style, flavors and origins.  Beyond that, I know that the dishes we are served will be well-executed and delicious. 

On the night my friends and I gathered there, we were not disappointed.   We had six different plates...all very good.  (I can't always say this...every restaurant has its misses...but we enjoyed a fine array of dishes on this particular misses in the bunch.)  The salad we had was particularly fine.  I have always tended towards simplicity in my cooking, so it should come as no surprise that it was the stream-lined and deceptively simple...the things others might pass up as ordinary...that really impressed me.  When there are only two or three ingredients in a dish, they all have to be individually beautiful and then they have to be handled properly...and this is no mean feat.  The simple salad we shared—a fluff of perky arugula and frisée lettuce, a few thinly shaved white mushrooms and an amazing, lightly crisp, fried(!) poached egg—really hit the mark.  

There were so many things to like about this salad...but I'll limit myself to talking about the egg.  I love a good poached a soup or stew, on a salad, grain pilaf, serving of pasta, or pile of vegetables...or on a piece of buttered toast.  The liquid gold center of a properly poached egg is nature's perfect sauce.   So it was with our salad...the warm yolk mingled with the almost imperceptible vinaigrette and gave just the right, rich touch to the light elements of the salad. 

But I eat poached eggs on a salad all the time (one of my very first blog posts was on how to poach an egg)....what made this poached egg extra special was the lovely crunch of the light, fried breading that enveloped it.  Food like this is the reason I go out to eat.  It is unlikely that I would ever go to the trouble to bread and fry a poached egg at home.  But in a restaurant setting, doing something like this is not only special, it's a smart and interesting way to reheat eggs that have been poached prior to the start of service.  Typically, eggs that have been poached ahead are held in cool water.  They are then simply reheated in hot water to order.  Since the egg has to be reheated anyway, breading it and frying it to accomplish the reheat adds an unexpected and delicious touch to the final dish.  The simplicity of the salad allowed this unusual poached egg to shine.   Too many ingredients would have detracted.  I came away inspired to create a salad with similar flavors and textures at home. 

The trick of course is to recreate the fine, light, just discernible crunch of the breading...without breading and frying the egg.  Finishing the salad with a judicious shower of homemade, olive oil-dressed, toasted breadcrumbs did the trick.  And although it doesn't have the Wow! factor of the Extra Virgin's version, it is beautiful...and delicious....and totally doable in a home kitchen.    

To make toasted breadcrumbs you will need some slightly stale ("day old") bread.  Something like a baguette or ciabatta will do nicely.  Cut off the crusts and tear/cut the interior into large chunks.  Place in the food processor and process until the desired fineness is achieved.  I like mine to be a bit uneven...ranging in size from larger pea-sized pieces to some bits that are as fine as kosher salt.  Spread the crumbs out on a rimmed sheet (or in a pie tin for a small quantity) 

Bread crumbs...tossed with olive oil...and ready for the oven.

and toast in a 350° oven until golden.  The length of time they take will depend on how stale the bread is.  Very stale bread will toast quickly while fresher bread will take longer.  Take a peek at five minutes and then stir every 5 minutes until done.  I go back and forth on whether to toss the crumbs with olive oil before or after toasting.  It doesn't seem to matter too much which way you choose, just drizzle the oil over and toss until the crumbs are well-dressed.  Taste and season with salt, if necessary.

Freshly toasted breadcrumbs are delicious and make a wonderful garnish for vegetable sautés, pastas and salads.  Whatever you do, please don't garnish your delicious salad with nasty, store-bought, seasoned breadcrumbs.  It would be better to leave them off altogether.  If you don't want to make toasted breadcrumbs, serve your salad with a crisp slice of toasted artisanal bread, drizzled with olive oil, instead. 

I should mention that if you don't have access to frisée...or you don't like may use all arugula—or any fluffy mix of soft and tender baby lettuces that you prefer.  I love frisée and I just happened to see some small heads at Whole Foods a few days after I sampled this salad at Extra Virgin.  But the fact that they had it was pretty unusual.  I don't think the turnover of frisée is very high...consequently they don't stock it on a regular basis.  If you can get it, it is very nice in this salad.

Frisée & arugula

I don't really have a recipe, per se, to share for this salad.  It's so simple there isn't really a need for one.  What follows is an outline of what I did at home.   

For each person, place a handful of arugula (about an ounce) and a fluff of frisée (maybe half an ounce) in a bowl.  Using a mandoline slicer, thinly shave one large white mushroom into the bowl.  

Using a microplane zester, grate a fine shower of a nice, salty Pecorino Romano over the greens and mushrooms.  

Next, give the contents of the bowl a generous grinding of pepper.  Set the bowl aside while you poach your egg.  When the egg is almost done, dress the greens very lightly with some good olive oil, a squeeze of lemon and some salt.  Mound the greens on a plate, creating a slight divot in the center to hold the egg.  Lift the egg out of the poaching liquid, gently blot with paper towels and place on the salad.  Season the egg with salt and pepper.  Scatter some warm, toasted breadcrumbs over all.  Eat right away.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Orange-scented Yogurt Coffee Cake with Pecan Streusel

Mmmmm cake.  I never get tired of it.  And if  I live to be a hundred I don't think I will ever surrender my partiality for streusel-topped cakes.  (Who doesn't love streusel?)  This style of cake is so friendly and flexible. Delicious any time of day...and all on its own (needing no adornment of frosting...or sauce...or compote...or cream)...yet taking to all kinds of interesting and tasty variations.  For me these kinds of cakes are a form of seasonal baking.  During the (almost) four years I have been keeping this blog I have posted seven different streusel cakes...with dried and candied fruits, fresh fruits, interesting spices, vegetables, and a wide variety of complimentary nuts...and of course oatmeal.  And that's just a small sliver of my over-stuffed recipe file...not to mention the fact that I am always sampling new ones.  I don't think I have posted one yet that includes chocolate...but I'm sure that will be remedied one day.  Today I wanted to share a recent addition to my rotation of cakes.  It is a yogurt variation of a favorite sour cream coffee cake

Sour cream makes wonderfully moist, fine-grained and rich cakes.  Unfortunately I don't always have it on hand.  Since I have been making yogurt, I do always have that on hand.  Its use in this recipe gives a lighter crumb and softer texture...and is just as delicious.  This cake could be made without any flavorings (other than vanilla), spices or nuts...but I particularly like it with orange and pecan (two other ingredients I almost always have in the house).  

My friend Bonnie introduced me to this harmonious flavor combination a few years ago and I have found its subtlety to be addictive.  I've used it in muffins, cookies, tea cakes, scones...and now, in this simple little cake.  Enjoy.

Orange-Scented Yogurt Coffee Cake with Pecan Streusel

1/2 c. all-purpose flour (2 oz.)
1/4 t. salt
1/3 c. golden brown sugar
4 T. cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch slices
1/2 c. pecans, lightly toasted and finely chopped (2 oz.)

1 3/4 c. all-purpose flour (200 g.)
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
10 T. plus 2 t. (150 g.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 c. sugar (200 g.)
zest of one orange (1 T.)
2 eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 t. vanilla
2/3 c. whole milk yogurt (160 g.)

To make the streusel, whisk the first three ingredients together in a small bowl to combine.  Add the butter and rub in until mixture is crumbly.  Add the pecans, toss to combine and chill until ready to build the coffee cake.

Combine the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda in a small bowl and set aside.  Beat the butter and sugar until smooth.  Beat in the orange zest.  Cream until light and fluffy.  Beat in the eggs, one at a time.  Beat in the vanilla.  Fold in the flour mixture in three additions, alternating with the yogurt, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. 

Spread the batter in a greased and floured 9x9-inch baking pan.  (If you want to be able to turn the cake out, cut a square of parchment to fit the bottom of the pan.  Butter the pan, add and butter the parchment and then flour the pan.)  

Scatter the streusel evenly over all.  Bake in a 350° oven until golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean—35 to 45 minutes.  

Serve warm.  Serves 9 to 12.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Slow Roasted Salmon served with a quick Barigoule of Artichokes with Baby Potatoes & Salsa Verde

The March issues of my food magazines have begun to arrive in the mail.  As usual I'm a bit behind in my reading—it was only toward the end of this week that I finally had a minute to sit down and look through the January issues of these same magazines.  I'm glad that I didn't just bypass the January and February issues though in an attempt to be current...I would have missed out.  The January Bon Appetit in particular was filled with beautiful and inspirational food.  I was especially drawn to an image of a platter of slow roasted vivid I wanted to reach in and pick up a piece with my fingers.  I could already taste it.     

Slow roasted salmon is delicious.  So moist and succulent that Suzanne Goin compares its  texture to custard.  It is also extremely easy to prepare.  If you have never cooked fish (or don't cook it very often) because you are worried about overcooking it, this would be a good method to try.  As the article in Bon Appetit emphasizes, it is difficult to overcook fish when using this slow, gentle, low-heat method.  You don't need any special equipment...or even any special seasonings.  The recipe in Bon Appetit includes citrus, fennel, spices and herbs...but all you really need is olive oil, salt and pepper.  Simply place the salmon (in one large piece—skinned or not, as you prefer...although I think it's easier to serve if the skin is removed prior to cooking) in an oiled baking dish, season well with salt and pepper, drizzle generously with olive oil and place in a 250° to 275° oven.  

Bake until the salmon flakes when prodded and is still a bit translucent in the center.  An instant read thermometer, inserted at the thickest part of the filet, will read between 120° and 125°.  This will take anywhere from 25 to 40 minutes, depending on the size and the thickness of the filet.  

Break into large chunks and serve.

Artichokes began arriving in the stores sometime during the last couple of weeks and I have been looking for a reason to bring some home.  I finally bought a couple yesterday, knowing they would be delicious with the slow roasted salmon.  To prepare them I made a pared down version of a classic Provençal braise of artichokes called a barigoule.  In traditional versions of this dish, whole turned artichokes are gently simmered in a flavorful broth made up of thinly sliced aromatic vegetables, white wine, water and olive oil.  The aromatic vegetables that are used vary a bit from version to version...but not too much.  They include onions, leeks, carrots, fennel, celery and garlic.  Thyme, bay, and winter savory are other traditional flavoring agents.  For my simplified barigoule I only used onions, carrots, garlic, thyme and bay.  And instead of simmering the whole turned artichokes, I sliced them first.  I varied the stew a bit more by slipping in some halved baby potatoes for the last 20 minutes or so.  I love potatoes with artichokes....and adding them to the stew made it so I didn't have to prepare a separate starch to round out our meal.  

When I plated the vegetables and salmon, I spooned some salsa verde over everything.  Although the barigoule and salmon would have been delicious on their own, the bright and lively flavors of this sauce were the perfect finishing touch. 

Slow Roasted Salmon for Two

2/3 to 3/4 pounds salmon filet, in one piece (center cut filet, if possible), skin and bones removed
salt & freshly ground black pepper
about 2 T. olive oil

Drizzle some of the olive oil in a baking dish that is just large enough to hold the salmon.  Season the salmon on both sides with salt and pepper.  Place in the baking dish (skinned-side down) and drizzle with enough olive oil to lightly coat.

Place the baking dish in a 275° oven and bake until the salmon is cooked to your liking.  It should feel springy to the touch, but flake with a bit of encouragement.  If you like it medium-rare, it should still be slightly translucent in the center.  I like mine at about 120°.  Start checking at 25 minutes.  Use two large spoons to remove large chunks and serve. 

Quick Artichokes Barigoule with Baby Potatoes

2 T. olive oil
1/2 of a medium onion, thinly sliced
1 medium carrot, peeled and thinly sliced on a slight angle
1 fat clove of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
salt & pepper, to taste
a sprig of two of fresh thyme
2 globe artichokes, turned and rubbed with lemon
1/3 c. dry white wine
1 c. water
1 small (or half a large) bay leaf
1/2 lb. small creamer or fingerling potatoes, halved lengthwise (the halves should be about 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick)

Warm a tablespoon of olive oil in a wide sauteuse set over medium heat.  Add the onion and carrot along with a pinch of salt.  Sweat, reducing the heat if necessary, until the vegetables have begun to soften but have not begun to color (the onions should be tender and translucent)—about 10 to 15 minutes. 

Add the garlic and thyme and cook for a moment or two, or until the garlic is fragrant. 

Slice the artichokes thickly (about 1/3-inch) and add to the pan along with another tablespoon of olive oil.  Season with salt and pepper and continue to cook until the artichokes begin to sizzle gently.  

Add the white wine, bring to a rapid simmer and reduce by half.  Add the water along with the bay, return to a simmer, cover and simmer gently for 10 minutes. 

Uncover the pan and taste the broth.  Add more salt if necessary.  Add the potatoes, nestling them down into the broth.  Cover and continue to simmer until all the vegetables are tender—another 20 to 30 minutes.  Remove the thyme and bay, taste and correct the seasoning and serve.

To serve the Salmon and Barigoule together, begin roasting the salmon when you add the artichokes to the barigoule.  While the salmon and artichokes cook, prepare the salsa verde.  (For this particular dish, I prepared it without the anchovy...but it is fine to leave it in if you want.  For the herbs I used all parsley, but artichokes are delicious with basil and mint, so feel free to use some of one or the other of these if you have some on hand.)  If either the salmon or vegetables are done before the other, simply set the finished item aside in a warm place until the other is finished cooking—this shouldn't be too long....maybe 10 minutes at the outside.  Divide the barigoule between two plates (making sure to get all the delicious broth) and arrange chunks of the roasted salmon over the vegetables, drizzling with the pan juices as you do.  Spoon some of the salsa verde over each plate—focusing mostly on the salmon and drizzling some into the vegetable stew.  Pass more salsa verde separately. 

These recipes are written for two, but they can be increased to serve as many as you like.  This would be a beautiful dish to serve family style in a deep platter or shallow gratin.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Fettuccine Alfredo

A couple of years ago I posted a variation on Fettuccine Alfredo.  It was an unusual thing for me to do—making a variation on this classic—because I love it in its pure and basic form:  fettuccine sauced with butter, Parmesan, cream and freshly ground black pepper.  It really doesn't need anything else.  It is simple...and delicious...and  its decadence makes it a truly special treat. 

Apparently the original dish was even more streamlined than the one that I make.  The sauce was simply melted butter with Parmesan.  Elise Bauer at Simply Recipes gives a brief outline of the history of the dish.  At some point cream was added and is now widely considered to be standard.  In any case, this later hybrid with cream is the version that I grew up with. 

Because my mother never bought into the low-fat craze, butter and cream were never evicted from our diets.  The version she made is not too different from the one that I make today.  Her recipe was from a basic Italian-American cookbook and called for 2/3 cup of heavy cream, a stick of butter and a cup of finely grated Parmesan (plus more to sprinkle over the top) for every pound of fettuccine. 

As I have played with this recipe over the years I have varied the individual amounts of cream and butter that I use, but I have kept the total quantity of liquid roughly the same.  As long as your volume of cream and butter total somewhere in the range of 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (18 tablespoons) and 1 1/4 cup (20 tablespoons) you should end up with enough sauce for a pound of fettuccine.  Even though the original sauce is all butter, I find sauces with more cream than butter to be nicer—a higher proportion of butter seems to produce an oily and slightly gritty result.  My preferred quantities of cream and butter are 3/4 cup heavy cream plus 6 tablespoons of butter...or 1 cup heavy cream plus 4 tablespoons of butter...or something in between...depending on the day.  No matter what your ratio of butter and cream, a cup of finely grated Parmesan (3 oz.) is just about right for a pound of is enough to give good flavor, but not so much that the sauce will be too thick or sticky. 

I would be remiss not to point out that since there are so few ingredients in this dish you should use the best ingredients possible.  Most importantly you should use real Reggiano Parmesan cheese.  It is expensive, but worth it.  (Even as a teenager—with my rather limited palate—I could tell when my Mom made this dish with "the good" cheese.)  Don't purchase pre-grated stuff.  Get a nice wedge of the real thing and use a microplaner to grate it yourself. 

It takes very little time (less time than it takes to cook the noodles) and it makes all the difference in the world.  The other ingredients should be best quality as well—first quality durum semolina pasta, unsalted butter and heavy cream that is just cream (no emulsifiers, preservatives, etc.).

Because I almost never have the need to cook an entire pound of pasta, the printable recipe that I'm posting below gives the quantities I use when I cook for two, as well as quantities for a full pound.  The former may seem like a rather small amount, but it is enough to satisfy my occasional craving for this delicious dish.  And, with the addition of something green (a salad....asparagus...a big pile of broccoli...), it really does make a very fine dinner.

Fettuccine Alfredo

For two:
180 g. (see note) Fettuccine
1/3 c. to 6 T. Heavy Cream
2 T. unsalted butter, cut into half inch cubes
Freshly ground black pepper
35 g. (6 to 7 T.) finely grated Parmesan
Grated Parmesan for serving

For four to six:
1 lb. Fettuccine
1 c. Heavy Cream
4 to 5 T. unsalted butter, cut into cubes
Freshly ground black pepper
3 oz. (1 c.) finely grated Parmesan
Grated Parmesan for serving

Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Season well with salt (it should taste salty—you'll want at least 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons per quart of water). Add the fettuccine and cook until almost al dente. Ladle out some of the pasta water and set aside.  Continue to cook the pasta. 

When you drop the pasta, place the cream in a wide, straight sided sauté pan that is large enough to hold the cooked fettuccine.  Add a generous grinding of pepper and bring the cream to a simmer over moderately high heat.  Reduce the heat to low, add the cubed butter and whisk until the butter has melted into the cream.  Remove the pan from the heat, season generously with pepper, cover and keep warm while the pasta finishes cooking.

Drain the pasta.  Place the pan of butter and cream back over low heat and add the cheese.  Stir until the sauce is homogenous.  Taste and season with salt.  Add the drained fettuccine and toss until well-coated with the sauce.  If the pasta seems "tight" or sticky, add a splash of the pasta water and toss again.  Remove the pan from the heat, cover and let sit for 30 to 60 seconds.   Uncover and toss again to check the consistency, adding more pasta water if necessary—the goal is to have noodles that are coated in a light, fluid, creamy sauce.

Divide among serving plates, top with freshly grated Parmesan and serve. 

Note:  For appetites at my house one pound of pasta makes five portions...basically each person is getting a generous 3 oz. (or 90 grams) of dried pasta...hence, in the recipe for two, the odd measurement of 180 grams of pasta.  (If I lived in Italy where they sell pasta in 500 gram packages, I would calibrate my recipes to 100 grams/3 1/2 oz. per person.)    

Monday, February 3, 2014

White Chocolate & Cranberry Bread Pudding

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
4 eggs
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.