My mother made the best caramel pudding and bread pudding, and I enjoyed it as the ultimate comfort food. Thus, my search for the best bread pudding recipe led me to my mother’s kitchen.
What is it about bread pudding that we love so much, and how did it make its ways to the sun-continent? It is believed that the British East India Company brought bread pudding to our neck of the woods, which later evolved into Shahi Tukray, a delectable Mughlai meetha seeped in the royal aromas of cardamom and saffron, sweetness of sugar and nuts and the elite texture of milk and cream, a dessert definitely created for kings by kings.
Bread is a staple that goes back millenniums, it is commonly believed that chefs from yesteryears disliked - like modern times - throwing away leftover bread and therefore created innovative recipes both sweet and salty in taste to get complete use out of a cooked loaf of bread.
It was used to thicken broth and sweet pudding, used as croutons in soups, stuffing and coating as bread crumbs, stale bread could be baked, fried or stove cooked, or used as an edible bread bowl. In the middle ages, a hollowed loaf, now referred to as the bread bowl, was commonly used to drink hot or cold sweet milk, puddings, broth, eggs; and this is how the bread pudding came to be, a rustic utensil stumbles upon the simple sweet goodness of milk, eggs and bread and the world has its bread pudding with many twists.
Bread pudding was also enjoyed in ancient Egypt and was referred to as Um Ali, an ancient Egyptian bread pudding. Legend has it that a Sultan with a group of hunters, hunting along the River Nile felt hunger sneaking up and stopped at a hospitable village for some food. The villagers called upon their local cook Um Ali to cook up a meal for the hungry guests. The chef mixed some stale wheat bread, nuts, milk and sugar, and baked it in the oven. And thus the delectable Um Ali came to be. Another legend claims Um Ali to be a victory dessert made to order by a succeeding king.
The Oxford Companion to Food, edited by Alan Davidson says the following about bread pudding:
"Many desserts include bread whether in the form of breadcrumbs or slices of bread. It is safe to assume that from the very distant past cooks have sometimes turned stale bread into a sweet pudding, if only by soaking it in milk, sweetening it by one means or another, and baking the result.
The addition of some fat, preferably in the form of butter, and something like currants is all that is needed to move this frugal dish into the category of treats, and this is what has ensured its survival in the repertoire, even on cooks who never have stale bread on their hands.
This enhanced product is known as bread and butter pudding and this same dish can also be made with something more exotic than plain bread, for example, brioche, pannetone, slices of plain cake, etc. and can be enlivened by judicious spicing or by reinforcing the currants with plumper sultanas and mixed peel.
But such elaborations must be kept under strict control, so that what is essentially a simple pudding does not lose its character under the weight of sophisticated additions. The likely history of the pudding can be illuminated by looking back at medieval sops and at the medieval practice of using a hollowed-out loaf as the container for a sweet dish. Variants of bread pudding could be eaten hot as pudding or cold as a cake."
Similar to Um Ali is the middle eastern bread pudding called, Eish es Serny, also called the palace bread. To make this dessert a loaf of bread is dried, sliced and then gently brought to boil in honey and sugar syrup, and garnished with arq-e- gulab and golden caramel, this palace bread sounds almost baadshahi, and as we travel further east on the world map we can proudly boast our very own royal pieces, popularly known as Shahi Tukray.
However the original dish, bread pudding, has a wonderful flavour and texture, and is said to be the ultimate comfort food, for in its sweet simplicity is an incomparable sweet comfort. The recipes I share with you today come from my dear mother’s kitchen, and from the kitchen of my dear friend Monica Kachru, respectively.
Here it is from my kitchen to yours:
2 tbsp sugar
3 to 3 1/3 cups milk
6 bread slices, broken unevenly
Sugar to taste
1) Preheat the oven at 350°C.
2) Caramelize the sugar in an oven safe dish, wait for it to harden and cool.
3) In a bowl, beat the eggs. Add milk and bread slices and sugar to taste, whisk with a fork.
4) Pour into the bowl with caramelized sugar and pop in the oven.
5) Bake for 30 to 40 minutes.
6) Serve warm with caramel or dulce de leche ice cream.
Replace plain bread with raisin bread, butter and toast it lightly, break into pieces, sprinkle cinnamon powder and bake in a preheated oven for 30 to 40 minutes.
All photos by author.