As a child, one of my fondest memories of breakfast on a birthday or holiday was eating my grandmother’s bread pudding.
She had made it so many times that the recipe had been perfected. The bread crusts were always positioned at an angle so that they stuck out ever so slightly above the custard filling and you ended up with crispy bread on top and perfectly soaked and soft bread in custard on the bottom. Nani almost always added cinnamon and raisins to her bread pudding so the whole house smelled wonderful. That is the smell of my childhood and one that never fails to make me nostalgic.
In the last decade or so, bread pudding has made an appearance on the menus of upscale restaurants and cafes in this country. But when Nani was making it in the ’80s, it was very much the domain of frugal home cooks, who saw it as a way to use up leftover stale bread.
In fact, food historians have traced the origins of this dessert/ breakfast dish to 11th and 12th century England, where it was made precisely for the purpose of using up day-old bread. In the absence of preservatives, fridges and freezers, bread became mouldy fairly quickly, and so this ‘poor man’s pudding’, as it was called, was a great way to use it up before it went off.
Bread pudding has gained somewhat of a reputation as a comfort food in modern times, and it is interesting to note that many countries have their own version of it — from the local shahi tukrray and the German Schwarzbrotpudding (black bread pudding), to the Brazilian pudim de pão and the Aruban pan bolo, there are endless iterations of this classic dish.
The basics of all these bread puddings are essentially that some sort of bread is cooked in a milk- or cream-based custard. Simply by varying the type of bread (or in some cases, pastry) used, adding different ingredients (think caramel, meringue, coconut etc), and changing the cooking techniques slightly, a whole new truly indigenous dish has emerged.
Despite its humble origins as a way to use up stale bread, bread pudding has come a long way and provides the perfect canvas for experimentation
At the risk of stating the obvious, bread is an important factor in bread pudding and different recipes use everything from challah, sourdough, Danish and croissants to even muffins, donuts and hot dog buns as the base! Personally, I prefer to use brioche bread in my bread pudding.
Brioche is an enriched bread made with eggs, milk and butter; these ingredients not only make the bread buttery and delicious but also soft and moist, which means it is perfectly able to soak up all the delicious custard from the pudding. I like to buy fresh brioche from the bakery (or make my own) a day or two before preparing my bread pudding and then freeze it until I am ready to use it. At this point, I use a serrated knife to cut the bread in one-inch cubes and it is the perfect size and texture for the bread pudding.
Although bread pudding recipes abound, I categorise mine as ‘super easy’ and you need no special skills to make it. If you are able to cut up bread and mix together a few ingredients, you can make this bread pudding! It is also the perfect canvas for experimentation.
In the recipe I’m writing for this article, I made a chocolate chip version of this bread pudding for a friend’s birthday breakfast, but if you don’t want chocolate — how is that even possible?? — you could substitute with mixed fresh (or frozen) berries, nuts, dried and fresh fruit, homemade caramel sauce, or even raisins (like Nani did)… the options are as endless as your imagination will allow!
The custard part of this bread pudding is about as simple it gets and uses pantry staples like milk, eggs, cream and sugar. However, you can use this as a base for experimentation. Try adding a spice that you like, such as cinnamon, nutmeg or all-spice, or even switch up extracts and essences — instead of vanilla, you could use lemon or almond extract.
Although this bread pudding is sweet enough on its own, I have also added an additional sauce recipe that can be drizzled on just before serving.
Quick and delicious chocolate chip bread pudding
350g brioche bread (cut into 1-inch cubes)
175g dark chocolate chips or a chocolate bar cut into ½ inch chunks (use good quality chocolate)
100g caster sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
Preheat your oven to 175 degrees C and grease an oven-safe 8-inch square glass dish. Scatter half the brioche bread cubes on the base of the dish followed by half the chocolate chips. Repeat with another layer of brioche cubes and chocolate. In a large bowl, whisk together the milk, cream, eggs, caster sugar and vanilla essence and pour over the bread and chocolate. Press the bread into the milk mix with a spatula, cover with cling film, and refrigerate the pudding for at least 30 minutes. Bake for 30 minutes or until the edges are golden brown and the pudding is nicely puffed up.
Vanilla sauce (optional)
2 teaspoons vanilla essence
Combine the butter, sugar and milk in a small saucepan on medium high heat and stir until sugar is dissolved. Take off the heat and add the vanilla essence. Pour over the warm bread pudding to serve.
The writer is a professional chef and holds a diploma in pastry from Le Cordon Bleu.
Originally published in Dawn, EOS, September 12th, 2021