I have no idea where bread pudding has been all my life, but thank goodness I’ve finally discovered it.
During a recent visit to Chicago, I met my friend Katy for breakfast at m.henry, a French-inspired “New American” eatery in Andersonville that serves breakfast and lunch, focusing on local and organic ingredients (which scores extra points in my book). Oddly enough, in spite of my obsession with great breakfast venues and my Francophilic tendencies, this was my first experience at m.henry.
As I perused the daily specials, the bread pudding, topped with blackberries and peaches, caught my eye. I’d always wanted to try bread pudding. A staple in many families, and the kind of thing I imagine my grandmother ought to have made, bread pudding somehow hadn’t yet made it into my food repertoire.
“How’s the bread pudding?” I asked the waiter as he poured steaming coffee into the thick china mugs on the table before us.
“Best thing on the menu today,” he said without missing a beat.
“I’ll have it, then,” I said, and handed him my menu.
I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, but my wildest imagination could not have conjured up the steaming heaven in a bowl that appeared in front me a short time later. The smell alone was enough to satisfy. Chunks of rich challah, soaked in a custard of eggs, cream, and cinnamon, caramelized by baking, were crowned with fresh sliced peaches and deep purple blackberries. Oh. My. Clearly, I didn’t spend enough time uptown when I lived in Chicago. How, I wondered, did I manage to miss this place?
I’ve thought about that bread pudding for two months.
A few days ago, sitting at my sister’s kitchen table in Oklahoma City, discussing what we’d cook during my week-long visit, it came to me. (One of the first things we always do at the start of a visit is decide what food we want to make together. Carla is always keen to try whatever I’ve been making since I’ve seen her last, or to sign up for one of my culinary experiments.)
“Bread pudding,” I said to her. “Let’s make bread pudding.”
I described the food utopia I’d experienced at m.henry, and she was game, so I went on a recipe hunt. A few websites and cookbooks later, I had a good idea of how I wanted to approach my first attempt at bread pudding. The common ingredients were surprisingly simple. Carla had everything on hand, with the exception of the right bread, which we took care of at the market.
That afternoon, while my nephews slept, I assembled the bread pudding and put it in the oven to bake. The intention was to eat it for breakfast the next morning, but after an hour of breathing in the mouth-watering smells emanating from Carla’s oven, we decided we would share a small bowl on the spot.
It was spongy and sweet, the bread we used punctuated with tender baked raisins. The custard, made with eggs and whole milk, was spiked perfectly with cinnamon and nutmeg. We scraped the bowl clean and, sighing reluctantly, set the rest aside to wait for breakfast.
Breakfast Bread Pudding
1 loaf cinnamon raisin bread (preferably homemade or from your local bakery)
3 cups whole milk or half-and-half
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Cut the bread into chunks and arrange in a two-quart casserole.
Whisk together the remainder of the ingredients, and pour over the bread. Use a spatula to press the bread down, so that the custard mixture rises to the top and covers the bread. Cover and let rest for 30 minutes.
Bake in a hot water bath for 55-65 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Serve warm topped with milk, cream, or maple syrup. Can be refrigerated and reheated.
Baking in a hot water bath:
You will need a pan that is larger around than and as deep as your casserole. In the bottom, place a metal rack or a dishtowel folded into two or more thicknesses. Place your casserole on top. Neither the sides nor the bottom of your casserole should touch the outer pan. Pour scalding water into the outer pan until it comes halfway up the side of the casserole dish. Place in the oven to bake.