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Various pudding recipes, especially bread pudding, have been traditional Christmas dishes since the 19th century. Before discussing bread pudding we must first illuminate what pudding in general is, and that’s the real challenge. According to the culinary encyclopedia Larousse Gastronomique, pudding is “Any of numerous dishes, sweet or savory, served hot or cold, which are prepared in a variety of ways.” I think that’s the broadest definition I’ve ever encountered. With those parameters, a McDonalds Happy Meal could be considered pudding. The problem is the word “pudding” has been applied to multifarious preparations over the centuries. Buckle your seatbelts and get ready for a winding culinary ride.
The earliest puddings were created during the medieval period and were very similar to sausages. Seventeenth century English puddings were meat based and savory or sweet from a combination of flour, fruit, nuts and sugar. They were encased in a dough made from flour and suet, (animal fat from the kidneys and loin), and then boiled in a mold or special bag. In fact, at one point the word pudding referred to all boiled dishes.
In France, the word pudding referred to a type of cake made from bread sweetened with milk, raisins, rum, eggs and oranges. Yorkshire pudding is a type of popover made from eggs, milk and flour baked in beef drippings. Rice pudding is based on rice, tapioca on, you guessed it, tapioca, Nesselrode pudding uses cream enriched custard and chestnut puree and soufflé pudding employs choux paste to name a few variants.
What we think of today as pudding has its genesis in 1840’s America when people began to thicken custard-based desserts with either custard powder or cornstarch. This thickened custard was then flavored with various items such as vanilla, chocolate, fruit, etc. Custard is a cooked mixture of eggs, milk and sugar and dates back to the middle ages. Pastry cream, crème brulee, flan, and crème anglaise are all custards.
Bread pudding was born in the 13th century. Known as “poor man’s pudding” it was created as a means of salvaging stale bread. The bread was soaked in milk or water, then sugar, butter, fruit, and/or spices were added, and then it was baked. Sometimes the mixture was housed in a “sop,” a hollowed out loaf of bread. Modern bread pudding is made by pouring custard and other flavorings over cubed bread and then baking it.
Many of our current Christmas traditions, including culinary ones, can be traced back to Victorian age England. Various puddings, including bread pudding became classic Christmas fare. In Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, Christmas dinner is highlighted by the presentation of Mrs. Cratchit’s plum pudding, which Bob Cratchit proclaimed “the greatest success achieved by Mrs. Cratchit since their marriage.” Hmmmm. Well I can’t guarantee your spouse will feel the same, but this bread pudding recipe will at least make their tummy happy.
First, we must make the custard:
• 1 quart half and half. (Yes you can use regular milk but c’mon, it’s Christmas.)
• 1 cup sugar
• 1 vanilla bean or 1 oz. vanilla extract
• 6 eggs
• 6 egg yolks
Split the vanilla bean, scrape out the seeds and place the pod and the seeds in a saucepan with the milk and sugar. (If you’re using vanilla extract add it at the very end). Bring the milk mixture to a boil. Meanwhile, whisk the eggs and egg yolks. When the milk has boiled remove the vanilla pod. SLOWLY pour the milk mixture into the eggs, in a thin stream, whisking CONSTANTLY. You can even pour it intermittently. If you pour it in too fast you will scramble the eggs. Strain it into a bowl and skim any foam off the surface. If you’d like, you can add some of your favorite liqueur to the custard now.
• 2 oz. raisins
• 6 oz. of French, Italian, or Brioche bread cut into ½-inch cubes
• 3 oz melted butter
• 5 cups of the custard mixture
Preheat your oven to 300 degrees. Bring the raisins to a boil in water and then drain. Toss the bread cubes with the melted butter and then scatter them and the raisins in a 1½ - 2 quart baking dish. Pour the custard over the bread. Now place the baking dish into a larger pan, such as a roasting pan. Pour hot tap water in the larger pan until it comes at least halfway up the baking dish. Bake for 45 minutes to an hour or until the custard sets. The custard is set when it has a slight jiggle but is no longer fluid. The purpose of the water bath is to create gentle and uniform heating. High oven temperatures and/or lack of insulation from the water can cause the custard to curdle. Merry Christmas!
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