Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Joy of Bread Pudding

Last night we celebrated my friend Kathi's birthday with dinner out for six. It wasn't Kathi's birthday quite yet (that happens Tuesday) but she is well known for planning her birthday events well in advance and in multiples. Last night was our night on her calendar so we made reservations at Pearl Bar and Dining in Bellevue, a new favorite of ours.

We let the chef surprise us with his choices for our dinners. While I could go on about the entrees, this is really about a fun fact and the dessert.

While Matt the sommelier was uncorking our Rombauer chardonnay he told us that the family name, Rombauer, was part of the Joy of Cooking cookbook legacy. Irma Rombauer wrote the original Joy of Cooking in 1936 and it has been continuously in print ever since. I had never made the connection between the wine and the author until Matt told us that the owners of the vineyard were related and he showed us the cork. On it were the words "The Joy of Wine." Clever!

After dinner the chef sent us a special dessert that recently went on the menu. It was a luscious bread pudding, topped with a creamy vanilla sauce and fresh strawberries. We passed it around the table and declared it on par with our other favorite dessert there, the Butterscotch Sundae. Although I think of bread pudding as a decidedly wintertime dessert choice, it was surprisingly light and with the strawberries, was perfect paired with our lovely June weather.

And so for Father's Day, I tried to recreate this dessert for my family using recipes from my copy of the Joy of Cooking. I began with the recipe for Bread Pudding with Meringue omitting the meringue, and adding the recipe for Creme Anglaise, or custard sauce. I had perfectly ripe strawberries from a recent visit to the Farmer's Market. The entire ingredient list? Milk, eggs, sugar, vanilla, bread, strawberries and lemon. That's it.

While I had high hopes that serendipity would allow me to use this cookbook and get the result I wanted, it wasn't to be. It was good, but didn't have the the depth that the Pearl dish had. The Creme Anglaise could have been a bit richer (using cream or half-and-half instead of milk perhaps), and the bread pudding in my version was just a simple, lightly sweetened, eggy sponge. If I were to try again, and I will, I might try substituting brown sugar in the bread pudding for a more caramel flavor, or spicing it up some. Perhaps caramelizing the top with sugar (a la creme brulee) would be good. Maybe they used a different pastry or bread (like a really decadent French Toast with lots of vanilla, sugar and butter, mmm) in their bread pudding. I'm not an experienced baker, so my instincts might be way off. Hints are very welcomed!

Bread Pudding with Creme Anglaise and Strawberries
adapted from the Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker

Serves 6

Creme Anglaise (Vanilla Custard Sauce)

2 cups whole milk
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, or 1 teaspoon vanilla
5 egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
pinch of salt

1. Heat the milk and vanilla bean over simmering water in a double boiler until hot but not boiling.

2. Whisk the egg yolks, sugar and salt together. Add a few tablespoons of the hot milk to the egg yolks to warm them, then add the egg mixture to the milk and whisk together. Place the mixture back over the simmering water.

3. Switch to a wooden spoon and cook the mixture over the simmering water, stirring often, until quite hot but not boiling. It will become the consistency of heavy cream as it cooks. You will know it's done when it coats the back of the spoon and you can drag your finger across and the line stays.

4. Once cooked, pour through a strainer (to catch any overly cooked egg) into a clean bowl. Scrape the vanilla bean with the back of a knife to collect the seeds and stir in to the mix. If you are using vanilla extract instead of a bean, add it now. Allow to cool, then cover and refrigerate.

Simple Bread Pudding

5 cups cubed fresh bread, crusts removed, lightly packed
3 cups whole milk
3 egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
The zest and juice from half a lemon

1 and 1/2 pints fresh strawberries, quartered and lightly sweetened with just a teaspoon of sugar, only if necessary

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

1. Place the cubed bread in a baking dish, pour the milk over and allow to soak for 15 minutes.

2. Whisk the egg yolk, sugar, vanilla, lemon zest and lemon juice together. Pour over the soaked bread and toss lightly with a fork until combined.

3. Place the baking dish into a larger pan, place it in the oven and then fill the larger dish with hot water, coming about halfway up the baking dish. Bake for 50 minutes.

Serve warm, covered with a large spoonful of the sauce and topped with a scoop of the strawberries.

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