A quintessential comfort dessert gets dressed to dazzle. Bread pudding has long been known as a simple, homespun dessert, but lately, its status has been elevated. Pastry chefs are realizing that it can be transformed into an indulgence that caters to all the senses—not only a diner’s feelings of nostalgia.
The dessert was originally developed as a means of avoiding waste, as all that was needed was a bit of stale bread, some milk or cream, sugar, and eggs. Bake these together in the oven, and a little while later, out emerged a perfectly toasty, golden-topped treat with a sweet and custardy interior. Comfortable with its humble roots, bread pudding coasted along for some time in the shadow of cakes, pies, and tarts. That is, until some experimental chefs began to incorporate higher-end ingredients, such as liqueurs, specialty fruits, and exotic spices.
One restaurant that raised the bar for bread pudding is Commander’s Palace. Established in 1880 in New Orleans, Commander’s is known for its iconic recipe that prompts customers to return to that location and the newer one in Las Vegas.
Listed on the menu as “Creole Bread Pudding” ($8), the dessert is much lighter and fluffier than the classic. The base is prepped ahead, with plenty of cinnamon and nutmeg added, and baked before service. “It is important to use light, airy French bread, thus allowing the custard to saturate it completely, and than bake this as the base,” says executive chef Tory McPhail.
Orders must be placed at the beginning of the meal so Commander’s kitchen can add its special twist—folding a French meringue into the pre-baked base. The pudding is then baked to order for 20 minutes in a 250°F oven until it rises and turns into an ethereal, golden soufflé. “The beauty is that it tastes just like it’s coming out of the oven after 3 to 4 hours at Grandma’s house,” McPhail says. Prep is completed tableside with a drizzle of whiskey sauce.
It was back in the 1980s when the restaurant was hosting a celebration that then Chef Paul Prudhomme decided to combine a new idea with an old recipe, and from this the renowned “Creole Bread Pudding” was born. “People can return to Commander’s and have exactly what they had 20 years ago,” McPhail says. “But you can also have a reinvented version of Creole cuisine.”
Annisa, a 45-seat upscale contemporary American restaurant in New York City, has a bread pudding variation of its own. Using day-old French bread as the base, chef Anita Lo incorporates poppy seeds into the classic recipe of eggs, cream, and butter, and completes the dessert with a creamy Meyer lemon sauce. The tangy lemon curd flavor, contrasted by the slight pop of the seeds and the golden crust on top, sets this bread pudding apart. It sells for $8.50.
“Not only have I always loved bread pudding,” says Lo, “but it’s also extremely economical as it uses day-old bread.” Having made the dessert for staff meal one day, she was so impressed that she decided it was destined for her menu.
Chocolate flavors the bread pudding at Blue Hill, a 55-seat New York restaurant that specializes in seasonal cuisine. The kitchen here produces a chocolate bread pudding that combines salty with sweet, pairing the dessert with salted caramel, roasted peanuts, and banana ice cream ($10). After the bread has been soaked for some time in the chocolate-egg mixture, the pudding is baked almost like a sheet cake. “This preparation allows it to hold its form,” explains business manager Sara Lesin. “The rectangular pudding is then cut into cylinders or into a square with a circle cut out of the middle, into which is placed the warm, salted caramel and peanuts. The ice cream goes on top.”
As summer turns into fall, bread puddings will be tweaked a bit. With the growing season for Meyer lemons ending, Lo of Annisa will rely on other fruits. “I may use stewed Italian plums instead of the Meyer lemon curd, or make a pomegranate butter and garnish the pudding with pomegranate seeds,” she says. “The list is endless as to what you can do with bread pudding.”
A Wave from Spanish Shores
Inspired by a recent trip to the Iberian peninsula, Yann de Rochefort and Alex
Urena, owner and executive chef of Suba, a hip Spanish restaurant in downtown New York City, created La Nueva Ola (The Next Wave) to spotlight Spain as gastronomic trendsetter. The pair invited four rising stars to take part in a Chefs Series. It launched in August with Pepe Rodriguez Rey from El Bohio in La Mancha, and will follow with Raul Aleixandre Muria of Ca Sento, Angel Leon of El Tambuche, and finally, Carlos Posados of Relais Chateau Sanot Mauro. For two evenings, each chef offers a five-course tasting menu, including wine pairings, for $125 per person.
“I have always thought Spanish cuisine was minimally and poorly represented in New York,” says de Rochefort. “The vision of Suba was to establish a restaurant that would raise the standard, and the series serves to deepen relationships in the Spanish wine and food industry, while giving these chefs an opportunity to showcase their talents.” Suba’s chef Urena worked alongside the avant garde Ferran Adria at El Bulli in Spain, and is known in New York for his edgy, experimental cuisine.
When you’re serving sophisticated food in the ‘burbs, local customers are your bread and butter. To attract that crowd, Mark Allen, chef-owner of Le Soir in Newton, MA, introduced Neighbors Night. Every Wednesday evening, he offers a three-course, $40 prix fixe menu that showcases his French country cuisine at a neighborly pricetag. A late-summer dinner menu included Chilled Corn Soup with Crispy Shallots, Lobster-Stuffed Trout with Leek Fondue, and Sorbet a la Nage. The usual dinner check averages $75 with wine at the restaurant.
Prix Fixe customers have more than doubled since the mid-July debut. “Locals are discovering that Le Soir is not just for special occasions,” says Allen. “We’re a friendly, neighborhood bistro offering great value.”
Wine and Dine Mondays
As one of an elite group of Master Sommeliers, Richard Dean, beverage manager of The Mark, New York, is serious about wine. But when guests dine at Mark’s, the hotel’s signature restaurant, he wants them to have fun pairing grape and grub. So Dean initiated “The Wine Scene” on Mondays— combination tastings, educational seminars, and pairing dinners led by winemakers from around the world.
“We started by doing one every few months, choosing Monday because it’s notoriously slow,” Dean says. “Now it’s the busiest night of the week.” Recent guest speakers have included Dr. Rowald Hepp from Germany’s Schloss Vineyards leading a Riesling tasting and Stuart Devine with Villa Maria Estate of New Zealand. Dean works closely with Mark’s chef, Jean Pierre Bagnato, to create multi-course menus that marry well with the wines. The evenings run from $90-$120 per person, compared to an average check of $75.
It’s a win-win situation says Dean. The winemakers get good exposure for their bottles, guests get a great “deal,” and The Mark introduces new customers to its restaurant.
Bread Pudding with Irish Whiskey Sauce
3⁄4 lb. French bread, 11⁄2-in. thick
1 cup raisins
2 dozen large eggs
11⁄2 qt. heavy cream
21⁄2 cups sugar
1 tbsp. plus 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground nutmeg
2 oz. unsalted butter, chopped
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
1⁄2 cup sugar
7 large egg yolks
1⁄4 cup Irish whiskey
- Arrange half the bread in 13x9-in. pan; sprinkle with raisins. Arrange remaining bread on top.
- Whisk eggs, cream, 2 cups sugar, 1 tbsp. cinnamon, and nutmeg. Pour half the custard over bread; let sit 15 min.
- Pour remaining custard over bread; gently press. Mix remaining sugar and 1 tsp. cinnamon; sprinkle over bread.
- Dot bread with butter; bake 11⁄2-2 hr., until just set.
- Bring cream and milk to a boil. Whisk sugar and yolks; whisk in hot milk mixture. Stir over simmering water until thick, 12 min.
- Sieve sauce; add whiskey.
Yield: 12 servings.