If you’re anything at all like me you’ll have in your pantry, at any given time, an assortment of five or seven half-eaten loaves of bread, at varying degrees of stale to rock-hard, floating around in crumpled paper bags, wreaking havoc on the rest of the cupboard contents (because really, half-eaten loaves of bread aren’t made to slot neatly into jam-packed shelves).
And if you’re anything at all like me you’ll start to panic every time you open your pantry, because there’s Too Much Stale Bread floating around on top of the rest of the stuff and when you try to grab the sugar, or eggs, or heaven forbid something like rye flour or barley that lives at the back, the crumply paper bags will come tumbling down. And you’ll decide it’s time to take action.
If your bread’s on the soft end of stale you might make French toast, or panzanella, and if you’re making a salad or soup for dinner you might make croutons, but if you’re on a sugar kick and you’re not responsible for anyone else’s wellbeing you’ll get out a serrated knife and hack your bread into cubes, ready to soak in a sweet, milky-eggy custard base: Dessert for Dinner.*
Last time I wrote about suffering the consequences of having eaten too much dessert. This was one of the culprits that left me in a sugar-coma and ultimately led me to declare a sugar-free week last week (a partial success – I made it through 1.5 days**). But anyhow. There’s still something about dessert for dinner that means I do it anyway, though I’m fully aware of the consequences.
And when I don’t have a lot of energy (or ingredients) to make something elaborate***, this pudding is something I turn to. It’s quick to put together, uses the most basic of ingredients, smells glorious in the oven. Plus I must be doing some good by clearing some of that stale bread out of the cupboard, right?
Bread and butter pudding (or technically, in this case, bread pudding since there’s – gasp – no butter in this pudding) isn’t something I grew up with. Probably a good thing, because I love it so much I probably would have easily fallen into a personal childhood obesity crisis. In fact, it wasn’t until I was about nineteen and waitressing over the university holidays that I first tried it. In the restaurant kitchen there was always a warm tray of grey, gloopy bread pudding that would inevitably be left over at the end of the night. I didn’t blame the customers; there were far more attractively presented desserts on the menu, and for a long time I turned my nose up in disgust.**** But at the end of one night, feet aching from what seemed like a marathon dinner service, I was offered a bit of pudding. It was past midnight, I hadn’t eaten since about 3pm, all I wanted was to collapse into bed but there was still work left to do, and that soft, raisin-studded cinnamony slop suddenly became my new best friend.
Since then I’ve taken to making this when I’m cold, when I’m tired, when I need to feed dessert to a crowd, when I need to clear out my cupboards, when I’m overwhelmed with sorrow or joy or stinging indignation. I know the whole emotional-eating-is-bad-for-you deal has some truth to it but there’s really nothing more comforting.
Now that I usually make my own I prefer bread pudding to have a bit of structure rather than that first soggy, wobbly mess I had at the restaurant (still tasted amazing, but you know, personal preferences). If you like yours to be totally soft and supple, just adjust the quantities of bread or liquid to saturate the bread. A longer soaking time, especially if your bread is extra-stale, wouldn’t hurt either.
Because this is such a straightforward dessert it’s easy to experiment with variations. I often use the old standard of raisins or apples, though pear and ginger is a good combination as well as banana and nutmeg. This time around I dumped in some cranberries I found in the back of the freezer. It was a good call: their almost-sour tartness cut through the sweet, custardy bread, making this more of a grown-up dessert.
*or, of course, you could do as normal people do and make this as, well, Dessert for Dessert. If you’re really trying to use up a lot of stale bread you could always have salad (with croutons), soup (with croutons or little crispy toasts), aaaaand then this pudding. And maybe whizz up whatever’s left to freeze as breadcrumbs. Now there’s an idea.
**I was doing really well up to the point where it was afternoon tea time and not one, but two cakes appeared at work, along with a platter of fruit. Should’ve just stuck with the fruit, but hey… they were good cakes.
***which is usually part of the reason I’m having dessert for dinner in the first place.
****At age nineteen I was far from open-minded about food, though my attitudes were starting to change!
CRANBERRY BREAD PUDDING (serves 4-6, or more depending on how stingy you are in dishing it out):
Preheat oven to 170C.
Cut stale bread into cubes or chunks, about 3cm will do. Fill a baking dish with these (or, if you want to be precise, measure out 4-5 cups). Add 1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries and mix so that they’re evenly distributed.
Beat 4 eggs with 2 cups milk, 1 tsp vanilla and 3/4 cup sugar* until well combined. Don’t be tempted to dip your spoon in this mixture for a taste. You might end up drinking the whole mixture. And just wait, there’s an even more delicious cook’s treat ahead…
Pour the liquid mixture over the bread, give it a stir, let it soak for a bit until the bread has absorbed most of the liquid. STOP EATING THE SOAKING BREAD CUBES or you’ll have no dessert left. (Or, if you’re like me, you can just top up by cutting up some more bread cubes and adding a bit more sugar/milk mixture)**
Before you can pop any more custard-soaked bread cubes into your mouth, sprinkle some demerara sugar on top and pop the baking dish in the oven. Bake for 40-50 minutes or until pudding is set and golden brown on top.
Serve warm, topped with cream whipped with a little vanilla paste and caster sugar. Or vanilla ice cream. If you have any left over, eat it for breakfast in the morning. I mean, it’s pretty much French toast!
*you can adjust sugar quantities to taste – anything more than 3/4 cup I find to be sickly sweet, but to each their own – and less is fine, too.
**no wonder I had a stomachache after this.