Saturday, April 05, 2008

Not Too Sweet: Savory Bread Pudding

I am not enamored of sweet bread puddings. When I see one on a restaurant dessert menu, I don’t, like so many people I know, say, “Oooo, bread pudding…” in the dreamy tone of a love struck youth murmuring the sacred name of this week’s crush. No, I skip on, looking for something else.

But swap out the sugar for cheese, and the chocolate for herbs, and I am enchanted. I adore savory bread puddings as a side dish. They’re something different, a change from the usual, and so versatile.

I often find myself with a fairly significant amount of stale bread of varying kinds. I don’t think we’ve ever finished a baguette, or managed to get through a loaf of artisan bread before it turned rock hard and crumbly. I know that when my three boys are older, we’ll be hard put to keep a loaf of bread around a single day, but for now when they’re all eating sliced store bought wheat bread (with peanut butter and “jello” no less), and my husband and I are the only consumers of “good” bread, we’re often left with these odds and ends.

I do make breadcrumbs out of them, and freeze them, but there are only so many breadcrumbs one needs. We’re not using them to leave trails so we can find our way to and from places, after all. Sooner or later, we have all the breadcrumbs we need, thanks. When that happens, I make bread pudding for dinner.

Really any decent bread will do. I’ve used herb breads, whole wheat breads, baguette. Just about anything, short of presliced sandwich bread, will turn out an excellent finished product. And the bread can be of just about any degree of staleness. The pudding I made most recently was a combination of bread that was so dry that it crumbled to dust in my hands, and some that needed to be cut into cubes because it still retained some degree of moistness. In fact, the combination of the two makes an interesting pudding, because the bread absorbs the milk mixture to different degrees, and you get subtly contrasting textures within the dish.

Some recipes call for heating the milk with the herbs to infuse the milk with the flavor, but I skip this step in an effort to get it in the oven more quickly. I just mix everything up in a bowl, spread the bread cubes in the pan, dump the milk over the top, and push down for a few minutes to get everything really saturated. It couldn’t be easier, and the end result is so rewarding. A soft, custardy, savory pillow of bread with a crisp, cheesy crust.

As for variations, I’ve already mentioned using different kinds of bread, but the herbs and cheese can also be customized to the meal or your personal taste. Italian herbs and grated parmesan, thyme and firm goat cheese, or sage with crumbled blue cheese. Dried herbs work just as well as fresh, and in some cases even better, which makes bread pudding almost a convenience food. Leftover bread, some of whatever cheese you have lying around, and some dried herbs. Result: impressive and yummy side dish that took no time to put together and actually helped you out by using up something you might have ended up throwing out otherwise.

Savory Bread Pudding
serves 6-8, or makes enough for two with plenty of leftovers to have for breakfast the next morning, which isn’t as weird as it sounds.

8 cups torn stale bread
3 cups milk
3 eggs
2 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs (or 1 tablespoon dried herbs), I used rosemary
Salt & pepper
¾ c grated cheese (or more, if desired, and some extra for scattering over the top), I used Gruyere

Preheat oven to 475. Spread bread into a 9x13 pan. Combine milk, eggs, herbs, salt, pepper, and cheese in a large bowl. Pour milk mixture over bread and let sit 10 mins, occasionally pushing bread down into the milk mixture. Scatter additional cheese over top if desired. Bake pudding at 475 for 25-35 minutes or until browned and crisp on top, and center is cooked through but still soft.

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