I am learning to love the Jamaica Plain Whole Foods. It’s small and mighty, packed with just enough of just the right stuff. Sure, sometimes it’s stocked out of basics like brown sugar and chicken broth, but it has a variety of imported cheeses to make up for its faults. The only thing about the J.P. Whole Foods that continues to challenge my affection is the width of the aisles. They are narrow. Passing people mid-aisle is not a polite maneuver; it’s impossible unless someone is willing to go flat up against the shelves. Navigating around loose kids, full-sized shopping carts, sample tables, and artisan salumi is no easy task. On any given day, I wouldn’t be surprised to find Guy Fieri in there piloting a new Food Network show, “Yuppie Grocery Gauntlet.” Frustrating though those aisles may be, they do force me to get close to the food, which is how I discovered that the J.P. Whole Foods regularly sells hot-from-the-oven bread. That’s also how I developed a bread surplus problem. And a bread pudding solution.
This discovery happened not long ago as I was pushing my cart through the single-file pass between the store’s salad bar and bread display. The lane was so narrow that I was close enough to feel heat coming from the bread bins. I reached out to the Italian loaves in disbelief. That bread was WARM and it smelled like all of my favorite things. I placed a loaf in the front basket of my cart so I could keep the smell close to me. I zigzagged to the check-out counter, bobbed and weaved out of the store, and rushed home to dunk that bread in the soup we were having for dinner.
The bread was cold by the time dinner was ready, of course, but it was still soft and light and a rare treat. I woke up the next morning eager to have a slice for breakfast. My morning sing-song was cut short when I picked up the loaf to find it had hardened overnight. Like, bang-the-loaf-on-the-counter-and-utensils-in-the-drawer-rattle hard. I sawed off a couple of slices for toast, but I knew the bread would be concrete by the next day. I was frustrated by the waste—we’d barely had two-thirds of the loaf. I ran through my mental list of What To Do with Stale Bread: croutons? breadcrumbs? breakfast casserole? french toast? bread pudding? Bread pudding! I could think of no better winter use of stale bread than a pudding.
I didn’t have a tried-and-true bread pudding recipe (I love tendresse aux pommes, but it uses a different kind of bread and I didn’t have apples), so I took to the internet. Many recipes call for way too many eggs and are really picky about the kind of milk to use. Many want booze-soaked dried fruit or other embellishments that I didn’t have on hand. The recipe that caught my eye was from The Pioneer Woman. It was basic, calling for two eggs, 2.5 cups of milk, vanilla, sugar, a chunk of butter, and some sourdough bread. My bread was Italian white bread, but I went for it anyway.
It was an effortless success. In the oven, the chunks of soaked bread puffed into golden-crusted pudding. After a minute or two out of the oven, the pudding deflated and the remaining treat was humble, sweet, and multi-textured, suitable for a casual dessert or a brunch. It’s really just a french toast casserole with the bread in a different form. The bread is arranged in a single layer in a pie pan, so the edge pieces get crispy-crunchy while the center pieces go soft, stopping just shy of custard. Vanilla is the dominant flavor, making the pudding taste a little fancier than its simple roots. The best part, though, is that it completely justifies my new warm-bread buying habit: not a crumb goes to waste.
adapted from The Pioneer Woman
This is best made with stale bread. If the bread is too fresh, it won’t soak up enough of the liquid and the custard will not cook properly. I like this baked in a quiche or pie pan because more surface area of the bread is exposed to the heat, creating more crunchy pieces to balance the soft center. The recipe also works in an 8 inch by 8 inch by 2 inch Pyrex pan, but the overall texture will be more uniformly soft.
As for toppings, The Pioneer Woman suggests a very boozy butter sauce (recipe on her site). I prefer a dark chocolate sauce to cut some of the sweetness (recipe below).
One final note: this bread pudding is intended to be unfussy. It doesn’t matter what bread you use, as long as you can cut it into thick chunks and it’s stale. Use whatever milk you have, as long as it has a little fat in it. (I usually use half-and-half). Swap some of the vanilla for rum or bourbon or whatever liquor you’d like. Dash in cinnamon. Throw in chopped white chocolate. Add nuts or raisins or whatever you have in your cabinet. Enjoy.
Enough stale bread, cut into 1-inch cubes, to fill a 9-inch pie pan (about 3 to 5 cups)
2 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
2.5 cups of milk
1.5 cups of granulated sugar
2 tablespoons of vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
Arrange the stale bread cubes in a single, snug layer in a 9-inch pie pan or quiche dish (if you’re using a pie dish, you can stack a layer around the edge to reach the lip of the pan).
In a medium bowl, whisk together the beaten eggs, milk, melted butter, and vanilla until combined. Add the sugar and salt and whisk until the sugar is dissolved.
Pour the liquid over the bread. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing the wrap against the top of the bread. Let sit for an hour.
Preheat the oven to 325°F.
Remove plastic wrap and bake bread pudding for 50 to 70 minutes, until the top starts to turn golden brown.
Remove from oven and let sit for 5 minutes before serving.
dark chocolate sauce
adapted from Food52
1 cup / 6 oz 60% (or darker) chocolate chips or chopped chocolate
6 tablespoons half-and-half (or other milk), plus more as needed
pinch of salt
Place chocolate, salt, and 6 tablespoons milk in a bowl over a saucepan of simmering water. As the chocolate starts to melt, stir until completely smooth. Add additional milk in splashes to reach desired thickness.