Bread Pudding & Alchemy

September 7, 2009

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. By a small sample we may judge of the whole piece.
~Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Not for the cardiopathic or even faint of heart, bread pudding had its genesis in 13th century England. Known as “poor man’s pudding” it was created as a means of salvaging stale bread. Before it was baked, the bread was soaked in water, and then sugar, butter, fruit, and spices were added. The luscious, decadent modern version has been traced back to antebellum America when cooks began thickening custard based desserts with either powder or cornstarch and then flavoring them with vanilla, chocolate, nuts, or fruits. The powder and cornstarch were later replaced by bread.

Bain Marie (Mary’s bath) refers to the method of placing a pan of food in another pan with hot water in it to stabilize the heat reaching the food. Bain maries are rooted in the practice of alchemy as a means to heat materials slowly and gently. The term purportedly derived from the Italian bagno maria, named after a legendary medieval alchemist, Maria de’Cleofa, who developed the technique in Firenze in the 16th century. She was the reputed author of Tradtor della Distillazone (About Medicine, Magic, and Cookery). This thermodynamic concept was soon introduced to the French court’s kitchens by the cooks of Catherine de’ Medici. It has also been asserted that the process was named after Mary the Jewess (or Maria Prophetissima), an esteemed yet more ancient alchemist who was said to have discovered hydrochloric acid. Some have equated her to Moses’ sister Miriam—a chronologically disputed claim.

There are almost endless possibilities of added flavors and textures—chopped nuts, chocolate, citrus zest, brandy or rum, dried or fresh fruits. My weapons of choice for bread are brioche, boules, challah, or even croissants or buttermilk scones (Scones, May 23, 2009 post). To rachet up the richness, serve with crème anglaise (March 27, 2009 post).

BREAD PUDDING

10 C bread cubes, crusts removed, cut into 1″ cubes
4 large eggs
4 egg yolks
1 C granulated white sugar
1 1/2 t pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 t ground cinnamon
1 t freshly grated nutmeg
4 T unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 C heavy whipping cream
2 C whole milk
3/4 C black currants, plumped in hot water, then drained
3/4 C walnuts, roughly chopped

Preheat oven to 300 F

Lightly butter a 9″ x 13″ baking dish.

With an electric mixer or whisk beat the eggs, yolks and sugar until thick, ribboned and lemon colored. Beat in the vanilla extract, ground cinnamon and nutmeg. Then beat in the milk and cream.

Toss the bread cubes with the melted butter in the baking dish and strew the raisins and nuts over the bread. Gently pour the prepared custard over the bread cubes until completely covered. Press down the bread cubes some so they are covered with the custard.

Prepare a bain marie. Place the filled baking dish into a larger pan, such as a roasting pan. Carefully pour in enough hot water in the larger pan so that the water is halfway up sides of the baking pan. Bake until the custard sets, about 45 minutes to 1 hour or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove and cool slightly before serving.

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