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.

…the taste of chocolate is a sensual pleasure in itself, existing in the same world as sex….For myself, I can enjoy the wicked pleasure of chocolate…entirely by myself. Furtiveness makes it better.
~Dr. Ruth Westheimer

Some misled foodies have asserted that mouse au chocolat has become hackneyed, banal, and instead opt for the more eccentric desserts on a menu. Check error on their box scores. This lustrous, chocolate-intense dessert has never become trite to me. No way, no how. We are talking chocolate.

Chocolate is made from the seeds of the tropical cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, named by the famed 17th century Swedish naturalist, Linnaeus who laid the foundations for the modern scheme of binomial nomenclature. Translated from the Greek theobroma, “food of the gods,” they are small, understory trees that demand rich, adequately drained soil and bear small white beans. These environmentally particular trees only grow within about 15 degrees of either side of the equator.

Most things sensual reside in the recesses of our gray matter. Because of chocolate’s reputation as a subtle aphrodisiac, the renowned Italian libertine, Giacomo Casanova, ate chocolate before bedding his many mistresses. Centuries later, a study of Harvard graduates showed that chocolate consumers lived longer than abstainers. Their longevity may be explained by the high polyphenol levels in chocolate which reduce the oxidation of low density lipoproteins and thus reduce the risk of heart disease and even cancer. So, the antioxidants produced by chocolate purportedly increase HDL (“good”) cholesteral levels, and release polyphenols which are a form of antioxidant. Chocolate is also rich in flavonoids, a compound shown to promote several beneficial effects in the cardiovascular system, including decreasing oxidation of LDL cholesterol (a harmful process that allows cholesterol to accumulate in blood vessels); inhibiting aggregation of blood platelets (which contributes to the risk of blood clots that produce stroke and heart attack); and decreasing the body’s inflammatory immune responses (which contribute to atherosclerosis).

Chocolate has also been described as a “psychoactive” food. It affects the brain by causing the release of particular neurotransmitters which are molecules that send signals between neurons.

Some trials have even suggested chocolate consumption may subtly enhance cognitive performance, increasing scores for verbal and visual memory. Eating chocolate also increases endorphin levels, lessening pain and decreasing stress. To go a step further, a chemical found in chocolate, trytophan, causes the release of serotonin which serves as an antidepressant. The ultimate comfort food?

Chocolate has a distinct tendency to absorb surrounding odors, so take care to store it well covered or sealed. Otherwise you will taste a mousse which is flavored with its disaffected food neighbors.

MOUSSE AU CHOCOLAT

8 oz high quality bittersweet chocolate (85% cocoa), coarsely chopped
1/4 C strong coffee

6 T unsalted butter, softened
4 large egg yolks

4 large egg whites
6 T confectioners’ sugar

2 C heavy cream, chilled
1 t vanilla extract

Melt chocolate and coffee in a double boiler over a pan of simmering water, stirring frequently. Beat the softened butter into the the melted chocolate, and then, one at a time, whisk in the egg yolks until thoroughly blended.

Beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks. While beating, stir in the sugar by tablespoonfuls. Beat them until shining and stiff peaks are formed. Fold the chocolate mixture and egg whites together.

Beat the cream and vanilla in a chilled bowl until stiff peaks form, and then gently fold into the chocolate, butter and egg mixture with a rubber spatula. Do not overmix, but make sure that the mixture is well blended and that white streaks have disappeared.

Spoon mousse into stemmed glasses, ramekins or a serving bowl and chill, covered, at least 8 hours. Serve atop crème anglaise or topped with freshly whipped cream.

The only thing that will make a soufflé fall is if it knows you are afraid of it.
~James Beard

The word soufflé is nothing more than the past participle of the French verb souffler which means “to blow up” or even more loosely “puff up” — an apt description of what is created by this heavenly marriage of egg whites and Béchamel sauce (savory) or custard (sweet). According to most food historians, soufflés were a product of 18th century French cuisine with the first written recipe purportedly appearing in the 1742 edition of Vincent La Chapelle’s, Le Cuisinier Moderne.

CHEESE SOUFFLE

2 T finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Unsalted butter

2 1/2 T unsalted butter
3 T all purpose flour
1 C whole milk
1 bay leaf

1/4 t paprika
1/2 t sea salt
Nutmeg, a small grating
White pepper, a healthy pinch, preferably freshly ground
Cayenne pepper, a minute pinch

4 large organic, free range egg yolks
5 large organic, free range egg whites
1 C gruyère cheese, grated

Gruyère cheese, grated, for topping

Preheat oven to 375 F, with the rack in the lower third of the oven.

Butter the surface of an 6-cup soufflé dish. Add the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and roll around the dish to cover the sides and bottom, knocking out the excess.

Heat the milk with bay leaf. Once hot, discard bay leaf and set aside. In a heavy saucepan, melt the butter, then blend in the flour with a wooden spoon to make a smooth loose paste. Stir over medium heat until the butter and flour come together without coloring more that a light yellow, about 2 minutes—a blond roux. Remove from heat.

Let stand a few seconds and then pour in all of the hot milk, whisking vigorously to blend. Return to medium heat, stirring with a wooden spoon; bring to a gentle boil for 3 minutes or until the sauce is quite thick. Whisk in the paprika, salt, nutmeg and peppers and remove from heat again.

While off the heat, add egg yolks one by one into the sauce, all the while whisking.

In a separate bowl, using a hand or stand up mixer, whip the egg whites until glossy and peaked. Stir in a quarter of the egg whites into the sauce with a wooden spoon or spatula. Once they are assumed in the sauce, fold in the remaining egg whites and the gruyère cheese. Turn the soufflé mixture into the prepared mold, which should be about three quarters full. Sprinkle a small amount grated gruyère on top.

Bake 25 to 30 minutes, until the top is golden brown, and the soufflé has puffed about 2″ over the rim of the mold. (Do not open oven door for 20 minutes.) Once done, remove and serve at once with frisée or salad or asparagus spears with a vinaigrette of choice and a chilled, crisp sauvignon blanc.

Pourboire: Gently and briefly sauté 1/3 C shelled, roughly chopped lobster or crab in unsalted butter until warm. After completing the white (Béchamel) sauce, stir in the shellfish and then complete the remainder of the recipe. And always consider chopped fresh herbs and other melting cheeses such as fontina, et al. Or give thought to roquefort for a pungent change of pace.

CHOCOLATE SOUFFLE

2 T unsalted butter
1/4 granulated sugar

7 oz bittersweet chocolate (not unsweetened, with a high cocoa content)
1/3 cup espresso or strong coffee

1/3 C flour
2 C milk
3 T unsalted butter, cut in pieces
Pinch of sea salt
1 T vanilla extract
4 organic, free range egg yolks

6 organic, free range egg whites
1/2 C granulated sugar
Confectioners’ sugar

Preheat oven to 375 F

Butter an 8″ diameter soufflé dish and roll the sugar around in it to cover the bottom and sides, knocking out the excess.

In a heavy saucepan, smoothly melt the chocolate and coffee.

Whisk the flour and milk together and boil slowly while whisking for 2 minutes until thick. Remove from heat and whisk in the butter, salt and vanilla. Whisk in the egg yolks one by one, and then the melted chocolate and coffee mixture.

In a separate bowl, using a hand or stand up mixer, while gradually adding the sugar, whip the egg whites until glossy and peaked. Slowly and gently fold the chocolate sauce into the egg whites, and once done, turn into the soufflé dish.

Bake until soufflé has puffed up just over the rim of the dish and browned some, about 20 minutes. Dust the top with confectioners’ sugar and return to the oven to bake for a couple more minutes until the soufflé has puffed up an inch or so—but do not overcook. Serve over the ever luscious crème anglaise.

CREME ANGLAISE

6 organic, free range egg yolks, room temperature
2/3 C sugar
1 C whole milk
1/2 C heavy whipping cream
2 vanilla beans split lengthwise
3 T unsalted butter

Combine the milk, cream and vanilla bean in a sauce pan and bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat and let the bean steep for 15 minutes. With a paring knife, scrape the beans from the pod into the milk and cream. Whisk the egg yolks in a small heavy saucepan, adding the sugar by spoonfuls, until pale yellow and thick. In a very slow stream, stir in the hot milk/cream/vanilla mixture.

Place the sauce pan over medium low heat, slowly stirring the mixture until it almost reaches a simmer. Take care not to overcook as it will curdle, but heat enough so it thickens. The sauce is done when it coats a wooden spoon. Finish by whisking in the butter. Crème anglaise may be served warm or cold.