In the midst of Mardi Gras, self-indulgence becomes a virtue, and what carb-loaded, butter-laden, sugar-crusted Crescent City dessert better thumbs its nose at caution than bread pudding? The origin of this classic Creole dessert is generally credited to frugal cooks who did not want to waste stale bread, hence the connection with and subsequent flourishing of the dessert in New Orleans and the need to deliciously utilize all those staled poor-boy loaves. In a brilliant jump of culinary improvisation, old bread, combined with sweeteners and fats such as eggs and butter, is elevated to the status of a soufflé-like treat, one that begs many variations and adaptations.
It seems every restaurant in New Orleans has its own imaginative version: Emeril's Bananas Foster bread pudding, Brennan's Palace Café version infused with white chocolate, Upperline's honey-pecan bread pudding with toffee sauce, and Mother's bizarre but delicious bread pudding studded with fruit cocktail! The permutations are many, but take a look at this no-frills recipe that possesses all the qualities of a good, basic bread pudding from which many departures can be made.
Most important is what type of bread to employ in your pudding: unused French bread, Wonder Bread, croissants, rolls, burger buns, even old pound-cake or doughnuts, used sparingly, can be pressed into service. The bread must be staled, though, meaning that it must be allowed to lose its moisture. You can use fresh bread for a pudding, but let it air-dry at least overnight before proceeding with the recipe. You want the bread to be able to soak up as much of the richness you will introduce to it as possible.
Take an 8-inch square glass or metal cake pan, 1-1/2 quart capacity, and butter it or coat with cooking spray. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a heavy saucepan, add 1-1/2 cups of half & half, and over high heat, bring just to the boil, watching closely—the cream can boil over very quickly. In a large mixing bowl, measure 4 cups of loosely packed bread, torn into small pieces. In a separate mixing bowl crack 3 large eggs, add 2/3 cup white sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, and a scant half-teaspoon each of cinnamon and nutmeg. Whisk this together, and after the cream is heated, add it, whisking all the while, to the eggs and sugar. Pour this mixture over the bread, stir well to get all the bread soaked in the liquid, and let sit for 15 minutes. Pour everything into the prepared baking pan. Lightly spray a piece of tinfoil with cooking spray, cover the pan, sprayed side down, and place in oven for 45 minutes. Remove tinfoil and return to oven for 15 more minutes until golden brown.
When your pudding is complete, you need only top it off with a sauce. In a pan over medium heat melt 1 stick of butter. Whisk in 1/2 cup of brown sugar and dissolve thoroughly. Whisk in 1/2 cup powdered sugar and let this cook for 3-5 minutes. Add 1 cup of heavy whipping cream and heat through. If you want to go in a boozy direction add a jigger of bourbon, brandy or Grand Marnier to the sauce after removing it from the heat. This pudding yields about 6 servings.
Try these variations or combinations: Add white chocolate and/or semi-sweet chocolate chunks to bread/custard mixture, about 3/4 cup. If you are a raisin fan, add up to 3/4 cup of golden raisins. More interestingly, bake about one cup of red seedless grapes on a sheet pan just until they begin to burst, fold into bread/custard mixture and continue as directed.