This is the final "recipe" from my recent Low Country cooking class, in which I made a White Chocolate, Caramel & Pecan Bread Pudding. I put the word recipe in quotes because there is no real recipe. I'll give you a formula for the basic custard and some cooking tips and from there, you're on your own to devise flavorings that appeal to you.
Bread puddings are very simple creatures with very few ingredients, so the ingredients need to be as high quality as possible: fresh eggs, heavy cream, and above all, excellent bread.
I typically make bread pudding by the full hotel pan, whose dimensions are 20-3/4"L x 12-3/4"W x 2-1/2"D, about 40 servings. I know that this pan takes about a gallon of custard. When faced with a smaller pan at home, I don't sweat it; I just let the pan guide me.
First, I use the pan to show me how much bread I need. I rip my very good French bread into small chunks until I fill the pan. Then I remove the bread to a bowl and pour over an appropriate amount of custard—I generally start with a quart. Then I spray the pan with pan spray to simplify clean up. Once the bread has soaked for 15-20 minutes, I pour it back in the pan and make any additional custard needed to fill the pan about 3/4 deep. To recap, that's a pan full of bread, but about 3/4 deep in custard. You need that extra head room because the bread pudding is going to puff beautifully.
As for the custard, a good rule of thumb is one whole large (I say large, but our eggs come from chickens and not factories, so they are not graded) egg per cup of heavy cream, with sugar and flavorings to taste. So, to a quart of cream, you'd add four eggs; to a gallon of cream, you'd add 16 eggs. I use the finger test to assess if I've got the seasonings correct. I don't like my bread pudding very sweet, so to a quart of cream, I might add a 1/4 cup of sugar. Your taste will vary, naturally.
As you might have guessed from what I hinted about above, a good bread pudding is a variation of a custard or flan, so standard custard cooking techniques apply: a water bath in a low oven is the preferred method. Are you kidding? I don't have a water bath at the restaurant big enough to hold a full hotel pan and I am sure as heck not doing a water bath at home! So, low and slow.
I cook the bread pudding at about 350 until it starts to brown on top, cover it loosely with foil, and turn the oven down to about 275 and let it finish. (These temperatures are approximate; there are no reliable thermostats on our ovens.) It will be done when it is good and golden on top and the center has just set. With experience, you can look at the bread pudding to see when it is done—the center will be the last part to rise. Otherwise, give the pan a jiggle to see whether it is still shaking in the center, or insert a toothpick or skewer in the center to see if it comes out clean or not.
Now for the class, I made White Chocolate, Caramel & Pecan Bread Pudding. This means that I took about 3/4 cup of white sugar and caramelized it over high heat and added the caramel once cooled along with a cup of white chocolate pastilles (chips) and a cup of pecans to the bread pudding. When I mixed up the custard, I added a vanilla bean, a pinch of salt, and a scant amount of sugar (because I knew I would be adding caramel to the pudding).
There are your basics. I leave it to you to devise your own flavorings. I also leave you with a bit of advice: don't sweat it. Bread pudding is forgiving. My grandmother used to make it for me by spreading butter and strawberry jelly on slices of white bread, overlapping the slices of bread in the bottom of a shallow pan, pouring a little custard around the edges and baking it straight away. It was delicious and so will be anything that you try.
I now make all manner of bread puddings, both sweet and savory. One of the most successful has been a savory one made from a custard infused with thyme, sage, rosemary, parsley, black pepper, and garlic. This is a killer accompaniment to roast fowl or meat.