Thursday, April 1, 2010

On Bread Pudding

Bread pudding: I woke up thinking about it this morning. Call it a gift or call it a curse: we professional chefs seem to be preternaturally prone to ponder food at all hours of the day. And today, my first waking thoughts were of bread pudding, no doubt in large part because I must make another one today. The current dulce de leche pudding has found such favor with customers that we cannot keep it in stock. In fact, I've never seen a dessert fly so fast.

It seems unusual that bread pudding would be hugely popular at a fine dining restaurant because it is a quintessentially homey, comfort dessert. Part of its appeal no doubt is that once you tuck into a dish of ultra-creamy bread pudding, there is no doubt that you're eating dessert. There's no feeling of guilt in destroying the post-modern composition on your plate, no wistfulness at pulling down that sculpture in chocolate that some pastry chef slaved over, no, no remorse at all about digging deep into that bowl of warm, cozy goodness. Except perhaps that fleeting remorse about one's ever increasing waistline. But that can wait until tomorrow, this bread pudding is so damned good that there's no stopping until the bowl is clean!

Bread pudding is also probably so popular because it is somehow deeply rooted in our psyche. In my case, there is no doubt of it. Every time I think about bread pudding, I think about my maternal grandmother. Near the end of her life when I was nearing the end of college, I would make the three-hour drive to spend the odd weekend with her. I loved these visits and she loved them too. She would slave away cooking for me and being no slouch at the table, I would eat all she fixed for me. Toward the end of her life, I could see how much of an effort, how painful it really was to cook for me, but how much pleasure she took in seeing me eat.

The meal that she would cook for me was ritualized by my final year in college: fried rabbit (technically smothered rabbit, first browned then cooked in gravy), turnip salad (the greens of turnips cooked slowly with side meat, cured but not smoked pork belly), crackling corn pone (white cornmeal, lard, crispy cracklings of pork skin, and hot water, shaped into submarine shapes and baked), and for dessert, bread pudding.

My grandmother's bread pudding was not like mine. Hers was a very quick dessert made of store-bought sliced white bread buttered and spread with jelly or jam, strawberry being my favorite, the slices overlapping one another in the bottom of a flat pan, with a custard of milk, sugar, vanilla, and eggs poured over. Twenty minutes later and I was a very, very happy young man.

My bread pudding today is an amazingly rich and decadent affair that bears scant resemblance to hers. I've taken her concept of bread pudding and tweaked it over decades and although the familial resemblance is still there, my pudding is a very different beast, but not so different that it doesn't resonate with customers the way that my grandmother's resonated with me.

My grandmother died before I could return the favor by cooking for her. How I wish I could share a bowl of bread pudding with her! She'd be tickled!