Sure, pumpkin pie, fruitcake, and gingerbread are quintessential holiday sweets. But there's another classic dessert that evokes the warm, cozy spirit of the season: bread pudding.
Gourmet bread pudding is having a moment. The old-school dish is popping up all over the place, from casual chains like Uno Pizzeria & Grill to fine dining establishments in Baltimore and beyond.
Today's bread puddings don't much resemble grandma's from Sunday dinners past. Thanks to reimagined recipes and signature ingredients, this traditional confection, whose origins date back centuries to Europe, has had a makeover.
"The ingredients in bread pudding aren't fancy," says Travis Marley, executive pastry chef at Foreman Wolf, the group behind Charleston and other acclaimed area restaurants. "Basically it's just bread, cream, eggs and sugar."
Yet a certain magic results when those humble elements come together with spices, dried or fresh fruit, nuts and other ingredients.
"Bread pudding is one of the first things I learned to make in culinary school," says Marley, 26, who earned a degree in baking and pastry arts from Baltimore International College. "It's pretty fool-proof to prepare and fairly inexpensive."
At Petit Louis Bistro's newest location in Columbia, the French-inspired menu features a walnut brioche bread pudding with roasted plums and cognac cream.
"Back in the fall, I saw these beautiful 'elephant heart' plums at the Waverly Farmers' Market," says Marley, citing his inspiration. "They were deep purple, with a mild tartness. I soaked them in syrup to preserve them, and then they're roasted."
The chef went "rustic" when it came to the bread, baking a fresh walnut brioche loaf. "I make my custard, pour it over the bread, which soaks it up. It's really egg-y, really buttery."
The confection is baked "until the top is nice and crusty" and the inside is "gooey with the liquid bubbling." A cognac creme anglaise tops it off.
Chef David Guas, author of the cookbook, "DamGoodSweet: Desserts to Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth, New Orleans Style" (Taunton Press, 2009), says bread pudding is ideal for the holidays, whether it's Christmas dinner or a New Year's Day brunch.
"Bread pudding is one of my favorite holiday traditions, and I make it for my family every holiday season," says Guas, who hosts the Travel Channel's "American Grilled" and makes frequent appearances on "The Today Show." "It's great for large gatherings and potlucks because it can be made up to three days ahead of time."
The New Orleans-born restaurateur, proprietor of Bayou Bakery Coffee Bar & Eatery in Washington and Arlington, Va., whips up a chocolate bread pudding, complemented by salted bourbon caramel. "In New Orleans, you'd make bread pudding with airy Leidenheimer French bread," he says, "but I find that brioche, challah or even day-old croissants or king cake make for an outrageously decadent pudding."
Brian McBride, executive chef and partner of the RW Restaurant Group that launched Mussel Bar & Grille in Harbor East in March, suggests using seasonal staples to invent holiday versions of the treat.
"Add eggnog to the cream or fruitcake marinated in different liqueurs," says McBride. "And I like the idea of a spiced pumpkin latte bread pudding. You can even make savory bread puddings, which can be served like stuffing."
At Mussel Bar & Grille, McBride and executive chef Antonio Garcia developed the upscale comfort fare, including lobster mac-and-cheese, steak frites and, of course, a variety of mussels.
Desserts such as Smith Island cake have local appeal. And the Berger Cookie Bread Pudding pays homage to the chocolate fudge cookie with a long Baltimore history.
The bread pudding recipe mixes the cookies and brioche, along with a foundation of cream, milk, sugar, eggs and vanilla bean. It's served with bourbon-butter pecan ice cream and hot fudge sauce.
"Bread pudding used to be about saving bread left over from the day's service and not wanting to waste anything," says McBride. "But now everyone's taking it up a notch. The sky is the limit in terms of creativity."
Pastry chef Dyan Ng began her culinary career in Beverly Hills, Calif., then worked with such celebrated chefs as Alain Ducasse in Las Vegas before coming to Four Seasons Baltimore about two years ago.
"I fell in love with baking after being introduced to pastries," she says. "I believe that the best desserts engage the palate with a variety of textures, flavors and sensations."
Ng, who was born in the Philippines and raised in California, enjoys using exotic ingredients. At Wit & Wisdom, hotel guests can order chocolate souffle or purple sweet potato parfait with caviar.
That said, her Bread Pudding Custard has just six ingredients: half-and-half, heavy cream, vanilla extract, eggs, sugar and a pinch of salt.
Listed on the lunch and in-room dining menu, the bread pudding is served with caramel, vanilla crumble and vanilla ice cream.
"It's very popular," says Ng. "Sometimes simple things executed and done well are the best."
Berger Cookie Bread Pudding
1/2 cup brioche, cubed, toasted, without crust
2 cups half and half
1 vanilla bean, split and scrape seeds
1 1/4 teaspoons ground nutmeg
1 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 cup butter, unsalted
3 large eggs
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons bourbon, optional
2 cups Berger cookies, diced
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Grease a loaf pan. Place brioche in large bowl. Heat the half-and-half, vanilla seeds and bean, nutmeg, cinnamon and butter in a pot. Bring to a simmer and cook until butter is melted. In another bowl, whisk together the eggs and sugar until light and frothy. Slowly whisk the hot half-and-half mixture into the eggs. Remove the vanilla bean. Mix in vanilla extract and bourbon. Pour the hot mixture over brioche cubes, making sure all bread is covered. Lightly pat down and let sit for about 30 minutes to allow liquid to absorb into bread.
Fold in Berger cookies lightly to incorporate. Put mixture into loaf pan. Place in oven and bake for about 30-40 minutes or until starts to get firm. Turn oven up to 400 and bake another 15 minutes or until pudding is browned and puffy. Remove from oven. Let cool.
Courtesy of Brian McBride, partner and executive chef, RW Restaurant Group and Mussel Bar & Grille, Baltimore
Walnut Brioche Bread Pudding with Roasted Plums and Cognac Cream
For the plums:
6 elephant heart plums
3 tablespoons of honey
2 lemons, juiced
Wash, pit, and quarter the plums.
Toss with honey and lemon juice. Roast in a 425-degree oven until plums begin to caramelize and break down. Set aside to cool.
For the bread pudding:
1 loaf walnut brioche bread, torn into 1-inch pieces
4 tablespoons butter, melted
7 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 sticks of cinnamon
4 cups (one quart) of whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
Reduce oven to 350 degrees.
Place brioche pieces into ramekins or one large baking pan. Scatter the roasted plums throughout and drizzle with melted butter.
In a pot, combine the milk and cinnamon. Warm milk slightly and allow cinnamon to steep for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, combine the eggs, yolks, and sugars in a bowl.
Remove the cinnamon sticks from the milk and slowly pour into the egg mixture.
Spike with vanilla and salt and pour over bread, making sure to soak every inch of the brioche.
Allow mixture to sit for 15-20 minutes before baking to allow flavors to soak completely.
Bake at 350 degrees for 30-45 minutes depending on size. Pudding should spring back when tapped lightly. Serve warm with cognac cream.
For the creme anglaise:
2 cups heavy cream
5 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cognac
Small pinch of salt
Place cream on the stove, cook over medium heat and remove just before the cream comes to a boil. Whisk together the egg yolks and sugar in a bowl and add the hot cream in a slow steady stream, whisking constantly. Place the mixture back into the pot and cook over medium low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until mixture thickens slightly. (It should coat the back of the spoon when lifted from the pot.) Add a pinch of salt and cognac and store in the refrigerator.
Courtesy of Travis Marley, executive pastry chef, Foreman Wolf restaurants, Petit Louis Bistro, Columbia