Wake Up Call

Mad About Bread Pudding

It doesn't have a sexy name going for it, or fine, polished looks.

But there is something about bread pudding, a wholesome innocence that has made it the current darling of Valley chefs. When my parents were visiting in October, we ate at the types of places one goes to with parents: Lon's at the Hermosa, RoxSand, Roy's, Cowboy Ciao.

Bread pudding was a dessert option at each restaurant. It was enough to make my mother gasp in wonder, "Could bread pudding be the next crème brûlée?"

Despite its appearance on fine local menus, bread pudding is a dessert with plain-Jane origins. It is the original humble pie, created out of necessity as a no-nonsense means for the poor, frugal and English to use up their stale bread. This they mixed with eggs, sugar, milk or cream, all good things and all easy enough to come by for the farmer's wife. When she was in luck, when raisins or currants or a bit of rind from an exotic orange or lemon could be found, she threw that into the baking dish as well. In the oven, the colorless mass would transform into an almost beautiful thing, perfect in its imperfection. The top would come out crispy and brown; the center, warm and soft as a wet sponge.

It is the wet-sponge quality, however, that has kept this worthy dessert off finer menus (or any menus) for so long.

"They think of it as old people's stuff," says Tracy Dempsey, referring to the few unenlightened souls who still haven't tried bread pudding.

Dempsey is the head pastry chef at Lon's at the Hermosa, where a warm, rustic apple-bread pudding with cinnamon-pecan streusel and brandy hard sauce is the most popular dessert item.

It deserves to be.

But even though I love the stuff, there is indeed something about soggy, sweetened, milky bread that brings to mind the toothless, from a gummy babe to aging Great Aunt Violet.

In England, where she grew up, my mother was given a bowl of bread sprinkled with sugar and drenched in a puddle of warm milk whenever she had trouble sleeping at night or felt a cold coming on.

Dempsey says that when she first put bread pudding on the menu at Lon's, an elderly couple dining at the restaurant told their server they couldn't believe it. That's old folks' food, they said. And, like scores of old and young diners to follow, they went ahead and ordered it.

So why the sudden demand for a dessert that's as pretty as meatloaf and usually contains no chocolate?

Maybe it's because no matter where you're from, you know bread pudding.

Virtually every country on the planet -- "wherever they have bread and dairy," as Dempsey puts it -- offers some version of the simple, easy-to-make dessert.

It is the universal way to use up leftover bread. Few more blissful methods have been invented (French onion soup, with its leftover-bread cap for the oozing Gruyère cheese being a possible exception).

French bakeries make their bread pudding with unsold pastries, scraps of old croissants and brioches, mixed with raisins and cinnamon and barely sweetened.

The Egyptians have Om Ali (mother of Ali), a creamy, baked concoction of phyllo, raisins and almonds. Like its American cousin, Om Ali has also experienced a recent trendiness. These days it's in high demand in Cairo, where the original recipe often gets tweaked for upscale palates.

The Brazilians have bread pudding, too, notes Dempsey, who works with a Brazilian pastry chef. Their version looks a lot like ours, apparently, with coconut milk instead of cream or cow's milk.

In India, the dish is called Shahi tukra, and it lives up to its evocative name. The bread gets a light frying in ghee, a dousing in saffron- and rosewater-infused syrup and a sprinkling of slivered almonds.

According to the Oxford Companion to Food, they've also got bread pudding in some form or other in Turkey, Sri Lanka and Malaysia.

It's enough to give you the travel bug again.

Which brings us to the comfort element. If you haven't felt like traveling lately, if, like most of us, you're feeling a bit wiggy about the state of world affairs, bread pudding can help.

It can help in the way that a good movie will, or a fat page-turner of a novel.

Desserts do that.

They are at their core comfort food, because we at our core (stomach, heart, arteries) don't need them. We consume them not for any nutritional value, but for pleasure, for ourselves, for the memory associations that a taste of something sweet and delicious can sometimes evoke.

"Smells like Christmas," is how Dempsey describes the aroma of her apple-bread pudding, which she likes to serve with a small scoop of vanilla-bean or cinnamon ice cream.

"That's what we say in the kitchen when we open the oven. It smells like cinnamon rolls and French toast. It's just homey, old-fashioned comfort food," she adds, nodding toward the warm pudding waiting for me on my plate. "And right now, people really do want something that reminds them of better times."

Warm Apple-Bread Pudding With Cinnamon-Pecan Streusel

For the bread pudding:

2 cups heavy cream

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1/2 pound day-old sourdough bread, crusts removed, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

3 eggs

11/4 cups sugar

4 Granny Smith apples, cored and peeled

Coarsely chopped butter for greasing baking dish or ramekins

For the cinnamon-pecan streusel:

1 cup pecan pieces or coarsely chopped pecans

1/2 cup brown sugar

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

Directions: Combine the ingredients for the cinnamon-pecan streusel in a medium bowl to create a crumbly mixture. Preheat oven to 325 F. Butter six 11/2-cup ramekins or a medium baking dish. In a large bowl, beat together the cream, vanilla, sugar and eggs. Add the bread and apples to the cream mixture, stirring thoroughly to coat the bread and apples. Pour mixture evenly into the dishes. Sprinkle the streusel on top. Place ramekins or baking dish into a larger baking dish with sides. Fill larger baking dish with hot water until it reaches halfway up the sides.

Place in oven and bake until the pudding is set, about 30 to 40 minutes. Allow to cool. If you used a baking dish rather than ramekins, slice pudding into squares.

Serve warm (reheat in microwave) with vanilla or cinnamon ice cream.

Makes 6 servings.

For the brandy hard sauce:

1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened

1 cup powdered sugar

1 tablespoon brandy

Cream all ingredients in a small mixer. Transfer to a piping bag with a large star tip. Pipe stars onto a parchment paper-lined sheet pan. Refrigerate until well set. To serve, place one "star" on top of each portion of bread pudding.

Recipes provided by Tracy Dempsey, head pastry chef at Lon's at the Hermosa.

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Melissa Castleman