03 November 2007

A dessert for non-bakers

I always used to say I'm not a baker. I said it so often, in fact, my friends offer to bring desserts to dinner parties because they know this. To be honest, though, it was merely a routine excuse.

It's true, I don't enjoy baking the same way I enjoy cooking. A cook is allowed to create as she goes, making adjustments here and there. It doesn't mean a cook will always be satisfied with her results, but with many dishes, she gets several attempts to rectify a wrong turn.

To be a baker takes patience and precision -- two qualities that do not come easy for me. A true baker understands the chemistry that a marrying of ingredients creates. She also typically sticks to recipes, not for a lack of creativity but a quest for consistency.

I would love to be a baker. I get by with some fluffy layered biscuits, and I stuck with the Battle of the Meringue Pie. But I ruined several dozen oatmeal cookies because I insisted on butter, not shortening, and my hot oven turned the dough to a soupy mess before they baked.

So, much to my surprise, I made a dessert recently that had friends asking for the recipe. I sheepishly acknowledged that I found it online. My friends didn't care, and perhaps, knowing my baking history, they pegged it as a recipe they could easily recreate themselves.

That, of course, is true. It was a bread pudding, perhaps one of the easiest desserts around. It doesn't present as beautifully as a layered dark chocolate cake or wine-poached pears, but the taste is just as delightful. Served warm from the oven, this Pumpkin Bread Pudding would make a great Thanksgiving Dinner dessert instead of the traditional pumpkin pie. The Banana Raisin Bread Pudding could be a welcome alternative to a holiday season packed with repeat desserts.

Bread puddings start with basic custards, and with a little imagination, they could be easily adapted to create other flavor profiles. Don't overlook the importance of starting with a delicious bread. Since not all breads are created equal, sample some first and look for breads that are soft, dense and tasty on their own. Sweet breads are an excellent choice, but skip any quick breads as they wouldn't stand up well to the custard. I made both of these recipes with challah, the traditional Jewish bread that has a soft, eggy texture similar to brioche. Julia Bakery in Vancouver makes an excellent challah -- I used the raisin challah for both recipes.

Banana Raisin Bread Pudding, Everyday Food

Butter, room temp, for baking dish
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
2 1/2 cups whole milk
12 ounces challah bread, cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks
3 bananas, sliced on the diagonal*
1/2 cup raisins

Preheat oven to 350 degrees with rack set in lower third. Butter a shallow 2-quart baking dish and set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, vanilla, salt and 1/2 sugar until combined; whisk in milk. Add bread, bananas and raisins. Toss gently to combine. Set aside to let bread absorb liquid, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Transfer mixture to baking dish; sprinkle with remaining tablespoon sugar. Bake until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 50 to 60 minutes. Let cool 10 minutes before serving.

* I substituted over-ripened frozen bananas instead. When my bananas go bad, (much to Seth's dismay) I throw them in the freezer where they turn black. To use, place one in the microwave, skin on. Microwave on high about 1 to 2 minutes, until inside is squishy when squeezed. With a knife, make one lengthwise cut to the skin and spoon out the soupy banana. This technique is great for an all-over banana flavor that I love to use in everything from pancakes to breads.

Pumpkin Bread Pudding, Bon Appetit

Bread pudding ingredients
2 cups half and half
1 15-ounce can pure pumpkin
1 cup (packed) plus 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
10 cups 1/2-inch cubes egg bread (about 10-ounces)
1/2 cup golden raisins

Caramel sauce ingredients
1 1/4 cups (packed) dark brown sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 cup whipping cream

Powdered sugar

For bread pudding: Preheat oven to 350°F. Whisk half and half, pumpkin, dark brown sugar, eggs, pumpkin pie spice, cinnamon and vanilla extract in large bowl to blend. Fold in bread cubes. Stir in golden raisins. Transfer mixture to 11x7-inch glass baking dish. Let stand 15 minutes. Bake pumpkin bread pudding until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare caramel sauce: Whisk brown sugar and butter in heavy medium saucepan over medium heat until butter melts. Whisk in cream and stir until sugar dissolves and sauce is smooth, about 3 minutes.

Sift powdered sugar over bread pudding. Serve warm with caramel sauce.

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