For years, I’ve served dishes that were spontaneously created from my refrigerator or made with food—sometimes slightly dried or in need of trimming—that otherwise might get thrown away. My kids ate countless minestrones, chilies and even tossed salads that were never the same from one version to the next. The fact is, I disdain wasting food, plus I think those bits can add style, texture, color and taste.
In my family lore, I supposedly had a Scottish great Aunt Mary who, like many of her compatriots, was frugal. So that might explain where my dad developed the habit of foraging in the refrigerator for sandwich concoctions. Those ad hoc mixtures might include shards of random meats, poultry, cheese, pickles, onions, vegetables and other dribs and drabs combined in our old meat grinder that was screwed onto the kitchen counter. He’d then spread one slice of bread with mustard and the other with mayonnaise before adding his filling. I loved them, and somehow they planted the seeds for my cooking style.
Inspirations from Afar
If ever dishes were well suited for leftover inspirations and saving money, bread puddings rank high on the list. The variety of ingredients that can be folded into soaked bread, particularly for savory versions, is almost limitless. Although an ethnic theme isn’t necessary, if you want components that easily compliment one another, a combination of fixings traditionally from a certain region is helpful.
Having visited Finland six times, for example, I was familiar with Scandinavian staples that seemingly would work well in bread pudding. I started with a loaf of chewy, tangy Nordic rye bread. Throughout the northern countries, smoked fish is widely popular, so I chose salmon that was hot smoked over alder wood. While most unassertive varieties of wood will work in this recipe, a strong flavored hickory, for example, would have overpowered the dish.
Sticking with the Nordic theme, I chose Rosenborg’s Danablue, from Denmark. It’s a semi-soft cow’s milk cheese. Its creamy, crumbly texture partnered well with the smoky taste of the fish. As Scandinavians love fresh dill, I added it, along with some mushrooms and capers. Finally, Finnish Dijon mustard often includes a little honey. I used it in the soaking liquid and as a base for the optional vinaigrette served on top of the cooked dish.
Paella, the short-grained saffron-scented rice dish from Spain, was the inspiration for another bread pudding. Shellfish, chicken, chorizo, peas and bell peppers are among the ingredients traditionally used. Rather than several kinds of shellfish, practicality won out, and I used only shrimp with chicken thighs and small cubes of chorizo, a beloved dry-cured smoked sausage. Pimentón de la Vera, the local smoked paprika, is the traditional spice. There are sweet (dulce) or hot (picante) varieties, depending on which kind of dried chile peppers are used.
For the bread, a fat baguette was similar to some Spanish loaves I’d eaten. Rather than milk alone to soak the dried bread, I combined it with chicken stock infused with saffron. I thought the combination would help enhance, rather than mask the pudding’s other flavors, including the earthy-tasting La Dama Sagrada raw goat milk cheese from northern Navarre, in the Basque region. It’s aged for at least six months and has a bold, grassy taste.
Finally, while options for a Tuscan version of bread pudding were enormous, I found that the dish almost made itself. I adore oven-roasted vegetables, so I had cooked two huge sheet pans of them to accompany grilled chickens to serve at a dinner for some friends. In spite of our enthusiastic appetites, I had plenty of leftovers. Ditto for loaves of Italian bread. I’d made fresh pesto for pasta, but only a small amount remained. Still, the idea of using it to season the bread pudding appealed to me.
I noticed many markets sell oven-roasted vegetables in their take out department. Additionally, some sell their own store-made pesto. If you have access to abundant basil in your garden or farmers market, pesto is also very simple to make. But I realized how quick it would be to make this dish with well-chosen prepared items. I loved how the pesto melted into the soaking mixture and perfumed the dish. Since my thinking was northern Italian, I drizzled aged Pecorino Toscano cheese, a tangy sheep’s milk cheese, on top. It is not as sharp as the Romano version and, as it ages, it becomes more flavorful than the younger Tuscan version.
Almost any bread can be used for bread pudding, from brioche to rye, whole wheat to common white bread and baguettes. I once used leftover cornbread in a Mexican-inspired version. You can also combine more than one kind of bread.
Before deciding which loaf to use, however, it is a good idea to taste it based on how subtle or assertive-tasting the other ingredients will be. Whole grain breads, for example, can impart a nutty flavor and make the texture drier. Sourdough and herb-flavored breads also impact the taste.
Unless the crusts are very tough or the loaf is a thin French bread, or ficelle, that is predominantly crusty, usually I don’t trim breads because I think they add texture and color to the dish. The loaf’s original shape is usually not important. You can either tear the bread into irregular pieces or cut it into cubes. A baguette or brioche will absorb the liquid within 10 to 20 minutes, but dense loaves can take longer.
There really are no “no’s” here: it’s personal taste. The only consideration is that bread needs to be stale or oven-dried to absorb the egg-milk mixture for a custardy texture. If too soft or over soaked, the pieces can dissolve or break apart. When a recipe calls for the amount of bread cubes in cups, they should be added gently, rather than packed down.
Of Eggs and Milk
I generally use two large eggs per cup of liquid. For a richer dish, you might use light cream, but I rarely use heavy cream in savories dishes unless blended with milk. You can also lighten the liquid by adding some stock, as I did with the paella version.
Baking and Serving
Almost any oven-to-table vessel can be used for bread puddings. I’m particularly fond of stoneware casseroles and cast-iron pans. They can be made up to a couple of days ahead of time and then baked in a 350-degree F oven when ready to serve. As they are made with raw eggs, the dish should be covered tightly and refrigerated. When ready to cook, remove it from the refrigerator about 20 minutes beforehand to let it come back to room temperature.
Another approach is to bake and cool bread puddings ahead of time. Once baked, let them cool before tightly wrapping and refrigerating or even freezing for a couple of months, then slowly defrost to room temperature. If it looks dry, you can add a couple dabs of butter on top while reheating or briefly run it under a broiler. I am not a fan of reheating leftover bread pudding in a microwave.
I think you’ll discover that bread puddings can be adapted to all ages and tastes and often made with lost ingredients just waiting to be used.
Nordic Bread Pudding
Scandinavian foods are the inspiration for this hearty, flavorful bread pudding. Begin with dense, chewy rye bread soaked in eggs and milk, then fold in hot smoked salmon, semi-soft Danablue cheese, wild mushrooms and fresh dill. It’s a comforting treat to warm you on even the coldest nights.
Butter to grease large Deep casserole
8 cups (1-pound loaf) stale or lightly toasted seedless Scandinavian rye bread, crusts removed if very tough, cut or torn into 1-inch cubes
1 1/2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 medium red onion, sliced
6 oz white mushrooms, trimmed and sliced
5 large eggs
2 1/2 cups light cream or whole milk
2 Tbsp honey mustard
1/2 cup chopped fresh dill, coarse stems removed
1 1/3 cup small capers
8 oz hot smoked salmon, preferably over alder or other mild wood, skinned and broken into pieces
8 oz Danablue or other creamy Blue cheese, crumbled
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
Coarse sea salt
Honey Mustard Vinaigrette
1/4 cup honey mustard
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup safflower or other vegetable oil
1 Tbsp chopped fresh dill leaves
Salt to taste
Lightly butter a large casserole. If the bread isn’t stale, lightly toast the cubes in the oven, turning occasionally. Remove and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350 degree F.
In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and sauté until wilted. Stir in the mushrooms and cook until wilted. Set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs, milk and mustard together. Add the bread, turning to coat evenly, and set aside until the liquid is absorbed. Depending on how dense it is, it could take an hour.
Stir in the dill and capers, then gently fold in the salmon and Blue cheese. Season to taste with pepper and salt. Scrape into the casserole and bake in the middle of the oven until golden on top, 40-45 minutes. Remove and let stand for a few minutes before serving.
Meanwhile, prepare the Honey Mustard Vinaigrette, if using. In a small bowl, whisk the mustard and vinegar together. Add the oil in a steady stream. Stir in the dill and salt. Serve with the bread pudding.
Tuscan Roasted Vegetable Bread Pudding
I love oven-roasted vegetables. Here, I include them in bread pudding laced with pesto sauce and aged Pecorino Toscano cheese. You can use almost any combination of vegetables. I used thick sliced onion, zucchini and summer squash cut into 1-inch thick slices, diced red bell pepper and a cored and sliced fennel bulb. Depending on how salty the pesto and cheese are, you may not need to add salt.
2−3 Tbsp olive oil
3 lbs mixed vegetables (6 cups cooked) (see above)
5 cloves garlic, split
1/2 cup (2 oz) sun-dried, oil-cured tomatoes, finely chopped
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 1/2 cups milk
5 large eggs
1 1/3 cup purchased or homemade pesto
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
1 (8 oz) loaf stale Italian bread, torn or cut into 1−2 inch cubes (8-9 cups loosely packed) or oven dried
1 1/2 cups (6 oz) grated aged Pecorino Toscana cheese
2 Tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley, for garnish
Butter for a large oval gratin or casserole
Sea salt to taste
Leaves from 4 sprigs fresh thyme, or 1 tsp dried thyme, plus sprigs for garnish
Butter a large oval gratin or casserole. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Line two jellyroll or flat baking pans with parchment or aluminum foil.
In a large bowl, toss the cut up vegetables, garlic and thyme with enough olive oil to cover. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Roast for 25 minutes, turning once and rotating the pans from top to bottom. Continue cooking until they are wilted and lightly browned on the edges, 15−20 minutes. Remove, add the sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts and set aside. Adjust the heat down to 350 degrees F. Add the pepper and, if needed, salt.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine the milk, eggs and pesto. Add the bread, turning to coat evenly and let the liquid absorb, about 20 minutes. Mix the vegetables and cheese with the soaked bread and scrape into the prepared gratin or casserole. Bake for 40 minutes or until bubbling on the top. Let stand for 5 minutes before serving.