Given a menu listing a dozen dessert items, I invariably gravitate toward one of the two or three choices on the list that include chocolate as a main ingredient. I don’t think of this as a boring or predictable preference; on the contrary, life is short, and I feel one must not miss an opportunity to experience one of Earth’s great pleasures. You can imagine my feeling of disappointment, then, when at restaurant after restaurant in New Orleans, I arrived at the end of the meal only to find such chocolate-free choices as bananas Foster, pecan pie, and bread pudding on the dessert menu. Suppressing my instinct to jump up and shout, “That’s not really dessert!” I chose to give each of these local specialties a fair chance. Or several.
(Dessert) Space: The Final Frontier
Truth be told, I have nothing against any of these desserts; in fact, I’m quite fond of bread pudding in particular. The only problem is that it’s extremely filling, and if you’ve just finished a Cajun or Creole meal, you are unlikely to have the tiniest space left in your stomach. With some careful planning (and belt-loosening), I was able to try several different bread pudding recipes. The variety of bread puddings surprised me; they differ greatly in density, sweetness, texture, and flavor. The only bread pudding I had ever known was a very generic (though still tasty) recipe such as you’d find at a buffet or a potluck dinner. But in New Orleans, every restaurant has its special twist, and toppings like a creamy whiskey sauce are quite common.
For those unfamiliar with this dish, bread pudding is typically made by soaking bread cubes in a mixture of milk, egg, and sugar; adding raisins and spices; and baking. So it’s not that much different from French toast, except much moister and usually served in a bowl. Of course, one’s choice of bread, the addition of optional ingredients, and the details of preparation can make one bread pudding shine where another merely glows. The possibilities are endless.
A couple of years ago, I got an email from my friend Paola asking if I was interested in bread pudding. (She knew the answer already: I’m interested in everything, especially if it’s dessert.) There’s a magazine all about bread pudding, she told me, and she wondered if I thought it might be sufficiently interesting to buy myself a subscription and then share it with her. You gotta love friends like that. I went to the relevant page on Amazon.com, where I found that a “subscription” to Bread Pudding Update consists of only one issue, at a cost of US$5. That was odd, I thought, but I figured I could hardly go wrong for $5. The ad promised “a review of the myriad ways one can take leftovers and liquor to new heights” and mentioned ingredients like “brandy, sherry, bourbon…oozing caramel sauce…seasonal fresh fruits.” Good enough. I placed my order.
Several weeks later an envelope arrived via Airborne Express. It contained exactly two photocopied pages. The first page had the words “Bread Pudding Update” in large letters at the top. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The “magazine” consisted of a grand total of three bread pudding recipes and a copyright notice. No articles or commentary; not even so much as a paperclip to hold the pages together. And, by the way, no mention of liquor, caramel sauce, or fruits (seasonal, fresh, or otherwise). The magazine (wisely) came with a “no refunds or cancellations” policy, so I returned to Amazon.com and left an extremely uncomplimentary review (adding it to several others already present). Shortly thereafter, the listing for the magazine was removed, only to be replaced by another one, this time without the editorial promises—or my review. But now the price has gone up to $12.95. (I guess those courier services can get expensive.)
The story has a happy ending, however. Some time after this happened, my mother mentioned to me that her mother used to make bread pudding all the time. I don’t recall ever having eaten Grandma’s bread pudding, and my mother said she doubted the recipe was ever written down before Grandma died. Not long thereafter, though, I got an email with the happy news that my mother had located Grandma’s recipe for bread pudding on the back of a card in her recipe box. Final score: Bread Pudding Update, 0—Grandma, 1. —Joe Kissell