Depression-era treat enters the realm of haute cuisine Bread pudding: The old comfort food becomes elegant, expensive fare as American chefs dream up recipes with fruit, liquors and aromatic seasonings.

January 21, 1996|By Ruth Elaine Fantasia | Ruth Elaine Fantasia,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

Bread pudding was once plain bread, soaked in milk and baked with a few raisins thrown in for color. It was Depression-era food: basic, cheap and filling.

But today's bread pudding is haute cuisine. Infused with fruit, liquors and aromatic seasonings, the bread puddings that America's chefs are dreaming up bear little resemblance to the desserts that emerged from mom's kitchen.

"They're more solid, less goopy," says Marcel Desaulniers, co-owner and executive chef at the Trellis Restaurant, Cafe & Grill in Williamsburg, Va., and author of "Death by Chocolate: The Last Word on a Consuming Passion" (Rizzoli, 1992). "It's nothing like that stuff Mom -- or in my case, boarding school -- used to serve.

The whiskey-soaked raisin bread pudding served in slices at the Trellis appears to be bread rather than pudding; it's topped with Jack's (as in Daniel's) honey-raisin sauce.

Just as the whiskey-soaked raisin bread pudding reflects a rebellion against boarding school goop, the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead in Atlanta has its signature bread pudding, which screams "haute." Chocolate-walnut bread pudding is as luxurious as the hotel where it is served to conference attendees for breakfast. Executive chef Mauro Canaglia knows a day filled with meetings will be tolerable if it begins with a hefty helping of chocolate.

The Ritz's offering is closer to mom's pudding in that it's downright gooey. But with all this chocolate and cream, mom would wring her hands (and your neck) if she knew you were eating this for breakfast. But Mr. Canaglia defends his bread pudding: "It's so versatile because the bread itself is plain and it goes with any flavor. We even make a ginger-raspberry pudding," he says. "It's like grits. We put everything in grits -- bacon, cheese, Parmesan. Who would have thought grits and bread pudding would be endless?"

Mr. Desaulniers makes his own bread for pudding. In fact, in his book, "Desserts to Die For" (Simon & Schuster), he cautions against using store-bought bread for whiskey-soaked raisin bread pudding. The pudding's "extraordinary lightness comes from the Buttery Bun Dough, which is very similar to brioche," he writes. Time-consuming, expensive and in some cases loaded with liquor, these bread puddings are certainly not what Mom used to make. They're exquisite.

Chocolate-walnut bread pudding

Makes 8 to 10 servings

1 quart milk

2 cups sugar

7 eggs, slightly beaten

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

4 cups 1-inch-cubed stale brioche or croissants (2 to 3 long croissants)

1 tablespoon light corn syrup

1/2 cup cold water

1 1/2 cups semisweet chocolate chips

3/4 cup chopped walnuts

Warm milk in 2-quart saucepan. Add 1 cup sugar, stirring until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat. Whisk in eggs, cinnamon and nutmeg until smooth. Pour milk mixture over bread in bowl and allow to stand 1 hour.

Combine remaining 1 cup sugar and corn syrup in separate 2-quart saucepan. Add about 1/4 cup water and stir until sugar is moistened and resembles slush. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until liquid clears. Stop stirring and brush down sides of pan with clean pastry brush dipped in cold water. Be sure that all sugar crystals are washed from sides.

Raise heat to high and cook, without stirring, until sugar is light amber in color. Pour immediately into 8-inch square pan and swirl to cover bottom of pan. Cool 15 minutes.

Combine soaked bread, chocolate chips and walnuts and spoon into prepared pan. Place pan in roaster and pour boiling water into roaster until water comes halfway up sides of cake pan. Bake at 325 degrees until firm but not dry, about 55 minutes, stirring lightly after 20 minutes to keep custard from separating from bread.

(From the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead in Atlanta)

Whiskey-soaked raisin bread pudding with Jack's honey-raisin sauce

Makes 10 servings

RAISINS:

1 1/2 cups raisins

1/2 cup sour mash whiskey

BUTTERY BUN DOUGH:

2 tablespoons sugar

1/2 cup warm water

2 tablespoons active dry yeast

5 large eggs

4 1/2 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup unsalted butter, softened

2 teaspoons unsalted butter, melted

1 tablespoon whole milk

CUSTARD:

1 cup sugar

4 large eggs

2 cups half and half

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 cups toasted walnuts, chopped into 1/4 -inch pieces (see note)

JACK'S HONEY-RAISIN SAUCE:

2 cups raisins

1 cup sour mash whiskey

1/2 cup honey

To prepare raisins, combine raisins and whiskey in plastic container with tight-fitting lid. Allow to stand at room temperature 6 hours or overnight.

To prepare buttery bun dough, dissolve sugar in warm water in bowl of electric mixer. Add yeast and stir gently to dissolve. Allow mixture to stand 3 minutes.

Attach mixing bowl to mixer fitted with paddle. Add 4 eggs on top of mixture, then add 4 cups flour and salt. Mix on low speed 1 minute. Remove paddle and replace with dough hook. Mix on medium-low until smooth ball of dough forms, about 3 minutes.

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