Bread pudding was one of the few desserts that we grew up on, Although we might have that or rice pudding just as easily for breakfast as we did for dessert. Dessert just wasn’t a part of my mother’s repertoire, except for special occasions like Christmas.
It’s easy to understand how the bread pudding (or rice pudding) managed to make it to the table. We always had bread; my mother baked homemade bread twice a week in large roasting pans. We rarely had “store bought bread” in the house until much later, after my mother began working at Crosley’s over in Camp Washington. (My sister Barbara recalled that we had the only mother in the neighborhood who worked full time—mind you, this was a time, in the 1940s and 1950s, when most mothers stayed at home). It doesn’t surprise me that we might have left over rice from any meal; my mother’s rice was like library paste. The most you could hope for was to break down the pasty consistency by spooning on a lot of chicken broth. We always had mom’s library paste rice with stewed chicken for Sunday dinner. I was an adult living in California before I discovered that I really do like rice. (and my brother Bill has confessed to liking mom’s library paste rice.)
I don’t think my mother had a recipe for making bread pudding although it’s entirely possible that she may have followed the recipe for Bread Puff Pudding that I found in her Ida Bailey Allen Service Cookbook. The recipe is a simple combination of milk, bread crumbs, a bit of butter, small amount of sugar, vanilla, and a couple of eggs. These would have been all ingredients on hand in my mother’s kitchen. Mom’s bread pudding sometimes contained some raisins, too.
What got me thinking about bread pudding was a surgery my daughter-in-law had one year. Keara was recuperating from a tonsillectomy/adenoidectomy, and was able to eat only soft foods. I sent home to her a double batch of creamy tapioca pudding. She requested another comfort food; bread pudding. Then, while searching through my box of newspaper clippings, I came across an article that appeared in the December 10, 1987 edition of the Los Angeles Times – and the subject was – you guessed it – bread puddings.
One of the recipes sounded so good that I decided it was the one to make; I just had to go out and buy a loaf of white bread, which we seldom have on hand, and then “make it stale” by letting the slices set out on the kitchen counter for half a day.
Well, I want you to know, this was a great bread pudding recipe—I did have to sample it, of course, to make sure I wasn’t sending Keara something she wouldn’t be able to eat!
Betty Balsley, the author of this particular article in the Los Angeles Times, explains her love for leftovers (something I can really relate to) and says that she’s always fascinated by the way home cooks as well as professional chefs adeptly handle flavors and texture to produce unforgettable culinary creations.
“Thus it was,” she writes, “that when attending the Newspaper Food Editors and Writers Assn. Conference in New Orleans in October, I gained an unmentionable number of pounds sampling an almost amazing variety of these classic American sweets (i.e., bread puddings). “None,” she claims, “were bad. A few were so-so but the majority were worth every calorie they added to my frame…”
What followed was an assortment of bread pudding recipes, ranging from Omni Royal Orleans Bread Pudding to Commander’s Palace Bread Pudding souffle with Whiskey Sauce. I chose to make “Allie And Etell’s Bread Pudding. The Allie, I presume, is Paul Prudhomme’s sister Allie. I added raisins to my batch of bread pudding, because what is bread pudding without raisins?
By now, as you might suspect, my curiosity was piqued. Do only the chefs of Louisiana know how to make bread pudding? Sylvia Lovegren, in “FASHIONABLE FOOD” writes of it “Bread pudding was another one of those old-fashioned all-American dishes that were de rigueur for trendy chefs. Although bread puddings were made around the country with every sort of ‘regional accent’, one of the most popular was one with a Southern, especially southern Louisiana, twang….”
Lovegren then offers a recipe for Bread Pudding with Pecan Bourbon Sauce.
Since the topic of bread pudding appears in Lovegren’s chapter for the 1980s, possibly this also explains how an article devoted to bread puddings ended up in a 1987 edition of the Los Angeles Times. Most food historians whose works I consulted don’t mention bread pudding at all. So, what’s the story?
Even my tried-and-true “WISE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF COOKERY” has disappointingly little to say about bread pudding, other than suggesting they are an excellent way of using slightly dry bread and offering two recipes. Numerous “Americana” cookbooks fail to mention bread pudding at all, whereas, – at least – in “THE BEST OF SHAKER COOKING”, authors provide ten recipes for the dessert, ranging from Shaker Mountain Blueberry Pudding to Maple Bread Pudding. All sound delicious.
A Good Housekeeping cookbook published in 1942-43 offers ten bread pudding recipes as well, including one for the Queen of Puddings which is mentioned in “PIONEER POTLUCK”, stories an recipes of Early Colorado, collected by the State Historical Society of Colorado. “THE PIONEER COOK BOOK” published by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers provides one recipe for Grandma Taylor’s Milton Pudding or Bread Pudding. Queens Pudding is also mentioned in the “LINCOLN HERITAGE TRAIL COOKBOOK” by Marian French. (It seems that bread pudding was elevated to Queen’ Pudding by spreading the top with a layer of jelly or preserves after it was baked. Then you made a meringue with the whites of a couple of eggs and two tablespoons of sugar, and spread that over the top. Finally, you baked it again until the meringue was a light brown.
“THE PRACTICAL RECEIPT BOOK” published in 1897 by the Young Ladies Aid Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church of Sewickley, Pennsylvania offers no less than sixty-five pudding recipes, two of which are for the Queen Pudding.
However, finding recipes for Bread Pudding doesn’t answer my original question—nor does it explain to me why or how this delicious dessert disappeared from the American culinary landscape. Have we all become so busy that the only kind of puddings we have anymore are of the instant packaged variety that require only the addition of milk—or, equally tasteless — a pre-made item that you pick up in the dairy section of the supermarket, which only requires peeling off a foil cover? Ew, ew!
Perhaps we have to search into the much more distant past for the answer to the origin of bread pudding, or desserts in general as we know them.
Not much is known about desserts in the middle ages. Patricia Bunning Stevens writes about desserts in “RARE BITS” subtitled “Unusual Origins of Popular Recipes”.
Describing the middle ages, she states, “…at the end of the meal, the table was cleared and spiced wine served, with sweet wafers, raisins, nuts, and ‘comfits,’ as sugared caraway seeds and anise seeds were called. It is from these simple beginnings that our modern ‘dessert’ stems, for the word comes from the French desservir and, ultimately, from the Latin dis servir, to remove what has been served, to clear (the table).
As time went by, the idea of true desserts spread and various countries developed their own preferences. “To Englishmen” writes Ms. Stevens, “the only dessert that ever really counted was the pudding….” She continues with a rather detailed explanation of the English Pudding which contains dried fruit and spices; however, Ms. Stevens has nothing to add on the subject of bread pudding.
Until around 1800, the word pudding nearly always signified a sausage of some kind—i.e., a meat-filled casing. In “FRUITCAKES & COUCH POTATOES,” author Christine Ammer also notes that, “In Britain, the word ‘pudding’ alone often signifies the dessert course of a meal, whether or not it consists of the thick, soft, sweet mixture so called by Americans”.
Writing about plum puddings, Betty Wason, in “COOKS, GLUTTONS & GOURMETS,” notes that it was during the reign of Henry VIII that the Christmas feast came about. “Plum Pudding,” says Wason, “originated as ‘plum soup’ made of mutton stock, currants, prunes, raisins and sherry; then bread was added to thicken it, and it was called ‘plum porridge’. Eventually it became mostly meat with suet, wheat, raisins, currants, and spices added. Even the stews of England in those days were sweet and gooey, so spiced no one knew quite what the meat tasted like. (I think the main reason for that may have been that the meat was bad or tainted—the heavy spices would have masked the actual taste of the meat. It was for the same reason that the French concocted so many sauces to put over meats. But I digress).
“Plum Puddings,” Wason explains, “were made by the dozens—literally—because according to superstition, it was good luck to eat a plum pudding on each of the days between Christmas and Epiphany, ‘making a wish on the first mouthful each day.’ But woe to anyone who nibbled at a holiday pudding before the Christmas feast began—he would be in trouble for twelve months to come…” (Sounds like something someone’s mother would have come up with to make sure no one was getting into the feast day food too soon!)
While doing a search on Google.com, I found a short but illuminating clue to the history of bread pudding. To make bread pudding, an oven is necessary; you can’t make it very well in a pot on top of the stove. In early pioneer times, as we know, food was cooked over an open fire. The English version of foods like plum pudding were cooked on top of a stove but the whole mess was put into a pudding cloth that was suspended into a pot of water. The English pudding came into its own only with the invention of the cloth pudding bag at the end of the sixteenth century (before that, animal organs were used to encase the pudding process).
Another clue—centuries ago, women might mix up their own loaves of bread but they usually had to take it to something like a communal oven or to a professional baker–to have it baked. The lady of the house might mark her bread with the letter of their name or her own special design (from which we have the Patty Cake nursery rhyme line, “roll it and shape it, mark it with a “b” and put it in the oven for baby and me”.
To make something like bread pudding, as we know it, stoves—with ovens—had to be invented and make their way into ordinary households.
Having found no definitive answer to my initial question—who created or invented the first bread pudding—I feel compelled to make an assumption or two.
Bread pudding as we know it is most likely a creation of the mid-or-late 1800s, devised during frugal periods, to make use of stale bread. And there were, indeed, many austere periods in American history. It was one of the primary reasons so many men and women headed west in the mid 1800s, searching for a better life.
Louisiana chefs have, unquestionably, elevated the status of bread pudding to new heights while modern day cooks have come up with new and delicious creations using croissants, dried cranberries, day old cinnamon rolls or cinnamon bread. (type in bread pudding on Google.Com and you will come up with literally thousands of websites and bread pudding recipes galore.
Here for you to try is one of the recipes that appeared in the Los Angeles Times article. I’ve made a few minor changes to the original recipe because, as most people who know me are aware, I can’t leave a recipe alone.
¼ lb (1 stick) unsalted butter (should be softened, room temperature)
1 cup sugar
2 (12 oz) cans evaporated milk (undiluted)
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¾ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
7 slices stale white sandwich bread, toasted
½ cup seedless raisins or dried cranberries
Place butter and sugar in large bowl of electric mixer and beat on medium speed until mix is well creamed, about 5 minutes. Add milk, eggs, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, cream of tartar and ginger. Beat on low speed until well-blended, about 3 minutes.
Break toasted bread into small pieces and arrange in even layer in bottom of ungreased 8×8” baking pan. Sprinkle on raisins. Pour milk mixture over the bread and let it stand for about 1 hour, occasionally patting down any bread that floats to the top.
Bake 450 degrees 20-25 minutes or until top is very well browned and mixture shakes like a bowl of jelly when pan is shaken. Remove from oven and let stand 15 minutes before serving. Makes 8-10 servings
Note: raisins, roasted pecans or other nuts or coconut can be added to recipe if desired. I’ve discovered that dried blueberries also makes a nice addition.
I’ll leave you with this quotation, from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, in which he writes, “Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other…”
Review by Sandra Lee Smith