Here at Food52, we love recipes -- but do we always use them? Of course not. Because once you realize you don't always need a recipe, you'll make your favorite dishes a lot more often.
Today: If you have bread and a touch of creativity, you're only a hop, a skip, and a jump away from bread pudding -- no recipe required.
Bread pudding is a dessert born of desperation.
What was once a way to use up leftover odds and ends of stale bread has turned into a sought-after comforting sweet. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't like bread pudding -- and equally hard-pressed to find two people who like it exactly the same way.
When you fuse those two defining characteristics -- endless versatility and frugal adaptability -- bread pudding truly is the ultimate dessert. It's also 99% guaranteed that you have all the ingredients to make it right now, without a recipe. Go to whatever place you keep your bread and peek in -- what do you see? A luscious loaf of brioche? Some dried-out slices of Wonder Bread? A few croissants (you should be so lucky)? As long as you have some sort of bread-like product, plus eggs, sugar, and milk, you have bread pudding.
How to Make Bread Pudding Without a Recipe
1. If your chosen bread (or bread-like object) is still fresh, don't fret -- you can still use it as-is. However, if you want maximum absorption powers, feel free to cheat time and stale it yourself. When slicing your bread, aim for uniform size. These chunks will be the building blocks of your pudding, so you want them to cook and absorb evenly.
2. Next, mix up the binder: the glue that unites, and flavors, your bread. And as with all (all right, most) good binders, we start with eggs. For a full loaf of bread, I go with 5 to 6 eggs; there's no hard-and-fast measurement here, you just have to use your own judgment. Don't worry too much about this step -- the bread will absorb most of the liquid you give it, and whatever's left at the end you'll just pour over the top.
3. Next comes the sweetener. I opted for Plain Jane white granulated sugar, but feel free to take a walk on the wild side and sub in molasses, brown sugar, or maple syrup. For 6 eggs, I used one cup of sugar, but the amount depends completely on your tastes.
4. Next, add in your milk-like liquid. You really shouldn't use anything with less fat than whole milk. You're already making bread pudding, for goodness sake, you might as well do it right. If you want to up the indulgence factor, feel free to swap out half the milk for heavy cream. If you want to be everyone in the entire world's best friend, switch out some of the milk for melted ice cream. If you're avoiding dairy, almond and soy milks are also fine substitutes.
You want the amount of milk-like liquid to be about equal to the amount of beaten eggs. If you want your bread pudding to have a more custard-like texture, add in less milk. If you prefer it gooey, add in a bit more.
5. Now comes the really fun part -- that's right, we're talking mix ins! Bread pudding is a very personal thing, and you must figure out which flavors and textures most speak to you. For now, I can only tell you how I do bread pudding my way.
To start, I added in about a shot's worth of bourbon -- that way you sense a caramelized, rich flavor in the background of each bite, but don't actually detect the booze itself. If you're not a bourbon fan, or are, God forbid, OUT OF BOURBON, Grand Marnier or dark rum are also good options. Sweet, rich liquors will play well with bread pudding -- stay away of anything clear or floral.
6. At this point you could toss in the grated zest of an orange, a teaspoon of vanilla, a splash of almond extract, or a pinch of cinnamon or nutmeg, if that's your speed. Feel free to try out any flavor combination that strikes your fancy, but as with many of the finer things in life, less is more. Stick to a few key flavors that work well together, and leave it at that.
But before you do, don't forget a little touch of salt -- about a teaspoon's worth. This will add just enough contrast to your bread pudding to let the sweetness really shine, and will keep it from being too cloying. Never. Skip. The Salt.
7. Now it's time for everybody to get to know each other. Pour your wet ingredients evenly over the bread, then toss to make sure everybody gets their fair share. If it seems like too much liquid for the bread to handle, don't worry -- you can adjust later.
8. Now's time to add your "chunks." If you're not an ice cream or cookie chunk person, you will not be a bread pudding chunk person either. This is all right -- skip this step, and continue with your chunk-less existence. If you're a raisin person (who are you?!?!?), add some in. If you're a nut (pun intended), throw some of those too. If you, like me, think most things in life would be improved with a good dose of chocolate chunks, you know what to do.
Leave your bread mixture alone for 30 minutes so that the liquid has time to absorb and everybody starts to get along. In the meantime, heat the oven to 350° F.
9. Next, butter your pan. Yes, butter -- none of this non-stick spray nonsense. Now comes a super-cool trick: sprinkle your buttered pan with some sugar. When you bake your bread pudding, the bottom will caramelize into a delicious, sticky crust. If you want more of a crunchy bottom à la lasagna, stick your sugared pan in the preheated oven for a few minutes until the sugar melts and begins to turn brown. Once this happens, take it out and pour in your bread mixture. If there's an excess of liquid leftover, pour it over the top of the bread -- it'll turn into custard, which is never a bad thing.
10. Bake your bread pudding until, when you pull it apart slightly with a fork, no liquid comes out. This should take about 30 to 45 minutes depending on the size, but start checking it after 20 minutes. If the bread browns too much, cover the pudding with tin foil and continue baking.
Serve warm or at room temperature. Bread pudding is extra delicious when doused with crème anglaise, or the poor man's version: melted vanilla ice cream. May I mention that leftovers cold from the fridge are also an excellent breakfast?
How do you do bread pudding? Share your tips and tricks in the comments below!
Photos by James Ransom