Stale loaves of bread get a sweet rebirth in this popular baked dessert.
Bread pudding is a baked dessert that is traditionally, and at its simplest, made by soaking bread in either milk or cream, eggs, butter, and sugar. Bread puddings are found across the globe, from the Lenten dish known as capirotada in Mexico; to Egypt’s nut, raisin, and coconut-filled Om Ali; and the many varieties of budín de pan eaten throughout Latin America. Though not unknown throughout the United States, bread pudding is an exceptionally popular dish in Louisiana, especially in New Orleans.
The first cookbook published in the British-American colonies, Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife (1742 edition), contains an early recipe for bread pudding: “TAKE a Penny Loaf, cut it in thin Slices, then boil a Quart of Cream or new Milk, and put in your Bread, and break it very fine; put five Eggs to it, a Nutmeg grated, a Quarter of a Pound of Sugar, and Half a Pound of Butter; stir all these well together; butter a Dish, and bake it an Hour.”
A century later recipes appeared in the first Louisiana cookbooks, including La Cuisine Creole (1885), in which Lafcadio Hearn writes of a “Delicious Bread Pudding”: “Butter some slices of bread, cut thin, and lay them in a dish, with currants and citron between; pour over it a quart of milk, with four well-beaten eggs, and sugar sufficient to sweeten to taste, and bake. Serve with sauce. It is easily made, and very nice. It is good hot and cold.”
Because bread puddings are often made with stale bread—a way to pinch pennies while up-cycling otherwise inedible loaves—French bread has long been the most common denominator among Louisiana recipes. The sturdy crust and crumble of French bread, an innovation of Alsatian bakers that stales easier than traditional French baguettes, has also incited local cooks to soak their leftover loaves in various liquors. But whether homely or elegant, bread pudding is always a decidedly decadent dish. The WPA Louisiana Writers’ Project turned up a bit of bygone slang for bread pudding, calling it the “heavy devil.”
Historian Susan Tucker points out that though bread pudding recipes continued to appear in cookbooks and newspaper columns, local chefs led a pudding revival beginning in the 1970s, when dishes drizzled with bourbon and rum and amaretto sauces became all the rage. This renaissance arguably reached its climax with Paul Prudhomme’s bread pudding soufflé with whiskey sauce, created for Commander’s Palace’s centennial celebration.
Today bread pudding buffs stuff their desserts with anything and everything: caramelized bananas, summertime peaches, and chunks of white chocolate. Krispy Kreme donuts might even serve as a substitute for French bread. Though a global dish in its origins, bread pudding is now internationally recognized as an iconic dessert of Louisiana, the Gulf Coast, and especially, New Orleans.