morning bread pudding with salted caramel

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Morning Bread Pudding with Salted Caramel
Adapted from The New York Times, 12/19/01

This recipe is from none other than Food52 co-founder Amanda Hesser, back in her earlier New York Times days. (I clipped almost everything she cooked back then. #fangirl) It hails from the same article about holiday breakfasts as the winter fruit salad I shared here years ago. Yes, I basically skipped past this caramel/marscarpone/butter/challah glory for a fruit salad. I can be such a bore sometimes. I suspect I was fearful of it because I thought it would be unbearably sweet and unbreakfast-like, but for me, the beauty of it — well, aside from the actual messy beauty of it — is that it’s not. I ended up removing the 2 tablespoons sugar in the bread part to increase the contrast provided between the faintly tangy bread and the well-rounded sweetness of the dark caramel lid. My other changes were some added quantity and baking vessel notes and a couple tiny ingredient tweaks (salting the caramel for modern times, streamlining the fancy dairy products), plus some notes of warning about the caramel. Finally, Hesser calls for 1/4 cup coarsely chopped toasted almonds to be sprinkled on the bread 15 minutes into the baking time but I never bother.

If you can’t get mascarpone, creme fraiche would be ideal here. It doesn’t just enrich the batter and add a faint tang, it serves as the dreamiest dollop on served wedges. Sour cream would theoretically work too, but won’t be as rich and smooth one heated. I used whole milk, but suspect low-fat would work just fine here.

This is an overnight dish, ideally. Set it up before you go to bed and all you have to do when you wake up is bake it and invert it onto a serving dish. The longer is soaks, the more the bread and custard become one, but nevertheless, I think as long as it has an hour to soak, it will be good enough.

Serves 6 generous or 8 to 10 if other items are on the table. Estimate 1 hour prep time and then about 30 or so minutes baking time in the morning.

3/4 cup plus (optional) 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon flaky sea salt or just 2 or 3 pinches of a coarse one
10 to 12-ounce loaf brioche or challah bread (cut into slices about 1/2-inch thick and about 3 inches square or round, which sounds really persnickety, but they really do fit better in the pan this way)
8 large eggs
1 cup mascarpone cheese, divided (1/4 cup for custard; 3/4 cup for serving)
1 cup milk
1/4 teaspoon almond extract

First, choose your baking vessel. I opted for a 2-quart oval gratin/roasting dish, but also tested this in a 9-inch round cake pan (it was a squeeze; 10-inch would have been better). Other things I suspect would work: 9- to 10-inch cast iron skillet, 2-quart casserole dish or 1 deep-dish pie pan (what Hesser suggests).

If your vessel is safe for the stovetop, use this to make the caramel. If not, use a small, heavy saucepan. In either, place 3/4 cup sugar, butter and sea salt and heat over medium heat. The butter will melt and, after 7 to 10 minutes, the sugar will dissolve and begin to brown. Reduce heat to medium-low and stir with a spoon or spatula so that it browns evenly. You will find that the butter separates from the melting sugar and this is just fine. Do your best to keep them stirred together but know that it will all work out in the end even if it’s split.

If you’re using a saucepan, your caramel is done when it reaches a copper color. Pour it over the base of your baking vessel and try (I failed each time) to tip it 1-inch up the sides of the dish.

If you’re making the caramel in your final baking vessel, your caramel should be taken off the stove a step sooner, a shade more pale than copper, something of a medium brown; this is because it will continue cooking and darkening for a minute off the stove.

Regardless of baking vessel, place dish in refrigerator and chill until caramel is cold and solid, about 30 minutes. Once chilled, arrange the bread slices. Place the heel of the bread in the center and do what you can to fan the slices around it, overlapping each slightly and knowing with complete confidence that even if your dish doesn’t resemble a blooming rose, nobody will care at all.

In a large bowl whisk together eggs, remaining 2 tablespoons sugar (if using; I skipped this) and 1/4 mascarpone cheese (save rest for serving), until very smooth. Add milk and almond extract. Pour this over the bread, making sure to saturate all of it. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and chill overnight. If you bread seems too high in the vessel to get a good soak, you can weight it with a plate in the fridge.

In the morning, [updated to suggest] take your dish from the fridge an hour before you want to bake it. Heat oven to 375°F. Remove plastic from dish and bake 30 to 35 minutes, until moist but not wet in center. Remove from oven and run a knife around edge of dish, loosening bread from sides. Place a serving plate over top of dish (bottom side up), and, using potholders, hold pudding over sink and flip pudding onto it. Lift baking dish off plate; scrape any extra caramel from pie dish over pudding. Serve, cutting it into wedges at the table and spooning a healthy dollop of mascarpone onto each plate.


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