(This article was originally published on December 23, 2008. Your questionsn and comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
"Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother's house we go, the horse knows the way to carry the sleigh through the white and drifting snow." ...from an old children's Christmas song
Memory scents can be wonderful things. One taste of rum soaked raisin bread pudding that my friend made last night, and I was immediately transported right back into my mountains 50 years ago. I could feel the snowflakes on my face and the excitement of Santa who was on his way. It was Christmas Eve and all my friends from church and I had piled into somebody's Dad's old flatbed truck and we slowly crept up the mountain roads singing carols so loud our voices bounced back and forth from one mountain to the other. The old folks who were the recipients of our nonmelodic voices graciously opened their doors and we piled inside for hot chocolate and peppermint sticks and oatmeal cookies with raisins. It was all preplanned of course by our church youth leaders, but we didn't know that, we thought everybody was just happy to see us and to listen to us sing.
One of those houses where we stopped belonged to my grandmother. She opened her door to greet us and I could smell it wafting its way to the front porch. Rum raisin sauce. Oh, it might not have been rum, I doubt that my good grandmother would have had such a thing in her house: it could have been something else, but the bread pudding it was soaked into was wonderful. I was so proud to take all my friends to her house, because I thought bread pudding was high up on the classy dessert scale. Little did I know that it was one of the oldest, most common desserts ever to grace anybody's table. I still rank it right up on the top of the excellent scale.
Pudding has an interesting history. It was not always the rich creamy sweet flavored dessert that we know today. Food historians agree that it started with the ancients who produced a food similar to sausages that were meat based, they were called meat puddings. The early 17th century English puddings were either savory meat based concoctions, or were made of flour, nuts and sugar. "Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold, pease porridge in the pot, nine days old." Do you remember that very old nursery rhyme? The pease porridge mentioned was most likely a simple boiled pudding of pease meal and it most likely contained some form of meat scraps. Thankfully, speaking only for my own palate, by the latter half of the 18th century English puddings no longer included meat.
Sometime along the way, the ancient Roman cooks recognized the binding properties of eggs. Their puddings were either savory (cheese, meat, pepper, etc.) or sweet (honey, nuts, cinnamon). Most food historians agree that custard, the pudding like dessert that we know now, dates back to the Middle Ages and was eaten alone or was used as fillings for pastry. As unlikely as it might seem, the basic methods of making meat pudding, and those of making sweet custard converged at about the same time the settlers were coming to America, and the result is the pudding as we know it today: sweet but with a lumpy consistency. The addition of eggs made all the difference. My imagination tells me that the lumps we find in bread puddings are the only remaining similarity to the old meat puddings.
Most of my historical information about pudding comes from the Food Timeline . It provides an interesting read, following the addition of grains, vegetables, meats, nuts, spices into the pudding mix. By the middle 1800s in America, food was more plentiful, and it wasn't necessary to stretch a grain/liquid/meat combination to feed an entire family as it had been in the past. The settlers found an abundance of meat as well as edible vegetation available, so puddings became a dessert, definitely without meat, including the healthy addition of eggs.
At one time puddings were marketed for their nutritional value in the United States, and by the time packaged products became available, particularly the instant puddings, folks were convinced they were a healthy treat for their families. Of course some puddings have always been healthy, consider rice pudding as well as the sweet taste of tapioca. Since it was now considered a health food, every dinner table held a pudding dessert. One of the most common and easiest to make of the early American puddings was a thrown together mixture of cornmeal, milk and molasses. Some folks called this cornmeal mush, but most called it hasty pudding.
Bouncing back to our British friends, Yorkshire pudding was made from an egg, flour and milk batter cooked in a large shallow pan containing a layer of beef drippings. It was a popular accompaniment to roast beef and the two together composed the traditional Sunday brunch. As is true of most things and places, the more money, the better one ate. Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding would have been fit fare for the middle classes and the wealthy.
All this history is leading up to one of my favorite puddings, probably the easiest and cheapest to make of all of them. Oh, I love banana pudding with its creamy vanilla filling, wafers and chunks of banana. Add some whipped cream, and there's nothing like it! But my favorite pudding is not banana, it is plain hasty bread pudding. Food historians generally attribute the origin of basic bread pudding to frugal cooks, who didn't want to waste stale bread. The very easiest form of a bread pudding is simply soaking stale bread in milk, adding a little sweetener of some sort, and baking it. I am sure many cooks throughout history did this very thing. My mother told me that when she was growing up in a family of seven, her mother often only had one egg, but she beat that egg, added a little milk, a little sugar and cinnamon and poured it over leftover bread then baked it. A sprinkling of dried fruit thrown into the mix completed the breakfast meal. It was fast and easy, and Mom said they always looked forward to the day when they ran out of breakfast eggs and meats. It meant they would have bread pudding for breakfast. Once you add a little butter and perhaps some fruit to that basic recipe, you have a real treat, and this seems to have ensured the survival of bread pudding.
Last night when my friend Molly brought dessert to the table, I truly wished I didn't have to share it. She had made raisin bread pudding, baked to perfection, and topped with a rum raisin sauce. It was gone in a heartbeat, and you better believe I had my share. I came home wondering if I could recreate the taste without a recipe, and I spent the better part of the afternoon today doing just that. I wanted a hasty pudding that I might use with several different sauces. Brandy/pear sauce comes to mind, or perhaps an apple cider sauce, steaming and delicious.
I am notorious for using a pinch of this and a chunk of that when I cook, but I decided you might prefer a few more specifics, and found the recipe that has been used by my family for years. I will try to not throw in any pinches.
Hasty Bread Pudding
6 or 8 slices of thick bread (stale is best)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 Tablespoon nutmeg
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 cup milk
1 can sweetened condensed milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 sticks of butter
(You can add a cup of raisins or other dried fruit if you want, the type of fruit you add will dictate the kind of sauce you make)
In bowl, combine eggs, cinnamon and nutmeg. Mix well. Add to this mixture sugar, milk, condensed sweetened milk, and vanilla extract. Mix well. Tear up bread in bite size pieces in baking dish (about 1 and 1/2 quart size). Add raisins and melted butter to bread. Pour mixture over bread, spread evenly and be sure to push bread down if its corners are above the mixture. The mixture should cover the bread very well. Bake about 30-35 minutes at 350 degrees.
1 cup sugar
1 cup boiling water
1 Tablespoon rum (brandy or bourbon can be substituted if you prefer)
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
2 tablespoons butter
Mix sugar, cornstarch, nutmeg; gradually add water and cook over low heat until thick and clear, add butter and whiskey flavor, blend thoroughly.
If you would like a lemon sauce, substitute whiskey flavor for lemon juice. If you use a fruit in your bread, or prefer fruit in the sauce, then add with butter and flavoring.
Quite often I prefer pear sauce, it is a gentle sauce, particularly if you use a brandy flavor. My family used whatever dried but chewy fruit they had available. My least favorite is cherry with brandy. It seems too sweet to me. Dried plums, figs, cranberries, raisins, peaches, pears, apples, and of course any fruit from your area will work. I associate bread pudding with holidays, like Thanksgiving and Christmas, which is why I am only familiar with the dried fruit sauce. Traditionally it was only dried fruits that were used.
Holidays are filled with tradition, it is what makes us family, it centers our priorities, and renews our spirits. I hope your holidays are filled with the richest traditions that nature can provide, and among them I hope you can enjoy Hasty Bread Pudding, one of the richest and simplest desserts you can make.
If your children go caroling, tell them to sing loud and clear so the music will bounce off the mountains and make wonderful memories.
Photos of the baked pudding are my own. Photos of dried fruit are from Wiki's Public Domain.
The recipe is from the cooks in my family, those who came before me, and we won't mind at all if you tweak it to suit your family's taste.