This may look like an ordinary square of bread pudding, but I am inordinately proud of it. The story behind it is one of redemption and rebirth (cue the swelling instrumental chorus…)
It began in January, when I made this cake topped with candied oranges. Because candied fruit is impossible to find here in my town in rural Florida after Christmas is over, I had to candy the oranges myself. This was a surprisingly easy task that left me with a boatload of leftovers, since only a handful of slices were needed for the cake.
So I did what most mortal cooking enthusiasts do – I shoved them into the back of the refrigerator and forgot about them. (Since candying was originally developed as a preservation technique, I figured they’d be good for a few months – or more.)
The next turning point in the epic took place about a week ago. Some dear old friends (and I mean old – he saw combat in Okinawa, she programmed IBM computers using punch cards and magnetic tape reels; both are formidable storytellers) asked me to bake them a cake for their 48th anniversary. Their only request was that it be “decadent” with “rich, rich chocolate icing.” Of course, I was delighted to oblige.
I decided to make them a dressy variation of a Boston cream pie, with a rum-flavored custard filling, a full covering of poured bittersweet chocolate ganache, and a decoration of gilded chocolate wedges arranged in a pinwheel formation atop the ganache. (Unfortunately, I did not get a photo of the cake before I gave it to them.)
The base of the cake itself had a pretty standard recipe – eggs beaten to a fluffy mousse with sugar and folded together with melted butter, flour, and leavening. In principle, it would take only minutes to mix together before baking.
Then the family curse paid a visit.
Every member of my immediate family has suffered from this curse: a gluttonous disposition combined with a genetic proclivity for high cholesterol. Because of this familial burden, I generally keep egg substitute in the house rather than regular eggs, and whenever a recipe calls for whole, unseparated eggs, I reach for that yellow carton. It usually works fine for baking.
But not this time. In recipes like this, the texture of the cake depends on the eggs being beaten into a thick foam, which will in turn form the airy bubbles that give volume to the cake. For this, only the oh-so-rich-and-stretchy texture of real eggs will do. I realized this even as I poured a cup of sugar into the ersatz eggs and turned on the mixer: Oops. This probably won’t work.
My suspicions were correct. After half an hour of being whipped at high speed, the eggs still sloshed sullenly around the mixer bowl in their original liquid form.
This was, no doubt, my karmic punishment for trying to pass fake eggs onto good friends who deserved better. A quick trip to the supermarket for real eggs solved the problem, but I still had a mixer full of fake egg-sugar mix. Throwing it out seemed wasteful – surely, there was some palatable way to recycle the stuff: Custard pie? Some kind of mousse? Besides, those fake eggs were stabilized, pasteurized, and probably loaded to the hilt with preservatives, so they’d no doubt last a while.
Into the refrigerator they went, right behind the oranges.
Next, it was time to make the chocolate decorations for the top of the cake. My friends had seen my cooking-school portfolio and wanted and expected a showstopper cake, but my piping skills had gotten seriously rusty since I stopped baking professionally. (I’ve had precious few occasions to make buttercream roses in my subsequent teaching and writing gigs.) So I chose to top the cake with thin chocolate wedges flecked with edible gold powder instead. It would be eye-catching, elegant, and most importantly, relatively hard to screw up.
Knowing the many ways I could screw up, however, I deliberately made more chocolate wedges than I needed – some would no doubt look funny or break when installed on the cake. Besides, the chocolate needed to be tempered before I could cut it into those wedges, and I’ve found it’s easier to temper large quantities of chocolate than small ones. My cautionary measure paid off: I had plenty of good-looking, evenly shaped wedges to use for my cake. But I also had a huge plate of leftover tempered chocolate shards.
There is no doubt a special circle in hell for people who throw out perfectly good chocolate – so these went into the back of the fridge, too. Right alongside the oranges and sweetened eggs.
The final chapter of the tale unfolded a few days ago. As a household of two, we generally find ourselves with a good quantity of leftovers after meals, which conveniently stretch into meals on subsequent days. But the other day, I noticed something ominous – our Tupperware supply had dwindled to nothing. Every container in the house was already in the refrigerator or in the freezer.
Something had to be done. It was time to make use of the stuff that was filling those containers and starting to outstay its welcome. I focused on those oranges, the oldest things in the fridge; the chocolate, which occupied a favored container; and those sugared eggs, whose presence in the fridge was just plain awkward. Since I love the combination of chocolate and oranges, I figured that they’d make a good dessert together. But whatever it was, it would have to have a sweet, eggy base.
Glenn suggested that the eggs would be a good base for French toast – but to use them up, we’d need to make French toast for ten. And the sugar in the eggs, combined with whatever toppings we’d use, would make the finished dish way too sweet.
Then it occurred to me: bread pudding is essentially sweetened French toast in casserole form. It would be a perfect vehicle for finishing off those sweetened eggs, and the chocolate and candied orange would be a refreshing change from the predictable raisin-and-cinnamon treatment bread pudding usually gets.
I chopped up some of the candied orange and chocolate, layered them in a casserole with slices from a supermarket baguette, and topped the whole with the sugared eggs, which I had thinned with milk and flavored with vanilla. (Bread pudding was developed, according to popular myth, as a means for using up leftover bread –but ironically, in this instantiation, the bread was the only major component that wasn’t a leftover.) I let the pudding sit so the bread would absorb the liquid, then topped it a few dots of soft butter and put it in the oven.
The end product? Wonderful – rich, eggy, and luxurious in a way that regular bread pudding isn’t. After all, adding chocolate to almost anything will make it better. I thought it was fine eaten on its own, but Glenn suggested an additional topping of bourbon-flavored hard sauce, which made it even more luxurious.
Recycling had never been so glamorous.
CHOCOLATE-ORANGE BREAD PUDDING
For the pudding:
1 baguette, cut into ½-inch slices
1 cup sugar
¾ cup milk
1/3 vanilla bean
¾ cup semisweet chocolate, chopped into fine pieces
¾ cup candied orange, chopped into fine pieces
1-1/2 tablespoons softened butter
Powdered sugar for garnish (optional)
1. Beat together the eggs, sugar, and milk in a medium bowl. Split the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and with the blunt side of a knife, scrape out as much of the inside material as you can. Stir the vanilla-bean innards into the eggs mixture, ensuring that they are evenly distributed throughout the batter.
2. Cover the bottom of an 8” square pan with a layer of baguette slices (this should use up half the slices). Sprinkle on half the chocolate and half the candied orange pieces. Layer the remaining baguette slices, chocolate, and orange pieces on top of the first layer of bread.
3. Slowly pour the egg mixture over the assembled pudding. Shake the pan gently to distribute the batter evenly. Allow the pudding to sit for about 20 minutes so the bread will absorb the egg mixture.
4. While the pudding is resting, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Top the pudding evenly with small pats of the softened butter.
5. Put the pudding into a larger pan (such as a roaster) and add about ½” of water to the larger pan. Cover the pudding with foil and bake for about 30 minutes, or until almost set.
6. Remove the foil, raise the temperature to 400, and continue baking until the pudding is lightly browned, about 10 minutes.
For the bourbon sauce:
6 tablespoons unsweetened butter, softened
¾ cup powdered sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2-3 tablespoons bourbon (adjust amount to your taste)
Combine all ingredients until evenly mixed. At room temperature, the sauce will be thick and fluffy. If you wish to thin it down, heat it gently over a water bath at low heat. Serve with the pudding.