Friday, May 25, 2012

Chocolate-Orange Bread Pudding: An Epic Tale of Leftovers and Redemption

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.


For the pudding:
1 baguette, cut into ½-inch slices
4 eggs
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.

Friday, May 4, 2012

#Lets Lunch: A Life Lesson from Hummus

This is part of the monthly Twitter-based #LetsLunch series.  Every month, Lets Lunchers blog about a recipe of their choice on a common topic. This month's topic: Biculttural food! A list-in-progress of other Lets Lunch posts follows the recipe.

I dreaded every day of graduate school. I felt awkward and insecure around my brilliant and worldly classmates, and was terrified of my even more brilliant (and all incredibly famous) professors.

I shouldn’t have been. And now, after a decade of teaching in other programs, I realize my years in the doctoral program in linguistics at UCLA should have been the best in my life (okay, maybe second-best after my two years of living on wine, cheese, and pain au chocolat while teaching English in Paris). UCLA’s linguistics department, to put it in polite academic terms, kicked major ass – but I was too dim to realize it at the time.

Some of the things I dreaded about it back then were the very things that made it such a great place to learn. One of these was the Copy Room Ambush. The Copy Room Ambush worked like this: I’d be minding my own business, photocopying a journal article, when some Famous Faculty Member would suddenly pounce from behind the recycling bins:

FFM: You! You have to give a talk in the Syntax/Semantics Seminar!

ME: But what am I going to talk about?? I don’t have anything ready to present!

FFM: That’s your problem. You’re going to give a talk!

And I almost always did. And all my presentations got ripped to shreds. The discussions invariably veered off onto long digressions, and these digressions led to arguments, and these arguments occasionally led back to my presentation. Or what was left of it, after everyone had taken their shots at it.

It wasn’t just me, either. Everyone’s work got ripped to shreds. The department had a golden reputation and sufficient funding to invite prominent linguists from all over the world to come and present their latest work. We ripped that to shreds too, but not before taking the authors out to dinner.

And yet, all these famous linguists kept coming back when invited. And I kept on working on new papers that I knew would be soundly trashed.

Then, after presenting a paper, I’d rework it and rework it until the protests died down. What didn’t kill my projects – and those of my classmates, professors, and our visitors – made them stronger. And we all knew it.

The department was an insanely busy place, with people presenting research (and getting trashed) just about every day, and a constant stream of interesting visitors from around the world coming through to teach, to collaborate, or just to share their ideas.

These visitors brought non-academic benefits, too. Visitors meant receptions and receptions meant free food – an important consideration for an impecunious grad student. Fridays were a big deal in the department, for that’s when we had our weekly colloquium, usually presented by a visiting big shot. And after the colloquium was a lunch reception.

For me, these receptions were yet another vexing feature of life in the department. First, there was the sheer terror of standing around with a paper plate smeared with hummus or Boursin while trying to make small talk with people who scared the crap out of me. Second was the puzzling contents of those paper plates.

There was invariably something wonky about the food selection. A typical spread consisted of several kinds of cold salads, a fat wedge of Gorgonzola – and several bags of potato chips. Or the assortment would include hummus – served with slices of baguette. When wedges of pita did appear, so would several tubs of salsa or onion dip – but no hummus.

Student members of the Colloquium Committee were responsible for hunting down lunch, and most of my cohorts were scary smart – except, apparently, when it came to food. Perhaps this was because many of them were international students unfamiliar with how the foods they chose were meant to be eaten. Or maybe they were too absorbed in their research on optimality theory or quantifier scope to notice what they were serving us. I really didn't care why our lunches were so weird. All I knew was that it was driving me nuts.

One day, I finally had enough. We grad students were having a meeting to discuss ways to improve various things in the department, among these, the Friday reception. “You know what we need at the reception?” I said, “Matching carbohydrates. What’s the deal with the salsa and bread, and tortilla chips and Brie?”

I saw a few light bulbs go off over my classmates’ heads. “Oh God, we’ve totally been doing that,” someone said.

“Yeah, the chips and butter have got to go," someone else chimed in.

I was too stressed out worrying about my dissertation to remember if we actually did anything about the matching carb situation. But in retrospect, that meeting should have been an “aha!” moment for me: my classmates didn’t think I was an idiot. They actually thought my ideas (about food, at least) had merit and were worthy of serious consideration.

And having seen what the rest of the academic world looks like, I now find myself missing that place I spent years hating and dreading. I miss the caffeinated buzz of our seminar discussions. I miss the thrill of being among the first to hear of new research by bigwigs in the field. I miss my grubby little grad student office and the distant echo of the UCLA marching band practicing on fall afternoons.

And now that I think of it, hummus on tortilla chips wasn’t half bad.


The connection between hummus and tortilla chips isn’t as farfetched as it may seem. Lebanese immigrants have a long history in Mexico, especially in the states of Puebla and Yucatán. I ate at a Yucatecan restaurant in Los Angeles once and was surprised to find kibbe (a Middle Eastern meatball made with ground lamb and bulgur) listed among the appetizers. A regional specialty of Puebla is tacos arabes – tacos served on pita bread rather than tortillas. And the Mexican standard tacos al pastor – tacos filled with spice-rubbed meat sliced off a vertical spit – was, by some accounts, inspired by Middle Eastern shawarma.

Hummus ma lahma is a hearty Lebanese treatment of hummus that tops the already rich chickpea puree with spiced ground beef. Here’s what I imagine a second- or third-generation Lebanese-Mexican in Yucatán might do with this dish: give the beef a local flavor with hot peppers, olives, raisins, and capers. The beef topping is inspired by the filling in a Yucatecan specialty, queso relleno (hollowed-out balls of Gouda filled with seasoned ground meat), and is inspired by Rick Bayless’ pork-based queso relleno filling.



1 14-ounce can chickpeas, drained

3 tablespoons tahini

1 small clove garlic, minced

2 teaspoons lemon juice

1/3 cup water (or as needed)

salt to taste

1. Puree all ingredients except water and salt in a food processor until smooth. With the motor running, gradually add water as needed to obtain a soft but spreadable consistency.

2. Add salt to taste.


1 cup chopped onion

1 large hot banana chile, chopped

3 cloves garlic, chopped

3 tablespoons neutral cooking oil, such as canola

1 pound ground beef

1/3 teaspoon ground allspice

2/3 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/3 cup raisins

1/8 cup capers

1/3 cup chopped green olives

1 large pinch dried (or chopped fresh) epazote (optional)

2 teaspoons vinegar

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1. Heat oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Add the onion, chile, and garlic and cook until tender.

2. Add spices and stir several seconds until fragrant.

3. Add the ground beef and cook until no longer pink.

4. Stir in the remaining ingredients and simmer 20 minutes to blend the flavors. Taste and adjust seasonings if needed.


Put the room-temperature hummus in a serving bowl (preferably a wide, shallow one, but any kind will do). Top with some of the hot beef mixture (you’ll have some left over; it makes a great filling for tacos, empanadas, or a ball of molten Gouda cheese). Garnish with sliced hot chiles and/or chopped cilantro. Serve with pita wedges and/or tortilla chips.

Check out how the rest of the Lets Lunch bunch created their multicultural dishes!

Cheryl‘s Goan Pork Curry Tacos at A Tiger in the Kitchen
Eleanor‘s Wok Picadillo at Wok Star
Ellise‘s Margarita Cookies at Cowgirl Chef
Emma‘s Kimchi Bulgogi Nachos at Dreaming of Pots And Pans
Grace‘s Taiwanese Fried Chicken at HapaMama
Jill‘s Southern Pimento-Stuffed Knishes at Eating My Words
Joe‘s Grilled KimCheese Sandwich at Joe Yonan
Lisa‘s Sunday Night Jewish-Chinese Brisket at Monday Morning Cooking Club
Lucy‘s Coconut Rice Pudding with Mango at A Cook And Her Books
Nancie‘s Chili-Cheese Biscuits with Avocado Butter at Nancie McDermott
Rashda‘s Mango Cobbler at Hot Curries & Cold Beer
Renee‘s Asian-Spiced Quick Pickles at My Kitchen And I
Steff‘s Chicken Fried Steak at The Kitchen Trials
Vivian‘s Funky Fusion Linguini at Vivian Pei