Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Best Leftover


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         When I put his dinner down on his highchair tray, my son used to ask me, with a piercing look and a note of stern warning in his voice—as if to say, don’t lie to me—“Is it fresh?” I would look at this 2-year-old child, sitting there in diapers and a bib, and wonder where in the world this suspicion that maybe I’d sneaked something out of the back of the refrigerator and scraped off the mold off before palming it off on him came from. I never figured it out—I had cooked “fresh” every night since he was born—or even how so tiny a child could think to ask such a thing. But one thing was sure, my son had no appreciation for leftovers.

Most of us do. Growing up, my brother’s favorite was cold spaghetti. Nearly everyone (and now even my son, who is 22 and began to give in to leftovers a year or so ago) likes leftover pizza. Stews, of course. Turkey, for sandwiches. Cold steak. But the really best leftovers, in my mind, are those you can do something with. Leftover rice, for fried rice or rice balls, or eating as cereal with cream and brown sugar. Leftover potatoes, for home fries or potato cakes. But the best leftover of all, for me, is bread. When it is in that transitory state between soft and fresh—when you just want to eat it—and hard and stale—when you just want to throw it out—it is something altogether new: a great ingredient. And it finds its highest calling in the lowly bread pudding.

New Englanders didn’t invent bread pudding, but Englanders may have, and brought it over to us here, where we eat it all the time; it is often even referred to as “New England Bread Pudding.” Its popularity is unsurprising: bread pudding is a brilliant resolution to the New Englander’s paradoxical combination of frugality and love of sweet indulgence, killing two birds with one stone. We love finding the luxurious in the practical.

Bread pudding is comforting winter food, can be thrown together quickly from those four great staples, bread, eggs, sugar, and milk, then made your own with whatever else you have on hand. There are versions too numerous to mention, because there are very few things that don’t find themselves at home with a little bread and custard. Fresh fruits like bananas and apples, dried fruits ranging from the traditional raisins to cranberries and tropical varieties, nuts of all kinds, and of course chocolate, are all welcome. Even the bread is malleable. French, Italian, challah, brioche, pannetone, plain old white or whole wheat, or the cinnamon bread from my last post. I love bread pudding warm from the oven. But it is also great cold. Leftover.

Cinnamon Bread Pudding

Second only to apple pie in being just as divine for breakfast as for dessert. It is a brunch favorite in New England. Serves 6.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

About 6 ¾ “slices cinnamon bread (about 3 cups torn)
3 T soft butter
1/3 cup large raisins, such as red flame

3 eggs
3 cups milk (2%is fine)
½ cup sugar
¼ cup bourbon, such as Jack Daniels
1 tea vanilla
¼ tea freshly grated nutmeg

Heat the oven to 350F. Place a large lasagna pan, about 1/3 filled with water, in the oven while it heats. Butter a smaller baking dish, about 11x7x1.5".

Butter the bread and tear it into pieces to make about 3 cups, pressed down. Place the bread into the buttered dish and scatter the raisins on top. Beat the eggs, then beat in the milk, sugar, bourbon, vanilla, salt, and nutmeg. Pour it over the bread, and let it sit for about 20 minutes.

Place the dish into the pan of water in the oven. Bake for are 45-50 minutes, until puffed, lightly colored, and a knife placed in the center comes out clean. Remove to a rack for just a few minutes and serve warm, plain or with cream, ice cream, or a sauce such as chocolate or caramel.


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