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.


Friday, February 6, 2009


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         Cinnamon is the go-to spice for traditional baking, making it the most popular spice in the country after, I suppose, pepper. Interesting to think that these two favorites are both hot—cinnamon is definitely hot, although we rarely think that because it is so often mixed with sugar, which brings out its sweetness, and is usually used sparingly. But it packs a punch, coupled with its unmistakable flavor, in large doses.

Cinnamon comes from the bark of an evergreen tree of the same name, native to Sri Lanka. This is the “true” cinnamon, often called “Ceylon” or canela and distinct from cassia cinnamon, the most common in this country. Cassia is stronger and darker in color, noticeable primarily in the rolled bark, or quills, sold as “whole cinnamon.”

I like to have both the whole and ground on hand. The ground is as much of a staple as salt; I keep some near the espresso machine for sprinkling on my morning latte, and some mixed with sugar in a little shaker for cinnamon toast, a treat that never seems to wear out. It goes into most pies, into cakes with fruit and nuts, into truffles and ice cream and crumb toppings, and into sauces and stews. The quills are wonderful for the latter as well—I use them a lot in Mexican cooking--and for preserves where you want intense spicy flavor without sacrificing clarity in the finished product. A few years ago I developed a terrific drink, the cinnamini, made with cranberry juice, orange oil, and vodka in which fresh cinnamon sticks had been steeped for about a month. Wonderful.

Maple Cinnamon Bread

Cinnamon is the star of this bread, cutting a swath through the dough and undiluted by sugar. It makes very nice French Toast and bread pudding. 2 loaves.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

2 cups boiling water
½ cup RI stone ground jonnycake cornmeal
3 T lard
1 tea salt
½ cup maple syrup (Grade B)
½ cup lukewarm water
1 pkg active dry yeastOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
5 cups flour plus more for dusting
2 T butter, melted
3T best-quality ground cinnamon

In a large stainless steel pot (about 5 qt), bring the 2 cups of water to a boil. Stir in the jonnycake meal and cook over moderate heat, stirring, for about 5 minutes, pressing out any lumps with the back of the spoon, to make a smooth mush. Stir in the salt and the lard until melted. Let it cool slightly, then stir in the maple syrup. Dissolve the yeast in the lukewarm water, giving it a stir, and add to the mush. Stir in 2 cups of the flour, cover with a clean towel, and set aside to rise for about an hour.

Add the remaining 3 cups of flour, a cup at a time, to the sponge, stirring well to blend. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured counter or board and knead until smooth, 7 or 8 minutes; use only enough flour to keep the dough from sticking as you knead. Put the dough into a large greased bowl, cover with a towel, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         and let rise for another hour or until doubled. Turn the dough out onto a board, punching it down lightly. Form into a rough, flattish square and cut the dough in half. Roll each into a small rectangle, about 8”x12”, but no less than about ½” thick; keep the second half under a towel while you prepare the first. Brush some of melted butter sparingly across the dough, and distribute half the cinnamon on each rectangle; with a dry hand, spread it out to cover completely. Starting from the short side, roll the dough up firmly but not so tightly that you deflate it, and place it into 2 small (8 ½ x 4 ½ x 2 ½) bread pans, brushed lightly with some of the butter. Cover and let rise for an hour.

Bake the bread at 350F for 40-45 minutes, or until golden; the kitchen will smell wonderful. Just before removing from the oven, brush lightly with the last of the remaining melted butter. Remove and turn out onto a rack to cool before slicing.