Well, it’s official. Fall is here with all the fanfare of torrential downpours which have been pretty much non-stop for the last 12 hours. All the thirsty vegetation seems to have perked up and the house is filled with the autumnal aroma of wet dog. And today’s high? A whopping 53F so not only did the furnace get fired up today but also the oven cuz those dishes involving roasting and baking are looking pretty darn appealing right now, ya know?
Nothing like leftover tidbits from previous meals to get me thinking about wacky and hopefully tasty ways to put them to good use. The pancetta from earlier in the week needs a good home and since it’s pear season, what goes better with caramelized pears and pancetta than blue cheese? Why, fresh pineapple sage from the garden of course 🙂 And yes, it smells like pineapple when you rub it between your fingers! If you don’t have pineapple sage, you can substitute a pinch of dried sage, or a pinch of allspice, or just increase the candied ginger by 1/2 tsp. What, no candied ginger? You could make your own by simmering some finely diced and peeled ginger in a sugar syrup or just use 1/2 tsp ground ginger and 1/4 tsp light brown sugar. You see where this is going? This is why I like bread pudding. As long as you leave the egg, milk, and bread ratios alone, you can vary the “flavoring” ingredients to suit your cravings or needs or both. So if you’re not a fan of pancetta or are vegetarian, switch it out with toasted sesame oil for a little smoky flavor and some salt. Blue cheese too strong tasting? Try smoked Gouda or white cheddar. Pears not your thing? How about a juicy red apple, Snow White? Heck, even roasted Brussels sprouts could work. So take a look in those dark corners of your refrigerator and cobwebby pantry and go wild 😉
Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout Willis?
1) Why do I need “crusty bread?” Isn’t stale bread hard enough? Um, nope. Country style breads like baguettes, pugliese, or ciabatta not only have a nice firm crust but also a springy holey loaf that soaks up that delicious eggy custard while still having enough texture that it won’t turn into mush.
2) Why toss the bread in butter if it’s going to get soaked in custard? Brilliant question, grasshopper 😉 The melted butter coats the pieces of bread and the edges that are sticking out of the custard get crisped up while baking giving you a nice crunchy texture to go with your velvety custard-soaked bread chunks.
3) Could you make this with low-fat milk? Um, yeah but it will give you a firm (Dare I say rubbery?) texture, not a smooth, velvety, custardy one. While I’m always conscious about the amount of fat in my food and whether or not I really that much XX; however, custard is a colloid or more specifically a gel. Eh? I like to think of it in terms of categories and subcategories. Colloid is to gel like dog is to poodle. All poodles are dogs but not all dogs are poodles. An emulsion, like mayonnaise is another type of colloid. So what is a colloid and why does it need a certain amount of fat? A colloid is basically a state where substance A is suspended inside another substance, B, but still retains its inherent physical characteristics so that it is not dissolved or absorbed into B. Steam is a colloid of water molecules that have enough heat or energy that they’ve become suspended in air but have not become air or an air mixture. All you need to do is cool the steam and the water droplets fall out of suspension, colloid gone. A counter example to show what isn’t a colloid but can sound like one would be mixing sugar and water. This is in fact a solution because the sugar is dissolved into the water allowing them to act as one substance, in this case a syrup. Ugh, my head hurts, what does this have to do with low-fat bread pudding? Well, by heating the eggs the proteins in the eggs denature or unwind which then allows them to form a 3D cross-linking matrix which is called thickening in culinary terms or gelling. What the milk products (custard is classically made with cream, half and half, or whole milk) do is give you that velvety texture so low-fat or non-fat milk can result it a hard, jello-like custard. This is because the fat makes it harder for the egg proteins to gel giving a softer, smoother consistency. For those of you who don’t have a splitting headache or want to read up more about the chemistry behind cooking, check out Your Mother Was a Chemist: Science in the Kitchen, a really cool site breaking down the basic chemistry of cooking and food.
4) Great, how about a vegan version? Um, I’ve heard that you can substitute coconut milk for the eggs and milk but I’m not sure about the ratios. Sorry 😦 But if you figure it out, let me know!
3 c crusty bread, cut into 1 inch cubes (I used baguette!)
1 1/2 tbsp butter, melted
2 oz pancetta or bacon, diced **if cooking vegetarian, substitute 1/2 tsp salt + 2 tsp toasted sesame oil
1/2 shallot, finely diced
1 pear, peeled, cored, and diced
2 leaves sage, chopped
1/4 tsp light brown sugar
1 tbsp candied ginger
4 large eggs
2 c whole milk
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper
1 oz crumbled blue cheese
1 oz shredded parmesan
Preheat oven to 350F. Grease a 9×9 inch baking dish or 9 inch cast iron skillet and set aside.
Toss bread and butter together in a large bowl.
In an oven-safe skillet, sauté pancetta over medium heat till browned and fat is rendered ~2 minutes. Add pears, sage, brown sugar, and candied ginger and sauté till pears are soft and golden ~3-4 minutes.
**If cooking vegetarian skip the pancetta step and sauté the pears with sesame oil and add the 1/2 tsp salt to the 1 tsp salt in the egg mixture below. Remove from heat and mix in bread cubes. If using a baking pan, transfer skillet ingredients into baking pan–I prefer using a cast iron skillet (less dishes to wash :))
Whisk together eggs, milk, salt, and ground pepper in a large mixing bowl till combined. Fold in cheeses into egg mixture and then pour into skillet or baking pan. Bake for 25-40 minutes till golden and custard jiggles in the middle when the edge of pan is tapped or no liquid seeps up when the top is lightly pressed with a fork. With a cast iron skillet and convection it takes me ~30 minutes. Serves 4 as a main dish or 6 as a side dish and since this is sweetly savory, it could easily become breakfast/brunch with no one batting an eyelid too.