Bread pudding it quite literally a combination of two of my favorite things: bread and dessert. I like to make it for dinner guests because with minimal labor and a loaf of stale bread (or cinnamon rolls, croissants, etc) an elegant and damn impressive dessert is only around an hour of bake time away. This means I get an hour to drink and visit with my guests before dessert! You could alternatively make the pudding in advance and then reheat it in the oven while you prep the sauce, but I rarely have the forethought for that.
I have made several variations on the basic pudding including adding fresh fruits into the pan with the bread before pouring the custard, tweaking the recipe with orange or lemon zest, or by adding toasted almonds or pecans. In the past I have substituted some of the sugar in my recipe with honey, but I had never all-out replaced the sweetener until I got my hands on some sorghum syrup made locally here in Memphis, Tennessee from my friends at the Bring It Food Hub. My first thought was to use it in the place of sugar in a bread pudding. My second thought was to candy some pecans with it, and my third was to make sorghum sweetened whipped cream. I tried all three, and then I tried combining them all, and let me tell you I was NOT disappointed.
Although I was born and raised in Tennessee, I honestly knew nothing about sorghum syrup except that it is one of those classic Southern things that I missed out on because my parents were Yankees. I knew people ate it on biscuits with butter, but that is about all I knew it was good for, so I did a little research. As it turns out, sorghum is grown and harvested as a grain, and fall into the “ancient grass/grains” category. It is a drought tolerant crop that was initially brought to the Americas via the Atlantic slave trade from Africa. Sorghum syrup is made from a variety called “sweet sorghum” that is grown for its cane. The cane stalks are pressed and the resulting juice is cooked down and processed like maple syrup to become a thick, dark, viscous syrup. Sorghum syrup is commonly referred to as “sorghum molasses” but this is a misnomer because molasses is a byproduct of the cane-sugar refining process, where as sorghum syrup is a pure distillation of sorghum-cane juice, and it contains no molasses whatsoever. I assume this nick-name comes from the visual similarities between the two traditionally Southern sweeteners but I personally hate the comparison because in my opinion the taste of molasses it quite awful on its own, while the flavor of sorghum syrup is sweet and pleasant.
When I tasted the sorghum syrup I found it to be sweet but not sickly sweet the way maple syrup or corn syrup tastes sweet. There is a depth of flavor that evolves in your mouth as the thick viscous syrup melts on your tongue. The flavor goes from sweet to earthy and mineral, ending with an umami-like richness. I definitely don’t hate it. In fact, I love connecting with flavors that are classically Southern that I missed out on during my childhood.
My step-mother is from a Southern family and she grew up in Memphis. By the time she married my father I was 17 and almost out of the house, so I didn’t grow to appreciate her Southern culinary traditions until more recently. My step-mother was the first person to serve me a bread pudding. She is also the first person to serve me a hot banana pudding (because once the custard is cooked, why wait?). These Southern desserts were revolutionary for me. The recipes use such simple and and affordable ingredients that you usually already have them on hand (like milk, eggs, sugar, and butter). These recipes take such simple things and turn them into something extraordinary.
To say that bread pudding is my go-to dessert would be an understatement. It is not only a fantastic use of dry bread, it is also the perfect vehicle for a variety of fruit and boozy caramel-y sauces. The flavor possibilities are practically limitless, especially if you consider going the savory route. The first time I made bread pudding I followed the Tartine recipe exactly. Once I had made it following a recipe I realized that like quiche, as long as you understand the method you can suit the custard to your tastes and available ingredients.
First of all, you need some bread. The better the bread, the better the pudding, so I would recommend using something on the enriched end of the bread spectrum like challah or brioche. I have made this recipe twice now with Peter Reinhart’s “Portuguese Sweet Bread” which is a recipe that is the grandfather of what is known as “Hawaiian Bread”. It is absolutely rich and sweet and holds up particularly well to this custard.
The second thing you need to do is figure out your custard. It was simple for me to make a sorghum syrup sweetened pudding because the relative sweetness of sorghum is a bit higher per volume than sugar or honey. This means that you can use a little less syrup to replace a slightly larger quantity of sugar. I like to top my bread pudding with a boozy buttery caramel sauce that is over-the-top sweet, so I usually go easy on the amount of sugar added to the custard. In this case I replaced all of the sugar in the custard with sorghum syrup, and reduced the amount slightly. I tasted the custard before baking and it was sweet enough that I decided not to add any extra sugar.
All Photos by Simon Hua, 2017