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Joni Woolf: A Valentine’s Day dinner sparks memories

Last Sunday, Valentine’s Day, I was invited to a dinner in Macon, for a dozen women mostly of my generation, and hosted by four middle-aged men who like to cook and entertain — and who have a soft spot for women who no longer have mates or partners or significant others in their lives — or perhaps never did. It was a lovely affair: my table included Ruth Knox, president of Wesleyan College, and Pam Preston, well-known Macon artist and long-time friend. We talked more than we ate — and we ate a lot. It was a lovely affair, and the food was delicious. When dessert was presented, it dazzled: it was bread pudding, but in a square, like a corn-bread square, and was covered with a sauce that had a hint of lemon. The shape and the color were pleasing to the eye, and the taste was fine. And yet … I began to think of other bread puddings I had had and had made (I remembered one at Crab Daddy’s in St. Simons Island that was huge AND good), and then I recalled my favorite, from an ancient cookbook.
When I married the second time, my husband brought to the marriage a cookbook that had belonged to his former wife (life is strange like that). Though he is long since deceased, I have kept the cookbook. Called “River Road Recipes II,” it was published by the Junior League of Baton Rouge, and is filled with recipes one would expect from a Louisiana cookbook — and more. Published in 1976, it includes recipes for everything from red rice to jambalaya to Creole Pralines. But the one that caught my eye — and taste buds — was the recipe for Bread Pudding with Whiskey Sauce. It is much too easy to be so fine. I have compared it with others, and it still comes out on top  — though I ate every morsel of the Valentine’s Day pudding. Here’s the Louisiana recipe, then we’ll talk about others:

Bread Pudding with Whiskey Sauce
Pudding:
2 cups stale bread cubes (French bread is best)
4 cups milk, scalded (heated to near-boiling, but do not boil)
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 eggs, slightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 to 1 cup coarsely chopped pecans (optional)
Soak bread in milk 5 minutes. Add sugar, butter, salt, eggs, vanilla. Mix well. Stir in pecans. Pour into 1- 1/2 quart baking dish. Bake in pan of hot water for one hour at 350 degrees.
Whiskey Sauce:
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons butter
1 or 2 jiggers bourbon whiskey
Cook first three ingredients until dissolved. Remove from heat and add whiskey. Serve over bread pudding; best served warm. Note: If one prefers, a tablespoon of vanilla could be substituted for the whiskey. Also, some cooks use a cup of raisins instead of the nuts, or they could be combined. This is a hearty dessert that is always pleasing.

Reading other cookbooks, I found interesting variations, some of which I will certainly try. The Pirates’ House Cookbook from Savannah (Fourth Printing 1986) has a similar recipe (called French Bread Pudding) but calls for three times as much bread, and one less egg. Their whiskey sauce uses twice as much sugar. Closer to home, Albany native Elaine Ranew Barrett, whose cookbook “In the Kitchen With Elaine” is filled with Southern recipes that are sure to please, has a recipe called Lemon Bread Pudding. This is one I’m sure to try: in addition to the juice and rind of two lemons, it calls for separating the eggs, whipping the egg whites until stiff, and folding into the bread mixture, before baking. I suspect this would result in a sort-of souffle/pudding, lighter than most of the other recipes.
Bread pudding is one of our older dessert recipes and was probably created as a way to use up leftover bread and perhaps a surplus of eggs and milk when the culture was more rural. It is also an inexpensive dessert, and the necessary ingredients are usually on hand without a trip to the store. Finally, it is a dessert that lends itself to experimentation — the addition of dried or fresh fruit could change the flavor, and the addition of a dollop of whipped cream would certainly gild the lily! So try your own experimenting, and let us know the results. We are all in this cooking adventure together.

Joni Woolf, a writer and editor, now lives in Schley County, having moved from her home in Macon several years ago. Contact her at indigojoni@windstream.net