Food historian Susan Tucker included bread pudding as one of the definitive New Orleans foods in her book “New Orleans Cuisine: Fourteen Signature Dishes and Their Histories.” But the dish was not invented there and can be found in the cuisine of many different cultures, so how did it become a staple in the homes and restaurants of many New Orleanians?
To answer that question, we have to travel back in time to the 13th century. Back when food was harder to come by and highly valued, any amount of waste was frowned upon (something we’re trying to get back to in reduced food waste now.) To use up excess bread scraps, cooks in medieval Europe mixed leftover bread crumbs with milk, a fat, and a sweetener when available. This unsophisticated mixture was boiled and served to people of lower classes who couldn’t afford more refined cuisine.
As time passed, the dish evolved to include eggs and take on a custard-like consistency. Chefs continued to modify the dish using different types of breads, fillings, toppings, and sauces. In the 1700s, French and Spanish upper-class immigrants settled in Louisiana, bringing culinary traditions and techniques with them across the Atlantic. Blended with local customs, the resulting mixed offspring and culture of French, Spanish, and African became known as Creole.
One of the earliest recorded examples of the dish in Creole cuisine is in Lafcadio Hearn’s 1885 cookbook “La Cuisine Creole.” He writes, “Butter some slices of bread, cut thin, and lay them in a dish, with currants and citron between; pour over it a quart of milk, with four well-beaten eggs, and sugar sufficient to sweeten to taste, and bake. Serve with sauce.” “The Picayune’s Creole Cookbook” of 1901 also includes a recipe for “Pouding de Pain,“ suggesting it be served with a “Hard or Lemon Sauce” or “add a little Sherry Wine.” The 1933 book “The Gourmet’s Guide to New Orleans” shows an early variation with a recipe for chocolate bread pudding.
The dish began showing up in New Orleans restaurant dessert menus en masse in the 1970s. It was commonly served with a brown liquor-based sauce, much like the city’s other famous dessert, bananas Foster. Today, it can be found in many different varieties, from basic to indulgent, across dozens of restaurants in the city. Borrowing from the French tradition of keeping things simple at home but extravagant in public, bread pudding can be anything from a simple weeknight addition to a rich, impressive treat. Got some extra bread lying around? See below for recipes to turn your leftover loaves into classic Creole fare.
This basic version follows the classic formula of bread, eggs, sugar, milk, and spices. This recipe recommends day-old challah as a base, but you can substitute any bread in your kitchen. Get the Grandma’s Bread Pudding recipe.
Bananas Foster, another classic New Orleans dish, was invented in the 1950s by Chef Paul Blangé at Brennan’s Restaurant. While the typical bananas Foster is served theatrically with tableside flambee, this recipe captures the spirit by topping bread pudding with a sauce of bananas and rum. Get the Bananas Foster Bread Pudding recipe.
With the addition of processed and canned goods to the 20th century diet, home cooks looked for new ways to integrate these foods into their recipes. Canned fruit cocktail or pineapple became a popular addition to homemade bread puddings. Get the Old Fashioned Southern Bread Pudding (with Fruit Cocktail) recipe.
Not all bread pudding has to be sweet. With eggs, cheese, sausage, and bread, think of this recipe as a more sophisticated breakfast sandwich. Get the Savory Sausage and Cheddar Bread Pudding recipe.
Getting ready to celebrate Mardi Gras? This recipe draws inspiration from the holiday’s classic celebratory dessert, king cake, for its décor: white icing with stripes of green, purple, and yellow sprinkles. Get the King Cake Bread Pudding recipe.
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