Thursday, November 15, 2012

Savory bread pudding with cream gravy and fried sage

Although I often do my best to avoid it, I love bread.  I grew up on my mother's home-made bread and when she went back to teaching full time, we eventually had store-bought bread in the pantry.  And I'm not talkin' about Wonder Bread, the production of which is apparently at risk (along with Twinkies) in a current labor dispute.  

Mom bought Arnold Brick Oven (which you can find here in Texas as the brand Orowheat) and Pepperidge Farm bread.  She felt guilty, I suppose, for not baking home-made bread anymore and I know she thought she was doing a good thing by making our sandwiches on the more expensive, denser bread.  Turns out, she was on to something.  She discovered one day that my brother had been trading his Pepperidge Farm sandwiches with another kid at school for sandwiches on squishy white bread because that kid thought my brother must come from a rich family if he could get a sandwich on Pepperidge Farm bread.  Not to mention, the squishy white bread sandwich my brother accepted in exchange was filled with a brand of peanut butter we didn't EVER buy (Skippy) and off-brand grape jelly.  Boy, was my mother irritated.  I would say "pissed," but my mother, being a good Baptist woman, did not get "pissed."  She would get irritated, agitated, annoyed and sometimes angry.  But never pissed.  It just wasn't Biblical.

My brother got in trouble for eating it...and it pissed my mother off.

I think Mom was irritated mostly because my brother would have rather had the squishy white bread and the Skippy peanut butter instead of the grainy, substantive Smucker's she faithfully bought for her family.  And, of course, it must have aggravated her to no end that my brother was eating off-brand grape jelly (instead of the beautiful grape jelly she labored to make in late September during Concord grape season).

But my brother wasn't the only one with a guilty secret about squishy white bread.  I loved eating it when we stayed at my grandmother's house.  Keep in mind that this was my mother's mother.  Grandma always had a loaf of Sunbeam bread in the breadbox, and real butter, always at room temperature, on the countertop.  As a pudgy child who craved anything with carbohydrates, I would toast two slices of bread in her toaster and slather it with the soft butter.  Biting into that warm, pillowy, buttery toast was not just a forbidden treat.  It was Bread Nirvana, and for some time, I thought it was the most fabulous food on the planet.  I ate toast made from squishy white bread as often as possible (read: when my mother was not around to supervise what went into my mouth).  And while I ate my forbidden treat, I would gaze, in my foggy carbohydrate-induced stupor, at the little girl on the bread wrapper, imagining that she and I would one day be playmates.  I imagined that one day, she would explain to me how you could eat bread and butter and still be at a normal weight like she was.

Little Miss Sunbeam, my imaginary playmate.

But then something happened to me.  My break-up with Little Miss Sunbeam came when a teacher showed us how to make modeling clay out of bread.  You could mix it with white glue, dye it with food coloring and shape things out of it, like little roses and jewelry.  After you let it dry for a few days, it was unbreakable.  I began to think about what that white bread was doing in my stomach.  It certainly didn't need much help from the white glue to make it unappetizing when you began to squish it into a ball.  I imagined it lying in my stomach in a dense, hard lump.  I knew what this meant: years before Facebook was even conceived, I knew I would have to unfriend Little Miss Sunbeam.  I would have to give up squishy white bread.

After that, the scales fell from my eyes, much in the same way that they did when I found out where Jello really came from (let's say I finally realized that Jello didn't just come from the box).  I haven't touched Jello since, and that made me very sad, since, besides having a breadbox full of Sunbeam bread, my grandmother's other virtues included making a really great lemon Jello salad with nuts and celery.  She served it at holiday dinners, cut neatly into squares and placed carefully on leaves of iceberg lettuce.  On tea saucers, no less.  There was a dollop of Miracle Whip on each serving, as I recall.  My grandmother could really do it up.

Today, I am a bread snob (and I still won't eat Jello).  This should come as no surprise to any of you.  I tend to make my own bread from this recipe or buy it somewhere that has great bread.  I simply cannot be trusted with a loaf of Seeduction from Whole Foods or a loaf of olive bread from Central Market.  I could live on a good ciabatta and I crave the crackling crust and toothsome, yeasty interior of a good loaf of French bread.  These breads have come my new Nirvana.

So you might wonder why I would bring you a recipe for savory bread pudding that is made with squishy bread.  The short answer is that it's just plain outstanding.  It is dense and rich from the custard and tender enough to be eaten with a small fork (even a plastic one).  When graced by real cream gravy studded with bits of pork sausage, it's a fabulous breakfast or brunch.  I use a combination of white and wheat store-brand bread and you can, of course, use better quality bread, but you need to allow extra milk and overnight soaking time for the custard to be fully absorbed.

Savory Bread Pudding with Cream Gravy and Fried Sage

     This recipe is a combination of my mother's Yankee bread stuffing recipe (for which there is no written record), the classic Fanny Farmer Herb Stuffing recipe and the basic 3:1 egg to milk ratio for bread pudding.  Be sure to make the cream gravy and fried sage leaves for extra glamour if you have guests to impress, although this bread pudding is good all on its own as well.

8 cups cubes day-old bread (white, whole wheat or a mixture)
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp.  kosher salt
2 tsp. dried thyme
2 tsp. dried basil
1 tsp. marjoram
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped celery (some chopped celery leaves are nice too)
2 large cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbs. chopped flat leaf parsley.
6 eggs, beaten
1 cup milk
1 cup cream
1 cup shredded cheese (I used Gruyere and Parmesan), divided
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1.)  In a large bowl, combine cubed bread with pepper, salt, thyme, basil and marjoram in a large bowl.  Set aside.
2.)  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
3.)  In a medium-sized skillet, melt butter and when foaming, add the onion and celery and saute for about 5 minutes.
4.)  Add minced garlic and saute briefly but do not toast.
5.)  Remove from heat and stir in the parsley.
6.)  Combine eggs, milk and one-half of the cheese.
7.)  Season egg mixture with salt and pepper to taste.
8.)  Pour butter and sauted vegetables over bread cubes and herbs; stir well to combine.
9.)  Pour egg mixture over bread mixture and stir well so that bread absorbs the liquid.
10.)  Spread mixture evenly in a well-greased 9 x 13 pan and sprinkle with remaining cheese.  At this point, you can cover your pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate until you're ready to bake (as long as overnight).
11.)  Bake for approximately 50 to 55 minutes, or until a knife inserted comes out clean.
12.)  Cut into squares and serve with Cream Gravy (recipe follows) and Fried Sage (procedure follows).  Serves 8 hungry people.

Cream Gravy:

1/2 lb. pork sausage (such as Jimmy Dean's)
3 Tbs. flour
1 cup cream or half and half
2 cups milk
kosher salt to taste
1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp. ground white pepper

1.)  Fry pork sausage in a medium-size pan or skillet, crumbling it up as it cooks.
2.)  Off heat, remove sausage from the pan with a slotted spoon to another dish, leaving drippings and fond in pan.
3.)  Return pan to heat and add flour, stirring well with a sturdy spatula or whisk to blend flour and fat, cooking until bubbling.
4.)  Add cream and milk to pan gradually and continue to stir until well-blended and there are no lumps from the flour mixture.
5.)  Cook until mixture begins to slowly boil, reduce heat if necessary and add salt to taste.
6.)  Remove from heat and add nutmeg, white pepper and cooked sausage along with any drippings.  Stir well to blend.
7.)  Serve with Savory Bread Pudding and garnish with Fried Sage (see below for procedure).  Makes about 3 1/2 cups.

Fried Sage:

Several fresh sage leaves, washed and dried
2 Tbs. oil

Heat oil in a medium-size skillet over medim-high heat until rippling.  Add sage leaves and fry until darkened and crisped, less than a minute.  Remove sage leaves from oil and drain on paper towels until ready to use.  You can fry these a day ahead and store them airtight.

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