I hope that Sam and Monkey Gland will forgive me, but I prepared my entry for St. George's Day a bit outside the suggested time constraints. In fact, I knew the Critic would be in Canada on St. George's Day (visiting the Dominions, don't you know, old boy...) and so much of the point of making an English pudding would be lost without an English Critic. Instead, I prepared mine on Easter, for an all English group (myself and the half-breed Boy aside).
From the start, I had a bit of confusion about what exactly I was making. I told the Critic I was planning on making bread pudding. "Mmnh," he grunted. "It's okay. Why aren't you making Bread and Butter Pudding - I like it a lot better?" So I described what I intended to do - soft bread, soft custard, baking, raisins - and he told me that WAS bread and butter pudding. "What is bread pudding, then?" I asked. "I'm pretty sure that in the US, this is what we call bread pudding." He didn't know. All he knew was that it was stodgy and dense and not nearly as nice.
I turned to the Food Lover's Companion, which I bought at an exorbitant price some years ago at W.H. Smith's in Paris. (What a wasted extravagance THAT turned out to be, as the whole thing is available - and searchable - on www.epicurious.com for free.) FLC had the following information:
A simple, delicious baked dessert made with cubes or slices of bread saturated with a mixture of milk, eggs, sugar, vanilla and spices. Chopped fruit or nuts also can be added. Bread and butter pudding is made by buttering the bread slices before adding the liquid mixture. Both may be served hot or cold with cream or a dessert sauce.
Sounds very simple, no? However, every British person I consulted confirmed that there was a real difference between the two dishes and it didn't sound like a simple matter of butter/no butter. In the end, I found the solution to this conundrum at good old Wikipedia. Here is the entry for Bread Pudding:
"Bread pudding is a dessert popular in British cuisine and that of the Southeast U.S., made using stale (usually left-over) bread, suet, egg, sugar or golden syrup, spices, and dried fruit.
The bread is soaked (often overnight), squeezed dry, and mixed with the other ingredients. The mixture is transferred into a dish and baked.
It may be served with a sweet sauce of some sort, such as whiskey sauce, rum sauce, or caramel sauce, but is typically sprinkled with sugar and eaten cold in squares or slices.
Bread pudding should not be confused with Bread and butter pudding."
Stodge city. So now you know and so do we. I wisely opted for the rich, light Bread and Butter Pudding. And to make it a little more special, I added a grown-up ingredient: prunes à l'Armagnac. The result was exactly what I wanted: sweet without being cloying, delicate and yet very satisfying. Comfort food of the highest order, with an adult alcohol edge.
Isn't this a lovely photo? Don't you love the glinting light?
Bread AND Butter Pudding
I adapted this recipe from the inimitable Mrs. Beeton's Cookery for All. Due to far too many hours of watching Ready Steady Cook, I knew that brioche would make a lovely substitution for plain white bread. Ainsley, et al., were correct: the brioche made a wonderfully light, sweet pudding. If you don't happen to have prunes in Armagnac hanging about your liquor cabinet or kitchen, you could double the raisins, soak them in rum for a few hours and drain them before using.
Butter for greasing and buttering (several tablespoons if you are generous like me)
4 thin slices of bread or brioche (mine used 6 thick-ish slices)
50 g (a small handful) of raisins
50 g (about a dozen) prunes, soaked in Armagnac
a grating of nutmeg (to taste)
400 ml milk
25 g sugar
Grease a 1 litre pie dish, or a small Corningware souffle dish. Do not cut the crusts off the brioche, as suggested by Mrs. B. Butter the slices and place a layer, butter side up, in the dish. Sprinkle raisins and/or prunes. Lay another level of buttered brioche or bread and repeat until you have used up the bread and fruit, ending with bread on the top. (As you can see in the photo, I didn't have enough bread for a complete layer on the last one, so instead I cubed the last bit of bread and scattered it over the top.) Beat the eggs and milk together, with half the sugar. Pour the mixture over the bread and fruit. Grate the nutmeg over the dish and then sprinkle it with the remaining sugar.
Let the pudding sit in a corner for anywhere from half an hour to two hours (if it's more than that, you really should put it in the refrigerator while waiting). Preheat the oven to 180C. Bake 30-40 minutes, until it is set but still soft and a bit browned in bits on top. Allow to cool for ten minutes or so before serving, with cream or custard if you like. Actually on its own it's just dandy: creamy and soft and exgremely satisfying.
After his second bite, the Critic said suspiciously, "Did you put ALCOHOL in this?" and I responded apologetically "No, but I used prunes in Armagnac - is it okay?" And he said, "It's GREAT."
Note: if you are super organised and want to include the prunes in Armagnac, you'll need to start this pudding at least a month in advance. Take a kilo of prunes from Agen (with the pits) and prick each one with a pin or a needle. Put them in a bowl and cover them with tea. Let the prunes steep for a few hours or even over night. Drain the prunes. Rinse out a couple of big jars (the one's with the rubber ring and a metal clasp are best) with boiling water. Fill the jars three quarters of the way with the prunes and cover with Armagnac. It doesn't have to be the best quality Armagnac. Over time, the liquor will become a thick, sweet, plum flavoured nectar. After a few weeks, you can start dipping into the prunes. Serve them over ice cream or simply in a small glass with a tot of the liquor. You'll undoubtedly find yourself finish the liquor more quickly than the prunes. And when you do, you can use up a dozen of the prunes in a lovely bread and butter pudding!