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Friday, July 17, 2009

Soul Food

In a generation where clichés ruled the dinner table, my mother’s quote of choice, “Waste not, want not,” repeated with insistent regularity over the span of my childhood remained her fundamental proclamation. A conscientious and determined cook, she held a competition with herself to stretch each dinner into as many subsequent meals as gastronomically possible. Each night she reminded us of whatever third world country struggled with crop-shriveling drought at the time, while prompting us to scrape our plates in order to earn admittance into the “Clean Plate Club.”

In our house, the table was a crowded maple drop-leaf with long wooden benches holding three kids on each side, and spindle backed Windsor’s at the head and foot. Wedged in between my brothers and sisters I dug into big-family-on-small-budget food: creamy homemade corn chowders; thick minestrones made from leftover vegetables, the ground up remains of Sunday dinner presented as roast beef hash, and “Chicken a la King” reincarnated from a previous supper of baked breasts. My father, a hardworking breadwinner for his six children, made enough money, but just; and in my mother’s conventional role as homemaker she pinched pennies between paychecks by resurrecting the remnants from prior meals and fashioning them into presentable feasts designed to fill eight hungry mouths.

As with much of the food my mother served, when she did prepare dessert, it evolved as a second generation produced to avoid wasting food; banana bread from over-ripe bananas, apple sauce from the bruised leavings at the bottom of a bushel basket. The smells and tastes of most of these foods still rocket me back to the aromatic environs of my mother’s kitchen. And although I love them all and replicate them in my own home, one dish represents the zenith of comfort food to me, an offering that conveys clear testimony to my mother’s resourcefulness and thrift. A rich, uncomplicated confection that emerges from humble beginnings, to this day, my ultimate indulgence remains bread pudding.

Nowhere was my mother’s dedication to the practice of saving and reusing welcomed more than her habit of hording old scraps of bread. The heals of bread that her picky children refused to eat, broken pieces unfit for sandwiches, bread that for some reason lasted long enough to get stale, all made their way to a plastic bag in the freezer. And once that bag was stuffed full, Mom turned the contents into a blissfully moist, sweetly soothing cinnamon raisin or chocolate bread pudding.

On the days that we came home from school to find a bread pudding cooling in her chipped stoneware casserole, we invented excuses to remain in the kitchen, dancing around her on tiptoes and sneaking quick crumbs from the edge of the dish. The hours until supper stretched forever and once the meal finally arrived, we emptied our plates promptly regardless of what food sat in front of us--a requirement before dessert was permitted.

At last Mom plopped scoops of moist, spongy pudding into bowls. Pouring whole milk around the edges of the custard, we spooned unnecessary sugar on top wallowing in the sublime balance of taste and texture fashioned from unassuming ingredients of milk, sugar, eggs and bread.

When I grew up and moved to my own apartment, boxed macaroni and cheese became the fast meal of choice and bread pudding went out of my life for a time. I was the last child to leave the house and with only two mouths to feed, Mom no longer accumulated enough bread to warrant a pudding. Involved as I was with my own active life, I hardly realized I missed it.

Years later, newly married and in my own home, with from-scratch cooking skills that had improved substantially, I stumbled upon a recipe for chocolate bread pudding in a magazine. Immediately, and with no explanation to my bemused husband, I grabbed my purse, drove to the store and purchased unsweetened chocolate and eggs. Rushing home, I created my first bread pudding. My husband may not have understood the sense of urgency, but he uttered no complaints when he spooned into the final product.

I’ve been making variations of this nostalgic dish for my own family ever since, blueberry, apple, caramel bread puddings, and white chocolate with raspberry sauce. But the dessert I savor most is my edited version of that recipe I first encountered in the late 1980’s; a fusion of ingredients that plunks me right back onto those hard wooden benches, bequeathing a lingering aftertaste of the essence that flavored my life, back in the day when every meal counted.

Chocolate Bread Pudding

2 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate
1 ½ cups milk (for extra rich, use half and half)
1 cup sugar
4 slices homemade bread
2 eggs
½ cup milk
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons butter

In a double boiler over simmering water, place the chocolate, 1 ½ cups milk (or half and half) and sugar, and stir until the chocolate is melted. Quarter the bread slices and place them on the bottom of a greased baking dish or small casserole in two layers. Beat the eggs until fluffy and add ½ cup milk, salt and vanilla. Add butter to the warm milk and chocolate mixture and let it melt. Then add the milk and egg mixture to the chocolate mixture, stirring constantly, and pour it over the bread in the baking dish. Let it sit for 15 to 20 minutes pushing down the bread to make sure it absorbs the chocolate. Place in 350 preheated oven and bake for 45 minutes.

When I was a child, we served the bread pudding with milk and sugar. These days I find a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream over warmed pudding works just fine.

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