The forgotten kitchen: bread pudding

Categories: History of food

In the latest in her series on cooking methods and foodstuffs that have fallen from favour over the years, food writer and historian Bee Wilson revels in our historic love of bread pudding

Bread pudding to a British person conjures up something brown and rather solid. I remember school bread puddings from the 1980s. They tasted of nutmeg and dried fruit and not much else, except for a welcome sprinkling of demerara on top. The bread itself was a gluey mass, probably because it was Mother’s Pride. As a greedy child, I liked these bread puddings well enough, but they were nothing to make the heart sing.

But bread pudding can be marvellous. In earlier days, when the standard of bread was better and cooks were less wasteful, bread puddings were legion, from apple charlotte to bread-and-butter pudding. There were puddings made of crumbs, soaked in milk and eggs and steamed or baked to a sweet, bready mass.

And there were puddings made from sliced bread, either overlapping in a dish or lining a pudding basin, as for a summer pudding. A handful or two of breadcrumbs also gave body to countless other puddings, from queen of puddings to Eve’s pudding. Taking stale bread and turning it into something comforting and new was a key skill that every cook knew.

Taste of Christmas
Bread pudding is a tradition being revived by Borough Market, which makes sense. Bread is one of the most wasted of all foodstuffs in Britain, but it’s partly, I suspect, because the crust of a supermarket sliced loaf made by the Chorleywood process is so flabby it does not feel worth saving. With good bread, you don’t want to waste a nano-crumb. At Bread Ahead, any loaves unsold at the end of the day are transformed into a rich, dark bread pudding with candied peel and black treacle that tastes of Christmas.

Borough Market generously donated some to this year’s Oxford Symposium on Food (of which I’m chair), as part of a lunch celebrating reclaimed foods. We ate dark slices of the pudding with a whey-milk cheese (also from Borough) and a berry compote made from berries rescued from being thrown away by Oxford Food Bank.

Enjoying the lunch was Belgian food writer Regula Ysewijn, author of Pride and Pudding: The History of British Puddings, Savoury and Sweet (Murdoch Books, £20). Regula gives a whole chapter of her book to bread puddings. “They are versatile, our bread puddings,” she writes. One of her recipes is for 17th century Devonshire white-pot. Like bread-and-butter pudding, a white-pot was a custardy thing made from raisins or currants, eggs, cream and nutmeg. Regula layers the white-pot in a pudding basin and bakes it inside a Dutch oven until a “beautiful golden brown”.

Fry him up
Just because bread puddings were a product of thrift does not mean that they were made carelessly. The simplest of all bread puddings is pain pur-dew, also known as eggy bread: bread dipped in egg, fried in butter and sprinkled with sugar. The name comes from the French ‘pain perdue’, meaning lost bread. A 15th century recipe tells the reader to start with “fair bread” and “fair yolks” and to “fry him up” in “fair butter” before laying on sugar. And “serve it forth”.

I am moved to think how many cooks—in Britain and around the world—must have done something similar over the centuries. They took bread and eggs and sugar and fed it to people hungry for something sweet and filling. Our kitchens and lives have changed beyond recognition, but there is always bread pudding.

While trawling through old British recipes for bread pudding, I was struck that so many of them had the same flavour profile of dried fruit and nutmeg. The worst was Mrs Beeton’s Very Plain Bread Pudding made from “odd pieces of crust or crumb” soaked in water, with nutmeg and currants.

Nourishing portion
I was charmed to come across one by the Victorian chef Alexis Soyer from 1851 (in The Modern Housewife) that was different, and simpler. He calls it A Small Bread Pudding and presents it as an invalid food to serve to a single person. I like the thought of someone going to the trouble of making a nourishing portion of bread pudding to cheer up an invalid.

It is nothing but bread, butter, egg, powdered cinnamon, milk and sugar. I scaled it up for a family supper and we ate it with cream a blackcurrant compote, as a nod to that other great bread pudding, summer pudding. It felt like a hybrid of cinnamon toast and eggy bread and my teenagers loved it. Soyer only uses the crumb of the bread but since bread pudding is a way to avoid waste, it seems a bit crazy to me to throw away the crusts. But do as you please.

Read Bee’s take on Alexis Soyer’s bread pudding.