The leftover rolls from Christmas dinner would not fit in my freezer, no matter how much rearranging I did . There were only two choices. The trash…..or bread pudding.
Joe loved my mother’s bread pudding and repeated the same query whenever she served it. “Is it bread, or is it pudding?,” he would laugh as he shoveled spoonfuls into his mouth. “It’s both.”
Bread pudding, made from stale bread or rolls, was a staple dessert during the Great Depression. Nowadays, we throw that day-old bread away without blinking an eye. But at a time when households were operating on an incredibly lean budget, a family could not afford to throw away food that might have some life left. Bread pudding was born out of the necessity of hard times and is upcycling at its culinary best.
My mother’s bread pudding was simple, with only a few ingredients. She did not add nuts or raisins or apples to spruce it up, but instead relied on the right ratios of bread, sugar, and milk.
But whenever I tried to recreate that recipe, I fell short. My versions were either too dry or too mushy, too sweet or too plain. When she was alive, I would badger my mother for advise, but she would explain her recipe with only vague and uncertain measurements.
“Tear up some bread and add about one sugar bowl of sugar,” she’d say. “Add an egg and some cinnamon and a teaspoon of vanilla and mix it up. Then cover it all with milk until it is mostly covered. It’s that easy!”
What kind of recipe was this, Mom? I wanted precise instruction, so how much stale bread is the right amount? And how much, exactly, is some cinnamon? A teaspoon? A tablespoon? And since when is a sugar bowl a standard measure? Whose sugar bowl should I use?
But alas, in life, my mother couldn’t answer these questions. She explained that her original sugar bowl was long gone, so she had to eyeball it. And as far as covering it all with milk, this just required eyeballing too. “You can add more sugar if you need to,” she’d say. “Or more milk too.”
What the heck? In the end, I decided that my mother’s process was more about feelings and less about measurements. Yet, every single time she made it, her bread pudding was perfect.
“Is it bread, or is it pudding?” Joe would ask with a smile as he dug in.
After her death, I continued to try to recreate Mom’s flavor, determined to document an actual recipe. I approached it systematically and tried different sugar bowls and wrote down the sugar and milk measurements for each failure. Still, it was too dry or too wet, too eggy or too sweet. After many attempts, I gave up and resolved that her recipe was out of reach. I would stick to brownies instead, where the exact measurements are conveniently printed on the box!
This Christmas, though, the freezer was full. I had over a dozen rolls headed for the trash. The conservationist in me knew I had no choice.
But instead of trying to find the right size sugar bowl this time, I decided to relax and just feel. I tore up bread until I felt like stopping. I poured on white sugar and then decided to add some brown sugar too! I added an egg and some sliced almonds and cinnamon and a splash of caramel sprinkles. I covered it all with half and half until it felt right.
There were no measurements and it is unlikely that I will ever be able to recreate this same recipe again. After 45 minutes at 350 degrees, it was done.
It was nothing like Mom’s, except that it was perfect.
Many years after her death, I am still learning from my mom.
“Is it bread, or is it pudding?,” Joe laughed as he dug in. “It’s both!”
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