I played the “whatever happened to ….” game the other day and was surprised by how many foods that I used to enjoy were no longer in my preference. Some have disappeared because I only cook for one, and others have gone by the wayside with the passing of time. How many can you add to the list? Mine ranges all the way from appetizers through desserts.

Whatever happened to bread puddings? Not only were they a family dessert, but also a “meal ender” at many prominent restaurants. Have we gotten so sophisticated that we thumb our noses at a less “fancy” dessert that has existed for centuries?

I mentioned bread pudding the other day and got a blank look from my luncheon guest. She could not comprehend the connection of bread with pudding.

Traditionally, bread puddings start with breadcrumbs, bread cubes or bread slices. The crumbs or cubes are soaked in an egg custard mixture. In sweet bread puddings, the custard mixture may include eggs, milk or cream, and such spices as vanilla or cinnamon. Chocolate, nuts and candied fruit peels also can be added.

For savory bread puddings, the bread may be soaked in milk or broth. Vegetables, meat or cheese and herbs or spices are also included. Regardless of the type of bread pudding, it is then baked. Sometimes the pudding dish is placed into a pan of hot water for baking. This helps ensure even cooking.

Bread puddings date back centuries. For the vast part of history, most people could not afford to waste food. Thus, a number of uses for stale bread were invented. In addition to bread pudding, cooks used stale bread to make stuffing, thickeners and edible containers.

Although the Romans used eggs as binding agents for sauces, custard was not invented until the Middle Ages. Until that time, early bread puddings were probably made with just milk, stale bread, fat and maybe a sweetener.

Bread puddings were not only made by the Romans. Om Ali, an Egyptian dessert, consisted of bread, milk or cream, raisins and almonds. Eish es Serny, a Middle Eastern pudding, was made from dried bread, sugar, honey syrup, rosewater and caramel. Shahi, an Indian dish, consists of bread, ghee, saffron, sugar, rosewater and almonds.

Although bread puddings were made in ancient times, food historians trace the history of bread puddings to the early 11th and 12th centuries. Frugal cooks decided to use leftover bread for puddings. In 13th-century England, bread pudding became known as “poor man’s pudding,” as it was a popular dish with the lower class.

The number of bread pudding recipes and their variations is endless. Portia Little, a cookbook author and TV personality, became so well known for her bread pudding recipes that she was called the “Bread Pudding Queen.”

Now, bread puddings are not limited to just bread. Leftover cake, muffins, croissants, doughnuts and even hot dog and hamburger buns can be used. Other variables include chocolate chips, orange or lemon zest, some rum or Grand Marnier.

Naturally, bread puddings, whether sweet or savory, depend on the type of bread used. After settling the East Coast and moving west, the population’s preferences in breads and the grain used to produce them evolved. Before the 1780s, the wheat basket of colonial America was situated in northern Maryland and southeastern Pennsylvania. Then the “wheat belt” moved into Ohio, and later into Illinois and the Upper Great Plains. As the type of wheat grown changed, so did bread recipes.

Also, as land in the South became more settled and more of it was devoted to cash crops, like cotton, corn became the basis of bread. Bread was the most important food of the meal. It took precedence over all other things on the table. The “bread” generally consisted of corn pone or corn dodgers baked in a skillet or Dutch oven.

In many households, wheat bread was special and reserved for Sunday mornings. In the early 1800s, most breakfasts consisted of cornbread and rye coffee. Grains of rye were roasted and ground like coffee beans.

Middling bread, or what we now call whole-wheat bread, was generally the type of wheat bread available. It was made with wheat flour mixed with rye or cornmeal. This type of bread was known as “brown bread” or “rye and Indian.”

Brown bread was poor man’s fare. However, in New England, it was romanticized and equated with old Puritan values and solid Yankee character. Boston brown bread is much moister than standard rye and Indian.

I think of bread pudding as old-fashioned comfort food. A rum or whiskey sauce is the perfect topper. This pudding is delectable and easy to make. The recipe may be cut in half and the pudding baked in a smaller pan. This bread pudding is an excellent dessert for a winter dinner party.

Bread Pudding

» 1⅓ cup raisins

» ⅔ cup whiskey

» 1¼ loaves of day-old French bread, cut into ½-inch cubes, to make 8 cups

» 6 cups milk

» 5 large eggs

» ⅔ cup sugar

» 6 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled

» 2 teaspoons vanilla

» 1 teaspoon salt

» Whiskey Sauce (recipe below)

Butter a 2½-quart soufflé dish.

In a bowl, macerate the raisins in the whiskey. In a large bowl, combine the bread cubes with the milk and let stand at room temperature, stirring occasionally, until crusts are very soft.

In a bowl, beat together the eggs, sugar, melted butter, vanilla and salt. Add the mixture to the bread mixture with the raisins and whiskey. Stir until well combined. Transfer the mixture to the soufflé dish and chill, covered, overnight.

Let the mixture come to room temperature.

Stir the mixture and bake in a preheated 375-degree oven until the edge is puffed and golden brown, about 60 to 70 minutes. Serve the pudding warm or at room temperature with the whiskey sauce.

Whiskey Sauce

» 1 stick unsalted butter, softened

» ½ cup sugar

» 2 large eggs

» 1 cup whiskey, or to taste

In a bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Transfer the mixture to the top of a double boiler set over simmering water. Stir in the whiskey and cook the mixture, stirring until it is slightly thickened. Transfer the sauce to a pitcher and serve hot.

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Hilde G. Lee is a food writer and co-author of “Virginia Wine Country III” with her husband, Allan Lee. She can be reached at hildeglee@yahoo.com.

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