In New Orleans, family recipes that date back several generations are being pulled from well-worn family journals and put into play. We are a city that holds an unflinchingly tight grip on our family traditions and history. With Louisiana’s unique food culture and some family roots going back 300 years, that history includes old Creole recipes that have been passed down for well over a century.
We already know our tablescape differs from the other 49 states on any given day. But on the holidays, our fare is markedly different from the rest of the nation. For one, gumbos and oyster dishes are served as hors d ‘œuvres or entrée courses during the season – for those lucky enough to find and afford oysters this year.
Pies may be the dessert of choice on most of America’s holiday tables. But in New Orleans, those pies are often joined with large dishes of unabashedly carb-laden decadent Creole Bread Pudding generously served with a lashing of buttery whiskey sauce.
All over New Orleans, and in parts of Louisiana, ingredients are already being assembled mise en place for oyster patties, oyster and mirliton dressings, and the holiday table’s de rigueur gumbos.
Come Tuesday, the weight of the chopped trinity being prepared in many houses might outweigh the roast.
This Christmas, I’m focusing on dessert. The fluffy Creole Bread Pudding of my childhood is being recreated for my father’s family. This year is a dessert cook-off of sorts. My goal at these sorts of events is never to win – my family cooks far too well for that — but to bring one of our own historic dishes.
Bread Pudding recipes have been recorded in New Orleans cookbooks since at least 1885. In “La Cuisine Creole,” a compilation by Lafcadio Hearn, the sugar was added to the pudding by taste. However, in some 19th-century versions, the sugar was reserved for the sauce and not incorporated into the dessert at all. See the “Creole Cookery,” also originally published in 1885 and republished by the Hermann-Grima House in 2005.
In my house, the Leidenheimer’s French bread loaves have already arrived this morning. But they must wait another day because, as with Pain Perdu, only stale bread will suffice. La mie, the white part of the loaf under la croute, the crust, will then reach the point where it can give the pudding its proper due and heft.
Our family’s Creole Bread Pudding recipe is below; the ingredients are up for loose interpretation, and any fruit can be substituted. Chopped dates, apples, walnuts and fresh peaches are also appropriate additions. The oldest of Creole recipes, or receipts, call for currants.
It’s never too early to add spirits to a jar of dried fruit to allow the fruit to macerate – soak up the liquid. I prefer at least a day to plump my dark raisin, golden raisin and, sometimes, dried currant mixture in bourbon.
To meringue or not is a personal decision, but it’s not traditional to Louisiana, and it provides a barrier to the all-important sauce.
When finishing that sauce, alcohol is non-negotiable and requires a healthy pour. The better the spirit, the better the flavor. If bourbon is too sweet for your taste, you might prefer a strong Irish whiskey or even a dark rum. I’ve had luck with a small-batch, dark spiced dram rum in the past.
This year I added the remaining liquor from the raisins and currant jar directly to the egg mixture. The more, the merrier. I also went rogue and added a teaspoon of cinnamon, then substituted heavy cream for half of the milk and brown sugar for a third of the sugar requirement.
Brown sugar was also stirred into the saucepan as the butter melted for the sauce. The additions and substitutions only made a decadent pudding more sumptuous.
A loaf of seed bread (I use unsliced Whole Foods Seduction bread) or a boule of rye can be added to this recipe with success. However, this is not the place for sliced white sandwich bread. If you’re not in New Orleans, try to find French baguettes and soak the torn bread pieces in the egg and milk mixture for an hour until it pierces the harder crust and softens it somewhat.
Variations of the following family recipe have been served for the holidays in New Orleans for centuries:
New Orleans Creole Bread Pudding
1 large loaf of day old French bread
1 ½ cup (1 ½ sticks) melted butter
1 Quart fresh whole milk (or 2 cups of milk and 2 cups of heavy cream or half and half)
3 Cups sifted fine cane sugar (or 2 bups cane sugar and 1 cup brown sugar)
2 Teaspoons purest vanilla extract
8 whole fresh eggs
2 apples, peeled cored, and large diced
1 cup seedless raisins, dark and golden, soaked in bourbon or Amaretto overnight
1 cup of any additional fruit desired
1/2 cup of dried currants is an old Louisiana tradition
1/2 stick of butter to coat dish and cut into slivers to top pudding before baking
Begin with a large deep mixing bowl. Add milk, sugar, vanilla, butter and fruits. Whisk eggs separately, then add to the milk mixture. Tear bread apart in one- to two-inch pieces. Toss the bread into the milk and egg mixture until well coated, then soak to saturate for an additional 30 minutes. Use butter to grease large baking dish or brownie pan, dotting the remainder of the butter on top of pudding before baking. Bake at 350° for 30-40 minutes until the pudding is fluffy and golden on top.
Creole Whiskey Sauce
3 cups sifted cane sugar
1 cup fresh butter (2 sticks of butter)
½ cup bourbon or whiskey
Melt butter over heat. Whisk in sugar until melted. Add whiskey and blend until smooth Confectioners’ sugar or brown sugar can be added for a less crunchy sauce. Serve the sauce warm in a gravy boat to be poured over warm pudding. A modern twist is to serve the pudding with vanilla ice cream or heavy whipping cream.
Kristine Froeba is a fourth generation Uptown girl, ninth generation Louisianian whose varied background includes food and travel writing, celebrity ghost writing, public relations, social media management, preservationist, and reluctant tabloid hack. She describes herself as part foodie, part writer, part historian,historic renovation zealot, and full-time dabbler.