Coconut Bread Pudding with Rum Caramel

Food Blog May 2013-1375When I’m not frying in the summer time, it seems like I’m baking.  But in the on-and-off foggy uncertainty of June gloom, sometimes you need a little baking.  Of course, now it’s July and the whole West Coast is panting and dreaming of snow drifts so, as usual, I’m behind.  This dessert, though, plush with custard and drenched in rum caramel, is worth it.

Food Blog May 2013-1368Food Blog May 2013-1369Food Blog May 2013-1372Bread pudding is an old dish and, like so many of the “comfort foods” we’ve embraced and raised to new levels of trendiness sophistication (I’m looking at you, French onion soup…), it began as a way to use up aging products in a way that made them still taste good.  In this case, it’s combining cubes of stale bread with milk, eggs, sugar, and whatever else you think is particularly delicious, whether that be fruits, nuts, or chocolate.  Savory as well as sweet iterations exist, and though the dish possibly has European origins, versions now exist in Cuba, the Philippines, Argentina, and in probably every gastropub in the U.S. playing the amped-up-comfort-food angle.

Food Blog May 2013-1366For me, bread pudding is a godsend, because N. loves toast, which means we end up with a lot of crusts.  It seems such a shame to throw them away that I forestall the problem by jamming them in the freezer.  At the point that they fill up a shelf all on their own, it’s time to make bread pudding, a dish that I see as appropriate for a steaming dessert, warm breakfast, straight-from-the-fridge-3pm-snack, or even lunch on a day that I’m feeling particularly lazy.

This iteration, though, I wanted to be special.  I wanted something comforting and homey and rich and delicious, but I wanted a twist.  And that’s where summertime, and N., and my dad, all come in.

Husbands are great, aren’t they?  But most of them (sorry, guys) aren’t perfect.  N. is no exception.  He’s close, oh he’s close, but here’s the thing: he doesn’t. like. coconut.  I know.  And it’s not one of those “no thanks on the coconut cream pie, not a fan” kinds of dislikes.  It’s deep.  It’s subconscious.  The man can tell if a granola bar has coconut in it with one bite.  He once declared that a cookie we were sharing tasted “odd,” and sure enough, down at the bottom of the ingredient list was ground coconut.  Curries at Thai restaurants are dangerous business.  And summer, this glorious season, is a hazardous time of year for N. thanks to sunscreen.  Once, decked out for a gardening session, I gave him a kiss and he told me my face smelled funny.  SPF coconut.

Food Blog May 2013-1353But I adore coconut.  It means vacation and swimming and luxury.  It smacks of the tropics: rum-laced drinks.  Shave ice.  Coconut shrimp (N.’s ultimate nightmare).  And, oddly enough, French toast.  When my sister and I were little, every once in a while my dad would pull down the electric skillet from some cabinet too high for anyone else in the family to reach and make coconut French toast for breakfast.  After dredging the bread in milk and eggs, he dipped each side in coconut before subjecting it to the buttery-slicked heat.

The result was a revelation.  The coconut caramelized into a crunchy, lacy, almost-burned web of texture on the outside of the bread, and its flavor made the addition of syrup all but unnecessary.  This, then, was the mission.  I set out to create my own version of this childhood memory.

Food Blog May 2013-1355Food Blog May 2013-1356Generally I soak my bread puddings before cooking them.  I load my baking dish with stale crusty cubes, mix in whatever bits and bobs I want to add (craisins are a frequent suspect), then pour the custard mixture over the top and set a heavy dish on top to press the bread sponges down into the drink.  And then I shove the whole thing into the fridge for a few hours to promote full incorporation.

This time, though, I decided to employ a different method.  I mixed up the custard with coconut milk and coconut cream instead of regular dairy, and dumped in the bread and, after a moment’s consideration, most of a bag of sweetened shredded coconut.  Thorough mixing followed, and the result – a bowl of creamy soft crumbles of bread and the heady smell of the Hawaiian vacation I wish I were on – spoke summer.  All I could think of, while I pushed the baking dish into the oven, was a piña colada.

Food Blog May 2013-1361Food Blog May 2013-1364The problem with piña coladas, though, is that pesky piña part.  I’ve got no hatred for pineapples, don’t get me wrong, but their aggressive tartness sometimes overpowers the gentle, creamy sweetness of coconut and the spicy complexity of the rum.  A bread pudding sodden with coconut and no pineapple to be found seemed like the perfect excuse for, let’s say, a rum caramel sauce.  Why not?  It’s summer… Dark rum.  Sugar.  A daring sprinkle of garam masala.  Bubbled away in a tiny pot until barely thickened, and the dessert went from homey and comforting to decadent and warming and, oddly enough, somehow reminiscent of camping.  I swear my parents didn’t give us rum when we sat around the fire toasting marshmallows, so all I can figure is that the sweet spiciness reminded me of gingersnaps or molasses cookies or some other well-spiced treat.

Food Blog May 2013-1386Once this heat wave breaks, I think you should make this bread pudding, with or without the sauce.  You won’t, unless you are like my coconut-hating husband, be disappointed.  And if you are, well, someone in your family will be glad they don’t have to share.  Food Blog May 2013-1388

Coconut bread pudding
Serves 8-10
4 eggs
½ cup sugar
14 oz. coconut cream
14 oz. coconut milk
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups shredded coconut – mine was sweetened.  If yours was not, you might add up to 1 cup of sugar above.
10-12 slices sourdough bread, cut or torn into cubes
  • Preheat your oven to 350F and spray or oil a 9 inch square baking dish.
  • To measure how much bread you will need, tear the slices directly into the baking dish.  Press them down once or twice, packing them until they mound up just a little over the edge of the dish in the center.  This gives you the right amount of bread to mix into the custard.
  • In a large bowl, beat the eggs and sugar together for a minute or two, until the mixture is homogenized.
  • Add the coconut milk, cream, and vanilla, and whisk until well blended.
  • Tumble the shredded coconut and torn or cut pieces of bread into the custard and mix well, ensuring that every bread cube is well moistened and the sticky clumps of coconut loosen and disperse through the mixture.  I used a wide bladed spatula and it seemed to do the job well.
  • Carefully relocate the custard-soaked bread to your prepared baking dish, pushing it down if needed to fit everything in.
  • Bake at 350F for 45-60 minutes.  This seems like a wide range of time, but depending on your oven and the relative staleness of your bread (which will determine how much custard it soaks up) your cooking time may vary a bit.
  • To determine doneness, check to see that the center of the pudding has puffed up, and the top is nicely browned.  Some of the coconut shreds will toast to a dark gold.
  • When done, let it sit for 10-15 minutes to allow the custard to firm up a bit.  This will make it easier to cut or spoon out.
  • For an elegant presentation, cut into squares and set on a puddle of rum caramel, or drizzle the caramel liberally over the top.  Or forgo elegance, and scoop out big spoonfuls to pile into your bowl or plate.

 

Rum caramel sauce
Makes a scant ½ cup
½ cup sugar
½ cup dark rum
½ tsp garam masala (or more to taste – I used a full teaspoon and it was quite strong)
2 TB cream, optional
  • Combine the sugar, rum, and garam masala in a small saucepan and cook over medium low heat for 10-15 minutes, until sugar is dissolved and sauce thickens and becomes slightly syrupy.  Stir or swirl frequently to prevent sugar from burning.
  • If you want your caramel thicker or more luscious, stir in the optional 2 TB cream.  Stand back as you add the cream, as the caramel may bubble up upon contact.
  • Cool slightly before serving.

This is dynamite with coconut bread pudding, but would be equally delicious dribbled over ice cream, or mixed into a milkshake, or maybe even as a puddled base for your 4th of July slice of apple pie.

The Buttercream Project: Wedding day, part two

Saturday morning – Wedding day! – was beautiful and bright and promising.  Our now-from-Seattle friends had arrived the night before, we’d all slept, the cakes had chilled, and now after a brief wedding day breakfast with the bride and groom’s families and out of town guests, I’d be on to decorating.  When I settled in to the buttercream production this time, I had an epiphany.  At Mom’s house, I had used an electric hand mixer instead of a stand mixer, and the buttercream had been fluffy and smooth and glorious.  What if, instead of using the paddle attachment on my stand mixer, I used the whisk?

This was, finally, the right thing to do.  I wish fervently I had thought of it the first day.  The frosting came together faster, and whipped up a bit smoother.  It was, I perhaps imagined, brighter ivory than the previous batches, and there were no chunks of butter to cause me piping distress.  If only, if only, the day before… but that is immaterial (and perhaps inaccurate too, since there were other factors, other differences, like the temperature of the butter, the temperature of the cheese, the amount of time spent whipping, the quantity of lime juice, etc) .

I piped.  I piped and I piped.  And things started to look better.  A lot better.  Most of the worst imperfections were hidden under the ivory and then delicate blue swirls and scrolls I snaked onto the cakes.  They actually started to look nice.  This might not be a disaster after all.  When I added a ring of round, pearl-like blobs to the bottom border of each, I started to feel happy with my project.

With the cakes done, all that remained were 92 miniature cupcakes.  All.  Right.  I had half a bowl of perfectly blue frosting.  Against my own better judgment (hey, it had worked out okay the day before with the gelatin in the filling), instead of starting over with a brand new batch, I decided to add more butter and more powdered sugar to the bowl, and try to tint it to match what I had already done as I went.  It worked.  I wanted a slightly thicker consistency of frosting for the flowers I planned to pipe so this mixture had to be more butter than mascarpone.  That worked out well, really, because I was out of mascarpone again anyway.

With time ticking, I filled up another piping bag with one of the new rose petal tips H. had bought me and went to work, remembering what I’d learned months ago about which way to swivel the cupcake as I frosted.  It took me a handful to get into a groove, remembering when to apply pressure and when to release, but once I got going I was making beautiful little horseshoe movements that resulted in sugary flower petals!  To perfect the color (not baby blue, but not dark blue either), I’d mixed a tiny bit of black gel dye in with the blue.  This resulted in a lovely periwinkle with just a hint of gray, matching almost exactly the blue on the couple’s save-the-date cards.  The exact blue of the wedding.  Boom.

N. would probably like me to add here that as I finished each handful of minis, he deliberately drizzled on a small quantity of silver-gray sprinkles.  My dear friend M., who arrived in mid-afternoon to coo over the product and do my hair for the event, would probably also like me to add that she took over sprinkling duties for the last dozen or so.  In fact, it was M. and S. who saw me through the last sheet tray of minis as, hand aching from the constant pressure and odd angle, I suddenly realized I was going to finish.

The winery where the wedding took place was a half hour drive from town on winding and sometimes roughly surfaced roads.  Though we positioned the cakes and cupcakes carefully in the back of our Subaru, I still got a little white-knuckled every time N. drove around the bend.  What if, after all that work, we got going a little too fast and one of the cakes slid into the side of the car?  What if, despite the air conditioning running at full blast, it was too hot in the car and the frosting started to slump off?  What if we did get there safely, but I dropped a cake on the way from the parking lot into the building?  I had packed flats as well as a bag of white frosting and a bag of blue in case of an emergency, but I’m not sure I was emotionally prepared to fix any problems that might happen on the way.  Not in a busy winery with the bride and groom’s families darting around setting things up.

Fortunately I didn’t have to.  Three or four of the minis fell over during our ride, but because I’d stuck them in the freezer for a few minutes while I got dressed, their frosting remained hard enough that it didn’t crumple much.

Setup was easy and disaster free.  Some of the wedding party helped carry the precious cargo in from the car, and when every last cupcake was situated on the table, I have to say it looked pretty fantastic.  I made a wedding cake.  And people liked it.

Final thoughts on this massive saga: I will not be going into the wedding cake business.  I would happily make another cake or three for friends who requested it, but I think I’d want to go to at least one cake decorating class first.  I will also not use American buttercream again, except for petal work like I did on the minis.  It’s just too sweet.  I loved the taste of the cakes I made, and the filling was a wonderful, bright tartness (the color contrast was great too), but the buttercream was just achingly sweet, even with the addition of lime juice to the mix.  For my sophomore performance, if I ever have such an opportunity, I would try an Italian or Swiss buttercream instead, relying on cooked egg whites for structure rather than powdered sugar.  As a thank you, J. and H. let me keep all the baking and decorating equipment they bought for the project (thanks again, you two!), so I’m set for all kinds of future practice.

I have to say, though, despite all my moaning and complaining and anxiety, I was really happy with how the cakes looked, and delighted with the reactions I received.  The bride and groom took home the leftovers and ate them the next day, and the one after that.  They were still good.  N. and I ate the trimmings and cupcake guts smothered in leftover filling, and they were delicious.  It was, regardless of the exhaustion and concern during the journey, a monumental success.  I can only thank J. and H. for letting me be such a big part of their day, and wish them all the joy in the world – joy like clouds of powdered sugar, perhaps – for the rest of their lives together.  N. and I love you both.

The Buttercream Project 3

My favorite weekends always turn out to be the ones that revolve around cooking.  You know the ones I mean.  You have a dinner party, or a potluck, or an afternoon on the porch surrounded by cookbooks, or you watch a marathon of FoodNetwork shows while almost absent-mindedly spooning one of your favorite indulgences into your mouth…

I wouldn’t know what that’s like…

Seriously, though, I am suddenly having one of those weekends.  Our friend Sh. is sharing a pulled pork dinner with us tonight, so by 9am (which felt like 8am, cursed Daylight Savings…) I was standing at the kitchen counter, pouring ginger ale and Jack Daniels whiskey atop 4 pounds of pork butt in my slow cooker, and deciding whether it needed anything besides salt and pepper to round out the flavors (I decided on a big chunk of fresh ginger and a few shakes of Worcestershire sauce).  Now, I’m sitting in the kitchen babysitting a pot of polenta, which I’ll cook, spread, and chill today to be cut into squares, pan-fried, and eaten later this week, and keeping a wandering eye on some cornbread, which we’ll have tonight with the pulled pork.

And yet this post isn’t about any of those things.  Whether you believe it or not after that extended tangential introduction, this post is about buttercream.  Again. 

I’ve completed my third buttercream experiment, and I must report mixed success.  I decided this time I’d better try out the cake recipe I’ll be using for the wedding in cupcake form so I could start nailing down baking times.  On a whim, I picked up some cake flour, which I’ve never used before.  This was for texture: often my cupcakes, if they are not chocolate, end up with a suspiciously muffin-like consistency, and I didn’t want that for these babies.  I also picked up some mascarpone cheese to continue the experiment in de-sweetening the frosting.

The baking process involved a lot of checking the cupcakes with a trembling toothpick, hoping for the barest of moist crumbs, not a completely clean tester.  I have found the completely clean tester is a recipe for overcooked baked goods, especially when it’s something very tender and delicate like cupcakes, because the cake continues to cook for a while as it sits in its tin on the cooling rack.  Tough cupcakes would not do.  Fortunately for me, they cooked up the color of pale cream and sported perfectly slight, perfectly shaped domes. They were pillowy tender.  They smelled good too – sweet and soft with the barest hint of floral fruitiness from the sparkling wine I used.

As they cooled, I started the buttercream process.  I wasn’t nervous at all this time – hadn’t my previous attempt come out smooth and creamy and lusciously perfect?  This time, I was golden.

This time, unfortunately, my kitchen was about 59 degrees Fahrenheit and, despite having left the butter out for hours and hours, it wasn’t the same squashy softness it had been last time.  The mascarpone cheese I decided to use was fresh from the fridge, since it was already soft enough that it didn’t occur to me having it at room temperature would make a difference.

It does.

Here’s what happened.  I whipped together a cup of butter and a cup of mascarpone cheese.  I sifted in about 3 cups of powdered sugar, a slight sprinkle of salt, and then trickled in a couple tablespoons of whole milk and a splash of vanilla (I can’t find champagne extract anywhere besides Amazon.com, where it costs upwards of $12 for a teensy bottle.  Needless to say I haven’t bitten that bullet).

Immediately I knew this wasn’t going to be perfect.  Already I could see tiny little clumps of butter, rechilled by the cold cheese, and tiny lumps of sugar, courtesy of a hasty and careless sifting session.  I pressed on regardless, deciding in the moment that this experiment was about taste, not texture.  Let’s get the taste right first, I told myself, to avoid the tumble into hysterical depression the blue poo cake had wrought.

So I loaded up a piping bag with my new fancy-pants metal star tip and went to work on the full sized cupcakes.  In the process I got enough frosting on my fingers to be able to taste, and I have to say I was incredibly pleased.  The mascarpone cheese added another layer of velvet and creaminess, and because it is not sweet to begin with, there wasn’t as much overwhelming saccharine powdered sugar taste to the finished product.  The touch of salt probably helped with that too.  It was just incredibly rich and moist and lovely.

The texture, on the other hand, sucked.  Well, that’s not fair.  It wasn’t ideal.  It was slightly grainy, and the star tip’s sharp edges combined with my not-exactly-quite-as-smooth-as-I’d-wanted icing produced rough crumples on my swirls of frosting rather than delicate demure rosettes.

Hasty, thoughtless, and stubborn, I pressed on to my next experiment.  I’d found this the previous month: a video tutorial about making beautiful blue flowers on mini cupcakes, and I wanted to surprise my bride by testing these out.  I considered, as I dripped blue food coloring into the remaining buttercream, rewatching the video.  And then I talked myself out of it.  I’d watched it twice, I remembered basically what she’d said to do, and she made it look abysmally simple.  I’m marginally artistic.  How hard could it be? 

For starters, the frosting was now looking a little wet.  Terrified of a repeat blue poo scenario, I added more powdered sugar.  But now I was in a hurry, because I had girlfriends coming over for a TV night and I wanted to serve them beautiful, frosted cupcakes (notice I didn’t say beautifully frosted cupcakes.  I was trying to be realistic).  So I didn’t sift the sugar.

This, as you might expect, resulted in more lumps.  But I was not to be discouraged.  I slapped some icing into a bag with a tip that looked similar to the one in the video tutorial, and started trying to make flower petals.  I made circular blobs.  There were no delicate curling edges, no gentle petal shapes, and the lumps of powdered sugar I’d stubbornly ignored made the frosting emerge from the piping tip unevenly.  I ended up with deformed starfish in a lovely cornflower-esque shade on the mini cupcakes, and a spotty lace pattern surrounded by blue blobs on the tiny taster cake I’d made for the bride and groom.  (It was supposed to be cornelli lace, but when hunks of cold butter in your frosting burst out through the piping tip, all bets are off.)  I did, however, glean a valuable tip for frosting a cake from the Barefoot Contessa: once you have your layer covered, dip your frosting spatula in very hot water and run it gently over the sides and top surface of the cake.  The hot water lightly melts the very outer molecules of butter and sugar and solders them together while smoothing them out, resulting in a perfectly level layer of frosting.  I tried this out to great success.

But back to the cupcakes.  Undaunted by their aesthetically challenged appearance, I sprinkled them with silver-gray sprinkles and presented them proudly to my friends, who pronounced them praiseworthy masterpieces.  I privately thought them too kind, but it is gratifying to have good friends who support your stubborn goofy screw-ups and prevent you from being too hard on yourself.

It was only the next day that I rewatched the tutorial video and saw that not only was a using the wrong tip to pipe these petals, but I was holding it the wrong way.  This gave me hope.  Next time, next time when butter and mascarpone are at the same temperature, when it’s warmer in the kitchen, when a fresh bag of powdered sugar and careful sifting result in a perfectly velvet texture, and when I acquire a rose petal icing tip, I will be on my way.  The flowers won’t be perfect, but they will actually resemble flowers.  Next time. 

I keep ending these posts by talking about what I will do next time.  Upon reflection, it seems dangerous to be counting always on next time in this project.  There will come a time when “next time” no longer works, and on that day in July I’d better get everything right.  What if the butter is too soft?  What if I over whip it?  What if there are lumps?

Fortunately I still have a few next times to lean on.