When 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.
Bread 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.
For 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.
But 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.
Generally 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.
The 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.
Once 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.
Coconut bread pudding
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.