Soaked in Flavor: Bread puddings please whether they be savory or sweet

While some view bread pudding as an efficient way to put stale bread to good use, local chefs see bread pudding as a reason to create stale bread - unless you are Carolyn Downs, owner and pastry chef of Cyrano's in Webster Groves. Eschewing the ingredients listed in most cookbook recipes, Downs is a firm believer in using not-so-firm bread for the bread pudding she creates.

"Most people use day-old bread, but I always use fresh bread. It gives the bread pudding a softer, fluffier consistency," explained Downs. "Our bread pudding is a lot lighter than people are used to, but no one ever complains – there's nothing bad about bread pudding."

Downs said the base of bread pudding starts with a good crème anglaise. "This is made with eggs, cream, sugar and vanilla. A cooked custard base is true of all bread puddings." Downs believes many people over-soak the bread, letting it stand for an hour, but she does a quick toss and then puts it in the oven right away. Brioche is another must, according to Downs. "You can also use croissants or banana bread," she added. "Actually, the most recent trend on the East Coast is to use Krispy Kreme doughnuts."

Brian Hale, executive chef at Monarch Restaurant in Maplewood, agreed that brioche is the way to go, but he recommended a slightly stale version. "If you are looking for a firmer bread pudding, use day-old brioche." He said any egg-based or sweeter bread will also work. If you are making a savory bread pudding, he suggested wheat bread.

In the wintertime, Hale adds a savory mushroom-goat cheese bread pudding to complement a duck or a beef item on the menu. On the sweet side, white chocolate-macadamia nut with cinnamon and brown sugar bread pudding also frequents his menu in wintertime. And during the summer, he said the lemon-blueberry-vodka bread pudding is the most popular. "Bread pudding was more of a winter dessert to start, but with the change in seasons, people have been changing the ingredients as well," Hale said.

According to Phil Noe, executive chef at SqWires Restaurant and Market in Lafayette Square, savory bread puddings haven't gone over too well in his restaurant because most people think of bread pudding as a sweet dessert. And while that sweet dessert has been growing in popularity locally, the trend isn't catching on in other cities, he noted. "I think it's mainly because bread pudding is thought of more as home cooking, which isn't as popular outside the Midwest."

Like many other chefs in this city, Noe likes to mix up the bread pudding menu options throughout the year; in fact, he does so twice a week. "In my opinion, there are no rules. You can add herbs with fruit [or] chocolate and poblanos, but the custard base always stays the same."

Aside from these untraditional ingredients, one way Noe's bread pudding is unique is its shape. "Most restaurants cut and serve their bread pudding in squares, but we use a 2-ounce scoop and serve three scoops of it with a scoop of vanilla ice cream." He said bread pudding can be served with crème anglaise or any custard sauce or with caramel, butterscotch, chocolate or fruit sauce. "It just depends on what you are flavoring it with."

If you want to mix it up, Downs said you can always experiment with the sauce and ingredients mixed in with bread pudding. "I like to use different sauces, like a chocolate bread pudding with chocolate ganache and hot chocolate sauce or white chocolate bread pudding with white chocolate [sauce]," she explained. "Our bread pudding at Cyrano's and Boogaloo uses a Southern bourbon sauce."

At Monarch, Hale likes to mix up the bread pudding on the menu every couple of days. "I pair the bread pudding with our homemade sorbets and ice cream," he said. One example of this is his peach-vanilla bread pudding with chartreuse blueberry ice cream.

But Hale said a few things must remain the same regardless of the ingredients added in. "The egg yolk-to-cream ratio must be the same each time; it's what sets the bread pudding up for the correct consistency."

If you are looking to deviate from the basic recipe, Hale recommended experimenting with different types of bread and trying different berries, nuts and sauces. "If you are creating a nutty bread pudding, try a fudge sauce or try bourbon sauce to complement a bittersweet chocolate bread pudding. Tahitian vanilla ice cream is another good option."

With so many variations, it's not surprising that bread pudding – both savory and sweet - has become a standard with a permanent place on menus all across town. "What I love the most about bread pudding is that it is so versatile - you can literally put anything in it," said Downs.