Bread Pudding: Balminess in a bite

Few plebeian origin dishes have had such a fascinating rise globally as this 11th century rehash the mash ace – but what makes it so, and why is it so comforting? 

By Madhulika Dash


Consider Bread Pudding. It is easy to make, delicious and incredibly comforting – and can be had any time of the year, garnished with anything, elevated with anything and is the finest rehash-mash ace in every cook's kitty, chefs included. A few things that have been at the core of the global popularity of this 11th century frugal innovation.

But ever thought about what makes the humble bread pudding – by all accounts a dish that was made to reuse leftover stale bread with a technique that dates back to the earliest culinary years – such a ridiculously addictive and comforting treat? After all, it is a simple bread, egg, milk and butter creation.

It was once relegated below custard which eventually became a part of bread pudding's grandiose evolution including Byg Brewski's Head Chef Sandeep Sadanandan's extravagant Brioche and Bailey's Bread Pudding, which is a delicious tribute to the classic Old Fashioned Bread Pudding with the obvious chefs' twist. 

In Chef Sandeep Sadanandan's version of the pudding, there is fresh cream, baileys and a rich sauce made with white chocolate and some additional cream to give the dessert its rich, luxuriant texture and gourmet taste. 

The Ace of Base

The beauty, says the gastro-food specialist, “about bread pudding is that in many ways it is like a cake sponge - frugal with ingredients, yet delicious on its own and an amazing canvas for experimentation. Things that have given bread pudding the invincible ability to proliferate new cultures turning its genesis as a rehash dish into its biggest virtues.” 

In fact, he continues, “one of the biggest reasons that bread pudding is so readily loved, made and indulged in is its ability to transform basic ingredients into something wonderfully delicious, along with that amazing skill to upgrade with time without losing its nostalgic taste.”

Proving this is the recent instagram trend of making French Toast style bread  pudding that unintentionally follows the same pattern as the 11th century version minus the egg, and, says Chef Sandeep, “made over the stove using a cast iron pan.”
But were economics and taste the only reason that bread pudding still finds relevance and a place of pride in the desserts menu today? While the all pleasing, perk me up taste and its frugality seems to be the ideal reason for the dessert's relevance today, however, back in the day, its globe trotting was aided with one significant event: the rise of Britain. 


Hallmarking A New Era

While the history of bread pudding is summed as a 11th to 13th century creation for commoners by bakers who wanted to put their leftover stock to good use, and its subsequent rise as the result of the delicious taste and the big batches it could be made in to feed an army, quite literally. What is left out is two fascinating events that were happening around the same time bread pudding was taking its baby steps thanks to the slow popularising of wheat: One, the evolution in the bread making technique that had transformed from the stone ground thick, seed, cooked on a pan bread to one that used a variety of grains (and wheat when available) along with the technique of fermentation to create versions that were soft, delicious and played a much important role on the table. 
No more was bread an add on to a porridge but the main staple for which dishes were created, tweaked and even elevated. 

In fact, by the middle ages as Europe began to rise once again as a power that was now interested in conquering old cultures, bread took a more conversational stand in the empirical scheme. For most of Europe, bread determined an empire's fate – and its first impression on other cultures. 

The Idea Paves The Way

Curiously, bread's role became the first arsenal in bread pudding's kitty to fame. As Britain and its peers began exploring both traditional and newer trade connections, and eventually turning many into colonies, bread pudding – or at least its idea – too went along. Made of frugal, widely available means the bread pudding in its initial voyage inspired many an indigenous takes like the Mexican Capirotada, where the bread is layered with cheese and soaked in a syrup made with piloncillo, (brown sugar), Umm Ali in Middle East and such. 
Even the Mughal beloved Shahi Tukda, which legend has it was made of cream, is said to have transformed into this rich Indianised bread pudding we know today with the introduction of bread by the British. And of course, double ka meetha, which in all its balai goodness is said to be our take on the old Fashioned Bread Pudding, which in the Indian culinary world coexisted with the traditional bread pudding made with milk, egg, sugar and cinnamon. 
Curiously, unlike America where it is said that the pudding, though reached early, had to wait for the arrival of wheat, bread pudding's fame in other places was based purely on white supremacy – at least in the case of India.


From Dak to Farm to Deck

While the bread pudding did arrive in India during the Mughal era, it took a while before the Europe favourite made a dent in the rich culinary tapestry. And for good reasons. The initial British, French and Portuguese envoys that travelled into the shores came looking for trade ties and often would be lured into the colourful matrix of life then. Many adopted the culinary habits that were often “suited to the purpose, and occasionally to the palate.” 
It took a good century before trading companies were funded to have their own little garrison around where cooks would often stir up the pudding as a treat, especially around holidays. Though a far cry from the home versions, the commonness of ingredients across cultures did enable them to create a dish that was comforting. 
Bread pudding, the idea, dish and terminology, first gained mileage with the Dak Bungalows, where thanks to the structure, it was one of the standard dishes offered, much like the chicken and egg curry. The pudding in fact was one of the reasons why bread among others would be a part of the wives' luggage to India. It was here that Indian caretakers first heard of what became the two, most iconic influences on our table – custard and pudding. 

Such was the love for bread pudding back home that it eventually became a part of all the handbooks that were created for British wives travelling to India – and in the garrison book too. It was the first dessert that every employed cook had to perfect to be on the job – be it at the cantonment level or at home. While the mandate created enough curiosity and gave the common Indian a taste of the British beloved pudding, its acceptance came only with its tag of being the gora food, which in colonial India was portrayed as superior to the local cuisine. 

In that sense, bread pudding acceptability initially for Indians was as a way to appease their new master. What was not fathomed then that the balmy, comforting taste would eventually grow on us too – and in the British old fashioned way. 

The growing adaptation of the new White Culture along with the easy on the palate taste and bread puddings' rewarding nature eventually made bread, which began earning its stripes during industrialisation, and the pudding an integral part of our food habits. 

Sugar Sweetened The Deal

But the most vital push to bread pudding's popularity came with white sugar – another British import. As a country of sweet palates, cheap commercial sugar transformed not just the way sweets were made in India, but helped to rework many desserts to our palate. Among them was bread pudding that used sugar both as a sweetener as well as something that could give it that amazing brown colour on the top without taking away much from the bread sweet odyssey it was. 
Add to that the number of bakeries, the advent of sliced white bread and the Clubs and Gymkhanas, lands that were presented as appeasement gifts to communities and became the center of socialising of the entitled, and the two communities – East Indians and Anglo Indians - bread pudding slowly made its way into the Indian table. Of course, hotels and Parsee and Jew run cafes also contributed to the popularity of the pudding, which by the mid of nineteenth century had become a part of the modern culinary tapestry along with custard, jelly and cakes. 


The 14,000 Year Old Charm 

While for most of us the all familiar taste along with the many variations (few made with cakes as well) that have come over the years may have been the two reasons for this 11th century creation's presence and popularity today. 

Except for the fact that these alone don't make bread pudding such an endearing dessert. At the foundation of our love for bread pudding is the same addiction which makes bread addictive – one that spans over 14000 years if culinary anthropologists are to be believed. It's Carb. 

As one of the rich, composite sources of carbohydrate, bread has always been an easy to adopt food because of its insulin stimulating nature, which raises the uptake of essential amino acids like  tryptophan by our brain. Tryptophan in the brain leads to an increase in the production of serotonin, which is a feel good hormone. In fact, this neurotransmitter is one of the reasons that we often find ourselves munching on freshly baked bread and find the aroma of fresh bread acutely alluring. 
When it comes to bread pudding however, it is not just the carbohydrate at play but a brilliant mix of flavours, aromas and nutrients at work that make the dessert instantly gratifying and calming as well courtesy the way cinnamon, eggs and milk incorporate. 
Add to that raisins and dry fruits that add a wedge of fat and protein goodness and sugar – which results in a rush of insulin in the body that is akin to a rollercoaster ride. It rises fast and drops down faster. 
These little actions combined make the experience of eating bread pudding exciting, the combination ensures the hug feeling lingers. 
It is the experience that one also has with French Toast, and according to psychologists, is the reason why the mention of bread pudding often gets us excited - for the same nerve tingling experience. 

Image courtesy: Byg Brewski & Stock Images