In my last column, I shared with you a delightful holiday recipe that called for you to seek out a special ingredient, North African brik pastry, with which to make my Valentine chocolate “purses,” a treat straight out of Spago restaurant. But I also know that some people lead very busy lives and may not have had the time to hunt for ethnic ingredients or to plan ahead. And, suddenly, the most romantic holiday of the year is just a day away!
That’s why this week I’d like to suggest yet another wonderful dessert you can prepare for your valentine. Better still, this time it’s a home-style recipe: bread pudding made with a rich bittersweet-chocolate custard, featuring basic ingredients you can find in any supermarket, or that you may already have in your home refrigerator and pantry.
I’d have to rack my brain to think of anyone I know who doesn’t like a good bread pudding. It seems to be a perfect definition of comfort food: slices of good bread soaked in and baked with a rich, sweet custard to form a dessert that delivers smooth satisfaction with every spoonful. Adding a generous dose of chocolate makes it even better — and suits it perfectly to a Valentine’s Day celebration.
As I said, the ingredients couldn’t be more basic: half-and-half; eggs; some good-quality bittersweet chocolate, bitter baking chocolate and cocoa powder; plus an egg-enriched loaf of bread such as brioche or challah. While my recipe is easy, I do suggest that you prepare its custard base the day before you plan to serve it — or at least the morning before you’ll do the final assembly and cooking. That will allow plenty of time for the mixture to chill well and thicken. Then, the next day, all you have to do is cut and soak the bread, assemble the pudding in individual-sized baking cups, and cook the dessert in the oven using a hot-water bath (easy to set up with a baking pan and some boiling water) that helps the custard cook gently and stay moist and delicate.
The puddings taste delicious whether you serve them hot from the oven, warm or chilled in the refrigerator, which really works to your advantage if you’re making this dessert for your valentine. That’s because the recipe works most efficiently if you make enough for eight servings, as you might want to do for a dinner party. But if it’s for just the two of you, you not only have seconds if you want them, but also more wonderful chocolate bread pudding to share the next day.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
BITTERSWEET CHOCOLATE CUSTARD BREAD PUDDING
Makes 8 servings, 3/4 cup each
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 1/2 ounces bitter chocolate, coarsely chopped
3 whole large cage-free eggs
3 large cage-free egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups half-and-half
1 1/2 cups half-and-half
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
8 slices brioche, challah or other rich egg bread, each 1/2 inch thick
Unsalted butter, softened, for greasing
Unsweetened whipped cream
Several hours or a day ahead, make the custard: In a stainless-steel bowl or the top half of a double boiler placed over but not touching simmering water, melt the bittersweet and bitter chocolates.
In a large stainless-steel bowl, beat together the whole eggs and egg yolks until well combined. While whisking continuously, gradually pour in the sugar. Continue whisking until fluffy.
Meanwhile, in a small saucepan over medium-high heat, bring the 2 cups of half-and-half to a rolling boil. Remove the pan from the heat. While whisking the egg mixture continuously, very slowly pour in the hot half-and-half. Whisk in the melted chocolate.
Fill a large mixing bowl with ice cubes. Rest the stainless-steel bowl inside and stir until the custard mixture has chilled. Then cover the bowl of custard and refrigerate.
When ready to make the pudding, combine the soaking-liquid ingredients in a saucepan and stir over medium heat until the cocoa has dissolved completely. Set aside.
Using a round 2-inch cookie cutter, cut 2 circles from each bread slice. Arrange the 16 circles in 1 or 2 baking dishes large enough to hold them in a single layer. Pour the soaking liquid over the bread and soak well, turning the circles so they absorb as much liquid as possible.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. With the butter, grease the insides of 8 individual 3/4-cup custard cups or molds. Bring a kettle of water to a boil.
Spoon about 2 ounces of the custard into the bottom of each cup or mold. With a slotted spoon, lift a circle of bread and place it in a cup. Spoon more custard on top; then, add another circle of bread and another layer of custard. Repeat with the remaining cups.
Arrange the cups in a large baking pan. Pull out an oven rack partway and place the pan on it. Fill the pan with enough boiling water to come halfway up the sides of the cups. Very carefully slide the rack into the oven.
Bake the bread puddings until the custard has set, about 30 minutes. Carefully remove the pan from the oven and transfer the individual cups to a wire rack. Serve them hot or lukewarm, or leave them to cool to room temperature and then chill in the refrigerator.
To serve, sift powdered sugar over the tops of the hot or cool puddings. Offer whipped cream on the side.