In an effort to bring some kind of order to the task of determining which among New Orleans’ thousands of worthwhile bread puddings should make the final cut, I limited the contenders to those of the sweet variety with a provenance of some form of not-sweet bread. The only constants among the six finalists are they all involve a custard base of eggs and cream, and each of them is served with a sauce – if not two.
It will come as a shock to some, I know, but bread pudding isn’t a New Orleans invention. It isn’t even an American invention. Merit for the creation of the confection we hold so dear belongs to unnamed yet clever and frugal Medieval or ancient European or Middle Eastern cooks who found themselves with an abundance of bread, too precious to waste.
With a heritage of Creole thrift, culinary creativity and a supply of our signature “French” bread with its fragile yet crisp crust and light, airy center, it was surely preordained that bread pudding became New Orleans’ best known dessert-worthy concoction of leftovers. In its purest form, the simplicity and availability of its comprising ingredients allow it to cross all racial and socioeconomic barriers, turning up on dining room sideboards and school cafeteria lunch plates, as well as restaurant menus from humble to grand – I have even encountered it in gas stations.
To say bread pudding is New Orleans’ definitive dessert isn’t to say there’s any “right” way to make it. Variations are as numerous as the cooks who prepare this sacred goo – simple, lavish, traditional and newfangled – some of them not made from bread at all but, rather, from other sweet treats, such as doughnuts or King Cake. Others aren’t desserts at all. They are savory affairs leaden with items including chicken and cheese as well as hunks of andouille sausage. I once made one with an assortment of chopped up Hot Pockets left over from an evacuation. I soaked them in a savory custard and layered the mixture with shredded Cheddar cheese and sautéed mushrooms and onions. I brought it to a potluck and lied about the ingredients as people swooned over it. Now they know.
Creole Bread Pudding Souffle with Whiskey Sauce
The late, beloved chef Paul Prudhomme achieved immortality through many of the dishes he created during his lengthy career. Among them is the enduring Bread Pudding Soufflé he concocted during his tenure at Commander’s Palace for the restaurant’s 100th anniversary in 1980.
The menu advises you to order the labor-intensive dessert at the same time you order your entrée. In the kitchen, the employee devoted solely to this task will fold clouds of meringue into a cinnamon and vanilla custard foundation heavy with soaking cubes of Leidenheimer bread and dark raisins. The result arrives at table a puffed golden dome atop a pristine soufflé cup. On cue your server cracks the dome with a spoon, and ladles in whiskey cream sauce until it flows down the sides. The best part? The thin candy-like rim where the puff meets the edges of the dish. Make the effort to chisel it all out with your spoon.Commander’s Palace | 1403 Washington Ave. | 899-8221 | CommandersPalace.com
Praline Leidenheimer Bread Pudding
When he took over the kitchen at the Big Pink after a $20-plus million renovation in 2014, chef Slade Rushing was tasked with infusing enough modern technique and sensibility into Brennan’s classic dishes to make them relevant and refreshed.
He also had to find something to do with thousands of egg whites, the byproduct of the countless gallons of yolk-rich Hollandaise sauce the restaurant shoots through in a week.
His solution was a bread pudding that arrives at the table in a shallow cream soup bowl within which it’s baked. It looks like nothing special. Looks deceive.
Rushing’s reputation for the abstract is at play here, the fluffy puddle in the bowl is much more about the rich vanilla custard leavened with plenty of stiff meringue than the cubes of Leidenheimer bread poking up here and there. Crisp shards of praline are the primary texture in the non-traditional dessert, which is topped with generous pours of rye whiskey crème anglaise and chantilly cream.Brennan’s Restaurant | 417 Royal St. | 525-9711 | BrennansNewOrleans.com
White Chocolate Bread Pudding
Chef Scot Craig forgoes the usual vanilla extract to flavor his distinctive bread pudding. Instead he relies on almond extract as a base note, which pairs beautifully with the freshly crushed pineapple and melted white chocolate he beats into the custard base, within which he soaks cubes of day-old French bread from Gendusa bakery, Katie’s exclusive vendor.
“I avoided making a traditional New Orleans-style bread pudding with raisins and hard sauce, but I didn’t want my version to be too, too, out there,” Craig says. “I wanted it to be recognizable as bread pudding while still showing up with an element of surprise. I think this strikes a balance between the familiar and the new.”
Before serving, the dense pudding is backed into bouillon cups, which are then inverted and unmolded atop pools of white chocolate crème anglaise. He presents the rich bread pudding with fresh, seasonal fruit or berries.Katie’s Restaurant | 3701 Iberville St. | 488-6582 | KatiesInMidCity.com
Bananas Foster Bread Pudding
Ringing in at a thrifty $5.99 for a generous serving, Cafe Reconcile’s brilliant marriage between two beloved New Orleans classics isboth decadent and virtuous.
The core of the nonprofit Central City soul food restaurant is a life skills and job training program for severely at-risk youths who are ready to transform their lives. They learn front and back-of-the-house skills that prepare them for employment in New Orleans’ thriving hospitality industry. When the time comes for kitchen training, one of the first things Executive Chef/General Manager Eugene Temple expects is a mastery of the justifiably famous bread pudding.
Day-old donated Leidenheimer French bread is cubed and mixed with a rich custard of butter, white and brown sugars, eggs, heavy cream, rum and banana extract. The dense, jiggly pudding is served in squares set atop a caramel sauce laced with more rum and banana extract to mimic the familiar pan sauce commonly associated with more high-tone restaurants.Cafe Reconcile | 1631 Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard | 568-1157 | CafeReconcile.org
Warm Bourbon Cornbread Bread Pudding with Rillon Fudge Sauce
“Look up ‘Cajun’ or ‘Coonass’ in an encyclopedia and you’ll probably see a picture of me,” says Isaac Toups. “I’m probably chewing on some kind of bone.”
The Rayne native’s Cajun family has lived in South Louisiana for more than 300 years, and both his heritage and classical culinary training come screaming off of the “Top Chef” finalist’s menu – piping hot cracklin'; double-cut pork chops with a cumin-kissed dirty rice and cane syrup gastrique; foie gras torchon; medium-rare venison back strap; and a charcuterie board to end all. Most of his food is straightforward with no riffs.
This isn’t the case with his unusual, most noteworthy bread pudding. The end of meal must-do at Toups’ Meatery is cornbread-based with bourbon worked into the custard that binds the warm dense rectangle. It is topped with fresh seasonal fruit, drizzled with rillon fudge sauce and scattered with crackly, toasted buttered pecans.Toups’ Meatery | 845 N. Carrollton Ave. | 252-4999 | ToupsMeatery.com
Bread Pudding with Rum-Soaked Raisins, Pineapple, Rum Sauce and Creme Anglaise
Jordan Ruiz’s resume includes training at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and stints at Ralph’s on the Park and Commander’s Palace. Whatever restraint and high-brow style these storied institutions may have tried to instill in him, when it came time to open his own restaurant in Gentilly in 2011, he eschewed it all, instead marrying his classical skills with his New Orleans upbringing and his more-is-more culinary sensibilities.
The Munch Factory is a warm, family-friendly place, with personable, attentive service and generous portions of comfort foods with an edge.
As is his style, Ruiz holds nothing back from his glorious bread pudding. Each softball-sized portion arrives with a uniformly crisp exterior achieved by a long visit under the broiler. Crack the crust to reveal an interior pudding loaded with rum-soaked raisins and pineapple. This hot hunk arrives atop a pool of caramel-hued rum sauce swirled with pale crème anglaise.The Munch Factory | 6325 Elysian Fields Ave. | 324-5372 | TheMunchFactory.net