Saturday, October 10, 2009
Birthday bread pudding
It's my mom's birthday today. She's turning fifty-one. She's beautiful, she's generous, she's funny. She's walking twenty miles today, the first half of a thirty-nine mile walk, to raise money for breast cancer research. She's in New York City, and I'm in Buenos Aires, and I miss her very much.
It's my mom's birthday today. I haven't sent a card, and I won't be able to talk to her very long, because of her marathon. I won't be able to hug her, or kiss her, or tell her just how much I want to be like her, when I am fifty-one, so I did the next best thing I could think of: I baked her bread pudding.
The recipe for this bread pudding comes by the way of my grandmother, my mom's mom. When I moved out of the house, For Reals, my mom gave me a homemade book of handwritten, familiar recipes: chicken noodle soup, deviled eggs, shrimp scampi. The first entry in the "Just Desserts" section is bread pudding, a big favorite of ours. It's the kind of food that, though yielding a hefty amount, disappears within two days or so -- each of us, my mother, my father, my brother, and I, sneaking slices from the refrigerator at all times of the day and night. It's an incredibly simple recipe, without many steps or spices, and provides the intangible, ineffable comfort that comes from standing in front of the fridge, in bare feet, and slowly sinking your teeth into the soft slice of sweet pudding.
I have to admit: my grandmother was no great bastion of home cooking. She cooked only on a grand scale, on grand occasions; take for example, please, our annual Christmas Eve feast: pastelones, surullitos, arroz con habichuelas. Watching us in the kitchen would be like seeing some kind of holiday television special, "The Littlest Biggest Whitest Puerto Rican Christmas!". None of my grandmother's children married fellow Puerto Ricans, nor can anyone, besides my cousin Jonathan and me, can speak Spanish -- and he and I learned it here, in Argentina. Out of us all, my grandmother spent the most time in the kitchen, dicing pork and heating sofrito and rolling lots and lots of dough. I don't blame her, that she only wanted to cook once a year -- everyone, my aunts and uncles and cousins and mother (because though I seem distracted, this is about and for her), would sneak in to steal bites of meat pie filling, or even a whole fried one, hot and painful but worth every juicy, dripping, painful bite. My grandmother would have to swat us out like flies, chasing us with her rolling pin, at the same time trying to get at least one of her eleven grandchildren to come in and help roll some godforsaken dough.
The rest of the time, according to my humble memory, my grandmother was much more of a take-out woman. I remember weekends spent at her house, just she and I and a whole lot of Chinese food. Her kitchen was often rather bare, leaving only a few clues as to her casual cooking style and infamous sweet tooth. Food was usually limited to things like ice cream, breakfast cereal, cured deli ham, Equal packets stolen from the nearby Best Western, whose breakfast buffet my grandmother loved, and Almond Joys. (The "a" in almond pronounced like the "a" ham, and no "l" to keep it company -- the only audible vestige of my grandmother's Brooklyn heritage.) When she was sick, towards the end of her life, her sisters (one in Long Island, one in Alabama) would call to yell at her, to tell her to eat more than frozen waffles and Diet Coke.
This bread pudding was a favorite of my grandmother. It's soft, and very sweet, from sugar and condensed milk. It's dense, too, and vaguely gelatinous. Which doesn't sound flooringly appetizing, I suppose, but I am simply trying to describe its texture. There are a lot of bread puddings out there, and this is not one that is served warm, and eaten with a spoon. This is a cold, thick, sweet pudding, best served cold, and most enjoyable when eaten directly out of hand. It's a good barefoot dessert. (It's also perfectly legitimate to eat as breakfast, I say, or in the middle of the night -- cold comfort never made a person feel so warm.)
I write about this bread pudding for two reasons: one, it's absolutely delicious, and two, it makes me happy to be a woman in my family. My mother's side has been, and continues to be, very matriarchal. My grandmother was one of four girls. My mom is one out of four, with my Uncle Richard following up as the only boy. There was always so much drama in my family, too, which you could chalk up to us being Puerto Rican and/or women (if you are racist and/or sexist). Everything wasn't always as sweet as bread pudding. My mother and her siblings, for valid reasons, had a lot of anger towards their mother. Growing up in a single parent household, with little money and lots of cousins and foster children sharing your bedroom and your mother's affections, can be emotionally trying in many ways.
But. My mother's gift to me, then, as I grew up, was keeping any anger or hurt related to her mother separate from my relationship with my grandmother. That is to say: my mom gave me the gift of innocent, unconditional love for my grandma. That's the beauty of being a grandparent, and a grandchild, I think: you get to skip all the painful crap of parental relationships, of anger and disappointment and frustration, of puberty and middle age and slamming doors, of all of that -- you just get, literally and figuratively, weekends with Chinese food and candy bars and Clerks on video.
So, then, Mom, this is for you: for breakfast I will eat a slice of bread pudding, and drink a coffee, which I normally take black, now made light with milk. I wish you were here to share it with me, but I am happy to know where you are, and happy that you are happy to know where I am. I'm in a good place, and so much of that, bread pudding and all, is because of you.
This recipe has been adapted somewhat from the original given to me by my mother -- proportions for things, like evaporated milk and loaves of bread, are different here. Also, I made this at 3 am this morning, after I got home from work. But it has turned out beautifully, and has the familiar texture I was looking for. Raisins are optional, of course.
1 large loaf of packaged, sliced white bread, preferably stale (to speed up the process, I heated up a low oven, and then put the bread in, turned off the heat, and left the slices to harden slightly)
1 can evaporated milk (down here, a can is 395 grams, just about 1 1/2 cup milk)
just under 1 1/2 cup milk
2 large eggs
1 1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick melted butter (I used 125 grams, not quite 9 tablespoons)
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 cup raisins
Preheat your oven to 350°F. Grease a large loaf pan.
Tear up the stale bread with your hands. Soak the bread in a large bowl by adding the evaporated milk, regular milk, and one evaporated milk can of water. I used the can to measure the regular milk, as well. Work, with your hands if you like, until mushy.
In a separate bowl, combine butter, sugar, and salt. Let cool slightly, and then add eggs and vanilla. Mix well, and then add this mixture to the gooey bread. If you are using raisins, add them at this point, as well. Or, you could be like me and forget to add them until the mixture is already in the loaf pan, say "Shit!", and then stuff about 1/4 cup of them into the top, which actually makes for a very picturesque loaf.
Bake until browned lightly on top, about 1 hour, 15 minutes. This (very early) morning, mine needed close to 1 hour and 30 minutes. When the pudding is ready, a toothpick or chopstick inserted will come out mostly clean.
Cool on a rack, and when cooled, wrap in wax paper and aluminum foil. Refrigerate until cold all the way through.