Sweet bread pudding is where leftover stale bread gets a second chance at greatness. It's possible you've only ever had this dish of warm, custard-soaked bread at fancy restaurants, but I firmly believe that bread pudding needs to be made more often at home. It is basically an upgraded French toast, after all — all the soft middles and all the crunchy edges in one fabulous, crowd-pleasing dish.
Brioche is the Bread of Choice
For a truly outstanding bread pudding, brioche is the bread you want. This type of bread is rich and slightly sweet, and it will soak in that cream like a sponge. Beyond brioche, you can use just about any rich, sweet bread you have, from challah to leftover cinnamon rolls.
Read more: How To Make Brioche
Regular white bread, French bread, or artisan country bread also makes a very good bread pudding. This is a good option for those times when we're not quite up for the over-the-top decadence of a brioche pudding. Just avoid using sourdough loaves or hearty whole wheat loaves — the savory flavors in those loaves don't make them suited to a sweet bread pudding.
Don't Skimp on the Cream
Bread puddings are also not the place to skimp or substitute lower-fat ingredients. The rich milk and egg are what make this dish the fabulous treat that it is. Just close your eyes and crack those eggs, and remind yourself that you'll be sharing this dish with a whole roomful of people. If you're looking for a more health-conscious dessert, I'd suggest just choosing a different one rather than trying to adapt this to lower-fat ingredients.
More Tips for Bread Pudding Success
Even if your bread is a few days old, I still like to toast the cubes for a few minutes in the oven to make sure they're completely dry. It might seem counter-intuitive to dry out bread cubes when the next step is mixing them with milk and eggs, but drying them makes them better able to absorb the custard and gives the pudding a better texture.
It's also important to let the dish sit for a while before baking to give the bread cubes time to fully absorb the custard. Give the dish at least an hour for this, but even better is making the pudding the night before, letting it chill overnight, and baking the pudding the next day.
I prefer a crust with some crunchy, toasted bits, but many classic recipes have a very flat top and with very little perceptible crust. If you prefer the classic look and texture, press down on the bread cubes every so often while they're resting, or weight the top of the pudding down with something heavy.
How To Make Sweet Bread Pudding
Serves 8 to 10
What You Need
16- to 20-ounce loaf of bread or brioche (1o to 12 cups of bread cubes)
1 tablespoon butter, softened
5 cups whole milk, or a blend of milk and cream
6 large eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon cinnamon, optional
1/8 teaspoon salt
Optional extras: 1/2 cup raisins or other dried fruit, 1/2 cup toasted nuts, 1 chopped apple or other fresh fruit, zest of one lemon, zest of one orange
Serrated bread knife
9-inch x 13-inch baking dish
Slice the bread into cubes: Remove the crust from the bread, if desired; leave it on for a more rustic loaf. Slice the bread into bite-sized cubes or tear it into pieces with your hands.
Toast the bread cubes: Warm the oven to 350°F. Spread the bread cubes in a single layer over a baking sheet. Toast for 20 to 25 minutes, stirring once halfway through cooking, until the cubes feel dry and hard, but are still very pale. Remove from the oven and cool slightly.
Transfer the cubes to the baking dish: Rub the baking dish with butter, then arrange the cubes inside. Gently shake the dish and pat the cubes down so they settle into place. If you're using any extra ingredients, scatter these over top, then use a spoon to gently poke and stir them into the bread cubes so that some of them go into the middle, but they don't all fall to the bottom of the dish.
Mix the custard: Whisk together the milk, eggs, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon (if using), and salt in a mixing bowl.
Pour the custard over the bread: Pour slowly and evenly over the top of the bread cubes, making sure it gets into all the nooks and crannies. The cream should come to just below the top of the bread, with edges and corners poking out the top. You may have a little cream leftover.
Refrigerate for 1 hour or overnight: Cover the dish with foil and refrigerate for 1 hour or overnight. This gives the bread time to absorb the custard. If you'd like the traditional very flat top with no crunchy bits, press the top of pudding a few times as it soaks or weigh it down with something heavy so that all the bread cubes get pushed into the custard.
Preheat the oven to 325°F: Place an oven rack in the middle position.
Bake the pudding: Uncover the bread pudding and place it in the oven. Bake for 45 to 55 minutes. It's done when a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean and the tips of the bread on top are beginning to toast. If the crust seems like it's getting dark before the custard is done, tent the dish loosely with foil.
Cool briefly before serving: Transfer the pudding to a wire cooling rack and let stand at least 10 minutes before serving. Serve with a sauce or drizzled with icing (see Recipe Note). Leftovers are will keep for 5 days and are good cold, room temperature, or warmed.
Sauce Your Pudding! This pudding is extra-good served with a sauce over top — especially a sauce with some rum or bourbon whisked in. Try this recipe for Sweet and Silky Crème Anglaise or this Simple Vanilla Icing.
Individual Bread Puddings: You can also prepare this pudding individual ramekins. Divide the ingredients between as many ramekins as you have, filling them with custard mixture to just below the top. Chill and bake as normal, but start checking the puddings after about 20 minutes to gauge cooking speed.
(Image credits: Emma Christensen)