When we were kids, a day of winter romping was always — always! — followed by mugs of cocoa and a plate of buttered toast. This was a given. It was inconceivable that one would not be followed by the other.
In the spirit of all things cozy and warm, I give to you this bread pudding. It takes the best of cocoa and the best of toast, and puts it in a single, custardy, marshmallow-topped dish. You can make it ahead in anticipation of a special winter breakfast or serve it for an post-dinner (and post-romping) treat. Just like a mug of cocoa, it's a pudding works equally well for either occasion.
Bread puddings have long been a favorite of mine. I just love the way the milk and eggs soak into the cubes of leftover bread, creating a creamy custard that is so much more than the sum of its parts. I'm not sure why it took me so long to think of adding cocoa, but I'm glad that I finally did. It gives the pudding a rich, chocolate flavor but without the heaviness of melted chocolate.
That's why I actually feel that this pudding would make an even better breakfast than it would a dessert! It's certainly indulgent, but indulgent in the tradition of other baked goods like cinnamon buns and croissants. I imagine making this for overnight guests during the holidays or as a surprise for the kids on a snow day.
Bread pudding is at its custard-y best if you make it with stale bread cubes and let it have a good soak in the custard before baking. Stale cubes hold up better during baking, giving you creamy and spoonable custard with a bit of chew, and a few hours of soaking gives the bread time to really absorb that sweet milky filling. You can speed things along by toasting the bread in the oven and then letting it stand just briefly before baking — this is perfectly acceptable in a fit of pudding desperation — but if you can, opt for the longer route.
Cocoa & Toast Bread Pudding
Serves 6 to 8
16-ounce loaf country bread
3 1/2 cups whole milk
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, plus more to taste
2/3 cup sugar, plus more to taste
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/8 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
1 mounded cup mini marshmallows
Slice the loaf of bread into 1-inch cubes, about 11 cups total. (Trim the crust off if desired — pieces of crust make chewy bits in the pudding, which I love but you might not!) If you're preparing this ahead, spread the cubes on a baking tray and leave out overnight. Otherwise, toast the bread cubes in a 350°F oven, tossing occasionally, until they are dry, 30 to 40 minutes. Staled bread cubes can be stored in an airtight container for several days.
When ready to make the pudding, prepare the cocoa custard filling. Warm the milk in a saucepan over medium heat or in 30 second bursts in the microwave until warm to the touch but not steaming hot. Remove the milk from heat and whisk in the cocoa, sugar, vanilla, and salt. Taste and add more cocoa powder or sugar to taste. Cool to room temperature, then whisk in the eggs.
Fill a 2-quart (9x9-inch or deep 8x8-inch) baking dish with the bread cubes. Pack them in as tightly as possible — you may have some bread left over (this can be saved for breadcrumbs). Pour the cocoa custard filling evenly over the top of the bread. The filling should come almost to the top of the dish with some peaks of bread cubes left exposed.
Cover the pudding and refrigerate for at least an hour or overnight.
When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 325°F. Put the bread pudding on the counter to take the chill off as the oven heats.
Remove the covering from the pudding and place it in the heated oven. Bake until the tips of the bread cubes are crisp and dry and a cake tester inserted into the middle of the pudding emerges with only a little chocolate, 45 to 55 minutes.
Scatter the marshmallows over the top of the pudding. Turn on the broiler and place the pudding about 6 inches below the broiler element. Watch the pudding very closely. When the marshmallows puff up and start to toast, remove the pudding from the oven.
Let the pudding cool for at least 10 minutes before serving. Leftovers will keep for up to a week and can be eaten cold or reheated.
Peppermint Cocoa Bread Pudding: Add a half teaspoon of peppermint extract along with the vanilla extract and scatter some crushed peppermints over the top of the finished pudding.
Mexican Hot Chocolate Bread Pudding: Add a teaspoon of cinnamon and a pinch of cayenne pepper along with the vanilla extract.
(Image credits: Emma Christensen)