My love affair with bread pudding began in New Orleans. Though my Yankee-born mom makes a company-worthy peach-studded bread pudding, and I once spent a summer at a Manhattan gourmet shop dishing out a mean Mexican chocolate version, it wasn't until I had my first bite of the comforting dessert down in the Crescent City that my devotion blossomed. It was 2006, and the legendary Commander's Palace was just springing back to life after a painstaking post-Katrina renovation. Their bread pudding souffle, whiskey-tinged and ethereal, was cause to rejoice. I've since made many a pilgrimage back to New Orleans, and each time I go I can't wait to try a new bread pudding (or three). Variations abound, simple and fancy, traditional and newfangled. While it's hard to gauge how many menus offer it up, it's safe to say you'd have an easier time counting Mardi Gras beads on Bourbon Street.
Why is bread pudding so beloved, even defining, in New Orleans? It's not that the dish was invented here— that honor likely goes to clever medieval or even ancient cooks in Europe and the Middle East who had a surfeit of stale bread on their hands. But the dessert is the perfect embodiment of the twin Creole virtues of frugality and indulgence: day-old bread, too precious to waste, is bathed in a mixture of milk, eggs, and sugar, perhaps mixed with nuts and fruit, and baked into something sublime.
There's also something special about the local loaves, baked for po'boys but ideally suited for bread pudding. "No other place uses New Orleans French bread to make bread pudding," notes Liz Williams, author of New Orleans: A Food Biography (AltaMira Press, December 2012). "That airy bread creates a bread pudding of special light texture." And in New Orleans' vibrant food scene, there's the creativity of countless chefs who are elevating this cherished classic to new heights. In the city that launched a thousand bread puddings, here are seven that stand out:
1. Creole Bread Pudding Souffle with Warm Whiskey Cream at Commander's Palace
Old riverboat cooks once dubbed bread pudding "heavy devils," but "airy angels" seems a more fitting moniker for the heavenly version served at Commander's Palace. Invented here by Chef Paul Prudhomme in 1980 to mark the restaurant's 100th anniversary, the dish features light Leidenheimer bread that soaks up just the right amount of custard, and the bread pudding base is leavened with clouds of meringue—it was an instant hit. "Now we have to have one employee who makes nothing else!" declares Ti Adelaide Martin, co-owner of this renowned institution. I always love the moment when the golden-domed dish arrives and the waiter pours whiskey cream sauce into the center of the steaming souffle, daring you to say "stop." You don't, of course.
1403 Washington Avenue (Garden District)
2. Bananas Foster Bread Pudding at Cafe Reconcile
Decadence meets virtue in Cafe Reconcile's locally famous bread pudding, a custardy slice of heaven that stands among my all-time favorites. This small non-profit restaurant, which fed first responders in the uncertain weeks following Katrina, wins praise for both its satisfying soul food and its mission of building culinary and life skills in at-risk teens.
Cafe Reconcile's toothsome bread pudding is moister than most, and redolent of the bananas and rum of its namesake New Orleans dessert, Bananas Foster. Some say the secret is the Leidenheimer bread they use—all of it donated by the bakery—but founder Craig Cuccia credits something more: "It's the love of the people who bake the bread, the people who make the bread pudding, the people who come from all over to support our mission." All I know is next time I'm in New Orleans, I'm heading home with a full sheet pan of the stuff. Yes, it's that good.
1631 Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard (Central City)
[Please note: Cafe Reconcile is slated to reopen January 4, 2013 following renovation and expansion; catering services available now]
3. Classic Bread Pudding with Whiskey Sauce at the Bon Ton Cafe
Ask any New Orleanian for a "best bread pudding" pick and chances are they'll point you to the raisin-speckled version at Bon Ton Cafe, the oldest Cajun restaurant in New Orleans. Bon Ton first put bread pudding on their menu in the 1950s—well before most other fine dining establishments saw fit to serve this humble southern classic—and they've been sating sweet tooths with the same family recipe ever since. Tender French bread from Alois J. Binder Bakery, another local institution, makes for a dense yet soft consistency, and a crowning drizzle of whiskey sauce adds a grown-up kick to this most traditional of New Orleans bread puddings.
The Bon Ton Cafe
401 Magazine Street (Central Business District)
4. Pecan Pie Bread Pudding with Bourbon Anglaise & Pie Crust Crumble at NOLA Restaurant
Pastry chef Amy Lemon knows she can't compete with your grandma's bread pudding, so she doesn't even try; instead she puts her unique spin on tradition at this French Quarter outpost of Emeril's empire. Seasons provide the inspiration—blueberry bread pudding with popcorn ice cream might show up in summer, or gingerbread bread pudding with cranberry chutney around Thanksgiving—but I could eat her late fall Pecan Pie Bread Pudding year-round. Cinnamon, vanilla bean, and a hint of orange zest scent the bread pudding base, topped with a layer of bourbon-laced pecan pie filling. Add a scoop of sweet potato ice cream, a sprinkling of toasted pecans and savory pie crust crumbles, and a swirl each of bourbon anglaise and dark caramel sauce, and you'll forget grandma ever made bread pudding at all.
534 St. Louis Street (French Quarter)
5. King Cake Bread Pudding with Creole Cream Cheese Ice Cream at Patois
New Orleans French bread might be the star of most of the city's bread puddings, but at Patois, buttery house-baked brioche rules. And when Mardi Gras rolls around, brioche joins forces with yeasty King Cake for a memorable seasonal variation served with a festive dusting of purple and green luster dust and gold nonpareils. A garland of white chocolate Mardi Beads rounds out the theme, while Creole cream cheese ice cream and a pool of Ponchatoula strawberry compote complete the party.
6078 Laurel Street (Uptown)
6. Krispy Kreme Bread Pudding at Boucherie
Chef Nathanial Zimet admits this over-the-top creation is a little, well, disgusting, but when he tried to retire it from the menu at Boucherie, fans rebelled. And maybe this zany marriage of New Orleans bread pudding and Krispy Kreme doughnuts was fated: When Krispy Kreme founder Vernon Rudolf set up shop in North Carolina back in 1937, his secret to success was a yeast-raised doughnut recipe he'd purchased from a New Orleans French chef. Now North Carolina-born Chef Zimet riffs on that tradition in beignet-mad New Orleans, mixing Krispy Kreme glazed doughnuts and pound cake with eggs and cream for a baguette-less bread pudding. Doesn't sound rich enough for you? The dessert's drizzled with a spiced rum-and-brown-sugar caramel sauce just before serving.
8115 Jeannette Street (Carrollton)
7. Paneed White Chocolate & Almond Bread Pudding at Mat & Naddie's
Old-school meets new at Mat & Naddie's, a neighborhood spot steps from the Mississippi River. A dozen years ago chef/owner Stephen Schwarz and then-chef Clint Whittemore invented Paneed White Chocolate & Almond Bread Pudding, wedding tradition and novelty. Local cooks had long served chicken or veal that was breaded and fried—"paneed," in Louisiana parlance—but Mat & Naddie's paneed bread pudding was a first, and likely remains one-of-a-kind. Discs of white chocolate bread pudding, chock-full of toasted almonds and perfumed with vanilla and nutmeg, are dipped in flour, egg wash, and panko, then pan-fried until crisp and golden. The bread pudding is dressed with butter-rich rum sauce, bruleed bananas, and chunks of white chocolate, and finished with a scattering of toasted almonds for crunch. It's a dish worth heading to the levee for.
Mat and Naddie's
937 Leonidas Street (Carrollton)