Having bread pudding for dessert was once a welcomed occurrence. It is a dish with very old roots. For those who remember the days when their moms baked bread, it might have often been served and never been questioned for its frequent appearance. Bread pudding was a popular way to use every bit of bread so as not to be wasteful – even, or especially, if the bread was stale.
Anyone remember the once popular question so often asked on early TV shows, “is it bigger than a breadbox?” If you can, you are really admitting your age. The question was popularized by Steve Allen on his American game show What’s My Line? You might also be able to remember when a breadbox was a common fixture alongside one’s set of kitchen canisters. Surprisingly, these weren’t patented until 1918. Purchasing a new one at Kuenemman’s, Probst’s or Kohlmeier’s Hardware, or even at Dooley’s 5, 10, & 25¢ Store, was always about as exciting as buying a new used car. Our breadboxes were typically made of tin, but I remember one that was pink when that color became fashionable in the early ‘70s. It had door that dropped open and provided a wooden cutting board—how ingenious! That was likely the last new one that ever came into our home. How they could wear out remains a mystery, but they took a lot of abuse from opening and closing them several times a day. If one were to give that question some thought, the answer might well have been over a thousand times a year in a typical family.
Some of us may have heard others say something or other was “the best thing since the invention of sliced bread?” There was a time when bread wasn’t sold sliced. It was first done by machines only in 1928. I loved watching the one at Dietz Bakery slice its way through their freshy-baked loaves. They always asked their customers first how they preferred it—sliced or whole. Then World War II happened and sliced bread was banned in 1943 in hopes of keeping prices down during an era of wartime rationing. I wonder what brilliant government functionary drew a salary for dreaming that up? Perhaps they had remembered that England had urged their people to keep the consumption of bread down to just 4 pounds weekly during World War I. That effort grew stale rather rapidly.
I remember when buying a loaf of sliced bread in the mid-50s was still a novelty. It appeared that sandwich bread companies had strong customer following and families tended to consistently purchase the same bread just as we used to buy the same make of automobiles. My mom’s was ButterKrust Bread. Mrs. Baird’s didn’t have a chance of getting into our kitchen and had it been left up to my dad, even ButterKrust would not have made it through the front door. Sadly, Richter’s ButterKrust Bakery closed its door in 1994. Sometimes, when my mom had run out of her home-baked bread, she put a few slices of ButterKrust on the table. Invariably, my dad never skipped this opportunity to hold up a slice between his thumb and index finger while waving it a bit to announce to all at the table that this was nothing but a Washlappen (washrag).
Meanwhile, it appears that cooks throughout history have been loath to waste stale bread. Perhaps, even more so when one had taken all that time to bake it. And, I suppose, most families here did not wish to see perfectly good stale bread being thrown away whether there was a war going on or not. In fact, throughout most of the human history, people could not afford to waste food—not even bread. It is safe to say that cooks from the very distant past have turned stale bread into something quite special producing a sweet pudding, even if only soaked in milk, sweetened by one means or another, and baking the results.
My Mom added raisins to hers, which I diligently pushed to the side of my bowl. In general, however, bread pudding was not a dessert likely chosen to be served to the more distinguished guests, not one of whom I can recall visiting our house, save for the one time we hosted a Sunday dinner for an assistant to John Foster Dulles and his wife who happened to be in town as guests of the local Presbyterian Church.
While we seemed to have bread pudding quite frequently throughout the ‘50s, infrequently my mother created a thickened wine sauce to be served warm and poured over the freshly-baked bread pudding. It was a very special treat. Wine sauces are obviously made with wine as a primary ingredient. Prepared by heating in a small pot it was simply a mixture of stock, butter, herbs, spices, and even onions. The wines used can be red or white and even a Burgundy or port wines but use cheap ones as all the alcohol will boil away anyway. Wine sauces are prepared by a reduction which intensifies their flavors.
I have shared my mother’s recipe below, but if you have purchased the 175th Anniversary Fredericksburg Heritage Cookbook, the recipe for bread pudding and wine sauce submitted by Mrs. Chester Otte is essentially the same as that of my mother’s. Try it out during the holidays this year and see what you think.
Ingredients: Bread Pudding
2 cups day old bread torn into large pieces
4 cups hot milk
2 eggs, slightly beaten
2/3 cup sugar
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
2 tsp melted butter
Raisins, if desired
Preparation: Bread Pudding
Soak the stale bread in the hot milk.
Beat eggs with the sugar, salt.
Add butter and vanilla.
Then add to the bread mixture in a Pyrex dish.
Bake at 350ºF for about 30 minutes until firm.
Serve hot with cream or a wine Sauce.
Ingredients: Wine Sauce
2 cups water
1 cup sugar
2 tbsp cornstarch
1 cup sweet red wine
Preparation: Wine Sauce
Dissolve the sugar in hot water over low heat.
Add cornstarch and cook until it thickens.
Add sweet red wine to make a nice, creamy sauce.
Remove from heat and Serve immediately over hot bread pudding.
Wine sauces will keep in the refrigerator for a week, or it can be frozen. It has many applications from steak and sea food to glazed carrots, potatoes, etc. Good also by the spoonful.