Bread Pudding: From Frugal to Fancy (and a recipe)

Kathleen Rice Adams header

Many dishes that are prides of the American table today once were ways to avoid wasting food. Shipping of all but basic staples didn’t begin until the latter half of the 19th century; perishables weren’t shipped at all until refrigerated containers, or “reefers,” were invented in 1869. Even then, perishable cargo could be carried only a few miles before the ice melted.

The first successful long-distance reefer transport occurred in the early 1880s. The first grocery store, Piggly Wiggly, opened in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1916.

Happy Cowboy ChristmasConsequently, settlers on the American frontier and American Indians used every part of the animals and plants they grew or gathered in order to avoid starvation. Frontier and farming families stewed poultry necks, tails, and wings because the meat and bones offered precious protein. Slaves in the American south prepared animal innards like chitterlings (intestines) and vegetable leavings like potato skins in a variety of ways because their masters considered those things offal. Anyone who has visited a restaurant in the past twenty years recognizes chicken wings and potato skins as trendy appetizers. At “soul food” eateries, chitlins are standard fare. (Yes, I have eaten them. No, I won’t do so again.)

Because carbohydrates offer a quick source of energy, bread, too, was a precious commodity. Many frontier families baked with cornmeal or corn flour. The latter was obtained by repeatedly pouring cornmeal from burlap sack to burlap sack and shaking loose the fine powder left clinging to the bags. Bread made with wheat flour was a treat…even though merchants in frontier towns often “extended” wheat flour by adding plaster dust. Frontier families might make a multi-day journey into town for supplies once or twice a year.

savory bread pudding
savory bread pudding

Since the early 11th century, “po’ folks” have turned stale bread into bread pudding in order to use every last ounce of food they could scrounge. Originally, the concoction was a savory main dish containing bread, water, and suet. Scraps of meat and vegetables might be added if the cook had those on hand.

What we think of as bread pudding today came into its own in New Orleans in the early 1800s. Creative cooks turned the dish into a dessert by combining stale bread with eggs, milk, spices, and a sweetener like molasses, honey, or sugar. Some also included bits of fruit, berries, and/or nuts.

My family and friends talk me into baking bread pudding each Christmas, and sometimes for other special occasions during the rest of the year. They don’t have to do much arm-twisting, because the rich dessert is easy to make, relatively inexpensive, and delicious.

bread pudding dessert
bread pudding dessert

One thing to know about bread pudding: Making it “wrong” is darn nigh impossible. Any kind of bread can be used, including sweet breads like donuts and croissants. Likewise, spices are left to the cook’s imagination, fruits and nuts are optional, and sauces are a matter of “pour something over the top.”

Through years of trial and error, I’ve created a recipe that works for me. Have fun experimenting with the basics (bread, milk, butter, and eggs) until you come up with one that works for you. I prefer mine fairly plain, but you may want to add or top with raisins (a New Orleans classic), chocolate, bananas, cranberries, blueberries, raspberries, rum sauce, caramel sauce, powdered-sugar drizzle, or almost anything else you can imagine.

Bread Pudding with Bourbon Sauce
(can be doubled for a crowd)

(makes 10-12 servings)

3 large eggs
1½ cups heavy (whipping) cream
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
Pinch nutmeg
¼ cup bourbon
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
3 cups milk
1 16oz. loaf stale French bread, cut or torn into 1-inch cubes

Heat oven to 325.

Stir together eggs, cream, granulated and brown sugars, bourbon, cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla in a large bowl.

Place bread cubes into a lightly buttered 13×9-inch pan.

Heat milk and butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring constantly until butter is melted. Do not boil.

Stir ¼ cup of hot milk mixture into egg mixture. When well-combined, slowly add remaining milk mixture, stirring constantly.

Pour egg mixture evenly over bread. For a fluffier pudding, lightly press bread into egg mixture so all bread cubes are coated with the liquid. For a dense pudding, allow the pan to sit for 20 mins. before baking.

Bake for 45-55 mins., until top is browned and no liquid is visible around the edges. (The center will look soft. Don’t bother with the toothpick test—it won’t tell you anything.)

Allow pudding to stand for 20-30 mins. Top with bourbon sauce and serve.

Bourbon Sauce
(This will knock folks across the room, so be careful how much you pour on each pudding serving. 2 tsp. vanilla or other extract may be substituted for bourbon, if desired.)

1 cup heavy cream
½ Tbsp. corn starch
1 Tbsp. water
3 Tbsp. sugar
¼ cup bourbon

In small saucepan over medium heat, bring cream to a boil.

Whisk together corn starch and water, then add the mixture to the cream, whisking constantly.

Bring the mixture to a boil.

Whisk and simmer until thickened, taking care not to scorch the cream on the bottom.

Stir in sugar and bourbon. Taste. Add more sugar and/or bourbon to taste.

Ladle sauce over each serving of warm-from-the-oven or room-temperature pudding.

Serve and enjoy!


PRPA MAIL ORDER CHRISTMAS BRIDE WEB.JPG FINALBread pudding wouldn’t be on the menu in the dingy cafe on the wrong side of Fort Worth where the heroine in my latest story works. The job is a big step down from her previous life as a pampered socialite. “A Long Way from St. Louis” appears with stories from seven other authors—including filly sisters Cheryl Pierson and Tanya Hanson—in Prairie Rose Publications’ new holiday anthology, A Mail-Order Christmas Bride.

A Long Way from St. Louis
Cast out by St. Louis society after her husband leaves her for another, Elizabeth Adair goes west to marry a wealthy Texas rancher. Burning with anger when she discovers the deceit of a groom who is neither wealthy nor Texan, she refuses to wed and ends up on the backstreets of Fort Worth.

Ten years after Elizabeth’s father ran him out of St. Louis, Brendan Sheppard’s memory still sizzles with the rich man’s contempt. Riffraff. Alley trash. Son of an Irish drunkard. Yet, desire for a beautiful, unattainable girl continues to blaze in his heart.

When the debutante and the back-alley brawler collide a long way from St. Louis, they’ll either douse an old flame…or forge a new love.

Here’s an excerpt:

If the lazy beast lounging on a bench beside the depot’s doors were any indication, the west was neither wooly nor wild. As a porter took her hand to assist her from the railway car, Elizabeth Adair stared. The cowboy’s worn boots crossed at the ends of denim-clad legs slung way out in front of him. Chin resting on his chest, hat covering his face, the man presented the perfect picture of indolence.

Surely her husband-to-be employed a more industrious type of Texan.

Her gaze fixed on the cowboy’s peculiar hat. A broad brim surrounded a crown with a dent carved down the center. Sweat stains decorated the buff-colored felt. Splotches of drying mud decorated the rest of him.

Lazy and slovenly.

Pellets of ice sprinkled from the gray sky, melting the instant they touched her traveling cloak. Already she shivered. Another few minutes in this horrid weather, and the garment would be soaked through.

The porter raised his voice over the din of the bustling crowd. “Miss, let’s get you inside before you take a chill. I’ll bring your trunks right away.”

Taking her by the elbow, he hastened toward doors fitted with dozens of glass panes. Ragtag children darted among the passengers hurrying for shelter. Without overcoats, the urchins must be freezing.

She glanced around the platform. Where was her groom? She had assumed a wealthy rancher would meet his fiancée upon her arrival. Perhaps he waited within the depot’s presumed warmth. Her hope for a smattering of sophistication dwindled, but a woman in her circumstances could ill afford to be picky.

A group of ragamuffins gathered around the cowboy. As the porter hustled her past, the Texan reached into his sheepskin jacket and withdrew a handful of peppermint sticks. A whiff of the candy’s scent evoked the memory of a young man she once knew—a ne’er-do-well removed from St. Louis at her father’s insistence, and none too soon.

After depositing her beside a potbellied stove, the porter disappeared into the multitude. The tang of wood smoke drifted around her, so much more pleasant than the oily stench of coal. Peering through the throng, she slipped her hands from her muff and allowed the hand-warmer to settle against her waist on its long chain. She’d best reserve the accessory for special occasions. Judging by the people milling about the room, she doubted she’d find Persian lamb in Fort Worth unless she stooped to ordering from a mail-order catalog.

Mail-order. At least the marriage contract removed her from the whispered speculation, the piteous glances.

The shame heaped upon her by the parents she’d tried so hard to please.

Elizabeth put her back to the frigid gusts that swept in every time the doors opened, extending gloved palms toward the warmth cast by the stove.

Heavy steps tromped up behind her. Peppermint tickled her nose.


A gasp leapt down her throat, colliding with her heart’s upward surge. Her palm flew to the base of her collar. Bets? Deep and smooth, the voice triggered a ten-year-old memory: If ye were aulder, little girl, I’d teach ye more than how to kiss.

She whirled to find the lazy cowboy, his stained hat dangling from one hand. Her gaze rose to a face weathered by the elements, but the blue eyes, the crooked nose…

Brendan Sheppard.

What’s your favorite holiday dessert? I’ll give an ebook copy of A Mail-Order Christmas Bride to one of today’s commenters who answers that question. (All Petticoats and Pistols sweepstakes rules apply to this giveaway.)

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36 thoughts on “Bread Pudding: From Frugal to Fancy (and a recipe)”

  1. I think now that I have this recipe bread pudding will be my favorite holiday dessert. It is interesting how it has evolved.

    We usually enjoy all the basic cakes and cookies of the holiday but when ambitious make the apple slices, eclairs and bon bons my mother used to make.

    Enjoyed the excerpt. Thanks for the giveaway.

    • Sally, it sounds like y’all must have some wonderful desserts around your place during the holidays! If you try the bread pudding, please let me know what you think. 🙂

      Merry Christmas to you and yours!

  2. My very favorite Christmas treat was Divinity. I say was because I have never been able to duplicate it no matter how hard I tried. My mother always made it and she passed away many years ago. I’ll probably keep trying. Perhaps one day it will turn out.

    • Connie, my mother made divine divinity, too. She and my dad worked together to make that and fruitcake every year, and they acted like kids about it. The whole kitchen got messy, but Momma and Daddy sure had fun. I miss them both, and I’ve never been able to duplicate the divinity, either. If you figure out the trick, please let me know!

      Merry Christmas!

  3. I love most all Christmas goodies, however, I always loved my Mom’s Mince Meat Pie because she added lots of apples to the mince meat. Yummy! We also use to make Gum Drop Fruitcakes which were extremely good. Instead of the usual citron you use gumdrops that you cut up a month or so before Christmas, douse them with some flour and cover the bowl with a towel, turning the gumdrops every few days. The idea is to get the gumdrops stale so when they are baked in the cakes they don’t melt but soften up nicely. My mom is 87 now so we don’t make these any more as we are diabetic and can’t eat them. I thought about making them to just give away, but they are so good we would be tempted.

    Have a blessed day!

    Smiles & Blessings,
    Cindy W.

    countrybear52 AT yahoo DOT com

    • Cindy, my mother loved mincemeat pie. For the longest time none of the rest of us would touch it, because we thought there actually was meat in it. I think my mother must’ve put that idea in our heads so she could have the whole mincemeat pie to herself. 😉

      I’ll bet fruitcake would be good using gumdrops the way you suggested! I love fruitcake. Nowadays, my sister makes a couple using my mother’s recipe. Then she sends a half-cake to me and each of my two brothers and keeps a half for herself. Since the cakes must be made around Thanksgiving so they can age for a month before Christmas, I’m glad my sister took on the task. I’d forget! 😀

      Merry Christmas to you and yours!

  4. My family asks for my three layer pineapple/ orange cake. It’s delicious. I’ve never made bread pudding, but your recipe has inspired me to give it a try.
    Thanks for sharing it!

    • Ooh, Janie, that pineapple/orange cake sounds good! I don’t suppose you’d share the recipe? 🙂

      If you try the bread pudding recipe, please let me know what you think!

      Merry Christmas to you and your family!

  5. I loved the peek into the history of transporting perishable items, Kathleen. Very interesting. And how true about frontier families using every possible food resource out of necessity. My mother-in-law still talks about her granny always having a soup pot going. Anything not eaten got thrown into the pot to be consumed another day. Nothing was wasted.

    • My grandmother (born in 1919) used to talk about how extended families back in the Kentucky hills would get together and toss whatever “leftovers” any of them had into a big pot and make a mess of stew or soup. (As it turns out, folks in the hills really did eat possum. Who knew?) I hate going to the grocery store worse than almost anything else, but I think I prefer that to chasing down critters, dressing them, and then figuring out some way to use every bit of the remains. It’s hard to be picky when you live on the edge of starvation, though.

      I hope you and your family have a merry, blessed Christmas. 🙂

  6. My favorite is crunchy gingerbread men (homemade). For the last few years we have been lucky enough to have a shop that has soup and sweets. They make a chocolate bread pudding with salted caramel sauce. Since I have been mobility challenged for a while my husband brings a large one home for celebrations. It has become a family favorite.

    • That chocolate bread pudding sounds delicious, Whitney! I may have to expand my bread pudding repertoire. 🙂 I have to be careful to make salted caramel sauce only when I’m taking it somewhere, though. That stuff is so good I’d eat the whole mess with a spoon if left to my own devices. 😀

      Y’all have a merry Christmas and eat extra chocolate bread pudding!

  7. Kathleen, your subject is near and dear to my heart! Oh man, I love bread pudding! Your recipe sounds delicious–especially the you-know-what. Some folks tend to drink it all though before MAKING the dessert. Always turns out larruping no matter what.

    I LOVE that cute Christmas image at the top. The hat and boots lend the perfect touch. And the history is fascinating. Thanks for sharing!

    • Linda, I knew we were kindred spirits! Bread pudding is on my must-have list during the holidays. A group of us is plotting a big feast for Christmas Eve, and guess what I’m contributing? 😉

      (I love the word “larruping.” You don’t see or hear it much anymore. I need to remember to use it in a story sometime.)

      I’m glad you like that image. I saw it while I was pouring through a stock images site in search of a graphic for something else, and I knew I HAD to use it on P&P.

      Merriest of Christmas wishes to you, dear friend — and big Texas HUGS!

  8. My grandfather used to always enjoy bread pudding… I never tried it… my all time fav holiday treat is my grandmother’s pumpkin pie! Even though she has been gone for a while, we are lucky enough to have her recipe and the wonderful memories it brings! 🙂 Happy Holidays!

  9. My grandmother use to make a norweigen cookie looks like an ice cream cone but a little sweeter. Merry christmas.

  10. Loved the excerpt of your story, Kathleen. I can see fireworks ahead for those two!

    I didn’t used to like bread pudding until my daughter made it. Now I’m hooked. I’ll have to send her yours and see how the two compare.

    • Please do, and let me know! I love to see — or, rather, taste — how others make bread pudding. No two recipes are the same, and I’ve tasted some really spectacular versions. I’m not too wild about bread pudding in restaurants, though. It just can’t compare to the homemade kind. Restaurant bread pudding always reminds me of a mushy brick. 😀

      I hope your Christmas is merry, bright, and blessed. HUGS!

  11. Bread pudding! I used to make it all the time–caramel sauce or rum sauce. No raisins for me. As for my favorite Christmas dessert… ALL of them! Except mincemeat pie–you can have that. Mr R loves it, though. I can’t seem to resist decorated cookies, no matter what kind they are, and I love peanut butter fudge. Oh wait, how about pralines and chocolate sauce? Okay, I’m officially mad at you now. Crazy Texan.

  12. My favorite is mincemeat pie. I add diced apples, walnuts, and brandy to the mix. I am looking forward to making one next week.

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