Don't turn up your nose at that ultimate comfort food, the humble bread pudding. Invented when bread was expensive and few could afford to waste a crumb, it remains as popular as ever. Described as the poor man's pudding, it has come a long way since the recipe called just for stale bread baked with whatever butter, fruit and spices were available.
Modern versions are much more adventurous. New ingredients, bound to raise a quizzical eye brow among those who treasure authenticity, include butterscotch, banana, peanut butter, jelly beans, chocolate chips and - for the more adult palate - Scotch whisky or rum sauce.
A close relation to the kugel beloved by Lithuanian and Polish Jews, bread pudding actually has its roots in the Middle East rather than in Europe.
The ancient Egyptians for instance had a recipe that included bread, milk, cream, raisins and almonds, while others in the region added sugar, honey, rosewater and caramel to the mix.
A more savoury version is believed to have been introduced by the Romans who used eggs as a binding agent and formed the pudding from stale bread, milk, meat and fat.
As has often happened, diaspora Jews have adopted the recipes of the host nation and with a simple twist or two which improved them no-end.
Hence the birth of the authentic Jewish bread pudding which is celebrated in cookbooks and by dessert fanciers the world over.
The key to this dish is the use of day- old eggy, sweet challah rather than any other type of bread.
Soft, luscious and studded with sultanas and other fruit, it can be served hot or cold.
To make a bread pudding like your bubbe did take two eggs, two cups of milk, a good sprinkling of cinnamon, two cups of cubed day-old challah (don't use fresh bread or your pudding will turn to a mushy mess) and a quarter cup of raisins.
Put the challah into a buttered pudding dish. Beat the eggs adding milk, sugar, cinnamon and the raisins. Pour this liquid over the bread and let it stand until it is well and truly soaked. Bake in a 190°C oven for up to 35 minutes or until firm and golden in colour.
Bread pudding, which in 18th century gained a reputation as a food particularly beneficial for the sick, lends itself to a number of different versions.Among the most exotic is the Capirotada, an age-old Jewish recipe that has been adopted by Mexicans who traditionally eat it during the Easter festival.
It is said to have been devised by Jews who sought refuge in Mexico from the Spanish Inquisition. Known as Crypto-Jews they secretly adhered to Judaism while publicly professing to be Christians.
Although it has changed through the centuries, the basic ingredients for Capirotada are bread or rolls cut into chunks and allowed to dry, brown sugar, raisins, chopped pecans unsalted peanuts and white cheese.
In The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York, Claudia Roden, the doyen of food writers, notes that kosher bread pudding (apam) has also appeared in India where cooks use coconut milk instead of cow's milk so that the pudding is parev.
Indian bread pudding
● Four cups of water
● 7 ounces of creamed coconut cut into pieces
● ½ cup of sugar
● A few drops of vanilla extract
● 6 eggs lightly beaten
● 3 tablespoons of split or slivered almonds
● 3 tablespoons black, seedless raisins
● 6 slices of bread with the all of the crusts removed.
● Pre-heat the oven to 190° C.
● Boil the water in a medium sized pot, add the creamed coconut and simmer until it dissolves.
● Add the sugar, stir and when it is dissolved add the vanilla. Let it cool a little and beat in the eggs.
● Stir in the almonds and raisins. Grease a wide baking dish with margarine.
● Put the bread in the dish and pour the coconut mixture on top, making sure that the almonds and raisins are spread evenly over the bread.
● Bake for 45 minutes until golden.
● Serve hot or cold.