Ed Doherty's Feta Cheese Crisps
Amanda Hesser's Flat-and-Chewy Chocolate-Chip Cookies

Simone Beck's Bread Pudding with Prunes and Apricots


I am of the school that finds bread pudding to be one of the world's most perfect desserts (since you can also eat it for breakfast or as a midnight snack and don't we all know that that kind of versatility is what makes a dessert an Important Dessert?). Stale bread, light custard, a few flavorings: this is nursery food at its best. And this bread pudding might be one of the most delicious things I've ever eaten. It doesn't necessarily photograph well to show off its full splendor, but it is Out Of This World. I made it to follow our slightly ascetic meal of vegetable soup the other day, which was smart thinking, because I was able to eat an entire plate (dessert plate, but still) of the stuff, quite unencumbered and happily indeed.

If Simone Beck's name seems familiar to you, it's because it has for decades followed the more famous name on the spine of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Julia Child befriended Simone Beck along with Louisette Bertholle when she lived in Paris as a young woman. Together these ladies founded a cooking school and then went to be immortalized on kitchen shelves everywhere. Simone Beck wrote a book of her own in the early 80's, and it was from this book that Amy Scattergood pulled the bread pudding recipe published in an article on dried fruit in the LA Times in February.

There are a few amendments I have to make to that recipe, the most important being to cut the sugar in half because good God, I can't imagine the sweetness if I had used the entire cup. And I have a sweet tooth, people. So, I cut the sugar in half, totally forgot about the cinnamon and added an ounce of bittersweet chocolate that I'd chopped into a pile of shavings and rubble (because nothing - but nothing - makes prunes more delicious than a little bit of chocolate. Or?).

Thanks to Balducci's on 8th Avenue, I used dried Blenheim apricots instead of the regular Turkish ones, and I tell you, they may be the very things that transport you straight to heaven. Their cost is proportional to their incandescent taste, but it's money well-spent, especially since we good-fruit-starved East Coasters have to go to extreme measures to acquaint ourselves with the kind of produce those darn Californians can enjoy by just going down to the farmer's market. One last thing: if you make this, do yourself and your guests a favor and chop those pitted prunes up a bit. Left whole, they overwhelm each serving. The apricots do a better job of melding into the fabric of the pudding.

Served fresh and warm, the pudding was creamy, tender, resplendent with flavors and textures. Aromatic orange peel, rich chocolate tones, barely-there custard with supple bread suspended amongst the soft, zesty apricots and moist prunes. The few almonds on top added texture to the glorious spoonfood below. Eaten chilled the next day, the pudding had firmed up a bit, but the deliciousness was in no way diminished. The flavor almost reminded me of Panettone eaten on holidays, but it was even better that that - richer, fruitier, creamier. Perfection.

Bread Pudding with Prunes and Apricots
Serves 6

1/2 pound pitted prunes
4 ounces dried apricots
1 cup good red wine or strong tea (I used tea)
1 teaspoon cinnamon (I left this out)
4 ounces fresh white sandwich bread, crust removed, and broken into small pieces
2/3 cup milk
1 cup sugar (I used 1/2 cup)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
3 eggs, lightly beaten
3 tablespoons dark rum (optional - I used 1 1/2 tablespoons)
1/4 cup sliced almonds

1. To plump the prunes and apricots, place them in a medium saucepan with the wine or tea and cinnamon. Cover and simmer until the fruit is very tender and has absorbed most of the liquid, about 15 to 20 minutes.

2. Soak the bread briefly in the milk, then add it to the pan, off heat, along with the sugar, butter, orange zest, eggs and rum, if using. Stir gently to combine.

3. Turn the mixture into a well-buttered 1 1/2-quart Pyrex casserole or a medium-size oval gratin dish and bake in a 375-degree oven for 15 minutes.

4. Sprinkle on the sliced almonds and continue baking for another 15 minutes, or until the pudding is firm and the almonds are nicely browned. Allow to cool slightly before serving.