Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Great Compromise

For nine months, I've met every challenge that the cooks of yore have thrown at me (or so I like to think). But there are times when this historical food blogger is stumped.

Take a gander at this recipe, published in The "Settlement" Cook Book (1903), by Mrs. Simon Kander:

Matzos Pudding
  • 3 matzos (soaked, pressed and stirred until smooth)
  • 10 eggs beaten separately
  • 2 large apples (peeled and grated)
  • 1 cup goose fat
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • Grated rind of a lemon
  • Sugar to sweeten
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
Stir one-half hour and lastly fold in the beaten whites. Grease form well, bake in a moderate oven one-half hour and serve with wine sauce, six eggs, one cup of weak wine, sugar to taste. Stir constantly until it thickens as it is apt to curdle.

I mean, what is this? It starts with a porridge of unleavened cracker crumbs ... morphs into imitation bread pudding ... and ends with an egg-and-wine sauce for good measure? Is it even a dessert? And what's with the goose fat?

Since starting this project, I've often studied this recipe, intrigued by the unusual use of traditional Passover crackers but baffled by the directions and uninspired by the ingredients. And after my disappointment with that utterly pointless Irish potato concoction, I'm wary of strange puddings.

The official title of The "Settlement" Cook Book was "The Way to a Man's Heart." Molly O'Neill writes that the title "was quite in earnest, since poor cooking was often a source of marital strife."

They say the key to a good marriage is compromise, so I decided to negotiate with Mrs. Kander. I'd take her suggestion for Matzos Pudding, but I'd be making a few changes.

To begin with, goose fat was out: a custard of milk, cream, and eggs suits the modern palate, and brings us back into comfortable bread pudding territory. To give the dish more substance, crushed matzos made room for leftover whole wheat bread. Lemon peel? That could stay. But I added some Eastern spices (vanilla, cardamom, and star anise), inspired by a recipe for Lemon-spice Bread Pudding with Sauteed Peaches by Tasha Garcia and Julie Taras.

And in the produce section of Whole Foods, gazing at perfect, speckled globes of Asian pears, I found more inspiration. Two apples in the pudding became four pears in the sauce. I chose a variety, all at the peak of ripeness: two Comice, one Bosc, one Asian. I riffed on the classic dish of pears poached in wine: pears stewed briefly in lemon juice, butter, and red wine. A perfect compromise between Garcia and Tara's sauteed peaches and Kander's very rich wine sauce.

For the pudding, I followed Garcia and Tara's recipe fairly closely, but substituted half-and-half for their combination of whole milk and cream because it meant one less purchase at the store. And I added matzos, of course, broken into pieces. I mixed most of the matzos into the bread-and-custard mixture 20 minutes before baking, so that the matzos would soak up some of the cream and flavor, but reserved a handful to sprinkle on top just before sticking it in the oven.

The result was heavenly and wholly original. Matzos added a welcome crunch to the mundane (but wonderful!) mushiness of bread pudding. Lemon and spices and pears and wine make for an all-encompassing experience, like a goose down comforter on a cold winter's day (you see? We got some goose in there after all). The recipe below was a group effort -- Garcia, Tara, and Kander all contributed their part -- and I'm immensely proud of it.

Matzo-Bread Pudding with Pears in Wine Sauce

The subtle flavors of whole seasonings -- a vanilla bean, a few cardamom pods, and a pair of star anise -- add a great deal to the dish, but if they are unavailable, you may substitute vanilla extract and ground cardamom and star anise.

For the pudding:
5 cups 1-inch bread cubes from day old bread with crusts
4 matzo crackers, broken up into small pieces
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise (or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract)
3 cups half-and-half
4 cardamom pods, crushed (or a pinch of ground cardamom)
2 whole star anise (or a pinch of ground anise)
1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon peel
3 large eggs
1 1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt

For the sauce:
4 large pears, preferably different varieties, cut into 1/2-inch thick slices
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup dry red wine
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter

  1. To make the pudding, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Toss the bread and melted butter on a large rimmed baking sheet. Place bread in oven and toast until golden, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes. Set aside.
  2. Meanwhile, scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into a medium saucepan; add bean. Add half and half, cardamom, star anise, and lemon peel to pan and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat, cover, and let steep for 30 minutes. Strain.
  3. Whisk eggs, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Gradually whisk half and half mixture into egg mixture. Add bread and toss gently to combine. Cover and let stand at room temperature, stirring occasionally, at least 1 hour and up to 2 hours. Twenty minutes before baking, add all but about 3 tablespoons of the matzo pieces to the bread mixture and stir gently to combine.
  4. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 11 x 7 x 2-inch glass baking dish. Transfer bread mixture to prepared dish and sprinkle with remaining matzo pieces. Bake until just set, about 55 minutes. Cool pudding at least 10 minutes.
  5. To make the sauce, combine the pears, lemon juice, sugar, and wine in a bowl and toss. Melt the butter in a heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the pears; cook until juices thicken slightly, stirring gently, about 4-5 minutes. Serve the pudding warm or at room temperature with the pears.


Dave, 'LunaPierCook' said...

Honestly Nora, you're really getting good at this. Maybe now is the time to go back and re-tackle the "Irish Potato Concoction" from this kind of perspective? In view of what you've done here, methinks your insight will be just a bit different now.

jj said...

GOOSE FAT? Oh yeah, that threw me when I read it, too! But what you've done with this looks great!

Nora Leah Sherman said...

Thanks, guys, I tried my best ... and JJ, as a health blogger, you may like to know that I tried making this pudding again with whole milk instead of half-and-half, a little Splenda (yes, really), and extra lemon instead of a bunch of butter and sugar. Worked so well! Not exactly healthy, but a LIGHTER bread pudding that works.

SometimesKate said...

I realize this is almost a year late, but the goose fat was a kosher thing, I believe. You can't mix meat and milk in the same meal, so the pudding was for meat meals, and the goose fat a substitute for butter. It was probably clarified before it was used.