A handful of years ago, one of you readers paid this column a great compliment by saying that the recipes here call for ingredients that “normal” people have in their kitchens. My kitchen is probably a “normal” Yankee kitchen with a few specialty ingredients thrown in so I can make the occasional Indian or Thai dish.
So when I read a recipe for Mushroom Bread Pudding from Ina Garten, the cookbook author and television cook known as the Barefoot Contessa, my substitutions popped up automatically for her various sophisticated ingredients: bacon for pancetta, cheddar for Gruyere, sturdy white bread for rustic loaf, bouillon for homemade chicken broth, plain old white mushrooms for cremini. I’m certain her recipe that inspired my version is perfectly wonderful, but the one that follows is really delicious, too.
Not everyone has leeks on hand, but I grow them each summer and so the very last of the crop, wrapped in newspaper and shelved in my cool, moist cellar needed to be eaten soon.
Not everyone will have dry sherry on hand, but ever since I learned how divine a pea soup was with a hefty shot of sherry in it, I keep it around. (Plus it is terrific late in the afternoon, straight out of the glass, next to a crackling fire with shortbread to nibble on and a good friend to share it with.)
The Garten recipe called for fresh parsley, but I didn’t have it, so I left it out, though you might have some in a pot on the window sill or fresh from the store. I used dried tarragon in place of the fresh. The problem with buying fresh herbs in those little plastic boxes is that I almost never use it all up before it gets all mushy and spoiled, so in summer I have fresh herbs out of the garden, and sometimes frozen until they are used up, then dried if I have them at all. No doubt one of you has a highly organized and foolproof method of using every sprig of fresh-bought herb but, alas, not me.
This pudding, a casserole really, is an ideal accompaniment to a dinner with chicken or turkey. If you leave out the bacon and use vegetable stock instead, you have a hearty and savory dish for a vegetarian at any meal. This works for brunch, too, with a green salad alongside. Double it easily for a crowd.
P.S. About those Walnut Crescents. Dick De Gaff of Camden had the moxie, bless him, to call me and say that the way he got the walnut crescents to pull together was to add 2 tablespoons of butter. Well, for sure that is one way. Dick, who likes to bake, was using an electric mixer and couldn’t get the crescents dough to make a ball. There is no doubt that they resist it, and when I made them, I thought they would never come together. I hand-mixed and used a flatish spoon and maybe even my fingers to pull the dough together. So if you are having a hard time with them, you can either hand-mix or add butter.
Mushroom and Leek Bread Pudding
2-3 slices bacon, cut into ½-inch pieces
2 cups sliced leeks, both white and tender green parts
12 ounces fresh mushrooms, chopped coarsely
1 teaspoon dried tarragon leaves, crushed
3 tablespoons dry sherry
Salt and pepper
2 large eggs
¾ cup cream
½ cup chicken stock or bouillon
1 ½ cups grated cheddar (about 3 ounces)
3 cups firm bread, diced and dried in the oven until crisp
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees and grease a 1 ½-quart casserole dish.
2. Put the bacon into a large saute pan and cook until it is nearly crisp. Add a little olive oil if it is lean.
3. Add the leeks and cook for about 5 minutes until they are soft, then add the mushrooms, tarragon, salt and pepper, and sherry, and cook until the mushrooms are cooked through and the liquid in the pan has reduced.
4. In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, cream, chicken stock and about half the grated cheese.
5. Add the bread, the mushroom and leek mixture, and stir to combine. Let stand for about 15 minutes so the bread can soak up the liquid. Then spread in a casserole or baking pan.
6. Top with the other half of the cheese.
7. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the top is golden, and the center is firm and slightly puffed.