I am a HUGE fan of Lidia Matticchio Bastianich's programs on public television. Just the fact that they're on PBS rather than some other network is enough to make me watch. John says that Lidia reminds him of my mom in that they explain things in a similar way.
This special way of expressing herself is artfully echoed in Lidia's well-edited cookbooks, of which I own two. These aren't garden variety cookbooks. I enjoy reading them even when I don't plan to cook. It's evident that her editors took the time to keep her readily identifiable voice within the pages. And, for that I am very grateful. Even John, who doesn't normally read the books as I'm cooking, laughed along with some of the "Lidia-isms."
Earlier today, while John tied flies for his fishing excursion, I decided to play with Lidia's recipe for Bread and Berries Pudding from her book Lidia's Family Table. I adore bread pudding, so there was no question I would make this dish eventually. But instead of waiting for an occasion, I scooped up all the bread-on-its-way-to-the-croutons-pile bits available and made them ready for the recipe.
The first part of the recipe calls for cubes of bread to be tossed in maple syrup and toasted for 15 minutes in the oven at 400 degrees F. As is my way, I substituted agave nectar for the maple syrup, and lowered the oven by 25 degrees. I also didn't limit myself to hearty white bread, but also included some of my homemade wheat bread and some whole wheat pitas (I will not use those next time, although they added interesting texture. I can think of lots of her lasagne recipes where they would work much better.)
When those came out of the oven, I nearly ate a handful because they smelled great and tasted better. While they cooled, I noodled around with the rest of the recipe.
While this may seem like an OXO ad, it's not. It's just to show you how much liquid I ended up using -- less than the recipe due to the agave nectar. It's a rich recipe. When I say "rich," think eggs. Lots of eggs. Four eggs and four egg yolks. Not the kind stuff you'd give to your uncle with the heart condition. I kept all the eggs, but dispensed with the heavy cream and whole milk in favor of vanilla rice milk. (I do plan to use almond milk in a future recipe, but I bought the rice milk in bulk, so it needs to go first.) I also cut the amount of rice milk by 1/3 to account for the agave.
For the fruit, I used a small banana and two cups of fresh strawberries. If you live within 250 miles of the New Jersey area, please take advantage of the Jersey Fresh produce. It's in season now, and you will get good prices on them. Better yet, visit a local farm stand. You'll get even better prices and fresher produce.
I filled two of my favorite Polish pottery bakers with the toasted bread cubes and the fruit. Lidia advised buttering the bakers well, and I'm glad I did. When they came out of the oven later, the juices of the berries made for sticky edges.
Next, I topped the bakers with the liquid ingredients and made sure that all of the bread and fruit had been dunked at least once. Then, off to the oven to bake at 350 degrees F for 50 minutes.
At 30 minutes, I saw that the tops were browning too quickly, so I tented the bakers with foil and lowered the heat another 25 degrees. That worked like a charm.
After it cooled, I tasted the dish. It was delicious! Next time, though, I'm taking Lidia's advice and using just white bread. I know, it's indulgent, but I don't eat white bread often. I'm taking the big baker with me to Mom's on Monday so she and Dave can enjoy it (and so I don't eat the whole thing myself).