When you grow up in a small rural town, you know what it is like to travel to a “big town” to do your shopping. I grew up outside of a town of about 1,000 people in rural Minnesota. Almost weekly, we traveled to a bigger town about 16 miles away to do most of our shopping.
About once a month or month and a half, we traveled to an even bigger town–maybe it was even considered a city–about 40 miles away to do more shopping. There were a few more choices in the bigger town; it had a Menards store (lumber, hardware, etc.) for one. The bigger town also had two restaurants that my parents liked–Bonanza and Old Country Buffet. Of course, we kids liked them too. What kid doesn’t like getting to pick what he or she wants or, more importantly, doesn’t want and how much? One thing I remember from Bonanza was that they had this enormous block of cheese on their salad bar, and each person could use this special cheese slicer that would kind of shave the cheese off in wide strips, as much as you wanted. I LOVED cheese, so this was heaven to me.
My favorite thing of all, though? The bread pudding.
I don’t remember for sure, but I think both restaurants had warm bread pudding with cinnamon, raisins, and a glaze as one of the dessert choices. I remember that it was warm, soft, sweet, and pure comfort food. Add a little soft-serve vanilla ice cream to it, and it was pure bliss. I did not care about any chocolate cake or chocolate pudding; I wanted the bread pudding.
When I began cooking and baking on my own, I discovered that bread pudding comes in many varieties, not just the kind I knew from my childhood. I was thrilled to learn this and have now made many different kinds and am excited when I come across a new one. Bread pudding is usually pretty inexpensive–you use old stale bread for the base after all–and it is usually easy.
This caramel apple bread pudding has been a big hit when I make it each fall. It tastes like fall–apples, caramel, and warm spices. French bread cubes get soaked in a custard of milk, egg yolks, cream, and fall spices overnight. Once it is baked, you drizzle the whole thing with homemade caramel sauce, and then you just swoon…
Caramel Apple Bread Pudding
- 5-6 cups stale French bread cubes (about 1/2 of a standard loaf, cut into small cubes)*
- 3 cups apples, peeled and chopped into small pieces (1 medium apple yields about 1 cup; I usually use 2 granny smith and 1 red apple–gala, fuji, braeburn, etc.)**
- 4 eggs
- 3 egg yolks
- 1 and 1/2 cups milk
- 1 and 1/2 cups heavy cream
- 3/4 cup brown sugar
- 1/4 cup white sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon almond extract
- 2 teaspoons pumpkin pie or apple pie spice
- 1 tablespoon butter, chopped
*For the bread, I just use a cheap $1 loaf from Wal-mart. If it is not stale already, just slice it and let it sit on the counter for a while. You can also speed up the process by slicing it and toasting it briefly in a low oven.
**For good flavor, I always use a mixture of baking apples. Granny smith is my must-have, and then I use whatever red apple I have on hand, except NO RED DELICIOUS.
For the homemade caramel sauce:
*You can use your own favorite recipe or substitute jarred caramel topping instead of making your own. The original recipe contains a link to a buttermilk syrup recipe that I have used a few times. I have had mixed results with it, though. It often turns out grainy for me. Caramel is tricky… A second too long, and it burns; a second not enough, and it is undercooked. I have had mostly good results with the following recipe, but you have to be attentive. Click on the link I provide at the end of this post for a tutorial on making caramel.
- 1 cup white sugar
- 1 tablespoon light corn syrup
- 1/4 cup water
- 1/2 cup heavy cream, heated until warm
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
- 1/2 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- For the bread pudding: In a large bowl, toss together the bread cubes and the apple pieces. Spray a 9 x 13 inch baking dish with cooking spray or rub with shortening. Toss the bread and apple mixture into the baking dish.
- In the same large bowl, whisk together the remaining ingredients, except the butter. When combined, continue to whisk while pouring over the bread and apple mixture to try to distribute the spices evenly.
- Gently combine the bread and egg mixture, making sure each piece of bread gets coated with the milk and egg mixture.
- Let stand for at least 15 minutes, but I always cover the pan and put it in the refrigerator overnight.
- While the bread is soaking, prepare the caramel sauce (recipe below) if using.
- For the caramel: In a heavy saucepan of at least 5 cup capacity, stir together the sugar, syrup, and water until the sugar is completely moistened. Turn the heat to low to medium. I usually start at about “3” on my stove and then move the dial up to “5” (the exact middle position on my stove). Occasionally, I have had to move the heat up slightly higher yet to get the sugar to brown.
- Heat, stirring constantly, until the sugar dissolves and the syrup is bubbling. Stop stirring completely and allow it to boil undisturbed; if you see dark spots forming and possibly over-cooking, you can swirl the pan gently. Let the mixture boil until it turns a deep amber. (On my stove, this usually takes 10 minutes or more. If nothing is happening after ten minutes, you may need to turn your heat up slightly. Some people use a candy thermometer and look for the temperature to be around 340 degrees. Thermometers are not always reliable; it is better to use your senses of smell and sight.) Immediately remove it from the heat and slowly and carefully pour the warmed cream into the caramel. It will bubble up furiously.
- Use a heat resistant spatula or wooden spoon to stir the mixture until smooth, scraping up the thicker part that settles on the bottom. If any lumps develop, return the pan to the heat and stir until they dissolve. Stir in the butter and salt. The mixture will be streaky but become uniform after cooling slightly and stirring. (The salt is tricky and will have a tendency to clump up if it is not fine enough. The nice thing is that, if this happens, you can pick the clumps out and still have good caramel sauce.)
- Allow the sauce to cool for three minutes and then gently stir in the vanilla. The caramel can be kept at room temperature for up to 3 days or refrigerated for about 3 weeks. Reheat carefully in the microwave.
- Baking the bread pudding: When you are ready to bake the bread pudding, take it out of the refrigerator to take the chill off. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and distribute the chopped tablespoon of butter over the top of the pudding.
- Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for 40-50 minutes or until the center is set but not dry or burned. Remove from oven and allow to stand for five minutes. Cut into pieces and serve with warm caramel sauce drizzled over the top. (When I am serving the whole pan for a potluck or other event, I just drizzle the caramel over the whole pan.)
- Bread pudding will keep in the refrigerator for several days. You can serve it chilled or warmed up.