with Gruyère cheese

This is a "stuffed" savory bread pudding that's perfect for a Sunday brunch. Rather than just jumble everything together, you do it in three layers -- bottom layer of dried or stale French bread, a layer of the cooked spinach, tasso and cheese, then more bread on top. It's easy to prepare the day before, so all you have to do on Sunday morning is pop it in the oven.

I got the idea for this from a very simple recipe in Cook's Illustrated for something with the highly unappetizing name of "breakfast strata", realized that it was just a very simple savory bread pudding. I Creolized it and Chuckified it, and here it is. The first time I served this for a brunch everyone raved about it.

This recipe is enough to feed about 12 people. You could cut it into 16 small slices or 8 humongous slices, depending on how much you want to serve or how hungry everyone is. Use a 9x13" baking pan for this amount, but it's easily cut in half for smaller gatherings. Use an 8x8" pan if you're halving, and cut the cooking time by about 5-8 minutes.

Slice the bread into 1/2" slices and let dry out overnight. You may also dry them in a 200-225°F oven for about 30-40 minutes until they're completely dried; make sure you don't brown them.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large heavy skillet (don't use non-stick), then add the diced tasso. Brown the tasso for about 5 minutes until some of the fat has been rendered out and you've got some nice brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Put the tasso on a plate lined with a few paper towels and set aside. Add the wine to the pan, making sure to scrape up all the browned bits with a spatula, and reduce the wine by half. Pour out into a large bowl or 2-3 quart measuring cup and set aside.

Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter with the rest of the olive oil in the same skillet, then add the onions and garlic. Sauté the onions and garlic for about 3 minutes, until they're translucent and smelling really fragrant. Add the spinach water and let it reduce almost entirely, then add the chopped spinach and thoroughly combine with the onions and garlic. Continue to cook for 3 minutes or so, making sure that there's hardly any moisture left. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.

Whisk the eggs together in a large bowl until thoroughly combined, then add the half-and-half. Add the molasses, Worcestershire, hot sauce, the reduced wine, about 2 teaspoons of salt, plenty of fresh ground black pepper and Creole seasoning to taste.

Butter the bottom and sides of the baking dish with the remaining tablespoon of butter (use more if you need it), then make one layer of dried bread slices on the bottom. Use little broken-off pieces if you need to fill any little spaces. Sprinkle about 1/3 of the cheese over the bread, then cover the bread layer evenly with the sautéed spinach mixture, then sprinkle evenly with another 1/3 of the grated cheese, then spread the diced tasso evenly over that and finish off with the rest of the cheese. Season with more Creole seasoning and pepper, then place a second layer of bread over that middle layer, filling the holes with broken pieces as needed.

Give the custard a final mix with the whisk and pour evenly over the entire surface of the bread, making sure you wet everything. Season the top with more black pepper and Creole seasoning and a sprinkling of salt, then wrap the pudding thoroughly in plastic wrap and weight the top down. You can use a couple of boxes of brown sugar or something like that, but I found that a telephone book worked perfectly. This helps compress the layers of the pudding so that the custard will soak all the way through and so that it'll cook more evenly. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.

When you're ready to get going, take the pudding out of the fridge and let it come to room temperature for about a half an hour, then bake in a preheated oven at 325-350°F for about one hour, until the edges and center are puffed up. Let the pudding cool for about 5 minutes, then slice and serve.

For a brunch side dish I made a fruit salad with whatever looked good at the Farm Fresh Market, and made a dressing by reducing 1 quart of orange juice to about a cup, thickening it with about 2 teaspoons of cornstarch in water, adding the juice of two limes and a few tablespoons of Grand Marnier (strain the dressing before using). Toss and serve.

For a vegetable I blanched fresh green beans (about 3-4 ounces per person) in salted water, then shocked them in ice water to stop the cooking and set them aside. That morning as the pudding was baking I took the largest red onion I could find, quartered it and thinly sliced it, heated about 1/2 cup or so of extra-virgin olive oil in a heavy skillet and started slowly caramelizing it -- high heat for about 3 minutes, then as low as you can go for an hour. While that got started I peeled about a dozen cloves of garlic, sliced them as thin as I could get them, then threw those in. Then I finely julienned a couple of carrots, slicing super-thin slices with a vegetable peeler then cutting those slices as a julienne, then threw those in for the last 20 minutes or so of the caramelization. While the pudding was cooling I tossed the beans with the caramelized onion/garlic/carrot "dressing", sprinkled on some toasted pine nuts, seasoned with salt and pepper and stuck the bowl in the oven to warm slightly.

Hell of a brunch, if'n I do so say so myself.


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Chuck Taggart   email chuck (at) gumbopages (dot) com