Today I’d like to discuss a topic that can be controversial: wet bread. It doesn’t sound appetizing, does it? It sounds like an accident, like you were caught in a horrible rainstorm on the way home from the grocery store and your fresh bakery bread, which happened to be sitting at the top of the grocery bag, turned into a sponge. Just the words “wet bread” make me feel a little queasy.
It’s no wonder, then, that there are people who shun the entire category of things that might be called wet bread. My friend Andy is one of these people. Last time I checked, he ate his breakfast cereal without milk. That’s pretty extreme, but I get it. It’s fair to assume that he also avoids common wet bread experiences like dipping bread in soup and the general category of things known as bread puddings. Wet bread is everywhere, people, and one needs to be vigilant about these things. Sometimes it even shows up on your kitchen table.
Which brings me to my next scary topic of the day: black bananas. Yikes! Even scarier is the fact that they are nestled next to cubes of bread that soaked up a sweetened, almond-scented custard to make a banana bread pudding that was the tastiest thing to come out of my kitchen last week. Don’t be frightened, dear readers. This dish may sport black bananas and wet bread, but sometimes, ugly food is the most delicious.
I had no plans to make this dish. It just happened. Last Sunday, I came home from the coffeeshop in the mood for French toast. I found my bread knife and a stale loaf of ciabatta. I began slicing the bread into thick pieces, perfect for crispy-creamy hunks of French toast, and the bread shattered on me. As I sliced, the bread gave way into irregular chunks and shards, sending bread crumbs flying everywhere. I’ve never seen anything like it before. The bread was so dry that it literally fell apart on me, crumbling in fear before the sharp-edged teeth of the bread knife. French toast was, quite clearly, out of the question.
Well. Regular French toast was out of the question. But baked French toast is much less demanding of bread and of the cook. I don’t give up easily, but I wasn’t sure exactly how to rescue this situation, so I pulled out a known source of baked French toast advice, my copy of Sunlight Cafe, and turned straight to the chapter on “puddings & custards.” Note that I did not turn to the chapter on “griddle foods: pancakes, waffles, blintzes, crepes, & french toast.” Because what I call baked French toast, Mollie Katzen calls bread pudding. We’ll have to set up some sort of voting system to break this stalemate.
In her book, Mollie has no fewer than four bread puddings, but my kitchen was only prepared ingredient-wise to handle one of these options, and even then, I did a tiny bit of recipe alteration. [As an aside, I want to emphasize that I really am trying my best to follow recipes these days, mostly as an exercise to see what I can learn from other people’s instructions. But it’s hard! I want to play! I don’t want to follow rules! Wah! Can I have some cheese with my whine?] The banana bread pudding recipe calls for nothing too exotic—just the usual suspects that hang out in my kitchen. Bread. Bananas. Eggs. Milk. Brown sugar. And a few goodies from the spice rack, including almond extract, which turned out to be the key ingredient. The recipe doesn’t call for much, but it adds so much flavor. Do not leave out the almond extract.
So, once the question of what to make was settled, I measured and stirred and chopped and slid a glass pan full of unbaked French toast into the oven. Then I talked to my three-year-old niece, who sounds impossibly grown-up now and tells me that no, really, she cannot wait to see me. And I tried to explain again that we’ve only got to wait a few more months and then I’ll see her just in time for her birthday. I’m afraid it wasn’t good enough for her, and frankly, it didn’t feel good enough to me either. Long-distance aunthood is not easy.
Luckily, my baked banana French toast/banana bread pudding finished baking just in time for me to distract myself from my melancholy, and I sliced myself a nice big square. It was so good, with its sweet black banana pieces and almond-scented, custard-soaked bread cubes, that I almost had a second helping right there on the spot. It would have been so greedy of me, and so right. Instead, I had another piece as dessert after dinner and it was just as good as the first one.
Now it’s your turn. Don’t be afraid of the black bananas and wet bread. The bananas turn dark in the oven because their sugar begins to caramelize during the baking. They taste much better than they look, their banana-ness sweetened and intensified. But I can’t help you with the wet bread issue. You either like these sorts of things or you don’t. It’s that simple.
Banana Bread Pudding or Baked Banana French Toast
Adapted from Mollie Katzen’s Sunlight Cafe
This dish is best eaten within two days of making it. I found that it keeps well for the first few days, but by day 3 it isn’t nearly as good. (But that didn’t stop me from eating it…) Also, Mollie suggests serving this bread pudding with lime wedges for squeezing over it, saying that it adds “sparkle.” I didn’t have limes, so I tried a lemon wedge instead, which was okay. My favorite condiment for this is a big spoonful of plain yogurt. I like the tangy creaminess of it on top of the sweet bread and bananas.
2 cups of stale bread cubes, preferably from a loaf of ciabatta or something similar
1 1/2 medium-sized ripe bananas, peeled
2 large eggs
2 cups milk
1/8 tsp. salt
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
3/4 tsp. vanilla extract
1/8 tsp. almond extract
A pinch of nutmeg
Yogurt, for serving
1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (325 F if you are using a glass pan). Spray an 8x8-inch pan with cooking spray.
2) Spread the bread cubes in the prepared pan. Chop the bananas into bite-sized rounds and tuck them among the bread pieces.
3) In a mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, salt, sugar, extracts, and nutmeg. When the mixture is smooth, pour it over the bread and bananas, moving the bread around a bit as needed to let the custard soak into it. Let everything sit for about 5 minutes.
4) Bake for 35-40 minutes or until the custard is just about set. Remove from the oven and let it cool in its pan on a cooling rack for about 15 minutes. This step gives the custard time to finish setting.
5) Serve warm or at room temperature with a big spoonful of yogurt if you like. Or try Mollie’s suggestion for lime wedges and see what you think!