Sometimes the simplest combinations are the best. Salty Cheddar cheese paired with sweet and sour Branston pickle, for example, or sweet ripe tomatoes combined with aromatic basil leaves. Both examples are far more than the sum of their parts. Bread and butter is another classic duo which are endlessly versatile; they work as an accompaniment with all sorts from scampi to jam.
I must admit that I was never drawn to the British classic, bread and butter pudding, when I was young. I always associated bread with savoury flavours and so, the idea of adding it to a sweet dish didn't compute. How wrong I was! It's such an easy dessert to make and is very forgiving if you feel the need to bend the recipe to your culinary whims. For my recent al-fresco-feeding-of-the-many-people moment at Cronkshaw Fold Farm, I added a luxurious sticky toffee element - as a nod to another British classic - but you could omit the deliciously sticky dates and caramel sauce for dried cranberries and white chocolate instead. Raisins and nuts would work well too. Or you could go for a virgin version and revel in simple stodgy comfort food. Either way, hot or cold, this ones a winner.
One of my lovely friends (I only have lovely friends, you understand) is gluten intolerant, just like my dear Mum, so my version was made - very successfully, I might add - with gluten-free bread. The custard binds everything together so that the bread, which without gluten is usually very dry and crumbly, was soft and moreish.
Sticky Toffee Bread and Butter Pudding
Serves four (multiply at will)
For the pudding
150g pitted dates
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
10 slices of bread (brown, white, granary – the choice is yours)
25g sugar (plus 1 tbsp to top the pudding)
1 tsp vanilla extract
For the sauce
- Preheat the oven to 180C.
- Put the dates and bicarbonate of soda in a small saucepan and top up with water until just covered. Place over a low heat and simmer until the dates have broken down, stirring occasionally. Once the process is complete, they will look alarmingly like tar but fear not, as they taste amazing. Remove from the pan and set aside.
- Meanwhile, whisk the eggs and sugar together until creamy. Set aside.
- Once the dates have completely collapsed and you've emptied the pan, pour the milk into the saucepan and place over a low heat to warm through. This has the double benefit of infusing the milk with the toffee notes of the dates while making the pan easier to clean (as well as reducing washing up!).
- While the milk is warming, butter the bread then smear with a little date mixture and cut diagonally into triangles.
- When the milk has come to temperature, whisk slowly into the eggs and sugar.
- Place a few slices of the buttered bread into a baking tin, slightly overlapping them as you go. If you have any of the date mixture leftover, add a smear or two of that. Repeat the layers until you've used up all of the bread.
- Slowly pour the egg mixture over the bread and leave it to soak for 30 minutes or so. You might want to press the bread down into the mixture so that it soaks up all of the custard-y goodness.
- Scatter with the reserved sugar and bake for 40 - 45 minutes until golden brown and crisp on top.
- While the pudding is in the oven, melt the sugar in a saucepan over a low heat. Stay on the ball here or you’ll end up with a burnt mess. The edges will start to melt first – as soon as the first centimetre or so starts to turn golden brown remove from the heat and whisk the butter into the mixture.
- Next pour in the cream and return to a low heat, whisking constantly to remove any lumps. Add a pinch of fleur de sel or sea salt if you’re feeling fancy and want to go for a de rigueur salted caramel sauce.