By guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes
NEW ORLEANS -- The anniversary of Hurricane Katrina has been all over the news of late, and the people of New Orleans are remembering - even more keenly than usual - that disaster and its aftermath.
The gulf city has always made the most of what was available, and has never held with waste. Chefs were swift to return to New Orleans after Katrina; they saw it as vital to put food - good local food - back on the table. After all, there are few finer communities than those that gather to share meals.
Thinking of bringing NoLa north, I turned to Lyle Allen, executive director of Chicago's Green City Market, to turn New Orleans recipes into feasts that celebrate both New Orleans' culture and Chicago's fabulous food supply.
The chefs of New Orleans aren't big on postponing pleasure. Nobody gives a more ebullient expression of that attitude than chef Kevin Belton of Li'l Dizzy's, 1500 Esplanade Ave. in New Orleans.
In that chef's world, food and life are made for enjoying. If there's an ingredient you don't like, substitute something else. Not too keen on spice? Tone it down. Don't like that sausage? Use another. Make the food the way you like it, and make enough to share, from starters to sweets.
Belton's bread pudding is a reason to save room for dessert. It's as far from the "slabs of stale bread soaked in custard" standard as a New Orleans summer is from a Chicago winter - although it's far easier to take than either extreme.
Instead of being cut into slices, the bread is crumbled. The small pieces meld and become carriers for whatever flavors you want to add.
Belton's a big believer in tradition and creativity. Before handing over the recipe, he draws a pencil line halfway down. From the line up (from bread through vanilla), the ingredients are mandatory. After that, it is cook's choice. Belton grins as he lists some of the things he's used in making bread pudding: chocolate, fruit, nuts, spices - and broken-up chunks of pie.
When in NoLa, follow Belton's lead and use Hubig's Pies. They come in twelve flavors; choose the one that fits your mood.
Bring it closer to home with a trip to the Green City Market to get a Hoosier Mama Pie. "Paula Haney [pictured] makes fabulous pies," Allen says. "She's renowned for her apple pie." That may be true, but Allen especially likes Haney's chess pie, an old-school vinegar pie. Enjoy the pie fresh, and crumble the leftovers (if there are any) into bread pudding.
As to the mandatory ingredients, Nordic Creamery just brought butter to the Market. Allen says it's worth a trip just to buy that butter, and their cheese is "just tremendous". It would be good on that apple pie - the part that doesn't make it into the pudding.
Buy the best and use it all. A true son of his city, Belton would approve.
Recipe after the jump.
MAKES 16 to 20 SERVINGS
1 (10-ounce) loaf of stale French bread, crumbled, or 6 to 8 cups of any type of bread
4 cups milk
2 cups sugar
8 tablespoons butter, melted
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup raisins
1 cup coconut
1 cup chopped pecans
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
Combine all ingredients. Mixture should be very moist but not soupy. Pour into buttered 9-by-12-inch baking dish or larger. Place into non-preheated oven. Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes, until top is golden brown. Serve warm with whiskey sauce (recipe follows).
Note: Everything after the vanilla is optional. Substitute anything that makes you happy: seasonal fruit, chunks of leftover pie or cake, chocolate chips or slabs, different spices - this is play time.
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
1½ cups powdered sugar
2 egg yolks
½ cup bourbon (to taste)
Cream butter and sugar over medium heat until all butter is absorbed. Remove from heat and blend in egg yolk. Pour in bourbon gradually to your own taste, stirring constantly. Sauce will thicken as it cools. Serve warm over warm bread pudding.
Note: For a variety of sauces, just substitute your favorite fruit juice or liqueur to complement your bread pudding.