Bread gets a bad rap in modern day culture, and rightly so. The plastic wrapped, pre-sliced loaves of bleached and processed bread that were introduced to grocery stores in the 1950s for the sake of housewifery convenience have bastardized one of our most glorious foods. In her book “The Art of Cooking”, famous food writer MFK Fisher disowned American bread as a travesty of a society given over to gimmick in the kitchen in lieu of the transcendental rites of baking from pure grain. Her memories of life in Switzerland and France are dotted with great crusty rolls of artisanal sourdough relegated to the halls of nostalgia in her late California existence where hideous products like Wonder Bread reigned.
Bread in my household is for the most part unseen. A few times a year we will venture to Diamond Bakery on La Brea in Los Angeles where an old Jewish lady has run the shabby counter baking fragrant oblongs of seedless rye for over 30 years. Or on visits to Continental Sausage in Glendale we may purchase a special loaf of hearty, German multigrain to swath with pebbled, dark mustard for our Weisswurst. But other than that we retain a sense of bread snobbery waiting patiently for those five star meals out when, while anticipating an amuse bouche at a fancy restaurant, we will devour masterful rolls of olive, pumpernickel, pretzel or fluffy white. The noted Italian restaurant Scarpetta in Beverly Hills, which sadly is closing its doors this month, had the best breadbasket with its hot pile of rustic Italian, focaccia, baby ciabattini and calzone-like Stromboli. But it is probably good that our bread forays are few and far between, or at least my thighs like to think so.
But last week I was yearning for bread after finding a decidedly upscale version of bread pudding in my daily food-related email newsletter stream. Bread pudding gets an even lower rap than loaves. Its conception came about in the 11th and 12th centuries when frugal cooks needed creative ways to stretch stale bread. In the 13th century, the dish became the ideal “poor man’s pudding,” popular with large, poor families. For years, as my boyfriend and I have watched the popular Food Network show “Chopped,” we have always snickered wickedly when the contestants during the dessert round “cheap out” by making bread pudding rather than some other illustrious cake or pastry. When I announced that I would be cooking a savory version for dinner on my one night a week to make a meal, I got a similar snicker from the Cute Gardener. Still I carried on and visited my local market for some voluptuous circles of French that I let go stale on my counter for the next 24 hours.
This was no poor man’s bread pudding. It required a chunk of good Parmesan, expensive rounds of pancetta, quality olive oil, baby spinach, six whole eggs, zesty red pepper flakes and a jar of roasted red peppers. Once the whole mix was combined and placed lovingly into a large cast iron skillet, I realized I had indeed made an entrée that could easily feed a whole family.
When the bread pudding emerged from the oven, the house was imbued with a smell I can only describe as comfort. There is something magical that happens when cheese and butter bubble alongside the edges of a puffed loaf, studded with crispy meat. I understood why the dish could fortify a family low in the pocketbook with not only a bevy of nutrients but also an ambiance of security and belly contentedness, even if only fleeting. We scooped large wedges of the creamy, milky pudding onto plates and headed to the couch with glasses of red wine.
While proceeding to eat we watched one part of the documentary “Cooked,” starring my favorite food writer Michael Pollan. It is a four part series on food through the lens of the four elements: fire, water, air and earth. We just so happened to choose “Air” which was all about the magic of real, home-cooked bread. It touted a return to the kitchen to reclaim our lost traditions, like the creation of real, vitamin-rich breads in order to reconnect with the idea that cooking, at its origin, is about nourishing our selves and our souls.