Contemporary versions of this humble dish vary in texture, from mushy, sweetened porridge to chewy, desiccated cousins of overcooked holiday stuffing.
We wanted a dessert cart–worthy dish as refined as any French soufflé: a moist, creamy (but not eggy) interior and a crisp top crust.
The first step was choosing the best bread for the job. We rounded up a sizable lineup, cut each variety into cubes, combined them with a batch of basic custard, and let the cubes soak for half an hour. Once the cubes were saturated, we transferred them to baking dishes and slid them into low-temperature ovens. (From experience, we knew relatively low temperatures help prevent curdling: When heated, the casein in dairy products coagulates and forms clumps if the temperature surpasses 180 degrees.)
As expected, the results were as varied as the breads themselves, but there was one pudding we all fought over-the one made with challah. We just needed to figure out a way to stale the bread so it would soak up more of the custard. Carefully toasting the bread in the oven until lightly browned did the job.
Next, we focused on the custard. Because the challah was now soaking it up so thoroughly, the dessert was emerging from the oven a little dry and bready. To fix this, we increased the amount of milk and cream, equal amounts of which made the pudding creamy and smooth. But the milk was preventing the custard from setting properly. Adding another egg or two would help, but tasters were already complaining that the pudding tasted somewhat eggy. Turns out that eggy flavor comes from the sulfur compounds in egg whites. So, what if we got rid of the whites and just used yolks? Problem solved. We now had a luscious, silky custard with no trace of egginess.
We knew we wanted to create a crackly crust as a foil to the custardy interior. There had been a few toasted bread cubes that hadn’t fit into the pudding pan, so we dotted the top of the pudding with them before baking it. After brushing the surface with melted butter and sprinkling the dish with a flavorful mixture of white and brown sugar, we transferred it to the oven. The crunchy, buttery, sugary crust was the perfect partner to the satiny-smooth custard that lay below. For an unnecessary but luxurious addition, we whipped up a brown sugar–bourbon sauce to drizzle over each serving.