Friday, November 12, 2010

Winter Instincts

I remember my school teachers going to great pains to force home the point that human beings, unlike animals, have no instincts. None whatsoever. Everything we do is learned behavior. Hmmm. Why, then, if she is not drawn by some innate drive to put on a layer of warm fat for the winter, would a cook take something relatively low in calories and high in vitamins and fiber, like, say, butternut squash, and mix it together with bread, eggs, half and half, cheese and bacon? Does she not need these additions to get her through the coming dark days?

I suppose if that cook (she shall remain nameless, but she wears an apron that’s usually pretty messy) is making a savory bread pudding to serve for supper as the days get shorter and colder and the winter squash from the CSA threatens to surpass its built-in freshness date, she could be acting within the realm of learned behavior after all. That’s not to say that this recipe is difficult or overly complicated, requiring much learning to master. If you have squash or pumpkin puree on hand, either store bought or homemade, there’s not much more to this than there is to making French toast.

I, I mean this cook, made a custard with eggs, butternut squash puree, and half and half (milk would work, too, and would have fewer calories, but it was the day before shopping day and the milk was almost gone), flavored it with Dijon mustard and a little nutmeg, and soaked homemade whole wheat bread in it. She then stirred in crisp bacon, onions that had been caramelized in the rendered bacon fat, and some nutty Gruyere cheese, and baked it all into a rich, savory and flavorful bread pudding.

It’s best to use a loaf or remnant of a loaf of bread that you can cut into thick slices and then into chunks. I’ve made this with both whole wheat and white bread, and both work well. It is also better to use day-old or older bread, since it is dry and can keep its shape and soak up the custard, plus the recipe uses up the bread that might otherwise just get stale. I did just make this with fresh bread, however, because that was all I had, and it was still very good.

And so, the cook, while adding calories to her diet for the winter, learned to make a pretty good savory bread pudding in the process. The sweetness of the caramelized onions compliments the sweetness of the squash, and the smoky bacon and tangy Dijon mustard provide a pleasant contrast that keeps the sweetness from getting cloying. This is a filling and comforting supper dish, and only needs a salad to go along side it, but it would probably be very good brunch fare as well. Perhaps the simple and wholesome squash doesn’t need bread and eggs and bacon and cheese to make it good. Well, if we’ve learned anything today, it’s that need is a relative term.

Savory Squash Bread Pudding with Bacon and Onions

4 slices thick-cut bacon
2 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced
water for cooking the onions, if needed
2 large garlic cloves, minced
4 eggs
1 cup half and half or milk
1 cup pumpkin or winter squash puree, such as Roasted Winter Squash Puree
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
¾ teaspoon kosher (coarse) salt, divided
¼ teaspoon black pepper
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
4 ounces (about 1 cup) shredded Gruyere cheese
8 ounces whole wheat or white bread (preferably day-old) cut or torn into 1 to 2-inch chunks

1. In a large skillet, cook the bacon over medium heat until crisp. Remove the bacon and drain on paper towels. Chop or crumble when cool enough to handle. Remove all but about 2 tablespoons of the rendered bacon fat from the pan.

2. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Add the onions and ¼ teaspoon salt to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally 20-25 minutes or until very soft and brown. Add water, a tablespoon or two at a time, if the onions seem to be browning too quickly. Add the garlic and cook 2 minutes more. Remove from the heat.

3. Meanwhile preheat the oven to 350 F. Beat the eggs in a large bowl. Add the half and half or milk, squash puree, Dijon mustard, remaining ½ teaspoon salt, black pepper, and nutmeg. Whisk all together until well-combined. Add the bread and stir to coat the bread well. Let stand 10 minutes.

4. Stir the crumbled bacon, cooked onion mixture and the Gruyere cheese into the bread mixture until well-combined.

5. Spray or brush a 2-3-quart shallow baking dish or casserole with nonstick cooking spray, oil or butter. Spoon or pour the bread mixture into the dish and smooth it out so that it is even in the dish. Cover and bake 30 minutes at 350. Uncover and bake 10 minutes more. Cool slightly before serving.

Makes 6-8 servings. Refrigerate leftovers and reheat to serve.

Other recipes like this one: Sweet Pumpkin Focaccia, Winter Squash and Leek Empanadas with Sage, Winter Squash and Onion Curry with Yogurt Sauce

One year ago: Potato and Bacon Frittata

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