Autumn Knocks at the Door. Butternut & Blue Cheese Bread Pudding

Recipe, Restaurants, Travel

Without any warning the days are suddenly much shorter, women are wearing tights with their skirts again, pumpkins and gourds are appearing at the green grocer, and children are swarming on street corners in their school uniforms.  I adore this shift in seasons.  Even when I was young I felt that summer dragged on far too long and I eagerly anticipated school clothes, new notebooks and sharpened pencils, and reuniting with my friends.  The days are crisp and bright and there’s a certain getting-back-to-business feeling once I turn the page of my calendar to September.

Part of what this change in season brings for me is time up at the nut house shooting estate up North. Up there the leaves on the trees are already changing color, the fireplaces are lit for late afternoon tea, and when the wind blows there’s no mistaking it for summer anymore.  It’s a quandary because although it’s still officially summer and the produce is some of the best of the year, the weather lends itself to hardy late Autumn fare.  My second session up at the lodge is this week.  More bloody newly dead grouse, more butlers, more ghurkas, more 17 hour days.  While I might not be looking forward to it in some ways, I do eagerly anticipate trying out some new dishes on the guests, seeing what dishes come back to the kitchen devoured and which need more work.

Bucolic North Yorkshire.

The dish I was most eager to get in front of this hoity toity crowd was one I picked up in Baltimore, Maryland in July.  It’s sort of a funny story…  My baby sister and I were visiting my parents in DC.  Our entire Wednesday had just been spent in the chemo ward at John’s Hopkins with my mother and finally freed from the tubes that pump sludge into her body, we retrieved the car from the valet and drove through a spectacular thunderstorm during rush hour on I-95. (Writing about this now I see that it’s only with a couple of months between myself and the event that this is even remotely funny.) Anyway, finally back near my parents’ house, we stopped to buy groceries for dinner that night and my mom reached for her purse.  It wasn’t there.  My sister jumped on the phone to Hopkins and eventually managed to track it down – it had been left on the bench at the valet station.  Just grateful to have located it, we piled back into the car, picked up my dad at the train station, and drove back up I-95 to Baltimore, sans thunderstorm and in lighter traffic this time.

En route we decided that we had been handed lemons and might as well make lemonade.  Why not take this opportunity to explore Baltimore’s much-lauded food scene?  I began researching on my I-Pad and came up with several options that seemed like too much hard work for our depleted state.  No small plates or fussy ingredients – we’d been at a hospital all day for goodness sake!  Just a tasty, nourishing meal.  Add an element of surprise and that would be the cherry on top.

Kettle Hill, a new restaurant in downtown Baltimore was our final choice.  This meal was to be filled with giant swings from high to low.  As we approached I was highly sceptical.  From outside it was terribly anonymous looking, set among bars and chain restaurants.  However when we got inside my mood improved.  Although it was all very very new looking, thought had been put into the interior.  A large open kitchen lined one side of the room, and a long communal table running through the middle of the room.  It was very industrial looking and sadly, very empty.

The menu buoyed my spirits once more, but I wasn’t certain whether ordering items like the farmhouse pate would be wise because I still couldn’t get a solid feeling about if the kitchen was producing anything of quality (realizing how food snobby this all sounds, but bear with me, please).  Our waiter approached and did one of those, “I’ll squat down so that I’m on your level” kind of moves that really puts me off.  He then asked if we’d been to the restaurant before. We hadn’t. Great!  He said with the enthusiasm of someone on valium.  He then extolled the virtues of almost every item on the (large) menu in excruciating detail and ended his monologue with a short history of the design/food concept of the restaurant.  Never have I been so tempted to cut someone short.

My hopes for a good meal were crashed upon the rocks with this man’s monotone litany of suggestions, so I decided to play it safe.  I ordered pork shoulder served with braised kale and applesauce and an anduille sausage bread pudding.  Because we were feeling festive (and peckish) we ordered a cheddar and bacon fondue to start.  Now all we had to do was wait.

Kettle Hill’s gigantic burger,
stabbed through with a steak knife!

The fondue starter was nothing fancy but very well done.  They served the cheese sauce with slices of tart Granny Smith apple that had been properly doused in lemon juice which gave it an added oomph.  Also on the plate were lovely little crostini that had a light rubbing of herby olive oil and salt.  Fresh, light, yummy.   Waiter-man did a couple of unnecessary walk-bys. Everything was fine, we had to assure him repeatedly (except you, sir. Go away!).

When the main course arrived I immediately admired the presentation.  My pork shoulder was perfectly shredded and then had been tightly packed into a cube of meaty deliciousness.  The bread pudding was still in it’s ramekin but bursting with sausage and the kale, well it is kale. That I didn’t have much hope for, but that’s because I just don’t like the stuff usually.  It all tasted divine.  Seriously, really, really delicious.   The kale, in particular, was a revelation, properly braised and dotted with maple bacon lardons, applesauce spread in a thin layer under the kale so you picked up just a hint of it with each mouthful.  I was so surprised that I didn’t even think to take photos of my meal, but afterwards jotted down some notes and went to the kitchen’s pass to take a photo of what my next meal there might be….

Ok, I’ve been very long-winded about this whole scenario, but here we are at the punch line at last.  It was the bread pudding.  When I scooped out some of the lovely anduille sausage, eggy, bready goodness I was reminded of bread puddings I have known (Proust and your Madelines eat your heart out).  Everyone always assumes this should be a sweet dish, especially here in England.  But really, try incorporating vegetables, meats and cheese into your custardy mix.  Really, the limitations exist only in your imagination.  Here I’ve given you an autumnal offering and have gone to the trouble to give individual servings which requires some fiddly work with ramekins and parchment paper.  If you prefer, just butter a baking dish and put the entire mixture in it – just adjust your baking time accordingly.  It should be puffed up and golden and lovely.

Everything looks nicer on a silver platter.

Butternut Squash and Blue Cheese Bread Pudding

  • 4 cups (1/2-inch) fresh bread cubes (I use brioche if I can find it)
  • 1 pound peeled and seeded butternut squash cut into 1/2 inch cubes
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped shallot
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped sage
  • 2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 2 cups half-and-half
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese

 

 

  • You need: 8 (6-ounce) ramekins

 


Instructions:
Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle.
Bake bread cubes in 1 layer in a large shallow baking pan until golden-brown, about 10 minutes.
Place the shallots, squash and sage on a baking sheet. Season with salt and pepper and place in the oven for about 40 minutes, until the squash is soft.  Stir a couple of times to make sure the shallots and sage leaves don’t burn.  Once it comes out of the oven add the garlic and stir.  Leave to cool.
Whisk together half-and-half, eggs, cheese, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a large bowl. Stir in squash and bread cubes until coated well and let stand 10 minutes for bread to absorb some of egg mixture.
Meanwhile, butter ramekins, then put a round of parchment in bottom of each and butter parchment.
Spoon mixture into ramekins and bake on a baking sheet until firm to the touch, 30 to 35 minutes.Unmold puddings and discard parchment.

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