Try to choose a brioche loaf that remained plump and rectangular as it cooled; those with sunken sides will be more difficult (and wasteful) to trim.
If you prefer not to use the brandy and orange-flower water, increase the vanilla extract to 1/2 teaspoon and add a sprinkling of freshly grated nutmeg, if desired.
Servings: 6 - 8
- For the bread pudding
- Unsalted butter, for greasing the baking pan
- 1 loaf brioche, about 8 inches by 4 inches by 4 1/2 inches tall
- 2 large eggs plus 2 large egg yolks
- 1/3 cup sugar
- Pinch salt
- 1 cup half-and-half
- 2 tablespoons Armagnac (may substitute cognac or other good-quality brandy)
- 2 teaspoons orange flower water, or to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
- For the fruit
- 2 to 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice (to acidulate the cold water)
- 1/2 cup mixed dark raisins and currants (may substitute all of one kind or the other)
- 1 tablespoon candied orange peel (may substitute additional raisins)
- 1/4 cup Armagnac (may substitute cognac or other good-quality brandy)
- 3 to 5 medium apples, preferably locally grown and of different varieties
- 2 medium pears, preferably not too ripe
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup sugar
For the bread pudding: Position an oven rack in the middle of the oven; preheat to 325 degrees (300 degrees for a convection oven). Use the butter to lightly grease the bottom of a baking dish that is deep and slightly larger than the brioche loaf (an 8-by-6-inch Pyrex dish works well). Place the baking dish inside a larger roasting pan. Boil a kettle of water.
Use a long serrated knife to trim the crusts from the bottom, sides and ends of the brioche loaf, leaving the top crust intact. Try to keep everything at right angles, or at least fairly neat.
Gently whisk the eggs and egg yolks together with the sugar and salt in a deep, flat-bottomed pan; the goal is to dissolve the sugar, not to incorporate air into the mixture. Add the half-and-half, then the Armagnac, orange-flower water and vanilla extract, stirring to mix well, to form a custard. Dip the trimmed brioche into the custard, first on one side, then on the other, then on its bottom, leaving it to soak for a minute or two each time; you can also use a spoon to "baste" the loaf. Turn and soak until the loaf has absorbed all or most of the liquid and is squishy. Cradle the loaf with both hands to prevent it from breaking apart and transfer it to the prepared baking dish, with the unsoaked (top) side facing up.
Set the roasting pan on the middle oven rack and carefully pour the just-boiled water into the larger pan until it comes about halfway up the sides of the baking dish containing the pudding. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes (start checking at the 45-minute mark), until the sides, when depressed, are somewhat firm but still tender. The center of the bread pudding should register between 170 and 175 degrees on an instant-read thermometer.
Transfer just the pan with the bread pudding in it to the top of the stove (off the burners), tent loosely with aluminum foil and let it rest for 20 to 30 minutes; it should be served while still somewhat warm but not hot.
While the bread pudding is baking, make the fruit: Have ready a medium bowl of cold water and add the lemon juice. Place the raisins and/or currants and candied orange peel in a small bowl and sprinkle 1 tablespoon of the Armagnac over them.
Peel the apples and pears; as you go, drop them into the bowl of lemony water. Cut them into quarters and remove the cores with a sharp paring knife. Cut each apple quarter in half to form eighths.
Melt the butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Drain the apples and pears, add them to the skillet and toss or stir to coat evenly. Add the soaking raisins and/or currants and candied orange peel, and their brandy, to the skillet. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the apples and pears are hot and just starting to soften. Sprinkle with the sugar and cook for about 15 minutes, gently stirring them occasionally. The sugar will draw juice out of the fruit; this will then boil down to form a glaze. The apples and pears will be tender and the sugar will have begun to brown, coating the fruit. Reduce the heat to medium-low or low, then add the remaining 3 tablespoons Armagnac and stir gently; there is no need for the brandy to flame. Remove from the heat, place in a serving bowl and set aside at room temperature until ready to serve.
To serve at the table, extract the loaf-of-bread pudding from its pan and place on a nice board or platter and carve into slices 1 to 1 1/2 inches thick; or slice and plate in the kitchen. Serve with a generous portion of caramelized winter fruit on the side; the fruit can first be reheated for 40 to 60 seconds in the microwave, if desired.
From food writer Edward Schneider.
Tested by Bonnie S. Benwick.
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