A bittersweet lesson
I began obsessing over the recipe from the moment I opened the magazine to this luscious, full-page photo of a chocolate-caramel bread pudding. This was the kind of recipe that required a special celebration, and as luck would have it, I had one coming up. In just six weeks, we would be hosting our neighbourhood New Year’s Eve walk-about, and if all went according to plan, Jordan and I would be doing the dessert finale.
And so for six weeks I kept that magazine displayed in my cookbook holder. It began to look dog-eared and food spattered, almost as if it had already been used. You would think that with all that time to prepare I would be, well, prepared?
Once Christmas dinner was nothing more than leftovers, I began to take a serious look at the ingredients list and noticed it called for challah. Challah (pronounced hallah unless you can do the proper back-of-the-throat spit on the “ch”) is the sweet, egg-rich, and usually braided bread traditionally eaten on the Jewish Sabbath. It has a golden colour, often a touch of saffron added, and the texture is dense and firm, making it a good substitute for softer breads in bread pudding. I myself was never a fan of the soggy-cereal consistency of most bread puddings.
I started to wonder where I was going to come up with challah on such—by now— short notice. I suddenly had a scathingly brilliant idea: I would bake my own. Or, more accurately, let my bread machine do the work. Opting to skip the braiding step, I let the bread machine do the whole job, producing a gorgeous smelling square loaf, one that would be easy to cut into cubes for the dessert.
Well, it was a good thing that I had decided to make the bread a week ahead and freeze it, because I forgot that I was going to have two starving sons around for Christmas. My loaf was just cooling, when I happened to notice one son about to shove the heel of my beautiful loaf into his mouth. After my initial freaking-out reaction, I decided to let him eat that loaf, and baked a second. This one made it to the freezer. All was well.
And then, I swear that my baking gremlin broke into our house and mucked with the ingredients list, because suddenly, on New Year’s Eve day, where it had once said “unsweetened” chocolate, “bittersweet” had appeared.
Bittersweet chocolate? Where was this magazine written, Australia? You know all the weird ingredients those Australian Women’s magazines are always calling for: caster sugar, self-rising flour, spatchcocks! But no, this was an American magazine.
I sent Jordan to the store, and he returned with a package of unsweetened chocolate. He seemed convinced they were the same and as I was in panic-mode, I pushed my doubt to the back of my brain and went with it. If I had only looked in my Joy of Cooking, I would have found that bittersweet chocolate, a designation more commonly found in British and European cookbooks, is less sweet than semi-sweet, but the two are interchangeable in recipes. Even if I had only stuck my finger in for a taste of the pudding, I would have realized that it was lacking something: sugar!
And perhaps red flags should have gone off when my “pudding” looked more like a paste. I was supposed to be tossing my lovely bread cubes in this rich sauce and letting them soak up the chocolate. As I mulled over the fact that it just didn’t seem right, I spied the container of milk. Milk! I had completely forgotten the milk. Yikes! I made a desperate decision to pour the milk in now, but it just lay in a puddle, a big, muddy puddle.
I could (and likely should) have eighty-sixed the whole thing but I can be a stubborn person, especially when caught in a particularly stupid act involving many expensive ingredients. It wasn’t helping that Jordan kept muttering something about it “being a good idea to read the recipe through before starting.” Wasn’t that what I had been doing for six weeks?
I perhaps thought that there would be some divine intervention to save the dessert, like when you believe you are going to fit into a parking spot that is obviously too small if you just think you can. The pudding was dry, chalky and bitter tasting. I’m not sure anyone noticed or even made any comments; it was quite late on New Year’s Eve afterall, but the next day I threw the remainder of this little experiment out.
If I have garnered any New Year’s resolution from this bittersweet lesson, it is that for evermore, I will read all recipes thoroughly through before pulling out the first mixing bowl. But we all know how long most people keep those promises.
Just in case you are tackling one of those Australian or British cookbooks, I do know that caster sugar is a superfine granulated sugar (not confectioners’) and you can substitute regular granulated that has been processed in a food processor. It gets its name from the sugar shaker, also called a caster. Self-rising flour has baking powder added, and if not available, although I know they sell it here in the village, you can make your own by adding 1 ¼ tsp baking powder and a pinch of salt to a cup of all-purpose flour. And a spatchcock is a very young chicken, between 300-600 grams. I usually substitute it with breasts. It also refers to a rather disgusting sounding method of preparing any young fowl or game bird by cutting it open along the spine, partially de-boning it and smashing it flat, sort of like road-kill. Bon appétit!