After a sleepy Saturday wandering from the Buttes-Chaumont to the Marais, all I wanted was to curl up in my favourite wine-cardigan with something restorative. Luckily Nigel Slater understands me. When I opened his Kitchen Diaries, not only did the Spiced Bread Pudding jump out at me, but the accompanied story almost exactly mirrored one of my own. His recipe is inspired by a visit to Kerala, where he was stuck in “a teetotal oasis” for which he was unprepared: “twenty years ago the lack of alcohol came as a jaw-dropping disappointment after our long, dusty and dangerous drive from hell.” But the pudding made up for it.
We were also in Kerala when we took a six hour bus journey up into the mountains to the tea plantations of Munnar. I had packed a book, but for the first half of the journey I just wanted to watch out of the window, chin pillowed in the crook of my arm. The windows didn’t have any glass, just metal shutters. The dusty air swept in, a salve from the heat. We crossed lagoons that stretched to the horizon, passed banana plantations and busy villages. School-children, whole busfuls, waved at us and shouted HELLO HOW ARE YOU? Each town had at least one temple, mosque and church or shrine with a glass alcove housing a life-size St George and the dragon. Sometimes a few in a row. Trucks thundered by with their colourful head-dresses, painted slogans and flowers. On the back, “Horn Please OK.” The two-lane road had an invisible third passage in the middle, constantly available for overtaking. The driver would beep and go and somehow the rest of the traffic would flow around us. Once the bus stopped and the passengers all filed out – us worried about our luggage – because apparently the bridge was too fragile. First the bus went across, empty, then we did.
Around halfway we stopped for a chai-break. Around four or five hours in, it got dark all of a sudden as the sun disappeared. Bella distracted me as you might a bored toddler, with iphone games of Clumsy Ninja and Trivial Pursuit. After six hours and a half hours, we scrambled off with our backpacks some way out of the town centre – where there was no-one to direct us to our hotel in the old British club, the only place with a last-minute vacancy. The Lonely Planet had promised us a quaint place perfect for gin and tonics. Sadly, due to licensing issues the three bars in the club could only serve lemonade. We came in just in time for dinner, just in time to read the Club Rules that forbade sandals and panic.
“You haven’t taken any chicken, please take! Come!” The manager barked. Two of us scurried back to the buffet obediently. He was an affable but abrupt character who might have been Basil Fawlty’s brother in another life. Hands in pockets, he gave us a tour of the club: lounge with leather armchairs and obligatory animal heads, library with table-tennis table. “You play? Yes? You will play now, for forty-five minutes.” It wasn’t a question. We could only acquiesce and laugh. It was an uncomfortably British time-warp. Even without our gin-and-tonics, we slept so well that night, totally exhausted.
The next day we visited the factories of the DARE initiative that teaches the differently-abled children of tea-planters: it included a textile workshop for dyes and prints, one for hand-made paper products, a jam factory, a bakery and a kitchen garden. The quality was absolutely incredible, especially the Aranya silks – all-natural, local dyes made of tea-waste, banana leaves, pomegranate skins, Indian madder. The workshops were surrounded by the hills planted with tea bushes, whose crazy mosaic pattern and bright green colour made it feel like we had wandered onto a Tim Burton set. Kerala is full of plantations, tea, coffee, cardamom, coconut palms. Pepper, vanilla. Bananas. Most of the delicious things in life in fact.
A long story to say: this pudding will remind you of exotic climes AND a really comfortable armchair. It works scaled down as solo supper or scaled up for an easy brunch. (Much simpler than pancakes or French toast if you have to feed a crowd – one dish you can prepare ahead.) I like using brioche for extra luxe, but bread and butter will work too. It isn’t too sweet nor too stodgy, more like a creme caramel than a slab of sponge pudding. It offers the intoxicating scent of cardamom and coconut, barely any resistance to the fork as the brioche soaks up the custard, just a few crisp, sugared points poking out. And the fried bananas, sticky and slightly caramelised around the edges, are delightful. It will cure a hangover, the ennui of a recently-returned traveller or the aches and pains of a long commute. Enjoy.
Nigel Slater’s Spiced Bread Pudding with fried bananas
Slightly adapted from Kitchen Diaries Vol II. If using brioche slices, omit the butter. Great for using up egg yolks if the whites are needed for meringues or macarons.
serves 4 for brunch or 6 for dessert
300g sliced bread or brioche (about 10 slices for me)
a little butter for spreading (not necessary for brioche)
6 green cardamom pods
1 vanilla bean (or 1 tsp vanilla extract)
1/8 tsp cinnamon
400ml coconut milk
2 whole eggs + 2 egg yolks
OR 7 egg yolks, about 140g
80g light brown sugar
a sprinkle of sugar for the topping
for the bananas:
zest of one orange
Preheat oven to 180C. Butter a baking dish (approx 22cm diameter, but more or less is fine). Lightly toast the bread or brioche until golden-brown. If using bread, spread with butter. Cut slices diagonally and arrange the triangles in the dish, points up, overlapping slightly.
Remove cardamom seeds from the pods and crush in a pestle and mortar or with the end of a rolling pin. Slice the vanilla bean in half and scrape out the seeds. Mix cardamom, vanilla seeds, cinnamon, both milks, eggs and sugar in a large bowl to combine.
(If you are preparing ahead – stop now. Clingfilm the bread, put the custard mixture in the fridge. Then all you have to do in the morning, or at the end of the main course is heat the oven, pour over the custard and bake.)
Pour custard over bread/brioche. Sprinkle a little more sugar over the points that stick out. Bake for 25 minutes or until the bread is nicely browned and the custard is set. Let it cool for 15 minutes or so before serving. (Equally nice reheated later or the next day.)
For the bananas: cut in half length-ways. Heat the butter in a large frying pan and cook the bananas on both sides until golden and soft. Sprinkle over the sugar and cook for a few more minutes until they start to caramelise around the edges. Stir in orange zest and serve immediately with the bread pudding.
(For a slightly lighter dessert, serve simply with oranges peeled and sliced into rounds.)