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Bread pudding gets savory for dinner

A savory bread pudding made with spinach, leeks,

A savory bread pudding made with spinach, leeks, and shiitake mushrooms can be served for brunch, as a side dish, or as a vegetarian main course. (April 5, 2012) Credit: Eve Bishop

Food historians have traced the origins of bread pudding to 13th century England, where impoverished but resourceful cooks began to bake stale, leftover bread with milk and a little sugar to make it palatable.

Over time and in more prosperous kitchens, butter, eggs, jam and dried fruit were added to bread pudding recipes to make them downright tasty. Slowly, bread pudding evolved from a humble dish of leftovers into a luxurious comfort food.

These days it is difficult to make a case for eating such a rich dessert on a regular basis. But what if I lost the sugar and added some vegetables? It turns out that savory bread puddings are just as rich and satisfying as sweet ones, and more practical for the everyday cook since they can be served for dinner.

There are a few tricks to making a satisfying bread pudding, sweet or savory. For a pudding with character, choose the right loaf. Commercial sandwich slices become mushy to the point of disintegration when soaked in custard. A sturdy bread, such as a quality baguette or a sourdough country round, will hold its shape even when saturated. Cut your baguette into slices, or your round into 1-inch cubes. Use day-old bread or dry out your bread slices or cubes on a baking sheet in the oven before putting together your pudding. Once you've poured the custard mixture over the bread, let the dish stand on the countertop for 10 minutes so the bread can absorb the liquid.

Bad news for dieters: The most successful bread puddings are not low in fat. Using low-fat milk or skimping on eggs may result in a curdled and watery custard rather than a smooth and creamy one. But if you have some self-control you can enjoy a small portion of savory bread pudding accompanied by a large portion of salad greens without much guilt.

It is easy to improvise variations of the following recipe using ingredients you have on hand. Some combinations to consider:

- Artichoke hearts, roasted garlic and Fontina

- Spinach, sauteed red onions, bacon and Cheddar

- Sauteed red bell peppers, Italian sausage (crumbled and cooked) and mozzarella

- Blanched asparagus (cut into 1-inch pieces), green peas, ham and fresh pecorino

- Corn kernels (fresh or frozen), slivered sun-dried tomatoes, basil and smoked mozzarella

- Leeks and Stilton

- Sauteed eggplant cubes, seeded and sliced plum tomatoes and Parmesan

SAVORY BREAD PUDDING WITH MUSHROOMS, SPINACH AND LEEKS

1 large (12-ounce) baguette

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

3 leeks, white and light green parts, washed and finely chopped

1 pound shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and sliced

Salt, divided

1 (10-ounce) package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry

4 large eggs

1 quart half-and-half

Ground black pepper

12 ounces shredded Gruyère cheese

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees and arrange a rack in the lower third of the oven. Slice baguette crosswise into 3/4-inch slices. Place on a baking sheet and toast until dry and just beginning to color around the edges, about 10 minutes. Set aside.

2. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Brush some butter on one side of each bread slice. Add leeks to skillet with remaining butter and cook until softened, 2 to 3 minutes. Add mushrooms and 1/2teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms release their liquid, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in spinach and set aside.

3. Whisk eggs, half-and-half, 1/2teaspoon salt and ground black pepper to taste together in a large bowl. Add bread slices and gently toss to coat. Layer bread slices in overlapping rows in a shallow, 3-quart baking dish. Pour remaining liquid over bread and let stand 10 minutes.

4. Tuck mushroom and spinach mixture in between bread slices. Sprinkle cheese over pudding. Bake until puffed, golden and set, 45 to 50 minutes. Let stand 20 minutes and serve warm. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

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