The proof of this pudding was in the devouring
Its very name suggests quality. "Mise en Place" is a local delicatessen-cum-special-occasion caterer. If the scrumptious leftovers this shop offers for sale are anything to go by, the parties they grace with their cuisine are favored indeed. Of course you re-mortgage your home for the privilege of an occasional toothsome sampling, but it's worth every penny.
Not long ago, Mise en Place opened an adjacent cafeteria. About twice a year, David and I meet there for a modest lunch and indulge in wild chat and flagrant gourmandizing. Then we start saving for the next visit. On the last such occasion, not wanting to end on a merely savory note, I asked what desserts were on the menu. Various degrees of death-by-chocolate and suchlike were suggested - and, oh, the young waiter added, "there is bread-and-butter pudding."
"Bread-and-butter pudding?" I asked, somewhat aghast. "Like the stuff we had at school?"
The young waiter raised an eyebrow with pretended affront. "I can assure you," he said, or so I remember it, "it bears no relation at all to the bread-and-butter pudding you had at school."
He couldn't possibly know, of course. School food was ... well, it was ... how can I put it? Politely? Perhaps I should say that I am not nostalgic about it. But on the other hand, since I have no idea how to cater for eight people around our own table, I must admit that anyone who caters for more than 60 schoolboys, breakfast, lunch, and evening meal, deserves credit for performing a task of extraordinary heroism. To ask that they should also produce good food may be to demand too much.
At this point I should warn those of a squeamish nature to skip the paragraph after this one. I am about to describe some of the school food I experienced. Others of my generation and later ones have confirmed my findings in their own schooldays. It would seem that school cooks then (today's are much improved I am sure) all studied the same dismal, how-to-murder-good-ingredients-when-feeding-the-young cookbook.
They knew uncannily how to reduce perfectly good cabbages to a strange mush of faint but malevolent flavor, and not at all faint odor; how to eke out cheap beef (warmed up with a dousing of hot brown gravy) into such thin, tough slices that wrapping-paper manufacturers sought out their secret; how to mash boiled potatoes so that they would retain a requisite number of unredeemed lumps per square inch; how to contrive a leathery skin on yellow custard; and how to boil eggs until they turn into rubber bullets, how to turn porridge into glue, toast into old parchment, bacon slices into soggy cardboard.
There! It's over now.
Amazingly, we survived and actually flourished on this down-market diet. Like Oliver Twist, we even sometimes clamored for second helpings. And we had our favorites - some things being relatively better than others. To every cloud there is some sort of lining - particularly if you are hungry for lining.
At one of the two schools I lived in, we were regularly served apple crumble. This steaming dessert is meant to be a tangy body of segmented and lightly stewed cooking apples topped with a brittle and biscuity surface made, I believe, of flour, butter, and sugar.
The cook at school never quite mastered this, with the result that between the crumble surface and the subterranean apple (or at times rhubarb) there was always a layer of sweet crumble mix that had never left its original, uncooked, creamy state. I loved it. It was like the treat at home when I was given the cake bowl to scrape out. I can't say the same for the shepherd's pie ("made of genuine shepherd" went the schoolboy joke), but sometimes a succulent stew of carrots, onions, and beef chunks, with more or less successful dumplings in it, was not bad at all. For tea we were given our fair share of bread, and some butter.
In those days bread was very simple compared with today, when we are marvelously spoiled for choice. It was either "white" or "brown" and at school we got white. There would be eight at a table, a teacher at one end. This table was allowed half a pound of butter only, and the mathematical precision with which this small slab was divided - so that no one was remotely cheated - had to be seen to be believed.
On Sundays we had golden syrup instead of the usual red turnip (purportedly raspberry) jam, and some of us mixed the syrup with the butter to make a spread. Very occasionally we were given a strange American import known as "peanut butter," which dried up your mouth oddly, I thought, though its flavor was wonderful.
Of all the contrasts between boarding school life and home life, it seems to me that food was the most vivid. Once all the treats my mum had baked and packed into my tuck box were eaten and gone forever, my longing for the cakes and buns of home grew intense. I remember gazing into the window of a shop near the school that liked to display a sponge cake with coffee icing, wondering how I could lay my hands on four shillings to buy it. That cake even found its way into my dreams. But the school philosophy was, except for rare treats, "let them eat bread."
Which brings me back to bread-and-butter pudding. This was a hot dessert. and it was one that we liked both at school and at home, though home was better. To describe it is not to taste it. It is very simple. Slices of stale bread are placed in a dish. Raisins sprinkled on the bread. A mix of butter, eggs, sugar, and milk is poured in. After soaking for half an hour, the dish is baked for about an hour. I promise you - though it is years since I have eaten it at school or home (where we nicknamed it "up and down pudding") - the result is as mouth-wateringly delicious as it could possibly be.
Or at least I thought so until the waiter at Mise en Place brought me a generous bowl of that establishment's 2004 version. I had tasted nothing like it before. It was culinary paradise. A British kitchen classic transformed into Ecstasy Atop the topmost peak of a Swiss Alp. Every mouthful should have been accompanied by Julie Andrews in dirndl or a snatch of some specially composed chorale. David (who did not try it) eyed me as if he thought I was away with the fairies. Who cares? Maybe I was.
As we settled the bill, I asked what the secret recipe was. For no extra charge, they told me. Here it is, at left, adapted for readers in the United States. Bon appétit!
1-1/4 cups heavy (whipping) cream
3/4 cup milk
1 vanilla bean, split (1 teaspoon vanilla extract is a substitute, but a poor one)
3 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
6 medium-size croissants (stale ones may work better, in fact)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup raisins (soak them in boiling water a couple of minutes to plump them, then drain)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Put the cream, milk, and vanilla bean (or vanilla extract) in pan and bring to just under boiling point (scald). Remove from heat, and take out the vanilla bean.
In a separate bowl, beat together the eggs, yolk, and sugar. Whisking constantly, slowly add hot liquid to egg mixture. Slice the croissants across to make irregular chunks. Butter the pieces lightly on one side. Brush a baking dish (8 or 10 inches square) with melted butter.
Layer the croissants in dish, buttered side up. Sprinkle with raisins. Pour custard on top. Place dish in a bain marie (a larger container filled with boiling water) and bake for approximately 40 minutes. Serves 10.
Raspberry topping (optional)
1 cup raspberries (fresh or frozen)
1 tablespoon confectioners' sugar
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Juice of 1/2 orange
Directions for topping
Put ingredients in a blender. Blend until smooth. Strain the topping to remove raspberry seeds. Serve with the pudding.
• Adapted from a recipe by Suzanne Ritchie, owner of Mise en Place, specialty food and catering, Glasgow, Scotland.