Robert Frost said, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Well, my book group is the people who, when you screw up the dessert, they’ll still eat it and say “yum.”

I had signed up for dessert. It all started so innocently — cake and ice cream, easy, right? So I made a 1-2-3-4 cake from a really old stack of recipes that is somehow connected to Grammy (more on that another time). Great, simple cake, three layers, not too thick so there’s plenty of room for icing.

Then I started the icing. Again, a Gram recipe, this one marked as “Excellent!” in her handwriting. Caramel icing, meaning lots of light brown sugar, melted and swirling with cream, butter and vanilla. The kitchen smelled heavenly.

The trouble showed itself when I had to let the icing cool to room temperature, then beat it to thicken it up. Hmm, not much time. And I had used one of my favorite All-Clad pots, very heavy and thus superb at holding heat. I pulled out the arsenal of “cool it down” activities: The fridge for a bit. Ice cubes in a bowl, set the pot into that. Blowing on the bottom of the pot. Raking my fingers through my hair.

The icing would not set.

It was 7:30, time to actually BE at book group. I had three lovely layers of cake, two pints of ice cream . . . and a huge pot of caramel “sauce.”

I schlepped it all off to book group, arriving late and frazzled. In the warmth of that familiar circle of friends, I started to calm down. It helped tremendously that we were eating Bettina’s great food (for those of you who don’t know Loulies, that’s Bettina and Suzanne, and you want to know their food).

And the solution dawned: If the icing would not set, then I’d shred the cake too. Done. A pile of palm-sized cake chunks, piled on the antique cake plate and served with Bettina’s silver tongs, went around the table followed by ice cream — and the icing in a pitcher.

I love my book group: They said “yum,” and poured on the icing.

Caramel sauce (not icing) from Baking Family

I-Love-My-Book-Group Caramel Sauce

Serves 10 readers, plus a husband and three boys who came home later

  • 4-1/2 cups light brown sugar
  • 1-1/2 cups light cream
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Combine the sugar, cream and salt in a big-enough saucepan for them to boil up. Cook over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Continue cooking until the mixture forms a very soft ball in cold water, about 230°F if you have a candy thermometer. Remove mixture from heat and stir in the butter. Cool to lukewarm, or until it’s time to take the sauce somewhere. Add vanilla and mix in well.

Every single old cookbook I have — and that’s a few books — has a recipe or two for bread pudding. Bread pudding with meringue on top, bread pudding with cream, bread pudding with raisins and dates.

Bread-pudding ubiquity makes sense. This dish was and is the ultimate recycling dessert, whether you’re a restaurant chef or a home cook. I’ve made bread pudding to save myself when I bought too many rolls for dinner, or didn’t get all the way through a baguette in time. And for those who have eyes bigger than their breadbox at the farmers’ market, what do we say? “Bring on the bread pudding!”Bread pudding all puffy out of the oven

I also happen to find bread pudding incredibly comforting. When I was re-testing this recipe, my first bite wafted me back to a mythically cozy time. Bread pudding in restaurants can sometimes have that effect; the restaurant version, however, is often gussied up in a way that makes it borderline unrecognizable.

Some restaurant bread puddings fail in a different direction. I had lunch a few weeks ago with my friend Siobhan, who nailed a common issue when ordering bread pudding sight unseen: “Restaurant bread pudding is often far too dense, like they crammed all the bread they could into the dish. Big square heavy blocks.” She went on to call it earnest eating, or something like that. Exactly right. (The pastry chef has got ALL those uneaten rolls from last night, remember?)

All of which is to say, a homemade bread pudding is the one for me. I have two, this and a fancier one. This one, Grammy’s recipe, is wonderfully easy to customize. Don’t have a jam you want to use up? Leave out the jam. Love chocolate or Nutella? Put good bittersweet chips or a schmear in that center layer. Raisin fan? Stir in anywhere from a half to a full cup of ‘em.

Barring today, this has been a long, chilly spring in Washington. As I write, there’s some poorly wrapped bread on my counter going stale. Hmmm. Now what on earth will I do with that?

Jammy Bread Pudding in a bowl

Jammy Bread Pudding

Pick a jam that’s not too sweet, one that has a bit of zing like apricot or plum. Last time, I used failed homemade cherry jam, aka sour cherry sauce. As for crusts or no crusts, use your judgment: If you’re using old Pepperidge Farm bread, use the crusts. If your loaf is a crusty baguette, the crusts should go.

  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 cups milk
  • 2 cups cubed bread (aim for 3/4 inch cubes, crusts or not as you prefer)
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/4 cup jam of your choice
  • Sugar for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 350°F.

In the top of a double boiler off the heat, beat eggs and sugar. In a microwave or saucepan, bring milk just to the edge of boiling. Gradually pour milk into eggs, mixing steadily as you do. Put double boiler over its bottom on the stove over medium-high heat.

Cook egg mixture, stirring regularly, until it just begins to thicken (about 5-6 minutes). Add bread cubes, butter and salt; keep stirring until sauce thickens to coat the spoon. Remove from heat; add vanilla and mix in.

Pour half of mixture into a 2-quart baking dish. Spoon jam over top of the bread mixture; carefully pour the rest of the bread mixture over the top of the jam layer. Sprinkle a teaspoon or so of granulated sugar evenly over the top.

Bake for 50-60 minutes, until top is lightly browned and puffed. Pudding will fall as it cools. Serve warm or at room temperature with custard sauce or creme fraîche.

Yours truly has posted nothing recently. Not in February, and March is starting slow too. Why, you might wonder, does it appear that Baking Family has turned off the oven and left the kitchen?

Well, because for a while at least I did. My beloved-beloved and I went on the first “real” vacation we’ve had in a couple of years. “Real” meaning we were not with family or in a family house, and we were someplace that is not on our normal collection of beaten paths. And most importantly, “real” meaning well and truly unplugged.

And was our target a known foodie destination, a Paris or Barcelona or Florence?

No, we went to the Bahamas. We went for light in chilly, dark February and for play, for a bit of reminiscing at the remote island resort where we got engaged. What we found — in addition to sun and fun — was food. First-class, stunning seafood prepared by a Bahamian chef. Night after night (and lunch after lunch) of the freshest dishes, sauced with peppers and herbs rather than cream and butter. Coconut-based soups served in coconut shells that we watched being whacked off the tree that very afternoon. Lobster salads consisting of spiny beasts speared on our morning snorkel.

Mango daiquiris at Tiamo Resorts

In most cases, desserts paled in light of the divine first and second courses. There was one dessert that seemed true and pure, a mix of colonial influence and island ingredients: Guava duff, a roll of cakey dough around a fruity filling, topped with a rich custard. Plum pudding meets tropical fruit. The duff came towards the end of our time on the island. By then, we were fine with less on the dessert front: We had replaced sweets at the end of the meal with sugar in the cocktail hour, weaving our way through the variety of rums offered at our well-stocked resort. Maxine mixed a mean mango daiquiri.

The effect of a well-catered week on a sunny but agriculturally poor island, where all that you eat must come by boat or from the waters in front of you, was to reset our eating habits. When we touched down on the mainland again, I did not leap back into testing and updating my grandmother’s dessert recipes; my beloved-beloved did not take up his nearly nightly taste of white chocolate (I know, I know, I’ve told him it’s not chocolate).

It was refreshing to be somewhere so different, and to take a new look at food. One of the great advantages of this world is that we can see so much from our chairs. One of the disadvantages is that we don’t always get out of those chairs and experience other places firsthand. I’m still carrying a little bit of the Bahamas with me, though I’m not trying to recreate the daily five o’clock rum drink. I’ll jump back into desserts soon.

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