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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.
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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.

Ah, end of the first week of the new year. Plum pudding? Done. Custard sauce? Jar licked clean. Cookie tin? Cleaned and put away (okay, so it’s in the drying rack).

Sweet tooth? Still there.

There is still chocolate left in this house, very good chocolate. This season is so wonderful for citrus, though, that my thoughts drift toward a dessert I loved to make in the mid-1990s: Clementines soaked in muscat wine. Back then, I worked for Hay Day Country Farm Markets. Clementines were extremely seasonal, arriving from Spain after Thanksgiving. Great excitement when the produce manager gave the nod: The clementines had met his quality standards. Those standards meant there was an end to the season too, with the crop eventually running too small and sour for Hay Day to carry. Now clementines are ubiquitous — and are still a great midwinter treat.

The wine I first used was Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, a not-too-sweet fortified French dessert wine with enough acidity to keep the floral overtones from taking over. Now I make this with an American cousin of Beaumes-de-Venise, an orange muscat wine called Essencia made by Quady Vineyards in California.* I’m giving you both options because who knows how easy it is to find either one where you are. Whichever you use, the blend of clementines with wine is virtuous enough to pass for post-holiday dessert deprivation while still being a wonderful sweet.

I made this dessert often when I was working for Hay Day and living in downtown Greenwich, Connecticut. Southern New England winters can be icy and dark. One particularly snowy, cold and gray winter, I fought back by leaving little white Christmas lights strung around my glassed-in porch until the spring time-change. My pals Eliza and Doug were passing through — January, maybe, or the dread February — and stopped for dinner. I don’t recall the main part of the meal, yet I remember serving them clementines, slightly warm, plumped up with a mixture of orange juice and Quady’s Essencia. We sat in the sparkle of candles and those fierce little stringed lights, looking at a dark and snowy streetscape, smelling flowers and tasting sunshine.

Sunny Clementines from Baking Family

Sunny Clementines

Serves 4

  • 5 or 6 clementines, peeled and sectioned, as much white pith removed as possible
  • 3/4 cup muscat dessert wine such as Quady Essencia or Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise
  • 1/4 cup fresh orange juice

Before dinner, put clementines and wine in a saucepan and stir together; heat over medium heat JUST until liquid starts to simmer. Turn off heat, add orange juice and cover the pan. At the end of dinner, remove the pan lid, ladle clementines and sauce into small fancy bowls and serve alongside a glass of the wine you used in the dessert. (If when you go to serve them you find the clementines have cooled too much, turn on the heat for a couple of minutes. Make sure that the mixture does not come to the boil.)

*Quady now also makes something called Electra, which I ran into when a wine-shop owner insisted that it was “the new Essencia.” Uh, no, it’s not. Electra is a pale, light-alcohol ghost of the good stuff. Leave it on the store shelf.

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