Restaurant News & Reviews

An ode to bread pudding

It's the same recipe that the same catering company has served at Keeneland for 70 years.

New chefs have made a few tweaks to improve the concoction's delicate smoothness as it journeys past your lips, lingers for a moment on your tongue and then slowly marches past the last taste bud before its last bit of creamy butter slides down your throat and into your happily waiting stomach.

It's as if each chef is straining to listen for culinary guidance from his inner Kentuckian. Or his inner bartender.

He's trying to figure out the answer to that immortal question that every man, woman or child who has ever been to Keene land has asked: One hunk of bread pudding or two?

And the chef had to know what the person at the other end of the fork was really craving: more pudding, or more sauce?

This is no small thing. Keeneland has magnificent horses. It has all those spring blossoms that make the race course look like Eden this time of year. And there's that sunshine. Yeah, yeah. But some of you come for the bread pudding.

There are countless numbers of people at Keeneland who have never once been lured away by the triple-chocolate fudge obsession. The skillet-baked pecan pie à la mode does not turn their heads. Not even the perpetually demure lemon-raspberry macaroon munchers resist the bread pudding.

Chef de cuisine Ed Boutilier says that when Queen Elizabeth of England visited Keeneland in October 1984, he didn't even bother to offer her the bread pudding but made a special unique dessert for her. "Dainty," he said, "something with sorbet."

Why? Save the good stuff for the Kentuckians, he must have been thinking.

Despite all that loyalty, pure pudding theorists continue the Pudding vs. Sauce debate. Is it the pudding that makes the dessert, or the sauce?

During a live meet, a large pan of bread pudding is in the oven the whole time the kitchen is working.

The whole time.

That's because Keeneland sells 1,500 plates of it a day. And the kitchen is so small — it's the same one that served the first customers 70 years ago except with better equipment — that the staff has to bring in fresh ingredients every day.

For the pudding, that's fresh eggs, fresh 2 percent milk, and fresh Sister Schubert's rolls — "a nice friendly roll," Boutilier says — to smush up in all those eggs and milk.

Sure, he tried artisan breads. But he needed the texture he got with Sister Schubert's.

Once, Boutilier got a call from The Boston Globe. There was a rumor that he was using hot dog buns for his bread pudding. Ridiculous. Those buns cost 17 cents apiece.

A major American newspaper hunting down rumors about his bread pudding? That's serious stuff.

The big glorious hunk (the bread pudding, not Boutilier) appeared on the cover of Saveur magazine more than 10 years ago in all its gooey glory. Its recipe is no secret. Still, people fork over $6 a serving, with the sauce slathered on.

The sauce? It's equal parts confectioner's sugar and butter. Then it's enough Maker's Mark to make it consistently pourable. When warm, it's edible velvet.

So is it the pudding or the sauce?

Silly us. It's the genius of the combination.

Ladled lovingly over the bread pudding and eaten on a spring day, with those lovely horses running, it's edible velvet over manna from heaven served in Eden.

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