(Hi kind reader. Don’t hate me, but at the moment I am either in Cannes, Paris or London. If you email me, it will take me a bit to respond. However, don’t forget I have a contest going on right up until I come back and you could win some David Lebovitz books. Find out how at this post.)
Bread pudding. How do you feel about it? On a dessert menu, it’s about the last thing I would order. Actually, the last thing I would order would be panna cotta but that is because it’s not vegetarian (that damn gelatin!). I love bread but not in my dessert. Chocolate anything would be first on my list followed by berry something, lemon something, apple something and then pear something. Bread pudding would be my desperation dessert.
But how about in a savory side dish starring lemon thyme, asparagus, and Parmesan cheese? Sure! This is actually my first savory bread pudding or strata (they are not exactly the same but close enough) and wow! I thought this was terrific. And easy. And served a lot of people. If I didn’t already love Ivy Manning’s From the Earth to the Table, this dish sold me once and forever. Actually, it is to her tremendous credit that I had two dishes on our Father’s Day menu from her book. (That rhubarb tart can’t be beat.)
So yes, I looked at the list of ingredients and thought – 8 eggs and 4 cups of half and half? I will make this but I won’t eat it. But oh yes, I did eat it. Lots of it. It did not taste heavy at all, more eggy than creamy and I mean that in a good way. The balance was just right between the starchy bread, the creamy filling, the grassy asparagus, the sweet leek, the fragrant lemon thyme, and the bit of super salty cheese on top. I could eat this every day and be happy.
One note – if you can get lemon thyme, buy it. I use a lot of thyme in my cooking life and I am lucky enough to have 5 plants of it in my front yard. Right by the stairs is a lovely bush of lemon thyme which I pick from all spring and summer. You might not think it would taste that different, but it is a completely different herb. Like taking something good and making it great.
10 ounces (about 7 cups) French bread, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 pound asparagus, tough ends snapped off
Ice water for blanching
1 medium leek
4 tsp. olive oil
4 cups half-and-half
Zest of 1 lemon
1 tsp. chopped fresh lemon thyme
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
½ cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1. Spread the bread cubes on a baking sheet and let stand overnight to become stale, or quick-dry in a 200ºF oven for 40 minutes.
2. Preheat the oven to 350ºF and butter a 13-by-9-by-2 inch baking dish. Bring a large pot of water to boil, add the asparagus, and cook until it is bright green, about 2 minutes. Drain and blanch immediately in the ice water; remove and set aside.
3. Remove the dark green part of the leek and discard. Halve the leek lengthwise, rinse well between layers, and thinly slice. In a sauté pan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the leeks and sauté until they begin to brown, about 10 minutes. Add a few tablespoons of water and continue to cook for 5 minutes, or until the leeks are caramel colored and tender; set aside.
4. In a medium bowl, whisk the half-and-half, eggs, lemon zest, and thyme. Put the bread cubes in the prepared baking dish and sprinkle on the leeks. Arrange the asparagus on top and pour the egg mixture over all. Press with a spatula to submerge the bread cubes; sprinkle the top with the cheeses.
5. Cover the dish loosely with foil and bake until the edges are golden brown and a butter knife inserted into the center comes out clean, about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Cool for 20 minutes, cut into squares, and serve.