I rarely follow bread pudding recipes to the letter- I often substitute the suggested bread or fruit and I have no problem trading granulated sugar for brown sugar or cream for milk.
If you like a deeper bread pudding, you can use a deeper pan. No one is going to punish you if you throw in a handful or raisins, a pinch of nutmeg, or a touch of marmalade. If your pudding comes out too dry, you can drown it in caramel sauce or ice cream.
To choose the recipe that best suits your taste, consider these questions:
From experience, I know I like a substantial bread pudding (12-16 ounces of bread) that's very custardy. I find recipes cooked in a water bath are less likely to curdle. I like the top rather crispy too, which means the pudding needs some time uncovered in the oven.
I loved this Dorie Greenspan recipe. The original uses caramelized apples and apple butter instead of fruit and jam, but I didn't feel like adding an extra cooking step. I used challah from Trader Joe's, huge pears from Harry and David. (which held their shape remarkably well,) and red currant preserves. Next time, i'd use a seedless preserves with bigger chunks of fruit. I dusted the pan with light brown sugar.
It looked really beautiful. I rather wish i'd made it for the neighborhood Christmas Eve party tonight.
Jam and Fruit Bread Pudding
adapted from Dorie Greenspan's Baking From my Home to Yours
3 medium pears, peeled, cored and largely diced (or other soft fruit.)
about 1 cup quality fruit preserves
12 ounces egg bread, such as challah or brioche, or good quality white bread, preferably stale, sliced 1/2 inch thick.
3 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
3 large eggs
5 large egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
Butter a 9x13 inch baking pan. Dust the inside with sugar and tap out the excess. Line a larger roasting pan with a double thickness of paper towels.
If your bread is not stale, spread it out on a baking sheet lined with parchment or silicone and bake at 350 degrees to "stale" it for 10 minutes.
Spread one side of each slice of bread with jam, then cut each slice on the diagonal to get 4 triangles. Cover the bottom of the baking pan with half of the bread, arranging the triangles, jam side up, so that they overlap slightly. Don't worry about spaces between the slices. Spoon over the pears and finish "the sandwich" with the rest of the bread (jam side down.)
Bring the milk and cream just to a boil, then take it off the heat. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, yolks and the 3/4 cup of sugar. Still whisking, slowly drizzle in about one quarter of the hot milk mixture- this will temper or warm the eggs so they won't curdle. Whisking all the while, slowly pour in the remaining milk. Add the vanilla and whisk to blend. Rap the bowl against the counter to pop any bubbles that might have formed, then spoon off any foam that has risen to the top. Pour the custard over the bread and press the bread gently with the back of a spoon to help it absorb the liquid. Leave the pan on the counter, giving the bread the back of the spoon treatment every now and then, for about 30 minutes.
Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Put the baking pan in the roasting pan, slide the setup into the oven and very carefully pour enough hot water into the roasting pan to come halfway up the sides of the pudding pan. Bake the pudding for about 1 hour and 25 minutes, or until a thin knife inserted deep into the center comes out clean. Transfer the baking pan to a rack and cool for at least 20 minutes before serving.
Bread pudding is best served the day it is made, but this pudding is still delicious served at room temperature the following day.