HOME ON THE RANGE: Making silky bread pudding

Sometimes you look at a recipe and think, man, somebody came up with this when there was nothing else in the refrigerator. They scrounged around, front to back, side to side, tossing out cartons of moldy cottage cheese. Then, they got creative. Hmmm… half an onion, some leftover chicken, a stale bun, a hunk of cheddar… presto! A chicken melt!

This jigsaw-puzzle manner of cooking is nothing new. Take chop suey. The dish was created by early Cantonese immigrants. At the end of a long day of preparing food in their restaurants for local workers, neighbors and tourists, these cooks cut up all the left-over vegetables — it didn’t matter what they were — and stir fried them with a handful of chopped meat. The result was served over steamed white rice and called, yes, that’s right, chop suey. The name is the English pronunciation of the Cantonese words “tsap seui,” which mean “mixed pieces.”

The dish — more of a concept than a dish, really — became immensely popular in early China towns around the country. Cooks added it to their public menus and charged a pittance, whatever a pittance was back then. Poor people ordered it and loved it. Then wealthier tourists got on board, considering chop suey a charming invention. This innovative entree continued its meteoric rise in stature and now is included on menus at most Chinese restaurants. And it costs as much as chow mein!

I create out of necessity, too. I stick my head into the cupboard and assess what’s there. With left over vegetables, I make stir fry. With left over rice, I make rice pudding. Just recently I concocted a meatloaf out of hamburger, corn chips and minced carrots. I hate to let anything go to waste. I wash and save plastic bags (Delano secretly throws them away when I’m not looking). I pare the bad spots out of apples and eat the good flesh with peanut butter. A mushroom has to be plenty smelly before I’ll toss it into the trash. After all, it’s fungus. How spoiled can it get?

Some of the world’s tastiest dishes must have evolved in this hodge-podge manner. Jambalaya, no doubt; chili (remember those cowboys on the trail with their rotting beef and peppers); vegetable stew; fried rice; certainly, bread pudding. You just know the first pudding sprouted from a loaf of week-old white bread nobody wanted to throw away. It was cubed, doused in milk, mixed with sugar and eggs, and shoved into the oven. The dish caught on. Now, there are thousands of varieties of bread pudding out there, including banana bread pudding and apple and pineapple yogurt bread pudding.

I’d never made bread pudding before. Generally, it’s too heavy a dessert for me; it’s like an egg brick! But I came across this recipe that features sweet potatoes, which I absolutely love. Besides, Delano has a soft spot for bread pudding and I have a soft spot for him, so I gave it a try. The recipe was extremely easy to execute. And, in the spirit of inventiveness, it was easily modified to include just about any type of fruit or nut.

This particular combination of flavors turns out quite delicious. It’s hearty and nutty, not too sweet. Also, the cranberries provide a nice, tangy accent. Considering that the pudding is so dense (you can only eat a small square at a sitting), I’d recommend cutting the recipe in half. Either that, or you’ll have to use the leftovers as door stops or to patch a hole in the garage roof.

Recipes and suggestions can be sent to

Sweet potato

bread pudding

1 1/2-cups sweet potatoes, diced into 1/2-inch and smaller squares.

1 1/4-cups pancake mix

4 eggs

4 cups milk

3/4-cup brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

5-6 cups day old bread, cubed

1/2-cup dried cranberries

3/4-cup chopped pecans

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 9-inch x 12-inch baking pan.

In a medium saucepan, boil the diced sweet potatoes until they are just tender, for no more than 5 minutes.

While the potatoes are cooking, whisk the eggs in a large bowl. Add the milk and sugar. Whisk until the sugar dissolves. Add the vanilla and whisk again. Stir in the pancake mix. Beat out as many of the lumps as you can. Add the bread cubes and gently stir the mixture. Let it stand for 10 minutes (the batter should be mostly liquid — you want the bread to float in the liquid in the pan). Stir in the cranberries, pecans and sweet potatoes. Pour the batter into a baking pan. Evenly spread the bread cubes in the pan.

Bake the pudding for 45 minutes or until a knife comes out clean. Serve it warm.

Left over

rice pudding

3 cups cooked rice

1/2-cup raisins

2 cups milk

1/2-cup brown sugar

1 tablespoon cinnamon

1/2-teaspoon nutmeg

In a medium sauce pan, mix together all the ingredients. Cover and cook on low heat for 15 minutes.

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