Savory bread puddings can render a few funny looks, but this Leek and Fennel Bread Pudding couldn’t be a more appropriate addition to a family style dinner (I made it both for Thanksgiving and Christmas). The first time I made it, I followed Thomas Keller’s recipe to the very last sage leaf. And trust me, it did the trick. I let the leeks steam under a parchment lid, carefully toasted my brioche (Whole Foods makes an excellent one if you don’t have an extra day to make this recipe), and used his exact measurements. But we did notice a couple of improvements to be made- namely that there could have been more leeks. So the second time I made this recipe, I doubled the leeks. And why not? Leeks are a delicious little savory treat, perfect with the gruyere and cream. And as an added level of substance in an otherwise decadent cream-filled bread pudding, I threw in a bulb of sliced fennel. I also tried using a challah as an alternative to the brioche. Both are sweet and eggy and somehow dense and light at the same time, so both worked for this bread pudding. The following recipe is a combination of my two attempts.
12 cups brioche or challah, sliced into one inch cubes
4 large leeks
1 bulb fennel
4 tbs butter
3 cups milk
3 cups heavy cream
1 cup shredded gruyere cheese
Salt, to season
Preheat the oven to 350. Slice your brioche or challah into one inch cubes and spread out on a baking sheet. Pop into the oven and let toast for 20 minutes.
While the bread is toasting, slice your leeks and fennel. You only want to use the white part of the leeks and the bulb of the fennel. Slice into 1/3 inch thick slices. Place the leeks and fennel into a large bowl and cover with water. Let them soak for a couple minutes to allow the sediment to fall out into the bottom of the bowl (they are, after all, root veggies).
Lift the vegetables out of the water and place them into a large pan over medium heat. The water will release from the leeks and allow them to start steaming. After 5 minutes, add the butter and stir.
Create a parchment lid (the second time around, I didn’t have parchment so I just used a lid- the world didn’t end) and set on top of the mixture. Reduce heat to medium low, add a bit of salt, and let cook, stirring occasionally, for 25 minutes more.
While the leeks are simmering, whisk eggs, milk, and cream in a large bowl to create the custard.
When the custard is made and the brioche is toasted and the leeks are soft, it’s time to combine them all. Toss the leek mixture into the bread cubes and add ½ cup of shredded gruyere cheese. Pour out into a 9×13 baking dish and pour 2/3 of the custard over the mixture. Press down to be sure that the bread soaks up the custard, then let sit for 10 minutes.
Pour the remaining mixture over the bread and add the rest of the gruyere. Sprinkle with salt and pop into the oven for 80-90 minutes.