Since October 2013 I have had the pleasure of being a member of the North Bethesda (Md.) Rotary, sharing openly from my experience living with HIV from my first weeks of exploring this service organization. Whether they have known another HIVer before or not, my fellow Rotarians have honored my volunteerism for biomedical research, and they are eager to support HIV services in communities abroad, particularly in places where I have traveled. Still, they recognize that my life and interests involve much more than a virus: my introductory presentation to the club introduced them to my passion for food and the term #foodporn.
Nonetheless, at a March breakfast meeting of the club, as a sign-up sheet circulated for our annual Charter Night pot luck celebration, I couldn't help but think...don’t hate me, guys!... "Will they really eat the HIV-positive guy's food?" The dinner was to be French-themed, right in my range; and no one had signed up for dessert. Through my doubts, the words of a friend who is beginning to make his mark in the home and lifestyle market after many years came to mind: “If food is your passion, take every opportunity offered to cook or bake for groups: that’s the only way to learn what works and what other people like.” I put my name down for dessert with dozens of dishes in mind.
As the dinner approached, my typical “kitchen madness” mindset took over. I needed to prepare something to feed around 20 people that wasn’t too labor intensive, it had to be “French,” and it had to announce my flair for the unexpected. Chocolate croissant bread pudding came to mind, but it didn’t feel remarkable enough. Even if I used brioche loaf in place of croissants, it might be tasty, but it would not “make a statement.”
While I ate an ordinary ice cream sandwich at lunch in my office one day, the vanilla ice cream carried me back to the taste I was after. On my flights between Amsterdam and Johannesburg last fall, KLM served an ice cream that was unlike any I had eaten before, though it had a familiar and inviting flavor. It was flavored with speculoos or what one might recognize as the spiced butter cookie taste of Biscoff brand cookies. EUREKA! The day before the dinner I began feeling my way towards my first speculoos bread puddings made with brioche loaf (recipe below).
When I arrived for the dinner, I asked the host’s kitchen helpers to pop the warm dishes in the oven with very low (175F) heat for 20 minutes before serving. After the guests had finished our main dishes, the warm bread pudding was placed on a table amid cookies, pastries, chocolate mousse cakes, and fruit tarts. I anxiously awaited the response. Soon, it was the first dish to be completely consumed, with some guests going back for third helpings. The second dish was served. I was humbled by the response and the requests to bring another speculoos bread pudding to a breakfast meeting soon.
Speculoos bread pudding
- 16-18 ounces challah or brioche loaf
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 ½ cups half and half
- ½ cup Speculoos butter
- ½ tsp. kosher salt
- 4 eggs
- ½ cup sugar
- 2 tsp. vanilla
- 1 tsp. cinnamon
Tear bread into one-half to one-inch pieces and allow to get stale. Running a fan for an hour or two over a jelly roll pan holding the pieces works well.
Lay stale bread in bottom of an ungreased 13x9 pan (glass works best).
Heat cream and half and half in the top of a double boiler or on medium in the microwave until steam begins to rise from the surface. Keep applying heat for five minutes to keep cream at simmer without boiling. Add Speculoos butter and salt, and stir until mixture is mostly uniform, applying heat briefly as needed. Remove from heat and set aside.
Whisk eggs, sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon together until uniform. Temper eggs by whisking in ¼ cup of warm cream mixture, then 3 more ¼ cup additions. Whisk tempered eggs into remaining warm cream mixture and continue whisking until uniform.
Pour mixture over the stale bread and allow to soak at least two hours, folding once to insure everything is soaked. Soaking can go up to 24 hours, tossing at least once every 6-8 hours. Allow to soak covered in refrigerator if not baking after two hours.
Preheat oven to 375F with a pan large enough to hold the baking dish and 1” depth of boiling water. Boil water for the bain Marie.
Place baking dish in larger pan and pour boiling water along the side until 1” up outside of bread pudding dish. Bake covered for 20 minutes while preparing the sauce below. Pour sauce evenly on the bread pudding after 20 minutes and bake 5-8 minutes uncovered.
Speculoos sweet roll sauce
- 1 ½ cup dark brown sugar (tightly packed)
- ½ cup butter
- ¼ cup Speculoos butter
- 4 Tbsp half and half
- 1 cup chopped pecans
Add butter and sugar to a sauce pan over medium heat. Stir gently once butter appears mostly melted and until butter is fully melted and mixture is uniform, resembling dark pancake syrup. Add Speculoos butter and stir until uniform. Lower heat to simmer. Add 2 Tbsp half and half, stir until uniform. Add 2 Tbsp half and half, along with pecans, stir and keep warm until needed.