The Recipe for a Caribbean Christmas


By Nigel Spence
CJ Contributor

Being right in the middle of the holiday season, there never seems to be enough time or energy for us to get things done.

There are so many tasks to complete that the thought of baking a traditional black cake or a fruitcake become such a daunting prospect that we usually dread the time as the big days approach.

One Christmas not too long ago, when the pain of opening the restaurant and surviving the holiday parties left me a little overwhelmed, I was stumped on Xmas morning when I realized that I had not done any preparation nor did I have anything to contribute to a family dinner.

It would be embarrassing for a trained chef and recently new restaurateur to show up with store-prepared food, dessert or beverages.

It was way too late, and I was way too tired to even consider baking a fruit cake which was the traditional gift given upon arrival to dinner from a family invite.

I frantically looked around in my pantry to see what I could possible throw together to redeem myself. I had an “aha” moment when I saw some leftover bread in the fridge sitting next to some milk. It made perfect sense.  My mother’s bread pudding!  Boring, you say, but you have never experienced my mom’s bread pudding and I don’t just say this ’cause it’s my mama.

I know the many stories of re-gifted fruit cakes from the aunts and other family members who swear that you will be taken over the moon with their offerings which in reality turn out to be insipid, dry, tasteless, hockey-puck cakes.

Ditto for those who do bread puddings.  Have no fear. I have witnessed many who started with reservations, indulging my mom by asking her for a small piece just to be polite, only to go back and hack off a gargantuan Fred Flintstone slice and a promise not to share the recipe with anyone if it was secretly disclosed to them.

You see, my mom’s bread pudding is truly just that – a pudding.  Unlike the texture of most bread puddings, it is very moist, very sweet, very gooey with enough “rum power” to get you pulled over and cuffed ‑ and with just the right balance of nostalgic flavors to keep you interested way into your seventh-consecutive slice.

My sister once made this pudding for a impromptu party she was hosting, left it home to pick up last minute items at the grocery store, and returned home an hour later to a completely empty baking pan.

Turns out my brother-in law was a recent bread pudding convert and could not control his excitement or appetite upon arriving home from work.  He consumed the entire 8×12 baking dish of hot bread pudding, just pulled from the oven and left to cool.

Yes, it’s that kind of good!

Anyway, I went ahead and quickly prepared my mom’s bread pudding and an hour later was on my way to my Christmas dinner. Needless to say, it was not as aesthetically appealing as I would have liked due to the last minute decision to make it, lack of ingredients and time to make it perfectly as I was instructed time and time again by the author of the recipe.  I used some of the tricks that I have learned being in the trenches of the kitchen to quickly give it a bit more “curb appeal.” It was still a great representation and is a testament to how forgiving the recipe is.

Just don’t skimp on the liquids, sugar or… you guessed it… the rum!

It was not surprising to me at the party when I heard the “oohing” and “aahing” from the guests’ first “likkle polite bite,”  but what did surprise me was the excellent and time-consuming fruit cake sitting beside it that was barely touched.  The jealous owner of the fruit cake decided that the group was on fruit cake overload from the holidays.

I agreed politely, and “fruit cake overload” has been my excuse every year since, when I present my Christmas/Holiday bread pudding as my dessert of choice wherever the holiday finds me.

Thanks Mom!

The following is the Golden Secret Recipe for “My Mama’s Bread Pudding.”  Don’t go too crazy following the measurements exactly as there are so many variables and the recipe is very forgiving.  Trust me, try it once and then decide how much more or less of each ingredient (rum) you would like to use the second time.  Rum is optional but it’s not optional for me.  Specifically, J Wray & Nephew Jamaican White Rum is the rum to use but any rum can be substituted in a pinch.  Regular white sliced bread works best and I have tried everything from Jamaican hard dough bread to whole wheat bagels.  I have found that the denser the bread is, the more liquid you need, the less the aromatics penetrate and the requisite gooey texture that makes it a winner is lost.  I have baked it with and without a water bath with varying results. When using sliced white bread and all the other standard ingredients in the recipe, I prefer it baked without the water bath.  There are some aspects to the recipe in the directions such as buttering the bread that could easily be substituted by just adding melted butter to the liquids.  But out of respect for my mom’s original recipe, I execute it to the letter.

Also, whatever the science is behind it, it just tastes better, more “proper,” and closest to what evokes the nostalgia of my childhood. Enjoy!

Merry Christmas! Happy Kwanzaa! Happy New Year!

My Mama’s Holiday Bread Pudding

20 slices of bread

1 cup coconut milk

2 cups whole milk

2 whole eggs

1 ½  cups sugar

2T softened butter

1/3  cup white or dark Jamaican Rum

2 drops rosewater (optional)

Pinch of nutmeg

¼ teaspoon vanilla

½ cup guava jelly

Spread butter over one side of bread slices, then tear slices into 3-4 pieces. Spread evenly into baking dish  and press down slightly to even out and fill all open spaces.

Beat eggs and reserve. In a large saucepan add coconut milk, whole milk, sugar, butter, rum, rosewater, nutmeg, vanilla over medium heat.  Whisk until all is incorporated, making sure sugar granules have been dissolved. Cool mixture, then whisk in beaten eggs.

Pour mixture over bread in baking dish, making sure that liquid comes all the way to the top of the bread, and lightly push down on the bread to make sure milk is completely soaked through the bread.

Add additional milk over top if it is not feeling like a very wet sponge.

Bake uncovered in 350 degree oven for 45 minutes or until it feels slightly firm to the touch and browned on top.  If top begins to brown too much, put foil lightly on top to retard browning. Remove from oven.  Don’t worry if it feels to wet and soft in the middle after removing from the oven, it will tighten up as the liquid gets absorbed by the cooling bread.

Immediately spread guava jelly (jam) evenly over the top, allowing the heat from the pudding to melt the guava and help to spread easier.  Allow to cool slightly and serve with ice-cream.

Sweetened shredded coconut can be substituted as a topping or as an addition to the guava jam.

This bread pudding is more custard-like in texture than traditional bread pudding because of the amount of liquid used.  For this reason I sometimes forego the guava topping and instead caramelize sugar on top for that “crème brulee” effect, along with the shredded, sweetened coconut shavings.

Nigel Spence, a Culinary Institute of America alumnus, was born in Kingston, Jamaica. Nigel freelanced at the Television Food Network for three years where he worked with culinary luminaries such as Mario Batali, Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse. Chef Spence has appeared twice on Throwdown with Bobby Flay where he emerged the victor in cookoffs against the Food Network star and was featured on CBS when he appeared on Tony’s Table as well as ABC’s Neighborhood Eats, NBC’s The Today Show, Sirius’ Everyday Living with Martha Stewart and TVFN’s Chopped. The acclaimed and New York Times-reviewed Ripe Kitchen and Bar is Mr Spence’s first entrepreneurial endeavour.