When Mary Todd Lincoln moved into the White House in 1861, she brought her favorite cookbook, Miss Leslie’s Complete Cookery (1853) by Eliza Leslie, with her. The First Lady was an accomplished cook and a fervent believer in the “nourishing” power of sugar, and Abraham Lincoln was quite fond of apples—the President was known to devour the fruit, core and all, with a glass of cold milk as a light lunch—so she likely treated him to the book’s apple bread pudding.
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Along with Pippins or Bellflowers (tart apple varieties), Leslie called for bread crumbs, brown sugar, butter, and lemon and recommended a “cream-sauce” (dairy simmered with sugar, nutmeg, and bitter almonds) to finish the dessert. Today’s recipes have evolved into casseroles of cubed bread soaked in custard, with flavor permutations to satisfy any whim—from chocolate to rum-raisin to pumpkin—but the apple version endures. It’s unsurprising given the appeal of sweet-tart fruit combined with silky cream-and-egg-drenched bread.
Doubling Up on Apple Flavor
Not only does our bread pudding feature chunks of sweet‑tart Granny Smiths, but the custard is also infused with the essence of apple: We parcook the fruit, strain off its juice, and incorporate it into the custard before combining the custard with the bread.
Challah was a good starting point for my take on the dessert: The golden, eggy loaf is a test kitchen go-to for bread pudding because of its richness and ability to hold its shape even after being immersed in liquid. Oven-toasting 1/2-inch cubes dried out the bread via evaporation, ensuring that it would drink up every last drop of custard. (Stale bread wouldn’t work as well because its firmness is due to retrogradation: starch molecules slowly rearranging themselves into a crystalline structure that traps moisture already in the bread and limits its ability to absorb more.)
Speaking of the custard: I used a fairly standard blend of milk, heavy cream, and two eggs sweetened with brown sugar and spiced with cinnamon as well as (in a nod to Leslie’s recipe) a dash of nutmeg.
To pack in a half pound of apples, I parcooked chunks of Granny Smiths in a skillet with water, butter, and brown sugar until they were just tender, at which point I strained off the juice. The liquid was bursting with buttery, appley flavor, so I stirred it into the custard to imbue it with deep fruitiness.
The apples and spiced pudding complemented each other beautifully, but the soft casserole begged for a little crunch. For my next batch, I crushed a portion of the toasted bread into bits and mixed it with sugar and butter to create a quasi streusel for the top. The mixture crisped in the oven, creating a sugary, craggy contrast to the velvety interior.
Brimming with bright and tender apples; soft, creamy, custard-soaked challah, fragrant with autumnal spices; and a sweet topping, this was an exceptional apple bread pudding. Presidential, even.