The bread pudding throwdown

Since Christmas is fast approaching, I thought that it would be a good idea to share with you more exciting recipes to add a twist to the holiday table.  Have you heard of the show Throwdown with Bobby Flay?  Maybe yes, maybe no.  Anyway… this is a hit show on Food Network where acclaimed chef Bobby Flay challenges absolute masters in different kinds of cooking – award-winning BBQers, bakers, pizza makers and more.  In each episode, one of these cooks thinks Food Network is shooting their profile for a show.  What they don’t know is that Bobby is going to drop in for a surprise visit and challenge them to an unexpected cook-off.  Well, this is a bread pudding throwdown.  
The first recipe is Giada De Laurentiis’ Berry Strata, a classic Italian dessert.  Originally, a strata (which means layers in Italian) consisted of a layer of custard, a layer of bread, a layer of custard, a layer of bread, and then you would bake it off.  This recipe, however, mixes all the ingredients together making the strata similar to a bread pudding, which is very easy to create.  This berry strata is so versatile because you can make it for breakfast or for dessert.  When you bake the strata, the outside turns golden-brown, while the inside stays moist and sweet. This modern version of a strata is just like bread pudding but creamier, silkier and fluffier.  The chunky berries make it colorful and the citrus flavor from the orange juice brightens everything up!     
Berry Strata
Adapted slightly from Berry Strata by Giada De Laurentiis
Serves: 4 servings
·         2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
·         3 Tablespoons honey
·         4 large eggs, at room temperature
·         ½ cup ricotta cheese
·         3 Tablespoons sugar
·         1 cup whole milk
·         ¼ cup orange or lemon juice
·         4 slices of bread, such as white or sourdough bread, torn into 1-inch pieces (about 4 cups)
·         1 (12-ounce) bag frozen mixed berries, thawed and drained
Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat.  Turn off the heat, add the honey, and stir to combine.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl beat the eggs with a fork.  Add the ricotta cheese and sugar and mix to combine.  Add the milk, orange or lemon juice, butter and honey mixture, and bread.  Stir to combine.  Gently fold in the berries.
Place the ingredients in a 10x8x2 inch baking dish.  Cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours and up to 12 hours.  Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Bake the strata until golden on top and baked through, about 40-45 minutes.  Let stand for 5 minutes before serving.  Spoon into dishes and serve.  
The second recipe is based on a dessert that chef Anita Lo serves at her New York restaurant, Annisa.  Anita Lo’s inventive recipes are inspired by her travels and multicultural upbringing, and they also reflect her classic French training.  Although, she likes to bring Asian ingredients to the holiday table, this recipe is more of a spin on the classic bread pudding.  This baked goodness is sweet, custardy, crunchy on top, and shot through with poppy seeds for a stunning visual and textural effect.  The pecans bring nuttiness, while the warn Amaretto sauce is just like velvety caramel bringing more sweetness and moisture to this superb dessert!       
Pecan and Amaretto Bread Pudding
Adapted from Pecan, Bourbon, and Butterscotch Bread Pudding (Bon Appétit, November 2011)
Serves: 10 servings
Ingredients for the Amaretto Sauce:
·         1 cup (packed) light brown sugar
·         ½ cup agave syrup
·         3 Tablespoons unsalted butter
·         1 ½ teaspoons salt
·         ½ cup heavy cream
·         1 Tablespoon Amaretto liquor (optional)
Ingredients for the Pudding:
·         1 pound day-old rustic white or sourdough bread, crusts removed, cut into ½ inch cubes (about 12 cups)
·         ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
·         2 Tablespoons, plus 1 ½ cups sugar
·         5 large eggs, at room temperature
·         4 cups heavy cream
·         1 ½ Tablespoons poppy seeds
·         Pinch of salt
·         3 Tablespoons Amaretto liquor
·         ½ vanilla bean, split lengthwise
·         2 cups pecan pieces
Instructions for the Amaretto Sauce:
Bring the brown sugar, agave syrup, butter, and salt to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, whisking to dissolve sugar.  Boil until mixture is syrupy and measures 1 1/3 cups, about 3 minutes.  Remove from heat; add cream and Amaretto, if desired, and stir until smooth.  Let cool.  Do Ahead:  Can be made 3 days ahead.  Let cool completely, cover, and chill.  Rewarm before serving.  
Instructions for Pudding:
Toss bread, melted butter, and 2 Tablespoons sugar in a large bowl and set aside.  Using an electric mixer, beat eggs and remaining 1 ½ cups sugar in another large bowl until pale yellow and fluffy, about 3 minutes.  Add cream, poppy seeds, and salt; beat to blend.  Place Amaretto in a small bowl; scrape in seeds from vanilla bean (reserve bean for another use).  Whisk to distribute seeds, then add to egg mixture, whisking to blend well.  Pour egg mixture over bread mixture in bowl.  Add pecans and toss to coat well.  Transfer mixture to a 13x9x2 inch glass or ceramic backing dish, spreading out in an even layer.  Cover with plastic wrap and chill overnight. 
Preheat oven to 325°F.  Remove plastic wrap and bake until top is browned in spots and a tester inserted into center comes out clean, 1 ¼ – 1 ½ hours.  Serve bread pudding with Amaretto sauce.  
These two different takes on the traditional bread pudding are tasty and easy to make.  However, at the end of the day, you’re the judge and you get to pick the winner of this bread pudding throwdown.  Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!) 

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