Malta Diary; Of bread and bread puddings – the poor man’s fare
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It was Lyn that set my mind thinking when she sent me a recipe for a traditional Maltese bread pudding. That is, thinking of the bread puddings that my gran, my dad and my mum used to make and which I occasionally also make.
Blowing my own trumpet I have to state I am a dab hand in the kitchen coming from a line of Royal Naval caterers on my father’s side of the family and brother Edward who is a cordon bleu chef with Indian and Chinese specialities.
My grandfather Gianni was a RN Chef for Officers (not a cook mind you!) and when his ship was in port my young father Frank would be taken on board to help out in the kitchen and do the simple and arduous stuff like peel the potatoes, dice the carrots and other time-sapping functions.
From an early age I followed my dad in our home kitchen, studied his techniques and did the arduous work – all of which served as good training and hence my domestic involvement in my own family adulthood.
Now then, bread and bread puddings.
Wheat and bread in its various forms have always been a staple ingredient and foodstuff in the Maltese kitchen, indeed, worldwide. The 6th of June 1919 rebellion against British colonial rule – the only uprising ever against the British resulting in deaths – came about after the price of wheat and bread escalated and led to the rebellious riots.
During my own boyhood in the 1950s it was still regarded as a precious and essential commodity among the poorer sectors of society – including my own. Freshly baked bread was supplied daily by horse and cart vendors to the door and it was seen as virtually criminal to over-supply or allow the bread to go stale and be thrown away.
The action also included a religious element. Bread was associated with Communion and most bakers dubbed crucifix-type cuts into the surface of the loaf before baking, to commemorate the Communion ritual. Some still do that nowadays.
To throw stale bread into a dustbin was put on a par with putting the Body of Christ into the rubbish bin – most sinful! When this had to happen, my maternal gran would wrap the stale bread in baking paper to prevent its physical mingling with the other rubbish in the bin – not that that actually made any difference.
My granddad then went through the ritual of formally making a Sign of the Cross on the bread and reciting a little apologetic prayer for having to throw it away.
The way out was to recycle in two ways. One was to make a bread pudding and the other was to slice the bread, let it harden and then grind it into fine bread crumbs to be used as a mingle with meat stuffing or tuna stuffing for green peppers.
The recipe that Lyn sent me is a modern one, replete with various fruit mixes and some alcohol. None of this however in the old days when purses were empty and household budgets tight. The ingredients were simple and straight forward – stale bread, milk, sugar, cocoa powder mix, candied cherries, a few drops of Vermouth which was cheap and plentiful, butter and a handful of dried sultanas and when available thinly-diced orange or lemon peel.
The process was just as simple and straight forward. Leave the stale bread to soak in some milk (normally tinned milk before the advent of ‘fridges and bottled, fresh milk). After a thorough soaking leaving a squashy mix, the cocoa and peel would be added together with the Vermouth, dabs of butter and sultanas and considerable amounts of sugar. The result would be a fluid mix (not too fluid) to be placed in a buttered dish and then baked until the liquid element has evaporated, leaving a soft but firm pudding which would then be topped with red and green candied cherries as soon as the dish is taken out of the oven.
This is the more refined recipe that Lyn sent me which she found when ‘googling’ Traditional Maltese Bread Pudding:
To serve 10 people. Ingredients – 200ml (7 fl oz) milk; few drops vanilla extract; 2 teaspoons of rum (to taste); 1 tablespoon cocoa; 4 teaspoons caster sugar; 1 egg; 450g (1 lb) bread, crusts removed and bread torn into pieces; 1 tablespoon orange peel; 1 tablespoon lemon peel; 2 teaspoons butter; 200g (7 oz) sultanas; 50g (2 oz) candied peel; 50g (2 oz) coconut; 1 banana, sliced; 1 apple, sliced.
Method (preparation time 20 minutes; cooking time 50 minutes):
- Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C (Gas Mark 4).
- Whisk together the milk, vanilla, rum, cocoa, sugar and egg in a large bowl. Soak bread in the milk mixture. Add the butter, orange peel and lemon peel; mix gently using a wooden spoon. Fold in the sultanas, candied peel, coconut, banana and apple until evenly distributed. Put in a greased oven dish.
- Bake in the preheated oven until golden brown, between 45 minutes and 1 hour depending on oven type. Serve cold.
To be frank, I don’t mind it but I don’t miss and I would not go out of my way to make it. HOWEVER, I do miss my granddad’s home-made old fashioned trifles (whatever happened to them?!) with a crumbled sponge or biscuits base, drops of Vermouth, jelly, custard, lashings of fresh cream and a fruit topping (usually candied cherries or a tinned fruit mix). Sometimes, instead of custard, blancmange was used (whatever happened to that?!).
More about that some other time though.
On a weekly basis I am inserting a Maltese saying, expression or proverb and where possible English equivalents that will help give insight into the Maltese psyche.
“Fresh bread and a sharp knife – and Malta is such a sweet land”
In-pre WWII days when many Maltese emigrated to Libya and Tunisia, this would elicit an Arabic response to denote Maltese identity. It also had a negative element in that the Maltese were always renowned for carrying a sharp knife in their belt and one had to beware of them.