Zen and the Art of Chocolate Croissant Bread Pudding


We were on the New Jersey shore last week, for an extended-family vacation, and I learned a few things about life, family, and cooking. The first is the secret recipe for a successful extend-family vacation:

                            Two houses + the words of Thich Nhat Hanh = great happiness.

Let me explain: I find sharing a house with too many relatives too stressful, and this year we were fortunate to have two houses close together. Keeping one family in one house and mine in another proved to be very, very relaxing. The other ingredient, the words of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, came to me through his new book, “The Art of Communicating.” I suggest it for all people who need to talk to anyone else, ever. It is (close to) magic.

Speaking of magic, the first night we were at the shore, my mother took the whole gang to dinner at Bistro 14, an extremely tasty and inviting restaurant in Beach Haven, where we had a dessert that made my head spin: Chocolate Croissant Bread Pudding.

Like all good magic tricks, it is based on simplicity, but that doesn’t take anything away from its power. “It’s basically a riff on pain au chocolat,” the owner and chef Richard Vaughan said after I called him up and begged him for the recipe, “which is a croissant wrapped around a chocolate bar.”

A trip to Paris inspired the recipe. “The first thing you do in the morning there, is go to the patisserie and have a pain au chocolat,” Vaughan said. “My wife, Karen, came up with the idea of doing this back home, and the dessert was born.”

When they make the dish at the restaurant, they use eighteen croissants, and then cut out individual servings. “It’s always a good day for the staff when it’s time to cut up the servings,” Vaughan said. There are always extra scraps that aren’t appropriate for serving. “The staff hovers like seagulls,” Vaughan said, and gobble up the extra bits.

Vaughan was kind enough to scale the recipe down for the home chef. He said you can use any kind of chocolate chips, from Hershey’s to something more fancy, such as Valrhona (they use 2 ½ quarts of chips at the restaurant!). He added that this would make a great dinner-party dish—when it comes out of the oven, it puffs up, and if you can time it right, it would make a very dramatic, almost magical moment. Here’s the recipe.

Bistro 14's Chocolate Croissant Bread Pudding

  • 3 whole eggs
  • 8 egg yolks
  • 5 C half and half
  • 1 ½ C sugar
  • 2 t. vanilla
  • 6-8 croissants
  • chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Make the custard.  Mix the eggs, yolks, half and half, sugar and vanilla together until the sugar is completely dissolved.  Set aside. 

Slice the croissants.  Shingle the croissant bottoms in an ungreased baking dish.  Pour ½ of the custard over them.  Add a serious layer of chocolate chips.  Cover with the croissant tops, make sure you cover the chips completely, or they may burn. Add the rest of the custard.  Do it slowly, or it may run everywhere. Smoosh the croissants down so they absorb as much of the custard as they can.  Allow the pudding to rest for about 10 minutes.   

Bake tented with foil for least 1 hour at 350 degrees.  Uncover and finish baking for another 30 minutes.  Pudding is done when it is puffed and the custard is just set.  

Serve warm, or at room temperature, with heavy cream or crème anglaise.

Note: You can scale this dish up or down pretty directly.  We have even made individual bread puddings in soufflé ramekins, but in that case use a water bath to keep them from getting too dry on the outside.  

(Image courtesy of Deviantart.) 

A Visit to the Dove Chocolate Factory


I knew that sweet and wonderful things would start happening as soon as I became a parent and started blogging about cooking, but I never expected to get a tour of a chocolate factory. This is true—the other day, I was on a junket with mom and food bloggers, thanks to the folks who make Dove Chocolate. They wanted to show us how they do it, and tell us a bit about their latest product, which mixes mint and dark chocolate into an enticing treat (I’ll have more about it soon).

Our train tickets said “Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania,” but when we disembarked at the station, which was surrounded by rolling green hills and air that smelled like chocolate, a chauffeur asked us if we were going to Mars. I blinked and then realized that she wasn’t referring to the planet, but rather to the parent company of Dove. This is because when she said “Mars,” all I could think of was “Venus.” At that moment I was surrounded by a gaggle of witty and talkative mom bloggers. I was the only man in the group. Paging Dr. John Gray…

The mom bloggers included Michelle (The Adventures of Supermom), Amy (Selfishmom), and Coleen (Classymommy)—clearly I was out of my league here. I did my best to follow along. My largest handicap, so to speak, was my lack of a sweet tooth, which has helped to keep me healthy for years, but in this case created a challenge. While all the bloggers, among them Alissa, of Clever Compass, Jennifer, of Savory Simple, Rachel, of Coconut & Lime, were “oohing” and “ahhing” over the chocolate, I was ogling the machinery.

The factory was a marvel of cleanliness and efficiency. It was a spotless place of whirring metal, tireless robots, and serious-faced technicians, outfitted, like us, in lab coats, hairnets, helmets, goggles, and industrial-strength earplugs. Safety and hygiene were paramount there. The giant machines had German names like “Bosch” and seemed to represent the pinnacle of engineering. We learned that there are little markings inside a box that are read by sensors on the machines, which whip and flip and spin the packaging material into boxes and wrappers with lightening speed.

The best way to imagine the machines is to picture the world’s largest photocopier, but instead of paper going in and coming out, there is chocolate. And the few times the machines broke down, the technicians looked exactly like office workers trying to get a jammed photocopier to work. They slid out big parts of it, and re-aligned bits of wrapper and metal, closed up the doors, and pushed the buttons again to see if it would work.

Ed Seguine, Dove’s resident chocolate expert, led us through a tasting of the three lines of Dove Promises, the little chocolate treat that’s wrapped in foil and comes with an inspirational quote inside. He taught us to savor each bite, and also went on to discuss the mapping of the chocolate genome (which was accomplished a few years ago) and how that information is kept in the public sphere (no one can patent it) so the industry and farmers can find better ways to grow cacao trees, the seeds of which give us chocolate. It was a fascinating trip, and I can still smell that enticing chocolate scent in the air, and taste the creamy flavor of the Dove bars. I'll be return shortly with more on the new product, which I plan on giving away. Come back soon.

One final note: I was paid to take this trip and cover it here, and that has to be the sweetest most wonderful thing of all.

Salmon, A Bit More of the Story



I learned a great deal about salmon on my recent trip to Alaska. Some of what I learned about I thought that I knew before (isn't every school child taught that salmon are born in rivers, spend their lives in the ocean, and then return to the river to spawn and die?) but book knowledge is one thing, and seeing that process actually happen is another.

There is, for example, the smell. This is nominally a parenting blog, so I feel okay about the comparison I’m about to make. If you’re a bit squeamish, though, and are here just for the recipes, you might want to skip to the next paragraph. On our trip to Sitka, we took a walk along Indian River, which like all the rivers in Alaska during the summer, was full of spawning salmon. We strolled beside rushing waters, past moss-covered trees with roots the size of a Brooklyn brownstone building, and in the swift-moving water at our feet, the spawning and dying were continually taking place. Actually, where we were on the river, close to its mouth, there was less spawning and more dying (many of the fish don’t make it up the river), and the air was filled with a curiously familiar, but slightly unpleasant, smell. The aroma was exactly like that of a pee-filled diaper that has spent too much time in the living-room wastebasket. Ever have one of those days with an infant in the house when you forgot to empty the trash? That’s what the salmon rivers can smell like, as the fish carcasses decay, caught in the tree branches at the water’s edge.

This is not to take anything away from the majesty of the process. In fact, for me, the visceral scent drove home the profundity of the moment. Those salmon were literally dying from the inside out in their effort to reproduce. Watching them swim relentlessly, waving their tails back and forth as they fought the current, made me think that we humans have it somewhat easy (sleepless nights and emergency room visits aside).

It is, in fact, quite beautiful, as the New York Times photographer Seth Casteel demonstrated recently with his underwater shots of sockeye salmon in the Bristol Bay region. If you haven’t seen them yet, you must check them out (the shot at the top of this post is from the series).

After returning home, Casteel conducted an interview with the Times Magazine’s blog, and he remarked upon the difficulties and wonders of being in Alaska:

The biggest challenge of this assignment was to tell the story of this extraordinary journey of the salmon, and also live to tell about it. That sounds kind of dramatic! Alaska is the most amazing place I’ve ever seen, but it occurs to you out there how wild it really is, and the potential dangers lurk just meters away. Hiking through the rain in absolute wilderness with 60-pounds of gear, dangling off slippery cliffs of rock above a rushing 37 degree Russian River, discovering half-eaten salmon along the way, wondering, “Hmm, where exactly is this bear now?” But then the sun comes out, the river slows enough where you can get in safely and you think, “WOW, THIS is quite relaxing.”

Alaska is a magical place, quite unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been. I encourage you to go and visit. In the meantime, the next best thing to going there is to make frozen, sustainable, Alaskan salmon part of your regular repertoire. I’ve been doing so for a while, and I recently improved upon the salmon recipe I wrote about earlier this year. I added scallions, and dropped the egg. It was a simple change that freshened everything up, and made a quick weeknight dinner into something slightly more engaging.

Quick Salmon Broccoli Stir Fry

  • 1 cup or more of cooked rice (this is a quick recipe if you’ve made the rice ahead of time; feel free to use frozen cooked rice)
  • ½ a head or so of fresh broccoli, cut into florets and steamed but still crunchy
  • 1 lb salmon fillet, cooked—which means undercooked—in a frying pan, and broken into pieces
  • 3-4 scallions, sliced into rounds
  • 1-2 inches of fresh ginger, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, diced
  • 1 chili pepper (optional)
  • 1 dash of soy sauce, to taste

In a large frying pan, sauté the scallions, garlic, ginger, and pepper in a bit of canola oil.

Add the rice, the salmon, the broccoli, and soy sauce, and serve.

For about Alaskan salmon, the environmental threats facing them, and what it’s like to fish those rivers, take a look at my friend Paul Greenberg’s entries on Mark Bittman’s blog, from this summer, “Chasing the Sockeye Salmon Migration” and here.

Mostly Wordless Wednesday: Alaska Photos


Why we were there: to learn about Alaska's wild and sustainable fishing industry.


Where, exactly, we were.


This is what greeted us at the airport.


A rare sunny moment.


The lodge where we stayed.



A few of the Dungeness Crabs we caught.


The view from the island with the lodge.


On our way to go fishing.


A tree in the rain forest.


Another rare sunny moment on the water.


Getting ready for dinner.


The professional chef's best friend.


Another dinner.


The five kinds of salmon native to Alaska, and a solitary food blogger exhibiting natural behavior.

Waterfalls and Adluh Stone Ground Yellow Grits

We’re back from vacation, and, wow, did we have a good time. We were in the emerald mountains of North Carolina, where we splashed beneath waterfalls such as the one pictured above, hiked jagged mountains, swam in a pristine lake, and ate, and ate and ate. We stayed at the High Hampton Inn, a ninety-year-old resort with a dress code (coats and ties for dinner and collared shirts other times; thank goodness for UNIQLO!). There was a never-ending buffet of prime rib, trout, salad, tomatoes, and enough desserts to make Twiggy pre-diabetic.

We were there with Santa Maria’s brother and his family, to celebrate the fiftieth wedding anniversary of her parents. We ate all our meals together, and the food was a large part of the conversation. My brother-in-law’s family is gluten sensitive and doesn’t eat meat. They brought their own pastas and breads and the staff was very accommodating.

Still, everyone was very excited about the buffet food and returned for second and third servings, even of the desserts. I enjoyed it, but kept to myself my thoughts on how I might have prepared things a little differently. Two things happened that I’ll never forget. The first thing was that a few days before we left, while on our umpteenth trip down the buffet line, Nina told me she was hungry for my home cooking. She said she missed my Bolognese. We had it last for dinner yesterday, on our first night home.

The second thing was the grits they served for breakfast every morning. They were creamy and crunch and (on the days they didn’t over salt them), incredibly mouthwatering. They were made with Adluh Stone Ground Yellow Grits, and I’ll have more on them shortly. This Northern boy thought they were polenta, and I was set straight. Right now, I have to go for a run, and work off some of that prime rib. 

A Friend Writes In: A Tale about Eating Mussels in Brussels, plus a Recipe

Due to the disastrous turn of events on Saturday, I was not in a position to cook very much. We had planned to go to the greenmarket, to buy fresh flounder from Blue Moon Fish, which is something we love to do. On past weekends we’ve made linguini alle vongole (pasta with white clam sauce) and mejillones a la plancha (skillet roasted mussels). But not this weekend.

Cooking might have been out of the question for me, but it wasn’t for a friend of mine, who has his own tale about eating mussels that he was kind enough to share.

Dan Kaufman is a musician with an excellent avant-rock band called Barbez. It often tours in an old school bus, but this story is from a bit further afield. He has a ten-month old son, who we shall call Primo here, and he is just back from a trip abroad:

Last Mussel in Brussels    

It was our last meal in Brussels, where we had been living for one glorious month, and I hadn’t yet decided what to cook. We were here because my wife had been invited to teach at a modern dance school and I went along to help care for our ten month old son, Primo.

We lived in a sort of hotel room/apartment (there was a kitchen) with a few drawbacks such as an inexplicably angry, bald, desk attendant and the epilepsy-inducing florescent lights in our bedroom that flickered dimly and constantly through the night.  But the kitchen was quite spacious. There was also a low cut window in the living room where we set up a little play area for Primo. He loved to look out at the city and its low-rise skyline of spires and modernist office buildings.
We lived downtown, in the area called Sainte Catherine, near two long pools of water. The area is also a center for fish restaurants, and, according to what I had heard, until the 1970s was a bit like the old Fulton Fish market, with fisherman selling their offerings alongside the quays. There are still some fish stores in the area and there was also a man with a little stand in front of the Sainte Catherine church who sold mussels and oysters (and a glass of muscadet for two euros) that you could eat standing up.
Right nearby was another church, the 17th-century Eglise du Beguinage, situated on a quiet square and in which Primo and I spent hours enjoying its silence, or rather I enjoyed the silence as Primo slept in his Ergo carrier. It was better than walking the streets trying to avoid the trucks and other loud noises, which could jolt him awake quite easily. There was something quietly magical and anonymous about this European capital that suited us. It seemed to be no one’s destination of choice except EU bureaucrats and NATO officials.
The city also had great grocery stores. Coming from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where one can purchase bacon coated donuts, but not a decent head of lettuce, we were taken with the neighborhood Delhaize, a local chain packed with a vast array of cheeses, ham, bread, yogurt, waffles, wine, water, chocolate, and God knows what else.

Before we left for this trip, l had taken to driving my school bus (long story) to Fairway for groceries. On my last trip there the bus broke down in the parking lot. After several hours pacing the lot and fending off a perturbed security guard, a tow trunk finally arrived and carted us off before quickly stranding me, because the bus was too large. Eventually I jumped in a cab with the perishables. The next day I was able to cajole a nervous but kind Indian tow truck driver to take me on a bumpy journey through Brooklyn (though his boss chewed him out for it) to find a shop that might resuscitate a 1992 eight-cylinder diesel school bus.
But back to the supper. After some Talmudic discussions with my wife, we narrowed down the choices for our last dinner abroad to two Belgian classics: moules or carbonnade flamande. We had gone on a rare date a week earlier, to a festive, unpretentious place called Le Pre Sale and had settled on the moules (mine with white wine, hers, a better choice, with garlic) though the carbonnades were rumored to be the best in the city.

Our narrow culinary choices were reflective, I suppose, of who we are. We’re the kind of people that prefer to put on Led Zeppelin with windows rolled down on a road trip rather than chance screwing up the moment with, say, the new record by Animal Collective. Sometimes the classics suffice, especially when you have limited time.
The night before our last we had our second date in Brussels, and despite both of us fighting off a hacking cough we savored steak frites and an enormous quantity of wine. All that beef made choosing mussels for the last night, much, much easier.
Though we loved our nearby Delhaize, one thing became clear: it is not the place to buy mussels. I had to toss two thirds of them out as they were open. As my wife put Primo to bed, I decided to improvise a Moules a L’ail, inspired by the delicious one she had had on our first night out.

Here is what I came up with, followed by a few reflections on my time away:

Moules a l'ail au basilic (Mussels with garlic and basil)

  • 6 cloves garlic, chopped finely
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 4 lbs. mussels, cleaned and de-bearded
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 3 Tbsp butter
  • 10 basil leaves, chopped finely
  • Salt and Pepper to taste

Heat a saucepan and add butter.
Allow butter to melt and add onion.
After about three minutes add garlic, wine, pepper, salt, and basil and cook for 3-4 minutes.
Add mussels and cover.
When mussels open (4-5 minutes) remove from heat.
Serve with green salad and baguette.

During the meal my thoughts drifted, prompted perhaps by the garlicky liquidI was soaking up with my bread. I remembered many things about our month, especially, in those last mouthfuls. The long walks with Primo in the Parc du Bruxelles and the morning the two of us stood hypnotized by the fountain at the park and the smile on Primo’s face whenever we saw the fountains at Sainte Catherine.

There was another taste too, that I recalled. The taste of social democracy we experienced at Babbo’s, a beautiful state-run children’s center with hand made wood toys, a slide that led into a giant tub of plastic balls, and pots of coffee for parents placed on top of a large table where they can sit and talk. I remembered the sweet Muslim boy named Osama and the effortless intermingling of people speaking Arabic, Flemish, French, Polish, and English. And as I downed my last mussels, my thoughts kept coming somehow, appearing now in a run-on fashion, as though in a Gertrude Stein novel.

The mussels reminded me of that morning. We had gone to Charli, a sweet little bakery, for a last coffee and pain au chocolat. Primo watched the bakers through the glass. A very nice new baker, who had just started there, smiled at Primo, who gave his incredibly warm smile back. Brussels_church Before we had our pastry, we had gone to say goodbye to the Beguine church. Once inside, Primo really looked at it, all the different sides of the building and we were so amazed, both of us, by the light and the high vaulted arches and the stained glass windows.

When we walked outside, everything was magical, especially this unremarkable pole on the corner—I tapped it and he smiled widely when he heard the sound. Then he tapped it himself, and then it became our pole. And then we moved on. Ten minutes later, after we had played along the quay, we passed by it again. Primo yelled out his yearning yelp; he wanted to see it, so we returned to it and said our goodbyes one more time. Somehow that pole had all of Brussels in it. We danced all the way home, and greeted the desk man with joy and euphoria and thought maybe we lifted his spirits a little.

Finishing my meal, I felt a bit sad to leave Brussels, our church, Charli’s, the swings at the Parc du Bruxelles, our pole. But as I took a last drink of wine, suddenly, the voice of Bob Dylan came into my head singing “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” an old favorite. “I’m going back to New York City,” Bob sang, “I do believe I’ve had enough.”