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First cherries shine in bread pudding

Recipe: Use up stale loaves in this spin on a classic

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Cherry almond bread pudding can be served at brunch or as dessert. Try it with a bit of heavy cream in the bowl. (Photos: Kathy Morrison)

Let's admit this right up front: The best cherries aren't here yet. June is when the biggest, juiciest, darkest, cherry-est Bing cherries are in season.

But early-season cherries are showing up at the markets and grocery stores, and they're worth buying, especially to bake with. (In my house the Bings are so beloved they rarely are cooked.)

This bread pudding recipe shows off the early cherries, while also using up any stale bread you might have. I used part of a sourdough baguette, but just about any variety that isn't full of seeds will do. (I've even heard of hot dog buns in bread pudding, but never tried it myself.) The key is stale, but fresh bread can substitute if slices or chunks are put in a warm oven for a bit to dry them out. Trim the crusts off ahead of time if desired.

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Pitted cherries and other ingredients for bread pudding.

This bread pudding isn't heavy on custard, so reheats nicely. It can be served cold or room temperature, too. Try it with a little pool of heavy cream or even a small scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side.

Cherry almond bread pudding
Serves 6-8

Ingredients:

2 cups sweet red cherries, pitted, pits reserved
1 cup half and half
2/3 cup granulated sugar
Pinch of salt
2 eggs, beaten
2 to 3 tablespoons honey, to taste
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
2 cups stale bread cubes
Butter to grease the baking dish

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All the ingredients are in the baking dish; just the topping is left to add.

For topping:
1/2 cup sliced almonds, toasted
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Sprinkle of sugar
Sprinkle of cinnamon

To serve:
Heavy cream (not whipped) or vanilla ice cream or gelato, optional

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the reserved cherry pits and the half and half in a small saucepan over medium-low heat, just long enough for the liquid to warm and become fragrant, about 5 minutes. Strain the half and half into a glass measuring cup or small bowl and reserve; discard the cherry pits.

In a large bowl, stir the salt and sugar into the eggs until well blended. Then pour in the half and half, honey and almond extract, blending. Add the cherries and stir to coat.

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Baked golden brown and ready to serve.

Blend the stale bread cubes into the cherry mixture, and allow it to soak up some of the liquid. While that's soaking, butter a 2-quart baking dish or any dish roughly that size and at least 2 inches deep.

If the bread has soaked up all the liquid, add a little more half and half or some milk to the mixture. Pour the mixture into the prepared dish, smooth it out, and sprinkle the toasted almonds over the top. Dot the almonds with bits of the butter, then sprinkle on sugar and cinnamon to taste.

Bake until golden brown, 35 minutes. It should be bubbly but set. Remove the bread pudding to a rack to cool briefly. Serve warm or let cool to room temperature, or chill to serve later. Heavy cream, vanilla ice cream or gelato makes a fine accompaniment.

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Garden Checklist for week of July 7

Take care of garden chores early in the morning, concentrating on watering. We’re still in survival mode until this heat wave breaks.

* Keep your vegetable garden watered, mulched and weeded. Water before 8 a.m. to conserve moisture.

* Prevent sunburn; provide temporary shade for tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, melons, squash and other crops with “sensitive” skin.

* Hold off on feeding plants until temperatures cool back down to “normal” range. That means daytime highs in the low to mid 90s.

* Don’t let tomatoes wilt or dry out completely. Give tomatoes a deep watering two to three times a week. Harvest vegetables promptly to encourage plants to produce more.

* Squash especially tends to grow rapidly in hot weather. Keep an eye on zucchini.

* Some weeds thrive in hot weather. Whack them before they go to seed.

* Pinch back chrysanthemums for bushy plants and more flowers in September.

* Harvest tomatoes, squash, peppers and eggplant. Prompt picking will help keep plants producing.

* Remove spent flowers from roses, daylilies and other bloomers as they finish flowering.

* Pinch off blooms from basil so the plant will grow more leaves.

* Cut back lavender after flowering to promote a second bloom.

* One good thing about hot days: Most lawns stop growing when temperatures top 95 degrees. Keep mower blades set on high.

* Once the weather cools down a little, it’s not too late to add a splash of color. Plant petunias, snapdragons, zinnias and marigolds.

* After the heat wave, plant corn, pumpkins, radishes, winter squash and sunflowers. Make sure the seeds stay hydrated.

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