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The Milk Maid, Love and Bread Pudding

The Milk Maid by Johannes Vermeer, 1658.

This painting, “The Milk Maid” by Johannes Vermeer, is a masterpiece, painted in 1658 and startling in its realism. The canvas shimmers with its depiction of light and colour and the stillness and warmth of the scene. The woman pouring milk into a bowl is evocative, stirring.

What the woman is making is interesting, too. But we’ll come back to that.

Whiffin Spit Road

In the late 1970s, my first wife Anne and I used to go to Sooke to visit an old friend. We were just kids in our 20s, and our friend was impossibly aged at 60. We’d leave the city on a Friday just after work and stay the weekend.

Marj had had a distinguished career with the National Film Board, retired, and wrote a history of the NFB. She’d been a witness to a lot of Canadian history. She could tell you about Leonard Cohen, Lester B. Pearson, and Maurice Richard, all of whom she’d met more than once.

Our conversations would start when we set our luggage down and wouldn’t finish until we drove away Sunday morning. A dear friend, a remarkable woman!

Marj lived near Whiffin Spit, just down the road from Sooke Harbour House, an iconic hotel and dining destination even in those days. Its restaurant was a precursor to the locavore movement: it grew its own vegetables and herbs year-round on the hotel grounds. It was fiercely loyal to local farmers and fishermen.

Sooke Harbour House

On one visit, Marj suggested Anne and I stay at the Sooke Harbour House. We’d walk along the Spit, have a cup of tea, and Anne and I could enjoy some privacy at the hotel. Marj may have subsidized the stay as a gift.

Anne and I arrived late in the afternoon, a little shy at staying in such a fancy hotel. It was way beyond our means.

In the room, we found a pot of steeping tea and a plate of cookies that appeared fresh out of the oven. They were probably Jumbles, easy to throw together with nuts and raisins and some spice. But they were the most delicious cookies I’d ever eaten, so welcoming after a long journey from Vancouver.

I was so impressed with this act of hospitality that I wrote a letter to Gourmet magazine’s “You Asked For It” column. I asked if they could procure the cookie recipe and publish it. It was a good way of getting some attention for the hotel in one of North America’s best cooking magazines.

Bread pudding recipes?

I got an answer from the column’s editor many weeks later, a handwritten note with two recipe cards enclosed.

The letter said the Sooke Harbour House chef could not remember the cookie recipe. He made new cookies every day. They were an afterthought and were made with whatever was on hand.

But the chef offered instead two recipes for the hotel’s “famous” bread pudding: one made with a mix of summer berries, the other a wintry lemon and raisin pudding. Since he could not provide the recipe we asked for, the editor would not publish the bread pudding recipes. But the magazine editor offered them to us as a consolation prize.

Too bad, I thought! What was I going to do with bread pudding recipes? I’d never had one. It sounded rather plain. I filed the cards away in my recipe index and forgot about them.

Back to Vermeer’s Milk Maid

The Vermeer picture never leaves you once you’ve genuinely beheld it. Still, you can overlook details, the little touches in the painting that build the realism: the nail on the wall, the box on the floor, the tiles at the bottom of the wall.

Initially, I was drawn to the woman and what she was doing. What was she making, thinking about? What sounds does she hear, what smells?

It wasn’t until years later that I noticed there was a lot of bread. A basket in front of the milk bowl contains a whole loaf, and there is a pile of torn bread pieces on the table.

And I thought she’s making a bread pudding! She’s making a custard, and she’s going to soak the torn bread chunks before putting them in the oven. What’s her recipe? I wondered.

Seawall date

After my first marriage ended, I lived in a bachelor’s pad near West Vancouver’s waterfront. I was courting a bonnie young lass who would eventually become my second partner, Jennifer.

Love was in the air! We had set a date for one June evening. The plan was to stroll the West Van seawall, then Jennifer would come back to the apartment for a glass of wine and dessert. I’m not the most romantic guy in town, but that day I felt inspired.

What was I going to make for dessert? I had to make an impression!

I looked through my cookbooks and fine dining magazines. Nothing inspired! I thought of something simple, easy to do well. I remembered a cookie recipe I liked. But when I thumbed through my recipe box, I stumbled on the bread pudding recipes! Not seen since 20 years earlier!

I went all in and made both recipes that afternoon. I thought of Vermeer’s Milk Maid as I toasted the bread, melted the butter, poured out the milk. And I thought of Jennifer as I soaked the raisins in rum and zested the lemons.

I met her on the seawall, and when we got back to my place, the apartment still smelled divine! A heady aroma of butter, spice and lemon! I lit some candles, served the dessert, and I shall go no further with this story!

I’ve lost that recipe box and the two bread pudding recipes. But I offer this one as the closest to what I made for Jennifer on that heady night many years ago.

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A Recipe: Bread and Butter Pudding

Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 90g Thompson Raisins
  • 110 g Dark Rum
  • 260g Enriched Bread (Like brioche, but Salish Sourdough would work well)
  • 90g Butter, melted
  • 910g Milk
  • 170g Sugar
  • 340g Eggs, beaten
  • 60g Egg Yolks, beaten
  •  2.5g Vanilla Extract
  • 1g Ground Cinnamon
  • 3g Salt

Instructions

  1. Put the raisins in a bowl and add the rum. Set aside to plump for 20 minutes, then drain.
  2. Cut the bread into half-inch cubes. Place on a sheet pan and drizzle with the melted butter. Toast in a 350ºF oven, stirring once or twice, until golden brown.
  3. Combine the milk and 90g of the sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil. 
  4. Blend the eggs, egg yolks, vanilla and the remaining 80g of sugar to make the custard. Temper the mix by gradually adding about one-third of the hot milk, whisking constantly. Add remaining milk and strain the custard into a casserole dish.
  5. Add the toasted bread, cinnamon, salt and drained raisins to the custard. Soak in the fridge for at least one hour to allow the bread to absorb the custard.
  6. Bake in a 350ºF oven until the custard is just set, 45 to 50 minutes.

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#woodfired #woodfiredoven #woodfiredovenbread #bread #realbread #naturallyleavened #baker #bakery #bbga #artisanbread #breadhead #breadmaking #breadmaking🍞 #sourdough #sourdoughbread #rusticbread, #breadhead, #coboven #earthoven #earthenoven #penderisland #southpenderisland #happymonkbaking #happymonkbakery #happymonkbakingcompany #southerngulfislands #southerngulfislandsbakers #southerngulfislandsbakeries #penderisland

How many times have I seen these loaves tumble out of the oven! If I’m not in a rush, I like to pile them up and just stand near them a moment, feeling their heat, hearing them crackle, their glorious warm aroma! Seems like a miracle, been working hard since the dark hours of morning, heard the first birdsong, seen freighters moving silently through Boundary Pass, a gentle breeze coming up from the ocean. I know I’ll pay for all this later in the day with fatigue and there’ll be several days catching up with sleep. Is it worth it all? Three years into Happy Monk Baking, I still say yes. Happy sleeping, everyone!
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Fun at 4 in the morning … first load of bread in the oven, first light, first birdsong, making the treacherous walk back inside with a tower of bannetons. In the rain.
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Fun at 4 in the morning … first load of bread in the oven, first light, first birdsong, making the treacherous walk back inside with a tower of bannetons. In the rain.
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#bakerslife #bakersofinstagram #baking #baker #woodfired #woodfiredoven #woodfiredovenbread #coboven #earthoven #earthenoven #bread #sourdoughbread #sourdough #bbga #realbread #naturallyleavened #artisanbread #artisanbreadbaker #rusticbread #breadhead #breadlove #breadhour #penderisland #southpenderisland #happymonkbaking #happymonkbakery #happymonkbakingcompany #southerngulfislands #southerngulfislandsbakers #southerngulfislandsbakeries
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Post to The Happy Monk Baking Company
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  1. If you’re interested in more recipes with bread as an ingredient, read this blog post from just over a year ago.

1 thought on “The Milk Maid, Love and Bread Pudding

  1. Thank-you David for another wonderfully written post!
    Vermeer’s painting was absolutely perfect for your blog!
    Now I am craving bread pudding ! !
    And- to go to Sooke Harbor House -that is on my post-pandemic bucket list.

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