Savory Bread Pudding with Asparagus, Fontina and Mixed Herbs

Course : French
Serves: 6
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12 slices dry bread crumbs -- to 16 slices
2 1/2 cups milk -- to 3 cups
1 pound asparagus
5 large eggs
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper -- freshly ground
1/4 cup freshly grated Romano cheese
4 ounces fontina cheese -- slivered
4 ounces Swiss cheese -- slivered
1/2 cup chopped mixed fresh herbs (such as chives -- parsley, and tarragon)
1/2 cup chopped mixed fresh herbs (or such as sage -- thyme, and marjoram)
1 tablespoon butter -- cut into small bits

Preparation / Directions:

Place the bread in a single layer in a shallow dish. Pour 2 1/2 cups milk over the top. Let soak until the bread has absorbed the milk and becomes soft, about 30 minutes. Press the bread slices to extract the milk. Measure the milk; you should have 1/2 cup milk left after squeezing. If not, make up the difference with additional milk as needed. Set the milk and bread aside. While the bread is soaking, trim the asparagus, removing the woody ends. Cut the stalks on the diagonal into thin slivers each about 2 inches long and 3/8 inch thick. Arrange the slivered asparagus on a steamer rack and place over gently boiling water. Cover and steam until barely tender, 2 or 3 minutes. Immediately place the asparagus under cold running water until cold. Drain and set aside. Preheat an oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 3-quart mold -- a soufflé dish works well. In a bowl beat together the eggs, salt, pepper, and the 1/2 cup milk until well blended. Layer one-third of the bread in the prepared dish. Set 6 to 8 asparagus slivers aside and top the bread layer with half of the remaining asparagus and half of the mixed herbs. Strew one-third of each of the cheeses over the asparagus. Repeat the layers, using half of the remaining bread, all of the remaining asparagus and herbs, and half of the remaining cheeses. Arrange the remaining bread on top, strew the remaining cheeses over it, and garnish with the reserved asparagus slivers. Pour the milk-egg mixture over the layers and then dot with the butter. Bake in the preheated oven until the top is crusty brown and a knife inserted in the middle of the pudding comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Comments: Save up your leftover bread for a week or so, especially the ends and slices from baguettes and any pieces of specialty breads such as focaccia. Let them get good and dry. Heavy, chewy breads make a dense pudding; lighter breads result in a softer, more traditional texture. Served with slices of smoky ham or grilled salmon fillets, this pudding is a good late breakfast or brunch dish.

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