- Jeb Wallace-brodeur
- Kismet's bread pudding
I like to call these first few weeks of November the "Halloween hangover." The forested hillsides fade to tree-bark gray, their outlines barely visible in the damp, daylong gloaming. In town, withered leaves stain sidewalks muddy brown. We shed our party costumes in spangled crumples on the bedroom floor and wrap ourselves in the Graying of All Things as though it were a wet wool blanket.
On the bright side, it's great weather for cooking — and for eating. I find solace in simmering stock bones on the woodstove for days and drinking good red wine as afternoon gives way to dusk. Noontimes are better with steaming pots of tea and brittle cookies.
The post-foliage, preholiday pall is also a time to gather with loved ones at favorite restaurants because, quite frankly, chefs are better cooks than you are. Even if — like me — you're easily seduced into buying violet-shouldered turnips or spiraled Romanesco cauliflower by farmers markets' bountiful displays, these things are often best left to the professionals.
In Montpelier, Kismet chef Crystal Maderia still finds magic in the season's beets and parsnips, meats and dried legumes. And, 13 winters into her tenure as a restaurant owner, she has a few things dialed in.
One of those things is Kismet's savory bread pudding. Presented in a petite cast-iron skillet, it's a thick cut of buttered and seared whole-grain bread drowned in velvety beef broth, with melting caramelized onions and a topcoat of cheese that pulls away in strings.
As a first course at dinner, the pudding invites guttural oohs and aahs and mandatory sharing. It's filling but not heavy and nourishing in this way that — please forgive me for sounding New Agey — seems to warm the essential light at the core of your being.
"The marrow from the bones is so mineral rich," Maderia said of the broth. "When you eat it, in a subconscious way your body is just like, 'Oh, God, thank you,' but it doesn't have a mineral flavor to it."
The dish is a throwback to Maderia's dirt-road childhood in Orange County, when her mom — also a restaurant chef — would bring cast-off cheese rinds home from work and boil bones into broth on the wood cookstove.
While brothy bread pudding may seem like a quintessential cold-weather food, Maderia keeps a version of it on the menu year-round. "It's something I feel really proud of," she said. "It's a staff favorite." During brunch, the skillet arrives topped with poached eggs. Maderia said she'll soon debut a gluten-free version made with bread from Brattleboro's Against the Grain Gourmet.
Making the dish is simple enough: Cooks butter the bread, sear it on a flat-top grill and place it in the skillet with a scoop of caramelized onions. Then it's drowned in broth, smothered with cheese and blasted a few minutes in a 500-degree oven.
The ingredients make a difference, though. In home kitchens — even in my kitchen, where I'm fairly stringent about eating organic and prone to taking the long road if it makes for a better meal — most cooks are unlikely to churn organic cream into butter. Kismet staff do that twice weekly because it's fresher and better than anything available at the store.
Likewise, home cooks are unlikely to have easy access to fresh organic beef bones like the ones Maderia sources from Greenfield Highland Beef, or to spend time cooking down onions from yonder farm until they nearly fall apart. Nor will they notice the change in the flavor of said onions as their starches convert to sugars in storage over the course of many months.
That kind of thought, that care and consideration, is why most world cultures employ professional chefs. To them we delegate the tasks of finding the best ingredients, taking the extra time to make it nice, considering culinary tradition, and blending it with their own experience in ways that sate and satisfy.
And then, when that deepest, darkest November arrives, you can show up unannounced on their doorsteps, and they will welcome, feed and nourish you.