I dropped my line, which was weighted down with a spherical ten-pound weight, into the freezing cold Alaskan waters and watched it sink like a rock. Thousands of tiny bubbles sprung up from the clear-deep blue water and my rod buzzed as the solar-powered lure fell towards the bottom. It went on for an impossibly long time. Surely, I thought, I had found a rare hole in the middle of the reef of of Ketchikan, Alaska and my line would run out and fly off towards the center of the earth before ever reaching the bottom. But just as that thought flickered across my mind, I felt a quick shudder ring through my pole. Two hundred feet below the tiny six-person skiff that I was standing on, my weight had thudded on the bottom. Three slow turns brought the hook and lure just above the reef, where rockfish like to laze around during the day.
The hard part, as we would soon find out, is finding the elusive little fish. Our guide Alisa, a bubbly thirty-something woman with chestnut brown hair and rich golden eyes, watched my pole as it sat lifeless in my hands. A quick dip of the tip and she shouted, “there!” I tugged upwards, quickly, making sure to keep the line taught, but it was gone. Several attempts later from various members in our boat and still nothing. We were getting worried since we had planned on feasting on our catch for lunch. We scooted from one spot to the next until Alisa finally took us to what she called her “secret rockfish hiding spot.”
I dropped my line in again, as I had the previous times before, and bam! A strike, almost immediately. I launched the tip of my pole towards the sky and reeled hard and steady, keeping the tension in the line. I couldn’t help but smile. In that moment, I felt what was just pure and genuine happiness. I am not a fishing master by any means, but there is almost nothing in the world that gives me more pleasure than catching, growing, or foraging for my own dinner. It makes me feel strong. It makes me feel more connected to the environment and to the food I put in my mouth. I long for more experiences like that.
After an hour of successful fishing in the “secret spot,” we turned around and headed for shore. By this time, the sun had begun to burn off the layer of dreamy grey fog that had surrounded us in the early morning. We pulled up to a small rocky beach and hopped off the boat. A hundred feet inland, hot coffee waited in a blue kettle next to a crackling campfire that sent white smoke upwards towards the tree canopy overhead. Alisa laid out our fish on a small wooden table and began the hard work of butchering our catch.
Only she didn’t make it look difficult at all. I’ve filleted fish before and struggled immensely to get the clean cuts that she was achieving in long, effortless strokes. “Alisa does it better than any of the guys,” her colleague at the camp told us. He continued on: “The big guys come in here with their big knives and hack away at the fish. But they don’t do it nearly as well as Alisa. She’s a pro.” He was giving her a compliment but also alluding to the subtle gender dynamics in the company and industry at large. Alisa would later tell me that she was one of only two women fishers out of a company that employed thirty guides.
Once the fish were filleted and cleaned, she handed them off to the camp chef, a man named Andy, who prepared all of the accompaniments for the fish in a small outdoor kitchen. I secretly longed to cook alongside him. It’s always difficult for me not to be able to cook my own food when I travel. Sometimes I kiss the ugly linoleum floor of my tiny kitchen when I return home from trips. But when I smelled the aromas coming from his petit outdoor kitchen, I was instantly grateful that he was the one behind the counter.
I had just finished my bowl of saffron-spiked fish stew when Andy passed around six royal blue bowls filled with dessert to our group, a dessert that he was somewhat famed for—Blueberry Rhubarb Bread Pudding. At this point, however, I had just inhaled my entire lunch and couldn’t even think to take another bite of food. I thanked them for the offer and then passed. “Trust me. You don’t want to miss this,” Alisa warned. “He’s famous for this bread pudding.” She hadn’t steered me wrong all day so I heeded her advice. “Okay, but I’ll just have a bite, so make my portion small, please!”
They didn’t. And, as it turns out, I was glad.
The bread pudding was sweet and summery from the addition of Alaskan blueberries and rhubarb. But the topping of crystallized ginger and a thick, sweet roux-like sauce to the top added warmth, which was perfect in the context of the chilly Alaskan air and crackling campfire. For this recipe here, however, I’ve omitted the winter-y crystallized ginger and instead topped the fruity bread pudding with a brandied crème anglaise. I chose brandy here because I like the deep richness that it adds to fruit, but a smoky whiskey might also be fun. You know how I love my Whiskey Crème Anglaise. I’ve also increased the cream to egg ratio since I prefer my bread puddings gooey on the bottom, slightly crispy on the top, and a little light on the custard. And I’m happy to say that after several unnerving attempts, I’ve finally got a recipe that yielded exactly that result.
PS: Hi again! I’m so happy to be back to blogging after these past few weeks of travel. I’ve missed y’all more than you know! xx
- 1 pint of blueberries
- ½ pound of rhubarb (about 2 stalks), sliced into ½-inch pieces
- 1 cup of brown sugar
- 4 eggs, beaten
- 2½ cups of heavy whipping cream (or whole milk)
- 2 tablespoons of vanilla
- 2 teaspoons of ground cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon of ground nutmeg
- 2 teaspoons of salt
- 1 1-pound loaf of day old French bread (or other bread of your choosing) cut into uniform ½-inch pieces, about 8 cups
- 1-2 tablespoons of butter, for greasing your baking pan
- 1-2 tablespoons of granulated sugar, for sprinkling onto your greased baking pan
- mint or fresh blueberries, for garnish (optional)
- brandied crème anglaise, for serving (optional, recipe below)
- 1 cup of heavy whipping cream
- 3 egg yolks
- ¼ cup of granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract or seeds scraped from 1 vanilla bean
- 2 tablespoons of brandy (or whiskey, if you prefer) to taste
- Cut bread into ½-inch pieces, taking care to make the pieces as uniform in size as possible so that they will absorb the liquid evenly. I cut loaf into ½-wide rounds and then quartered each round.
- In a larger bowl, whisk together the brown sugar and eggs until incorporated. Add whipping cream and whisk again. Next, add the vanilla extract, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt, whisking until incorporated. Finally, add the bread and fruit and toss with your hands to coat. Allow mixture to rest for at least 1 hour (preferably 2) so that the bread can absorb the liquid contents, tossing the mixture a few times in between.
- While bread is absorbing, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- Grease a large baking pan with butter and then sprinkle the bottom with granulated sugar, rotating the pan to coat evenly. Empty contents of the bread pudding into the baking pan. Then press down with the palms of your hands to compact the bread and make the top (mostly) flat. Don’t worry if there’s a bit of excess liquid around the bread—this will turn into a custard as it bakes.
- Take a tall rimmed baking tray that will comfortably fit your baking pan inside of it and set your baking pan in it. Pour water into the rimmed tray until it reaches about halfway up the sides of the baking pan. This is how you get the custard to cook evenly.
- Bake in the preheated oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until you stick a toothpick in and it comes out mostly clean. You’re looking to make sure the custard part of the dish is set. 1 hour may seem like a long time for a custard to set, but remember that the fresh fruit adds some juices to the mix. Check the pudding periodically while it bakes to make sure the edges of the bread aren’t burning. If you notice them start to brown too much, cover with tin foil and continue to bake until finished.
- Top each plated bread pudding liberally with Brandied Crème Anglaise.
- Heat cream in a saucepan over medium heat until you see bubbles beginning to form on the edges of the pan. Do not let it boil.
- While the cream is heating, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar in a medium sized bowl until slightly thickened, about 1-2 minutes. Slowly pour the heated cream into the egg mixture, continuing to whisk as you pour.
- Return the egg and cream mixture to the saucepan and heat over low heat, continuing to stir constantly, until it thickens to your desired consistency and can coat the back of a spoon, about 3-4 minutes. Do not let it boil!
- Remove from heat and allow to cool. Once mixture is completely cooled, whisk in the brandy and vanilla.