FARGO — It's apple season, and a couple weeks ago our dear friends, Dave and Denise Akkerman, of Fargo, paid a quick visit to our home to drop off a bounty of freshly picked Honeycrisp apples. Dave and Denise picked the apples that morning right from their very own tree, giving us the perfect excuse to make one of our favorite savory apple dishes, Apple Cheddar Bread Pudding.

Developed by the University of Minnesota and released in 1991 to the public, Honeycrisp apples are a favorite among many in this region and are dearly priced in our local grocery stores. To receive several dozen for free was indeed a rare gift, and we weren't going to miss the opportunity to enjoy each and every one of these special apples.

Honeycrisp apples are beautiful in color, with a sweet-tart flavor and wonderful crispness which make them a favorite for eating whole. But these qualities also make the Honeycrisp ideal for baking, as its tartness and firm texture hold up well throughout the process. Other apples that are good candidates for baking include Granny Smith and Pink Lady, and these varieties are widely available and typically more affordable than the prized Honeycrisp.

Bread pudding is a perennial favorite for fall and winter desserts, with myriad flavor combinations available in recipes and at restaurants. There is something so pleasing about this simple combination of bread, cream and eggs, which becomes its own comfort when combined with fruit, nuts and spices.

While most of us are familiar with bread pudding in its sweet form, I'll never forget the delight on our guests' faces at Sarello's when we featured it as a savory side made with apples and cheddar cheese. These simple ingredients, along with some sautéed onions and dried thyme, transformed this humble food into an elegant and composed side dish.

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We featured this dish each fall and it is an excellent partner with center-cut pork chops, meatloaf and roast chicken, and it would also make a great substitute for the traditional Thanksgiving stuffing or as a featured dish for brunch.

Making bread pudding is not an exact science, and the measurements provided in today's recipes are mere guidelines, as I used more onion and cheese than called for with a delicious result. Any stale or leftover bread we have goes straight into our freezer for future use, and we typically use day-old French baguettes, hard dinner rolls and Italian ciabatta or sourdough bread for our bread pudding.

I love the versatility of bread pudding, as it holds the form of whatever baking vessel you choose to use. You could use a large baking dish, loaf pans or even muffin tins, which I adore as the pudding comes out in charming individually-sized portions and makes a lovely presentation on a plate or platter.

Bread pudding freezes well after baking, and with so many Honeycrisp apples to use, I chose to make extra batches, as well as a sweet version with maple syrup and toasted pecans. I have only frozen it after baking, and I will often cut it into smaller portions, wrapping each portion in plastic before placing into a freezer bag or container. It can thaw overnight in the refrigerator, or at room temperature until ready to reheat.

We are grateful to our friends for their generous gift and the inspiration this provided to jumpstart our fall baking season.

And as long as we're on the topics of baking and gifts, now is the perfect time to start a batch of homemade vanilla extract to have it ready for holiday baking and gift giving (the recipe is posted on our blog). Happy Fall!

Savory Apple Cheddar Bread Pudding

Ingredients:

4 tablespoons unsalted butter (half a stick)

2 cups diced apples, cut into ¾- to 1-inch cubes (Honeycrisp, Granny Smith or Pink Lady are best)

½ cup diced yellow onion

1 teaspoon dried thyme

3 eggs

1½ cups cream

1 cup grated cheddar cheese

½ pound day-old bread, cubed (about 5 to 6 cups)

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Melt the butter in a large pan over medium heat; add the apples, onion and thyme and cook over medium-low heat until the onions are translucent and the apples are slightly soft, about 8 to 10 minutes. Cool in the refrigerator for 10 to 15 minutes.

In a large bowl, use a whisk to combine the eggs and cream together. With a wooden spoon or spatula, gently stir in the chilled apple mixture and cheddar cheese until combined. Gently incorporate the bread cubes into the mixture and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Transfer mixture to a 9-by-13 baking dish, loaf pan or muffin tin and let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes. If using a loaf pan, fill pan to within an inch of the top; for muffins, fill to the top of each mold.

Create a water bath to ensure even baking: Place the pan with the bread pudding in the center of a larger pan, and fill with warm water to half-way up the side of the smaller pan.

Bake at 300 degrees for about an hour, until the top is a rich, golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Oven temperatures vary, so check for doneness after 45 minutes. Cool for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

To store, cover and refrigerate for up to 4 days for best results. To freeze, bake first, cool, wrap in plastic and transfer to an airtight freezer bag or container and freeze for up to 2 months. For easy access, cut into individual portions before freezing, wrap each portion in plastic and place them in a freezer bag or container.

Tips:

  • To prevent browning, soak the cut apples in a bowl filled with water and a tablespoon of lemon juice until ready to use.
  • These measurements are mere guidelines, and the amount of bread, apples, spices, onions and cheese may be adjusted to your taste.
  • Adjust the size of your bread cubes to the size of the pan - for larger pans, cut into 1-inch cubes; for smaller pans or muffins, cut into ½-inch cubes.

Sweet Apple Pecan Bread Pudding

Ingredients:

4 tablespoons unsalted butter (half a stick)

2 cups diced apples, cut into ¾- to 1-inch cubes (Honeycrisp, Granny Smith or Pink Lady are best)

1 teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

3 eggs

1½ cups cream

½ cup brown sugar

2 tablespoons pure maple syrup (optional)

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

Pinch of salt

½ pound day-old bread, cubed (about 5 to 6 cups)

½ cup chopped pecans, toasted

Directions:

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Melt the butter in a large pan over medium heat; add the apples, cinnamon and nutmeg cook over medium-low heat until apples are slightly soft, about 8 to 10 minutes. Cool in the refrigerator for 10 to 15 minutes.

In a large bowl, use a whisk to combine the eggs and cream together. Add the brown sugar, maple syrup and vanilla and whisk until incorporated. With a wooden spoon or spatula, gently stir in the chilled apple mixture, then fold in the bread cubes and toasted pecans until evenly distributed.

Transfer mixture to a 9-by-13 baking dish, loaf pan or muffin tin and let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes. If using a loaf pan, fill pan to within an inch of the top; for muffins, fill to the top of each mold.

Create a water bath to ensure even baking: Place the pan with the bread pudding in the center of a larger pan, and fill with warm water to half-way up the side of the smaller pan.

Bake at 300 degrees for about an hour, until the top is a rich, golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Oven temperatures vary, so check for doneness after 45 minutes. Cool for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

To store, cover and refrigerate for up to 4 days for best results.

To freeze, bake first, cool, wrap in plastic and transfer to an airtight freezer bag or container and freeze for up to 2 months. For easy access, cut into individual portions before freezing, wrap each portion in plastic and place them in a freezer bag or container.