You may be surprised to not find chocolate on the long list of foods I’ve put in my smoker. The reason? Smoke gets lost in chocolate’s already intense, bitter, earthy flavor. Here’s the exception: a smoked chocolate bread pudding from the highly inventive Alden & Harlow restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Owner-chef Michael Scelfo makes strategic use of hickory smoke to raise a great bread pudding to the stratosphere. Moral of the story? Use smoke in desserts when it makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Step 1: Set up your smoker following the manufacturer’s instructions and preheat to 225° to 250°F. Add the wood as specified by the manufacturer.
Step 2: Arrange the brioche cubes in a single layer in an aluminum foil pan and place in the smoker. Smoke, stirring occasionally so the cubes smoke evenly, until firm and toasted, 30 to 45 minutes.
Step 3: Meanwhile, make the custard: Place the cream, milk, sugar, and salt in a heavy saucepan. Cut the vanilla bean, if using, in half lengthwise, and scrape the tiny black seeds into the cream. Then, add the vanilla bean halves. Bring to a boil over medium heat, whisking until the sugar dissolves. Remove the pan from the heat. Remove the vanilla bean halves; you can rinse, dry, and reuse them. Whisk in half of the chocolate until melted. (Return the pan to low heat if the chocolate needs help melting.)
Step 4: Place the eggs, egg yolks, and vanilla extract, if using, in a large heatproof bowl and whisk until smooth. Gradually whisk in the hot cream mixture. Add it little by little so as not to curdle the eggs. Add the smoked bread cubes and fold until the bread has absorbed most of the custard.
Step 5: Butter the skillet and spoon in the pudding mixture. Sprinkle with the remaining chopped chocolate, pushing the pieces into the bread pudding with a fork.
Step 6: Increase the heat of your smoker to 325°F. Some smokers won’t go that high; if not, increase the heat to 275°F. Smoke the bread pudding until puffed and browned on top and the custard is set, 40 to 60 minutes at the higher temperature, 1 to 1½ hours at the lower temperature. (Insert a metal skewer into the center of the pudding—it should come out clean when the custard is set.)
Step 7: Serve the bread pudding hot (à la mode with Smoked Ice Cream, if desired).
Brioche is a French butter- and egg-enriched bread. You’ll want a firm, not soft-squishy, loaf. (Stale brioche works great here.) You’ll also get good results with firm country-style white bread or challah. Use an intense bittersweet chocolate like Scharffen Berger.