She was the victim, the martyr, the saint. And she loves bread pudding.

My mother moved out at 15, lived in an apartment by herself. Paid bills, went to school. She had my brother at 18. She married my dad at 25. She worked as a maid in an old woman’s house. She smoked cigarettes with long maroon-painted nails. She worked at a gas station after school. She got decent grades. She used to fold the laundry to pass the time. She didn’t have a TV until she was 20.

She was brought up differently than me, so she taught me all she learned while she was on her own. How to fold the towels. How to make the bed. How to clip coupons and buy in bulk. To never waste. How important work was. How things can be taken away. How fucking hard life is sometimes. How lucky I was. She taught me how to few on buttons and how to cut notches into my brother’s old belts so they could fit my waist. She taught me to never go to bed angry, but we all broke that rule. She taught me that any cut heals better with a kiss, any pain alleviated with her kiss.

Maybe that’s the reason I kissed so many boys when it all hurt so much to grow up.

I’ve always admired my mother. The way she was able to be so many different people in her life. There’s no word for a daughter who loses her mother—something in the periphery of widow and orphan. How she went from waif to housewife, from mother to enemy. How she went from working in warehouse freezers outside of Louisville, Kentucky to dipping chocolate truffles with an arthritic shoulder outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. How the nightgowns she wore used to brush the sand off the kitchen floor when we lived in Florida for a year. How I can still smell her hairspray and makeup when she would kiss me before she went to work at five in the morning—a mixture of rubbing alcohol and rose petals. She was the victim, the martyr, the saint. She was the Madonna of the Graveyard Shift.  Now she sits and crochets blankets for her cats to sleep on in the addition she built for them on her farmhouse. Now my parents eat at chain restaurants at holidays because I’m not around much these days.

But when I was around, I wasn't always that great. I used to think she deserved her lot in life. I used to tell her that to her face. One time I told her she was my best friend and the worst kind of mother. Another time I told her I'd rather die than spend another year in her house. But now I can't think of anything else I want in life but to sit down at a sticky formica table with her at a buffet she swears makes the best bread pudding, just off a turnpike exit, just east of Pittsburgh.

And when the rain comes down in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, it pours for days at a time. It floods the creek, it floods the basement. The only silence you hear on those days is the stop and go of rainfall driving through the underpass.  And I think my mother likes the rain that loud, that cold, that deafening. I think she likes it to drown out the empty house. I think she likes it to distract herself. And I don’t blame her, I do the same thing, too.

Apple Chai Bread Pudding

A warm, sticky comfort dessert that is elevated with apples, chai spices (inspired by A Brown Table's masala chai), and bread made with sweet potato puree. It'll keep you warm. Make bread a day or two ahead and cut up to stale.

Ingredients for the sweet potato bread (adapted from Local Milk's "No Time Bread":

  • 2 medium-sized sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 3 tablespoon coconut oil, melted
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar, packed
  • 1 1/2 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon of black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon of salt
  • 8 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 3 cup water
  • 2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon molasses or maple syrup
  • 7 1/2 cups AP flour

Directions for the sweet potato bread:

  1. Preheat oven to 350*F and prepare a half sheet pan with aluminum foil
  2. Place sweet potatoes in a medium bowl
  3. In a small measuring cup, whisk coconut oil, syrup, brown sugar, olive oil, pepper, and salt
  4. Pour mixture over sweet potatoes and stir with a wooden spoon to coat
  5. Pour onto prepared pan and spread out
  6. Roast for 50 minutes or until browned, tender, and a little caramelized
  7. (Can eat here as its own side dish or proceed on)
  8. Let cool and puree in a food processor
  9. While cooling, in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, add yeast, sugar, and water and allow to stand until foamy
  10. Add salt, vinegar, and molasses/syrup, then turn mixer on low.
  11. Begin to add flour, one cup at a time. When you have mixed in three cups of flour, add the sweet potato puree
  12. Add remaining flour and switch to a dough hook
  13. Mix with dough hook for 8 minutes or until dough is elastic and pulling away from the sides of the bowl
  14. Dump onto a floured work surface and knead a couple times. Place in an oiled bowl, turning once, and lay a damp cloth on top of dough. Now, place a dry cloth on top of the damp cloth. Microwave for 25 seconds. Let rest for five minutes
  15. Repeat process, but allow dough to rest for 15 minutes
  16. While dough is resting, oil a dutch oven slightly and preheat oven to 450*F
  17. When dough is finished resting, shape into a round and place in dough oven
  18. Bake for 30 minutes, covered, then an additional 12 minutes uncovered, or until golden brown and crisp
  19. Allow to cool and cube.
  20. If using for bread pudding, do this a couple days ahead to stale.

Ingredients for Bread Pudding:

  • One loaf of sweet potato bread (above), cubed and stale
  • 3 cup whole milk (or cream if you're extra bad)
  • 2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and sliced
  • 12 green cardamom pods, crushed
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 10-15 peppercorns, crushed
  • 10-12 whole cloves, crushed
  • 4 tablespoons loose leaf black tea (I used a pecan blend my mom made me)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon allspice
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon orange zest
  • 2 tablespoon orange juice
  • 2 tablespoon vanilla
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 apples, cored and chopped

Directions for Bread Pudding:

  1. Place bread cubes in a large mixing bowl
  2. In a small sauce pan, begin heating milk on medium heat
  3. While milk is heating, place all spices (excluding the cinnamon stick and ginger) into a mortar and grind, breaking up cloves, pods, and peppercorns
  4. Place spices, ginger, tea, and cinnamon stick into milk and allow to simmer for 8-12 minutes, keep the heat low but allow for small bubbles to appear on the edge of the milk
  5. Turn heat off and cover. Allow to cool fully with the infused spices
  6. While mixture is cooling, separate eggs (reserve whites) and add sugar, whisking to combine until a pale yellow. Add zest, orange juice, salt, and vanilla
  7. Also prepare apples and preheat oven to 
  8. When milk mixture is cool, pour through a fine mesh strainer into yolk and sugar and whisk together
  9. Add apples to bread in mixing pour and pour milk-yolk mixture over top. Allow to sit for a few minutes to absorb liquid
  10. Butter your dish heavily and pour contents of mixing bowl into dish
  11. Bake for 30-45 minutes, checking for doneness at the 30 minute mark, until sides are slightly crisp and center is gooey
  12. Eat within two days (especially warm!)