Bread pudding is the sort of blank-slate recipe that you can add anything to. The custard can be bolstered with booze or spiced with flavors from cinnamon to black pepper. The bread can be combined with fresh fruit or dried fruit. Or toasted nuts, or shredded coconut, or chocolate chips. But my current favorite bread pudding has none of those things.

My favorite bread pudding recipe has just five ingredients — and that's including the salted brown sugar sauce you pour, with abandon, on top. Now, it's worth noting that any bread pudding's essential ingredients tally at four. The bread, dairy of choice, eggs, and sugar are all non-negotiable (vegan bread pudding is possible, but another story entirely), which is to say that bread pudding in general is as minimalist as it gets — and this recipe doesn't change much.

The bread pudding and its BFF sauce share the same ingredients | (Julia Gartland/Courtesy Food52)

And that's the whole point. I like to think of it in the same way that Nancy Silverton thinks of her egg salad: "It's a very straightforward egg salad," she writes in Mozza at Home. "What makes it special is that every element of the salad is done correctly."

Such is the case here. You have everything you need, nothing you don't, and each ingredient works its hardest. Of course, because it's so simple, this recipe is also the sort of foundation that you can build upon — say, by adding in some of those doodads that I listed above. But who needs them?

Here's how to make bread pudding feel great about itself without all the accessories.

Challah

This braided bread was born to become bread pudding. It's enriched — with eggs, oil, and some sort of sweetener (often sugar, sometimes honey) — which is what makes it so sunny-colored, soft, and fluffy. I like to think of enriched breads like challah as a secret advantage, since we're only adding more eggs, fat, and sugar in the custard.

A lot of bread pudding recipes will tell you to ditch the crusts, cube the bread, spread it out on a sheet tray, and let it stale at room temperature for overnight or longer. Here, we're keeping the crusts because they're full of flavor (thanks, Maillard reaction), and tearing the bread so we get irregular, shaggy pieces, which give the whole dish a more rustic vibe. And instead of staling the bread, we're going to oven-dry it. Both methods are in the interest of a not-soggy bread pudding, but the details matter: The former, according to Serious Eats, yields "leathery, chewy bread," while oven-drying does a better job, and in way less time, too. I like using a 300°F oven, which encourages some toasty edges (a.k.a. more flavor).

Can we have this for breakfast every day? | (Julia Gartland/Courtesy Food52)

Half-and-half

Dairy is the essence of custard. (And custard is the essence of beauty.) The possibilities are: heavy cream, half-and-half, and whole milk. (Anything leaner than whole milk won't cut it here — the flavor is too mild.)

The difference between these three is fat content. Heavy cream is about 38 percent fat, half-and-half is about 12 percent, and whole milk is about 3.25 percent. I find an all-heavy cream bread pudding too rich and all-whole milk too meager. Half-and-half, which is just what it sounds like (half cream, half milk), is the best of both worlds. It makes a bread pudding that's decidedly decadent — but not so heavy that you won't want to pour brown sugar sauce on top. Oh, and that brown sugar sauce? It's also made with half-and-half.

Whole eggs and yolks

Eggs are here to set our bread pudding. If you use too few, it will lack structure and if you use too many, it'll be too stiff. We want to find that sweet spot — solid enough to scoop and serve, but still tender and pillowy and plush.

We also don't want it to taste eggy. The folks at Cooks' Illustrated figured out "that eggy flavor comes from the sulfur compounds in egg whites." So in their bread pudding, they eliminated the egg whites entirely and just used yolks — sort of like you would in a crème anglaise. But I wasn't ready to say goodbye to the egg whites. While yolks are enough to thicken the custard, they won't contribute any fluffiness or lightness — that's where the egg whites come in. By using whole eggs and egg yolks, we achieve a bread pudding that's well-set but not eggy, rich but not dense.

Dark brown sugar

The difference between light brown sugar and dark brown sugar is the molasses content: The former is about 3.5 percent molasses, the latter is about 6.5. In most baked goods, light and brown sugar are more or less interchangeable, which is to say using one over the other won't ruin a recipe.

But the taste will be different. Think about the difference between granulated sugar and light brown sugar. Granulated is a clean, pure sweetness. Light brown sugar is sweet and flavorful, with notes of vanilla, toffee, and malt. Since the molasses percentage difference between granulated and light brown is almost the same as the difference between light brown and dark brown, you can imagine just how much more intense dark brown sugar is.

In certain cases, like a chocolate chip cookie, this might be too much. But in bread pudding, it's just right — bringing a lot of complexity without adding a lot of sugar. It's also the base of our brown sugar sauce, which I like to think of as a cheater's caramel: You just combine brown sugar, half-and-half, and plenty of salt, stir over low heat for a couple minutes, and that's it. (Just try not to drink the whole thing before the bread pudding is ready.)

Vanilla extract

"You might think of vanilla as a volatile ingredient," Kristen Miglore writes in Genius Desserts, "all but impossible to correct once overdone. But it's much harder to overdo than you'd think." She's writing about blondies — but the lesson applies to vanilla-flavored desserts everywhere. And, in case you haven't noticed, a lot of dessert recipes include vanilla extract. Even when it's not a star flavor, like in ice cream, it's that something-something that lets us know a dessert is as it should be. (Just skip the vanilla in a chocolate chip cookie and you'll get what I mean.)

Like the Genius blondies, this bread pudding believes that more is more. For some context, this raspberry bread pudding calls for 1/2 teaspoon. My recipe calls for 2 tablespoons — 12 times as much. It sounds outlandish, but just trust. This ingredient is what sends an otherwise-classic bread pudding over the top.

This story was originally published on Food52.com: For the best bread pudding, keep it really, really simple.