Sturdy enough to take to pot luck dinners, yet versatile enough to welcome fancy sauces and exotic ingredients, bread pudding is something of a blank canvas. At its core, the dessert consists of bread pieces over which a rich liquid of eggs and milk or cream is poured, encasing the bread in a hearty custard. Although not quite as notorious for collapsing as a souffle, bread pudding has been known to fall if care isn't taken in preparing, baking and serving it.
Swear by Stale
You'll notice that bread pudding recipes usually call for day-old or stale bread. That's because dried-out, stale bread absorbs liquid better than fresh bread, which prevents the custard from pooling up on top and bearing its weight down on the surface once it sets. If you're making bread pudding on a whim and only have fresh bread, toast the cubes in the oven to remove some of the moisture from the bread pieces.
Stop to Soak
Bread cubes need time to soak in the custard ingredients poured over them. If you rush the process, the bread doesn't have a chance to absorb the liquid before the baking process begins. Not only will this make the dish less flavorful, but some of the liquid will solidify on top of the cubed bread, raising the likelihood of a collapsed surface. Wait at least three minutes after you pour the custard over the bread, then gently toss the cubes and wait another three minutes.
Foil the Fall
Covering the baking dish with aluminum foil in the first stages of baking facilitates steaming. This hot, moist air encourages the even cooking and puffiness that comes from evenly heated, moistened foods. In contrast, a bread pudding that dries out too quickly can turn leaden on top, and quickly fall. Remove the foil after about 30 minutes so the surface can turn golden brown. In the absence of foil, a water bath also creates steam. Set your bread pudding pan within a larger pan, and pour boiling water to a depth of about 1 inch in the space between the two pans' outer edges.
Promote the Puff
Bread puddings rise properly when the custard bakes fully. This final set results in a puffy, high topping. Don't take the bread pudding out too soon, because the surface will remain sunken. It's best to adhere as closely as possible to the time and oven temperatures specified on your recipe, especially if you're also using the same-sized pan the recipe calls for. A golden color will be another clue that the top is set and has risen.
Adjust for Altitude
If you live in the mountains, baked goods can fall flat under the increased atmospheric pressure produced at higher elevations. Bread pudding isn't quite as vulnerable as some other baked goods, because it uses already-baked bread and doesn't require leavening agents that can act unpredictably in higher elevations. But if the pudding's top always collapses despite your best efforts to correct for other factors, consider adding an extra egg to the mix to build in more structure. Reducing the sugar may also help.
Expand the Edges
Baking bread pudding in a large, rectangular, shallow pan distributes the ingredients across a greater surface area, which can make the finished product more stable than a circular, high-sided vessel. But the real advantage comes from the visual illusion -- a slightly caved-in top looks merely rustic in the larger, shallow pan, while the collapsed center of the high-sided pudding is more obvious.
Present it Promptly
Some bread pudding recipes are designed to be served at room temperature, or chilled overnight. You may find their taste enhanced when chilled or slightly cooled -- but be prepared for the pudding to collapse. If you want to avoid the fallen look, serve bread pudding warm. If you have guests to impress but can't serve the pudding right away, make sure they see it in its puffed-up glory, then whisk it away and disguise the collapsed center with sauce or whipped cream.