Something's different. The other day, I sheared my skinny dark 'city' jeans in half at the knee, to make a farm-rolled pair of summery shorts instead. I think that just about sums up the transformation neatly.

Things are definitely changing around here. There's been a kind of loosening lately, a slipping and untying of the knot that's lived in my stomach for I don't know how long. My hard metropolitan face is chipping away, thankfully. I've been doing some baking. I want to talk to you about bread pudding in a moment--I need to talk to you about this French toast-style challah bread pudding made with maple syrup and a crumbly topping, like, urgently--but first, we need to talk about something else.

Guys, I am so danged cheerful these days. I don't know what's come over me. Yesterday, I caught myself whistling. Whistling.

I am impossibly, unbelievably cheerful most of the time, even in those moments when I only seem to be concentrating on something else. I promise you, since relocating back to my arid little outpost in the desert, there are cartwheels going on behind my eyes pretty much twenty-four/seven (except maybe when I'm pumping gas, which as it turns out is a thing I really didn't miss and still kind of hate). The other day I was out for a stroll, walking the dog around the grassy hills of our little stucco complex, and I passed a few gently waving flowering bushes, looked up and saw a stand of palm trees glittering in pre-sunset rays of light, and I thought.......okay. Wait just a minute. Would you just look at all this for a minute? We are all so lucky to even be here right now. Hey you, kid languidly kicking around a soccer ball on that lush hilly lawn, which you probably think is a lousy lawn and wish was bigger and flatter and more soccer field-like....are you kidding me? Do you even know how lucky we all are? Where I just came from, you'd be kicking that ball around in a stairwell.

 A few weeks ago, I would have looked up and seen only grey concrete and malnourished city trees, then mounted the steps to a tiny apartment that faced an air shaft. Now there are palm trees, and and apartment full of windows that floods with light every morning. Now I'm out walking a dog, my dog......our dog. Now even grocery store cashiers and random pedestrians seem friendlier to me (note to self: they actually are friendlier, must remember that it's okay and even expected to say hello to anyone and everyone you meet, not necessary to avert your eyes and sweep all attention to jabbing fingers anxiously at your smartphone at the approach of another human). Now even the hot, dry summer breeze across the parking lot feels like a breath of fresh air.

What I'm saying is, I've been feeling pretty great lately, and I've also been making maple syrup-kissed, crumble-topped challah bread pudding, and you should maybe feel pretty great about that, too.

Challah Bread Pudding with Maple Syrup

Makes 6-8 servings, depending on hunger/greed level

For its delicate sweetness and airy, chewy crumb, challah is always my go-to for French toast. It stands to reason that any French toast-inspired bread pudding made with this delicious bread would also be pretty fantastic....and you're not wrong. It definitely is. If you can make this ahead of time and cover the whole thing in plastic wrap, leaving it in the fridge overnight to soak, so much the better. If not, make it at least an hour before baking so that the bread cubes have a chance to take on as much of the custardy maple mixture as possible before going into the oven. 

The crumble topping on this takes it into a realm that's almost coffee cake-like, and that's a pretty great place to be, as well. Enjoy this with a cup of strong, dark coffee and smile! :)

3 cups of 1" challah cubes, plus 3 extra tablespoons challah breadcrumbs
2 cups milk
2 eggs
3/4 cup syrup (maple if you're feeling rich, pancake syrup if you're not, I won't judge), plus 2 extra tablespoons
1/2 teaspoon salt (divided into 1/4 and 1/4)
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon flour (use whatever you have on hand; I used some gluten free millet flour I had in the pantry)
1 tablespoon raw sugar

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together milk, eggs, 3/4 cup of syrup and 1/4 teaspoon of salt until you have an even mixture. Place bread cubes on top, gently stir and toss to combine until bread is evenly coated. Use 1 tablespoon of butter to coat the sides and bottom of a glass 9" x 5" baking dish. Place bread cube mixture in the dish, pouring any remaining milk mixture over the top. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for one hour to overnight. Cover remaining ingredients and set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a small bowl, mix breadcrumbs, 2 tablespoons maple syrup, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1 tablespoon butter and raw sugar, pinching with your fingertips until a coarse, crumbly mixture forms. Sprinkle evenly over bread pudding, bake uncovered at 350 for 45 minutes until golden brown and puffy with deliciousness. Let cool slightly, then devour.