Good-tasting extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 medium to large onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice
Salt and black pepper to taste
generous pinch hot red pepper flakes
2 large garlic cloves, minced
3 tightly packed tablespoons fresh basil, torn
1-3/4 to 2 pounds good-tasting tomatoes, cored and coarsely chopped (do not seed or peel), or 1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes with liquid
Olive oil for the baking dish
7- to 8-inch piece of baguette, a couple of days old if possible, cut into 1-inch thick rounds
5 large eggs, beaten
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, or to taste
1 cup half and half, or heavy cream
1 cup whole or skim milk
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/3 cup crumbled feta cheese
4 ounces firm, fresh, whole milk sheep or cow cheese, or cream cheese, thinly sliced
10 fresh basil leaves, torn
1/4 cup pitted Niçoise or oil-cured Moroccan olives
1 good-tasting medium tomato, sliced into 1/2-inch rounds, or 1 cup halved, flavorful grape tomatoes
1. Make the tomato sauce: Lightly film a 4-quart saucepan with the olive oil. Heat over medium-high. Add the onion with some salt, black pepper, and red pepper flakes and cook until golden. Stir in the garlic and basil, and cook 30 seconds. Stir in the tomatoes, breaking them up as they go into the pan. Bring the sauce to a lively bubble and cook, uncovered, 10 to 15 minutes or until thick. Stir often with a flat wood spatula to keep from sticking. Taste for seasoning. Cover and set aside 15 to 20 minutes to mellow or refrigerate up to 24 hours.
2. Assemble the pudding: While the sauce cooks, oil an 8-inch square glass baking dish. Preheat the oven to 325ºF. Cover the bottom of the dish completely with the bread slices.
3. Make the custard: In a large bowl, whisk together in a large bowl the eggs, salt, pepper, nutmeg, half-and-half, milk, and Parmigiano cheese. Pour half the custard over the bread and let it soak in for 10 minutes. Sprinkle with 3 tablespoons of the feta cheese, and half the slices of the fresh cheese. Tuck in half the basil leaves.
4. Cover everything with the tomato sauce. Pour in the rest of the custard, scatter the olives over the custard, push the sliced tomatoes and rest of the basil leaves into the custard, cover with the rest of the fresh cheese and sprinkle with the remaining feta.
5. Cover with foil and bake 45 minutes, then raise the heat to 375ºF. and bake 25 to 30 minutes. Finally, uncover and bake another 20 minutes, or until the thermometer inserted near the center of the pudding reads 200ºF. to 210ºF. Let the pudding rest at room temperature 15 minutes. Serve it hot or just warm.
Makes an 8-inch-square baking dish of pudding and doubles easily. Tomato sauce and custard could be done a day ahead and refrigerated.
between 200ºF. and 210ºF. and then give it at least a 15-minute rest before serving.