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Fennel and Sausage Bread Pudding

2 tablespoons butter, plus more for buttering pan

3 cups whole milk

1/2 teaspoon fennel seed

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

3 links mild Italian sausage (about 15 to 18 ounces total)

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 large fennel bulbs, trimmed, cored and thinly sliced crosswise (about 4 cups)

1 tablespoon minced shallots

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

5 eggs

8 cups stale sourdough bread, crust on, cut or torn into about 1/2-inch pieces (about a 1-pound loaf)

1/4 cup finely chopped, fresh parsley

Heat oven to 375 degrees and butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. In a medium saucepan, combine the milk, fennel seeds and black pepper. Heat over high heat until just before milk reaches a simmer. Remove from heat and allow to cool.

Remove the sausage from its casings and break apart into small pieces in a medium sauté pan. Cook over medium heat until sausage is thoroughly cooked and beginning to brown. Remove sausage from pan and set aside on a plate covered with a paper towel to absorb excess oil.

Wipe out pan and heat the 2 tablespoons of butter and the olive oil over medium heat until frothy. Add the fennel and cook until caramelized, about 20 to 25 minutes. Add the shallots and salt and cook for an additional 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs. Whisk in cooled milk and then stir in the bread, sausage, fennel mixture and parsley until well combined. Pour mixture into prepared baking dish, pressing down to make sure bread is submerged. Let mixture stand for about 15 minutes while bread absorbs liquid.

Bake for 35 minutes, until golden brown, rotating once for even cooking. Serve immediately.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.