I’m going to take a short break from cataloguing the culinary foibles of my pop-up Mardi Gras Dinner at Ratho Farm to write about something that went mostly right that night, the dessert course, Cornbread or Biscuits? Apricot Bread Pudding with Dewar’s Whisky Sauce.
The question of whether cornbread or biscuits was more quintessentially Southern came up repeatedly during my Southern Food Road Tour. I asked nearly everyone I met to list their opinion of the five most Southern Foods, and at least half struggled to decide between cornbread or biscuits (and some gave up and listed them both.)
Louisville-KY Celebrity Chef Edward Lee, who I interviewed at his flagship restaurant Magnolia, opined that the two are “equally iconic” but came down on the side of the biscuit, (along with pimento cheese, fried chicken, iced tea and bourbon). Ed said if made well, a good biscuit is “the most ethereal thing on the planet…”
But biscuits didn’t even factor into the equation for Jessica, who works at Tuscaloosa, AL’s iconic BBQ joint Archibald and Woodrow’s (hat tip to John T. Edge at the Southern Foodways Alliance for that recco.) And BBQ wasn’t even in her top five!
NEITHER biscuits nor cornbread made it to the top 5 list for James Beard Award-Winning New Orleans Chef Susan Spicer, who was far more conflicted about whether to choose grits or rice (and almost immediately gave up and took them both), along with greens, pork and shrimp. But when I gave her a couple more and asked about dessert, she said in New Orleans the choice would have to be bread pudding, (or possibly pecan pie).
And since my Mardi Gras Dinner was both an homage to the South and to New Orleans, I started wondering whether a biscuit-and-cornbread bread pudding might be delicious — a texturally interesting combination of the cake-y cornbread and the flaky biscuits. I am happy to report that the bread pudding was very well received, and that after finishing his bread pudding, one diner actually drank the remaining whisky sauce from the pitcher!
Cornbread or Biscuits? Bread Pudding with Dewar’s Whisky Sauce Recipe
Make the Cornbread and the Biscuits
I couldn’t find a cornbread and biscuit bread pudding recipe anywhere online, so I started looking around for cornbread and biscuit recipes that would exaggerate the textural differences between the two breads, knowing that the custard baked around them would work to homogenize them. I ended up picking this sweet and super-cakey cornbread and this biscuit recipe from “Chef John,” which produced buttermilk biscuits that were flaky but also had some chew to them.
As Chef Heather Bickford was making the biscuit dough, she let casually drop that she used to run a scone stand at Hobart’s famed Salamanca Market. She was pleasantly overqualified to make the biscuits and understood that I wanted them to be the firmer of the two textures as she brought the dough together. I made the cakey cornbread and it was pretty darn good — we made enough of both that we could serve some of each alongside the Chicken and Sausage Gumbo course. Because I wanted it a bit drier so it could absorb the custard, the pans of cornbread I planned to use for the bread pudding I left in the oven a touch longer than the ones going out with the soup. The cornbread I cubed and the biscuits I tore with my hands.
Make the Custard — or Cheat Like I Did
Continuing with my recipe invention, I started looking around at custard recipes, since egg custard is what provides moisture and flavor to the dried bread in this old-bread-using dessert. I found one I was going to use, too, and I planned to make it with eggs laid
by Ratho Farm’s royal chook residents. But then I noticed that we had LOTS of pre-made pourable vanilla custard in the fridge and I asked Heather if she thought I could adapt it to my purpose. She said probably, but since it is a pouring custard it would not set and hold the dessert without more raw eggs being incorporated. She suggested I add six eggs for each half gallon of custard and I ended up using just three, which worked. I don’t remember ever seeing pourable custard in the US grocery stores, so if you can’t get it, whisk in a bowl for every 9×13 pan of bread:
1 quart of half-and-half
4 large eggs
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 tsp vanilla bean paste OR 1 TB real vanilla extract
To my own cheater eggs-plus-custard bowl I added a teaspoon or so of Queen’s vanilla bean paste and mixed in about a tablespoon of a cinnamon-sugar-cardamom mixture I already had handy to sprinkle on tarts. Guesstimate: for every TB sugar, 1/2 tsp cinnamon and just a pinch of ground cardamom, which is very strongly flavored. Both the cardamom and the cinnamon played well with the apricots. Decide what spices you might like to add, and do it!
Prepare the Fruit
I scoured at farm stands and at Hobart’s farmer’s market, but I just managed to miss the peach season, which was the obvious choice for fruit in a Southern bread pudding (though raisins is the traditional one in New Orleans). I did manage to lay my hands on some juicy apricots and decided to continue building my textures and flavors further by also incorporating dried apricots soaked in the same whisky (no e in whisky in Australia!) that would go into the whisky sauce, which in my case was Dewar’s blended Scotch. I really did not want to use Scotch, and I asked Mick, the events manager who procures the liquor, to buy me some bourbon or really any not-Scotch whisky, a request he either did not understand or cheerfully disregarded. It’s kind of hard to tell with him sometimes.
But it actually tasted pretty good! 10/10 would recommend.
Assemble Bread Pudding
Okay, I buttered my pan, filled it with the cubed cornbread and torn biscuits. I then added diced up fresh apricots and chopped dried apricots that had been soaked in hot Dewar’s in a bowl for 15 minutes. I didn’t measure how much fruit, but you can kind of see the proportions. I used about twice the fresh fruit as I did dried. I used a bit more cornbread than biscuits, but not by much. I then soaked the whole thing in custard, poking some holes with the end of a wooden spoon every inch or two to give the custard plenty of avenues into the bread. You really need the custard to soak in, so ideally let it absorb overnight, which I did.
Bake the Bread Pudding
If you refrigerated your bread pudding as it soaked, bring to room temperature. If you’re not using my custard cheat, you might want to consider using a bain marie, or water bath for your bread pudding — basically a larger pan than your bread pudding pan into which you put hot water and then place your pan. As this recipe explains pretty well, the water acts as a thermal buffer that helps the custard cook evenly and not turn into scrambled eggs.
I baked my bread pudding for about 45 minutes at 350 F/177 C which was just perfect for the smaller pan and not quite enough for the larger pan. When I went to the front kitchen to check out how service was going, I noticed that the pieces from the smaller pan were holding together perfectly and the larger pan it was still a bit looser than would have been desirable. Margaux, who was managing the dessert service, made sure that Ratho owner Greg Ramsay’s parents’ table got the best bread puddings. Just like on Top Chef, the judges get special treatment!
Make Whisky Sauce
Combine in a saucepan and bring to a gentle boil:
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup Dewar’s Scotch whiskey
The sauce comes together quickly and easily and we served it in pitchers on the table to let people control how much they wanted.
Next post I’m going to try to finish off my Mardi Gras dinner disaster series with a post about the conceptual, time management and execution errors that went into our most stressful dish, the Jambalaya….Greg Ramsay said it was his very favorite dish, but he kept saying that about each new thing I made so I’m not sure he’s to be trusted on that.
If you missed it, here are posts 1 and 2 of the Mardi Gras kitchen disaster series: