To celebrate Mardi Gras this year, I broke out the bourbon. But when reminded by the label on my bottle of Jim Beam that this spirit is made almost exclusively in Kentucky, I paused.
What accounts for the popularity of bourbon bread pudding in Louisiana restaurants, if bourbon is not a local specialty like Tabasco or oysters? Is it a coincidence that the rowdiest street in New Orleans shares a name with the county where Kentucky distillers invented a truly American spirit? Was it through word association alone that bourbon became an iconic New Orleans ingredient? I put down my whisk to look for answers to these burning questions. Here is what I found:
In the mid-1700s, Scots-Irish immigrants in Virginia took up the government’s offer to settle land west, in Kentucky. They brought their skills in distilling to the new territory. In a happy accident, their settlements were located on the Limestone Shelf, a geologic area where water is particularly high in calcium and low in iron, ideal for spirit manufacture (great water for raising thoroughbred horses also, as Kentuckians would discover). Newcomers used the only available local grain, maize, to make corn liquor. Straight off the still, it was clear with a hint of sweetness.
In the 1780s, spirit trade along the Natchez Trace from Lexington to New Orleans flourished. To save money, producers used old fish barrels made of white Kentucky oak for transport, charring and burning the insides to remove the flavor of fish. Each barrel was stamped with the name of its county of origin, Bourbon County (named for the French royal family) predominating. After the 90-day trip downriver in these charred barrels, the spirit was transformed into something completely different: dark red, smooth and with hints of vanilla and caramel pulled from the oak.
Bourbon has been popular in New Orleans ever since, becoming ingrained in the culinary and drinking culture of New Orleans. Bourbon Street, like Bourbon County in Kentucky, was named by city planners after the French royal family, but it may as well have been named after the spirit that came to define the city.
Bourbon brings hints of caramel and smoke to bread pudding, enhancing the dessert’s rich, eggy flavor and balancing the sweetness of the dried fruit. Adding alcohol directly to the pudding, or subbing it in for some of the milk, might affect the way your custard sets up, causing it to curdle or become watery. It’s better to add the booze to the glaze, which is brushed on after baking. Just 1⁄4 cup will give your pudding the punch it needs for any Mardi Gras or other raucous celebration.
BOURBON BREAD PUDDING
For the pudding:
1⁄2 baguette, cut into 2-inch cubes (4 1⁄2 cups)
1 1⁄2 cups heavy cream
1⁄2 cup milk
6 tablespoons (1 1⁄2 sticks) unsalted butter
3⁄4 cups packed light brown sugar
1 1⁄2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
5 large egg yolks
1⁄2 cup golden raisins
1⁄2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
For the bourbon glaze:
1⁄2 tablespoon butter
1⁄2 teaspoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons bourbon
1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar
6 tablespoons heavy cream
1. Make the pudding: Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Arrange the bread cubes in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake until golden, 15 to 18 minutes, turning cubes once during baking. Let stand to cool.
2. Lightly butter an 8-inch-square baking dish. In a large mixing bowl, combine the cooled bread, cream and milk. Let stand while you make the custard.
3. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Remove from heat and stir in the brown sugar, vanilla and salt.
4. In a medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks. Whisk in the butter mixture. Pour the custard mixture over the bread, tossing to combine. Turn the pudding into the prepared baking dish and distribute evenly.
5. Sprinkle the raisins over the top and nestle them into the pudding. Add the cinnamon. Cover the baking dish with aluminum foil and bake for 55 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for an additional 10 to 15 minutes, until the bread pudding is golden brown. Set aside to cool slightly.
6. Make the glaze: Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Remove from the heat and whisk in the cornstarch, bourbon, confectioners’ sugar and salt. Whisk in the cream until smooth. Return to the heat and cook, whisking, until slightly thickened, 2 to 3 minutes.
7. Pour the glaze over the top of the bread pudding and let it sit for 15 minutes before serving. The bread pudding is best served warm, but it can be refrigerated, tightly covered, for up to 4 days.
Makes 8 servings.