Soup seemed like the clear winner in the March Bon Appétit, but as we flipped pages and texted about the recipes that had caught our attention, we opted for a different direction. It felt like it had been too long since we’d tested a dessert for our monthly challenge, and neither of us has much experience with homemade pudding, so we decided to give the bourbon-butterscotch pudding a whirl. With brown butter, bourbon, vanilla, and heavy cream as the star ingredients, it was hard to imagine this could be anything but delicious. It was indeed a very special treat, but we both had issues with the texture…
Laura’s Take: Oh boy, did I eat a lot of this. It started innocently enough with tiny tastes along the way to make sure the flavors were right. After I poured my pudding into the cutest vessels I could find and stowed them away in the fridge, I gave my spatula a discreet lick. I could not believe how good it tasted. I finished off the spatula, grabbed the blender jar and got comfy on the couch while I scraped every last drop of warm pudding from the glass. First thing I did in the morning? Went right for a ramekin. (As delicious as the pudding tasted, it was a tad disconcerting to have bourbon breath before 7 am.)
In short, I loved this pudding. The flavor is bold and hit all the right notes for me. I can’t remember the last time I used a whole vanilla bean and felt like it was totally worth it. Here, you not only see the vanilla, but you taste it, too. I also enjoyed how strong the bourbon and brown butter flavors are—so often, I find that a pie or cake promises all of these great tastes and doesn’t deliver. This recipe absolutely does. Butterscotch is in the title of this dessert, but the pudding is in a different flavor league than Werther’s and that tan corn syrup sauce sold next to the jars of hot fudge. Imagine if the gentleman from Knob Creek and the Land o’ Lakes beauty had a lovechild who was raised by Michel Richard and you’ll get an idea of the depth and sophisticated flavor of this dessert. My mom and Ed really liked it, too. My mom was impressed that something so rich and flavorful could leave such a light aftertaste. It was almost too rich for Ed, but even he found it hard to stop dipping into my teacup for one more bite.
I would rate this pudding as moderately difficult to prepare. Anything that involves custard and cooking sugar requires some skill. I ran into trouble when I added the cream to the melting sugar-butter combination. The pot bubbled up and my sugar seized into hard candy. Luckily, I had made this mistake before when my mom and I were making a caramel sauce and the sugar seized and clumped when we added liquid. We were thankful that my Aunt Joan was in the other room and told us to wait it out—the sugar would dissolve again into the hot liquid. The same thing was true here and there were no ill effects to the final dish. If the same thing happens to you, just be patient.
The only real problem with this dessert, which Jessica also encountered, is that the pudding is too thick. I’ve been reading about puddings, trying to figure out if I messed up or if the recipe is imperfect and I think we’re both to blame. I likely cooked my custard too long. I stepped away for a moment and when I returned, it was quite thick and bubbly. I should have been watching carefully and pulled it just as it was thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. The other culprit here is that there is A LOT of cornstarch in the recipe (a quarter cup). One of the commenters on Epicurious also found her pudding to be too thick and she solved the problem by dialing back the cornstarch. I will do the same when I make this again.
Jessica’s Take: No question, this is an extremely tasty pudding. How could it not be–bourbon and butterscotch are both right there in the title. Unfortunately tho, a couple of things got in the way of my loving this recipe quite as much as Laura did. I decided to halve it, thinking I didn’t really need eight servings of pudding just hanging around, taunting me. I think I was right about the amount, but wrong in my decision to halve this pudding. Halving it meant only browning an eighth of a stick of butter, which just didn’t feel like enough. I was worried about it burning, and when I added the brown sugar I didn’t feel like I had quite enough melted butter to let the sugar fully dissolve. I threw in some more butter, which solved my sugar problem, but also diluted some of the nutty browned butter deliciousness. And, I have to say, it got me off a bit on the wrong foot with this otherwise awesome pudding.
This doesn’t happen as much as it used to, but when I first started cooking I second guessed myself a ton, which would really get in the way of how much I enjoyed what I was making. I would just sort of decide that I had messed something up, and that would cloud the actual end result taste for me. I’m much better about this (and getting better all the time), but it definitely still sneaks in, and it did with this recipe. There are things that make it easier to not give in to my own negative silliness, and near the top of the list is advice from cooks I really trust. So I was so glad that Laura had made this first, and sent me her suggestions and tips.
One of the (many) thing I admire about the way Laura cooks is how often she sets up a mise en place. Just as one should to minimize last minute kitchen madness, she sets all of her ingredients out in cute little bowls as part of her prep. I usually do get out all of my ingredients ahead of time, but don’t tend to measure them until I need them. Laura strongly recommended getting totally prepped for this recipe, tho, so I decided to follow her mise example. Oh my lord, I’m so glad I did. After my butter and sugar question marks, it was so great to have all of the other ingredients ready to go. It re-upped my confidence, and brought me back to enjoying this pudding experiment.
Because Laura used bourbon in her version, I decided to go with Scotch–the recipe says either or. I used Monkey Shoulder, which I’ve been told is a “lighter bodied whisky, with hints of vanilla and butterscotch.” Sounded good to me! I also opted to use the orignial amount the recipe called for, and not halve it, because…well, obviously. Even so, I felt like the taste could have used a little more punch, and (tho I realize this seems impossible) a bit more sweetness. I added a splash of Benedictine, an herbal liqueur with a honey flavor. It was a great combo, but I think I’ll go for bourbon when I make it again.
We ate this plain the first night, and tho I liked it (I was able to appreciate the tastiness, even with my misguided pudding doubt), I felt like something was missing. And, like Laura, I thought it was a smidge too thick–I also probably cooked it for too long. I wanted a little something extra to balance out the pudding’s texture, so on the second night I made some quick whipped cream and crumbled a compost cookie on top. Tell you what, I made good choices. I loved this with the added crunch, and the whipped cream smoothed out the thickness of the pudding. You could also use crème fraîche and ginger snaps, as the recipe recommends.
Final Thoughts: Texture issues aside, this was definitely a dish we’d both be willing to try again. We’d add a little less cornstarch and a little more pudding know-how. This could be such a practical, yet show-stopping dessert for a dinner party, especially because it’s something you can make ahead of time. In fact, this might be the perfect Derby Day dessert (May 4 this year). Make it the night before so you can spend the day focused on the important tasks at hand, like crushing ice for mint juleps.
You can find the recipe on the Bon‘s website and in the March 2013 issue of the magazine.