Chef John Currence showed up for his appearance at the Southern Chefs Series in a baseball hat and sport coat. And when it was time to cook, he just walked over to the stove. Didn’t even want an apron.
I’d never met the “big bad chef” from Oxford, Mississippi, but I got to know him quickly through his stories. I loved the ones about his childhood in Louisiana and especially his mother. She was a schoolteacher, but she made dinner for the family from scratch every night. That meant a lot to him as a child, but even more to him now that he’s an adult.
John became a first-time father at 48 years old and also gave birth to a fascinating cookbook called Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey: Recipes from my Three Favorite Food Groups And Then Some. It includes a recipe for bananas foster bread pudding with brown sugar-rum sauce and candied pecan “soil,” and in the four years I’ve been hosting the Southern Chefs Series, it is The Best Dessert we’ve ever had. It was so phenomenal I did a cooking class a few days later with a group of executives and made them bake it so I could have some.
In his new cookbook, John’s introduction to the recipe includes childhood brunch memories in his sarcastic Southern style:
Sunday brunch after church when I was a youngster was a huge deal. Mom and Dad cooked all the time, and eating out was definitely not routine for us. Brunch, after the fanfare that church was, always seemed like a circus to me. There were dining rooms full of guéridon at Commander’s Palace, Brennan’s and Antoine’s preparing café brulot, cherries jubilee, baked Alaska, crepes Suzette, and our favorite, bananas Foster. This was a deft creation of flambéed bananas with loads of rum, brown sugar, butter and a dollop of vanilla ice cream. It was magic.
Turning this into a bread pudding, when we first opened the Grocery, took about as much creativity as, I’m sure, coming up with the McRib did. But it is still a serious crowd-pleaser 20 years later.
Before John left, he said, “Now Marie, what do I have to do to get back here?” John’s welcome anytime, but I’d be especially happy to see him again if he came bearing a big pan of bananas foster bread pudding.
BANANAS FOSTER BREAD PUDDING WITH BROWN SUGAR-RUM SAUCE AND CANDIED PECAN “SOIL”
10 large eggs
2 cups heavy whipping cream
1 ¼ cups whole milk
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ¼ cups unsalted butter, melted
2 ¼ cups granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg
¼ cup banana liqueur
10 cups torn stale bread (any variety of white bread will do)
3 large bananas, thinly sliced
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs until well blended. Whisk in the cream, milk, vanilla and melted butter and combine well.
In another large bowl, blend together 2 cups of the sugar, the salt, 2 tablespoons of the cinnamon and the nutmeg. Stir in the egg mixture and blend well. Stir in the banana liqueur. Add the bread, combine well and let rest for 10 minutes. Mash the bread pudding mixture with your hands to make sure all the bread is soaked through. Stir in the bananas.
Butter a deep 10-inch square baking pan. In a small bowl, blend the remaining ¼ cup sugar and 2 teaspoons cinnamon. Pour the bread pudding mixture into the prepared pan and sprinkle the top with the cinnamon sugar. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 45 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for an additional 10 minutes. Grab the edge of the pan with a dry towel and give it a shake. Look to the center of the pan; if it doesn’t jiggle and looks firm, it is cooked through.
CANDIED PECAN “SOIL”
4 cups pecan halves
½ cup unsalted butter, melted
¼ cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons dark brown sugar
½ teaspoon salt
2 pinches of cayenne
1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch of ground cloves
1 large egg white, at room temperature
To make the pecan “soil”: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. In a stainless steel bowl, mix the pecans with the butter and then spread them into a single later on a baking sheet. Bake, stirring every 4 minutes, for about 12 minutes, or until you can begin to smell them cooking. They will give off a distinct “toasted-nut” smell. Remove from the oven and let cool.
In another bowl, blend both sugars, the salt, cayenne, paprika, cinnamon and cloves.
Beat the egg white with 1 tablespoon water until frothy in a large bowl. Stir in the pecans to coat evenly. Transfer the pecans to another bowl and toss with the sugar mixture until evenly coated. Spread the sugared pecans into a single layer on a baking sheet coated with nonstick spray. Bake for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the oven and let cool, separating the nuts as they cool. When completely cool, place the nuts in a food processor and pulse until broken into a “soil” consistency. Set aside until ready to serve.
BROWN SUGAR-RUM SAUCE
½ cup unsalted butter, melted
1 ½ cups dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 cup dark rum
½ cup heavy cream
1 whole vanilla bean, split
White the bread pudding is baking, make the sauce: In a small saucepan over medium heat, warm the melted butter to a simmer. Stir in the brown sugar and vanilla, combine well and simmer for 10 minutes.
Stir in the rum and simmer for an additional 3 minutes. Swirl in the cream and the split vanilla bean and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove the vanilla bean and, with a small sharp knife, scrape the seeds from inside the pod and blend them into the sauce. Discard the empty pod or rinse and add it to a bottle of bourbon to make your own extract. Simmer 5 to 6 minutes more, stirring constantly, or until sauce thickens.
To serve, scoop a large, warm spoonful of bread pudding into a bowl, drizzle with the sauce and sprinkle with the pecan “soil.”