There are few things Lisa Donovan loves more than a pudding cup. The love affair began in childhood with old-fashioned lunch box pudding cups—the kind that used to come in pop-top cans before migrating to plastic in the 1980s. They even make a cameo in her memoir, Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger, which came out in August. The book tells the story of the pastry chef’s wild and lovely life, in which she managed to get out of an abusive relationship, build a cooking career from raw talent and sweat, and give voice to women facing sexism in professional kitchens. It’s also an ode to the power of simple desserts like buttermilk pie, spiced peaches, and cold, smooth pudding.
Donovan made her name putting a modern exclamation point on classic Southern desserts at such culinary heavy hitters as City House and later Husk in Nashville, where she perfected a way to enhance her preferred pudding flavor. “A butterscotch pudding is my favorite thing in the world,” she says. Her version has all the nostalgic notes of a child’s snack, dressed up with an adult’s sensibility.
She starts by whisking cornstarch, milk, and eggs into a slurry, an old-school technique that allows the pudding to quickly take on a smooth, thick texture. “Everyone needs to know how to make a slurry,” she says. She then melts brown sugar and butter into a bubbly caramel fortified with heavy cream. Vanilla, in the form of scrapings from a bean or a couple of spoonfuls of paste, rounds out the flavor. Salt matters, too. “You need just enough to make sure the flavors and the sweetness of the sugar are picked up on the palate,” she says.
Then she mixes in a good glug of bourbon (dark rum can work well, too). “The trick is not being scared of really introducing some booze,” Donovan says. The pudding is boiled for a minute or so after the bourbon goes in, so the level of alcohol drops and the harshness subsides. “It gives this nice, sort of richer, butterscotchy taste.”
A drift of barely sweetened whipped cream on top is lovely. Donovan also likes a little crunch, so she might add some chopped brittle, cacao nibs, or a sprinkle of chopped nuts. Roasted bourbon cherries wouldn’t be bad either, she says. You can eat the pudding warm, though Donovan especially likes hers chilled. If you want to avoid pudding skin, press some plastic wrap on the top while the pudding cools in the fridge. But don’t discount the deliciousness of a little skin. “Some people get upset if they don’t get their pudding skin,” she says. “I’m one of them.”