Anatomy of a Classic

A Grown-Up Pudding Cup

Butterscotch meets bourbon in pastry chef Lisa Donovan’s smooth take on a favorite childhood dessert

photo: Johnny autry | Food Styling by Charlotte Autry

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. 

photo: Johnny autry | Food Styling by Charlotte Autry

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.”  

photo: Johnny autry | Food Styling by Charlotte Autry


Ingredients

  • Butterscotch Pudding (Yield: 6 servings)

    • 4 eggs

    • ½ cup cornstarch

    • 3 cups whole milk

    • ½ cup butter

    • 1¾ cups dark brown sugar

    • 2 cups heavy whipping cream

    • 2 tsp. vanilla paste, or scrapings from 1 vanilla bean

    • ¼ tsp. salt

    • ¼ cup bourbon (more or less to taste)


Preparation

  1. Make a slurry by whisking together eggs, cornstarch, and milk in a mixing bowl until well combined. Set aside.

  2. Melt butter in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat, and stir in the sugar. Continue stirring until the sugar is incorporated into the butter and the mixture is bubbly and shiny and looks like caramel, about 6 or 7 minutes.

  3. Add the cream to the pan and keep stirring over medium heat until the sugar-butter dissolves into the cream and the color is uniform. Take about a cup of the hot cream-and-sugar mixture and whisk it slowly into the slurry. This will temper the slurry so that the eggs won’t cook into something that resembles scrambled eggs. Then add the tempered slurry into the pan and stir. Add vanilla and salt and whisk on medium-high heat until the pudding gets thick. Add bourbon if you are using it and boil for a minute or two to incorporate.

  4. Pass the pudding through a fine sieve for a particularly creamy texture, although this step isn’t necessary.

  5. Pour into individual ramekins or into a large shallow container. You can serve the pudding warm or chilled. If you plan to chill it, place plastic film directly on top of pudding and place in the refrigerator for at least an hour. If you prefer pudding skin, leave off the plastic.

Meet the Chef: Lisa Donovan

Hometown: Nashville, Tennessee

The first drink she’ll order in a bar after the pandemic: A super dry, extra dirty gin martini, with enough extra olives that it can serve as a first course.

What she’d grab if the kitchen was on fire: “My notebooks. All of my notebooks.”

A mother of two, she has this advice for a new parent: “Don’t be too quiet. Let kids get used to the normal noise of the house right out of the gate, including nap times and bedtimes—otherwise you’ll be tiptoeing around them your whole life.”