When I moved to New Orleans, I discovered that this was a city that -- at least in terms of food -- was a world to itself.
Many of its foods had little in common with those of the South I grew up in. Nearly everything was new and exciting and exotic. Some things, like the sherry-rich turtle soup and the spillway crayfish, I loved. Others, like the alligator sausage, I could never quite get used to.
But the thing I loved best was the Mardi Gras king cake. The original puff pastry version of "la galette des rois" was made by the occasional "French" bakery and was a simple, yet sophisticated affair with a beautiful flaky dough powdered with sugar. And, of course, a ceramic "baby" baked into it.
But the modern day king cake is a sweet Louisiana extravaganza and comes in more than 60 different "coffee-cake" like flavors, including king Creole pecan, apple, strawberry cream cheese, Bavarian cream and pina colada.
It is shaped like a great big baked donut and has a plastic baby stuck into the cake before it is decorated in purple (representing justice), green (representing faith) and gold (representing power) icing or sugar. The king cake party tradition dictates that the person who gets the baby in his or her slice must host the next king cake party during Mardi Gras season.
During Mardi Gras, I would have a king cake party almost every day, and over the course of a few years I tried almost every flavor made.
My favorite bakery boasted a "queen cake" made with Louisiana sweet potatoes. It was my favorite. And every year since moving away, I crave it.
It didn't take long for me to figure out that I could take all the rich flavors of my favorite "queen cake" and make a sweet potato bread pudding (also very popular in New Orleans). I use stale raisin bread to achieve the cinnamon coffee-cake like flavor and texture of king cake, and baked garnet sweet potato puree to make the bread pudding custard rich and moist.
I also honor the revelry of Mardi Gras by topping it with whiskey hard sauce while it is still warm.
Whiskey hard sauce is one of my favorite secrets to dressing up almost any warm cake, pie or pudding. Contrary to what it sounds like, it's not actually a sauce. It's more like a spread, until you put it on a hot dessert and the butter and sugar and whiskey melt and become a heady "sauce" that is truly the icing on the cake.
Hide a "baby" in the bread pudding once it comes out of the oven and before you ice it with the hard sauce, then carry on the Mardi Gras tradition.
SWEET POTATO BREAD PUDDING WITH WHISKEY HARD SAUCE
Want to prep ahead? The bread pudding can be made the day before it is baked and stored, tightly covered, in the refrigerator.
Start to finish: 1 hour 15 minutes (20 minutes active)
For the sauce:
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sifted powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon best-quality bourbon or rye
Pinch of salt
For the bread pudding:
8 cups torn or cubed stale raisin bread (about 1 large loaf)
1 cup coarsely chopped pecans
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon mace
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
2 cups half-and-half
1 cup heavy cream
4 large eggs
1 cup packed light brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup mashed baked garnet sweet potatoes
To make the sauce, in a large bowl use an electric mixer to cream together the butter and powdered sugar until light and fluffy. Mix in the vanilla, liquor and salt. Continue mixing until smooth and creamy. Cover and set aside. Also can be stored, covered, in the refrigerator for up to a month.
For the bread pudding, heat the oven to 350 F. Coat a 2-quart baking dish or individual ramekins with cooking spray.
In a large bowl toss together the raisin bread with the pecans, then set aside.
In a small bowl, mix together the granulated sugar, cinnamon, mace, nutmeg and salt. Toss the sugar mixture over the bread and pecans, then stir well. Drizzle everything with the melted butter, then toss to evenly distribute.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the half-and-half, cream, eggs and brown sugar. Add the vanilla and sweet potatoes, then mix well. Pour the sweet potato-cream mixture over the bread mixture and stir until well blended. Let stand for about 5 minutes, then spoon into the prepared baking dish or ramekins.
Bake for 45 to 55 minutes (bake ramekins for just 15 to 20 minutes), or until set.
As soon as the bread pudding comes out of the oven, top with hard sauce so that it melts into the crevices. Serve warm.
Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 620 calories;360 calories from fat (56 percent of total calories); 40 g fat (19 g saturated; 1 g trans fats); 175 mg cholesterol; 62 g carbohydrate; 8 g protein; 3 g fiber; 220 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Elizabeth Karmel is a grilling and Southern foods expert and executive chef at Hill Country Barbecue Market restaurants in New York and Washington, as well as Hill Country Chicken in New York. She is the author of three cookbooks, including "Soaked, Slathered and Seasoned."