If you were to peruse my social media feeds, you’d see pretty quick that I follow a lot of chefs. Back in the summer I happened to see a re-tweet from one of those chefs: a contest to win 2 tickets to an event in Ridgeland, Mississippi called Sweetest Chefs of the South, put together by Let’s Eat Y’all. I had seen that it was coming, but as intriguing as it seemed, I couldn’t figure out how I would swing a trip like that in the middle of the week. But just for fun, I retweeted it, too – and won the tickets! So I started re-figuring.
Female pastry chefs from all over the South were the focus of the evening: Mississippi, Florida ,Texas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Georgia and Alabama were all represented. Among those were two who were already on my radar, Whitney Miller and Martie Duncan.
Whitney is a native Mississippian from Poplarville and was the first winner of Gordon Ramsay’s MasterChef competition. The treat at her table was Mississippi Mud Pie, but I assure you: it wasn’t your grandma’s version. Her take began with a Mason jar lid filled with buttery graham cracker crumbs, topped with a brownie, garnished with a dollop of cream cheese mixed with whipped cream, and finished with pecans. The brownie was chocolaty and rich; in her demo she revealed that secret: real baking chocolate (not just cocoa powder) and a little shot of coffee. I’ve served desserts in Mason jars before, but never in the lid. Something new to try.
Whitney and I had crossed paths before, but this would be my first time to meet Martie Duncan. As an addict of the Food Network show, The Next Food Network Star, I felt like I knew Martie pretty well just from watching season 8. Still, I was a wee bit star-struck. But not so star-struck that I couldn’t bust up there and introduce myself, and we discovered pretty quickly that she’s just a good ol’ girl from Alabama. In her demo she showed us how to make an extremely versatile pastry dough called Pate a Choux, which she used to make the bite-sized cream puffs that held her One Bite Banana Pudding. When I quizzed The Wife on the way home, she declared this her favorite of the evening.
One of my favorites (there were several) was the S’mores Macaron from Stephanie Little, a private chef from Baton Rouge. Actually, Stephanie is from Oxford but works in the shadow of LSU; as a Rebel in Bulldog country, myself, I could relate. The cookie part of the macaron served as the graham crackers, with a touch of fresh-ground cinnamon to give a deeper flavor. For the Hershey Bar element, half the cookie was dipped in chocolate. And somehow (chef magic) she gave the marshmallow filling a smoky campfire flavor by infusing a special tea into the mix.
Felicia Suzanne Willet (Felicia Suzanne’s of Memphis) made Butter Rolls with Brandy Peaches and Whiskey Anglaise. At one of the pharmacies I’ve worked in, we had a regular customer who rarely visited without mentioning his desire for butter rolls. I continually encouraged him to bring some to me, and I’m still waiting. It’s unlikely his had Anglaise sauce drizzled on them, but I was thrilled to finally get one.
Jen Adelsheimer (Broad Street Bakery, Jackson) had a table full of sweet stuff. Salted Peanut Butter Cheesecake, King Cake, Blackberry Peach Fruit Trifle, and a couple of other things I couldn’t pronounce. Corey Ellison (The Fairview Inn, Jackson) had tiny little peanut butter tortes with raspberries and lemon curd. Jacqueline Ladnier (French Kiss Pastries, Ocean Springs) brought Strawberry Cream Cheese Bavarian Cake. Head spinning yet from the sugar? Mine was.
Nealy Frentz (LOLA in Covington, LA) featured Hummingbird Cake. As I walked to her table, the host of the event walked by and told me (with a mischievous look) I wouldn’t like it. Personally, I think he was probably trying to trick me into leaving him the leftovers. As it turned out, Chef Nealy had made a pretty little hummingbird nest out of coconut on top. Nice digs for the hummingbird, but coconut and me, we don’t agree. But I’m pretty sure The Wife and The Host happily enjoyed my share.
A couple of lemon-related desserts really caught my attention. The Lemon Ice Box Pie from Erin Swanson (Restaurant R’evolution, New Orleans) was unlike any lemon ice box pie Granny ever made, topped with meringue sticks, blueberries, and cubes of limoncello gelee. Blueberries were also the garnish of choice for Jamie Foster (The Manship, Jackson), on her Lemon Panna Cotta with Blueberry Coulis, another favorite.
Peaches were the fruit du jour. Mary Jennifer Russell (Sugaree’s Bakery, New Albany) diverted from her famous cakes and brought us a Peach Pie Parfait. Danielle Smathers (Restaurant 356, Atlanta) made peach cakes: layers of peach pound cake filled with peach jam, topped with cream cheese frosting and dusted with fennel pollen. Just knowing I had eaten something dusted with fennel pollen (and liked it) made for an especially memorable dish.
Finally, we made it to Von Larson’s station (Von’s Restaurant and Grill, Bayou La Batre, AL). Her dessert was simple: bread pudding with vanilla cream. I’ve had a fair amount of bread pudding in my life, and it can be hit and miss. Hers was definitely a hit, the kind that leaves you a bit dizzy from the richness but still ravenous for another bite or three.
To wash everything down, I picked up an iced “Ray au Lait” coffee drink from the Mississippi Cold Drip Coffee and Tea Company. (Not surprisingly, recommended by Ray.) It didn’t exactly cut the sweet, but it did help keep me awake for the trip back to Starkville.
Due to our work schedule that day, the Sweetest Chefs of the South had another name that night: dinner. Perhaps not the best plan for everyday dining, but when among pastry chefs, a baker’s dozen of deliciousness suited us just fine.