Lee Smith has written an evocative novel, which fully immersed me in the sights and sounds of protagonist Evalina Toussaint’s life. Smith describes 1937 New Orleans, with its vivid neon lights, sultry ambiance, and fabulous architecture. Sumptuous descriptions of regional dishes tempt the reader to reach outside their comfort zone and try meals filled with spice and zest.
Back in my corporate days, I often traveled to New Orleans, or Nola. In an effort to imagine the 1936 cityscape, I looked for period photographs featuring Nola’s distinct neighborhoods. The rue Dauphine, where Evalina lived with her performer/courtesan mother, Louise Toussaint, is in the heart of the French Quarter and familiar to many travelers.
The notorious Gardette-LePrete Mansion, rumored to be the home of a Sultan and the site of macabre murders, showcases the wrought iron work found on many of the buildings located in the French Quarter. It is easy to imagine the young Evalina Toussaint peering out through a grill to the nightlife below.
Given Smith’s description of the neon lights and music, it is possible, Evaline’s home looked like this.
With her mother entertaining in the nightclub located on the street level.
If it did, then Evalina’s shock would have been all the greater when she traveled to the Garden District home of Arthur Graves. When I visited the area, I rode the St. Charles Streetcar out, and walked back enjoying the marvelous collection of antebellum mansions and fragrant gardens.
Like Evalina, I also enjoyed views of the famous St. Louis Cathedral , one of New Orleans’ most notable landmarks, overlooking Jackson Square. The venerable building, with its triple steeples towering above its historic neighbors, the Cabildo and the Presbytere, looks down benignly on the green of the Square and General Andrew Jackson on his bronze horse and on the block-long Pontalba Buildings with their lacy ironwork galleries.
The Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis King of France is the oldest Catholic cathedral in continual use in the United States.
While Evalina’s home life may have been modest, the quality of food in her neighborhhod was outstanding. Powder sugar beignets at the Café du Monde , dinner at The Court of Two Sisters and Commander’s Palace ; menus filled with gumbos, muffuletta, etouffe and bananas foster, all enriched her life.
Cooking the Book
When I lived in the south, Nola was also known for its bread pudding, and I had a beau that favored the dessert. Since I was a novice cook, I was delighted when our local newspaper printed the recipe from the famous Commander’s Palace. Unfortunately, I was such a newbie that the quantity of ingredients involved didn’t alarm me until I was well into the pudding preparation.
The instructions were for a restaurant number of servings, and as I kept adding more and more ingredients, my mountain of pudding grew and grew. I ended up with a vat of pudding; it was enough to serve my entire neighborhood at a backyard barbeque. It turned out well though, and up until now I have always pretended that I meant to make that much.
This newer version of the Commander’s Palace Bread Pudding is widely shared, and makes a more manageable number of servings.
3/4 cup(s) sugar
1 teaspoon(s) ground cinnamon
1 pinch(s) nutmeg
3 medium eggs
1 cup(s) heavy cream
1 teaspoon(s) vanilla extract
5 cup(s) 1-inch cubed New Orleans French bread (see Tip)
1/3 cup(s) raisins
1 cup(s) heavy cream
1/2 tablespoon(s) cornstarch
1 tablespoon(s) water
3 tablespoon(s) sugar
1/4 cup(s) bourbon
9 medium egg whites
1/4 teaspoon(s) cream of tartar
3/4 cup(s) sugar
1. For the bread pudding: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease an 8-inch square baking pan.
2. Combine sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a large bowl. Beat in the eggs until smooth, then work in the heavy cream. Add the vanilla, then the bread cubes. Allow bread to soak up custard.
3. Place the raisins in the greased pan. Top with the bread-custard mixture, which prevents the raisins from burning. Bake for approximately 25 to 30 minutes, or until the pudding has a golden brown color and is firm to the touch. If a toothpick inserted in the pudding comes out clean, it is done. The mixture of pudding should be nice and moist, not runny or dry. Cool to room temperature.
4. For the whiskey sauce: Place the cream in a small saucepan over medium heat, and bring to a boil. Whisk cornstarch and water together, and add to cream while whisking. Bring to a boil. Whisk and let simmer for a few seconds, taking care not to burn the mixture on the bottom. Remove from heat.
5. Stir in the sugar and bourbon. Taste to make sure the sauce has a thick consistency, a sufficiently sweet taste, and a good bourbon flavor. Cool to room temperature.
6. For the meringue: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter six 6-ounce ramekins.
7. First, be certain that the bowl and whisk are clean. The egg whites should be completely free of yolk, and they will whip better if the chill is off them. This dish needs a good, stiff meringue. In a large bowl or mixer, whip egg whites and cream of tartar until foamy. Add the sugar gradually, and continue whipping until shiny and thick. Test with a clean spoon: If the whites stand up stiff, like shaving cream, when you pull out the spoon, the meringue is ready. Do not over-whip or the whites will break down and the soufflé will not work.
8. In a large bowl, break half the bread pudding into pieces using your hands or a spoon. Gently fold in one-quarter of the meringue, being careful not to lose the air in the whites. Add a portion of this base to each of the ramekins.
9. Place the remaining bread pudding in the bowl, break into pieces, and carefully fold in the rest of the meringue. Top off the soufflés with this lighter mixture, to about 1 1/2 inches. Smooth and shape tops with spoon into a dome over the ramekin rim.
10. Bake immediately for approximately 20 minutes or until golden brown. Serve immediately. Using a spoon, poke a hole in the top of each soufflé at the table and pour the room-temperature whiskey sauce inside the soufflé.
Tips & Techniques
New Orleans French bread is very light and tender. If a substitute bread is used that is too dense, it will soak up all the custard and the recipe won’t work.