Is Fried Pudding the Next Big Thing?
Ever since Congress pastry chef Erica Waksmunski told us, “I’ve been thinking about what Texans want, and finally I said f*#k it, I’m going to fry pudding,” we haven’t been able to stop thinking about the technique and the result. But recently, another outstanding Austin restaurant added fried pudding to their repertoire: Perla’s. Is this just the mentality of the Texas State Fair (fried butter, fried Coke) run amok? Or is it the next step in the comfort-food movement, Texas-style?
Uchiko has long been known for its creative desserts, in particular a now-iconic dish called fried milk. Chef Philip Speer plates fried milk, toasted milk, ice milk sherbet, gelled chocolate milk and powdered milk for an over-the-top experience. Who doesn’t love that feeling of cutting into the fried nuggets and watching sweet condensed milk cream pool onto the plate, to be devoured almost immediately?
But fried milk is older than small plates and upscale restaurants: The dish has historical roots in China (za xian), India (gulab jamun), Italy (crema fritta) and Spain (leche frita). Perla's pastry chef Natalie Gazaui’s family is Basque, and she grew up eating leche frita, what she calls “a classic Spanish dessert.” (Her cultural influences play into other desserts at chef Larry McGuire’s restaurants, like the addictive almond-and-cherry Basque cake at Clark’s.) After working in Uruguay and Northern Italy for chef Rodrigo Fernandez, she moved to Austin and baked at Fonda San Miguel and then El Arbol, where she first served a version of her fried milk. Gazaui also made the opening dessert menu at chef Daniel Olivella’s traditional Spanish tapas restaurant, Barlata.
Meanwhile, though Waksmunski says that “Spanish milk is definitely a fried pudding,” her inspiration was all new world. After going down “the rabbit hole of StarChefs.com,” she says, she came across Alex Stupak’s fried milk dessert. “Those two words fascinated me,” she told us. “In fact, I may have even giggled. I knew I had to figure out a way to do a fried pudding dish at Congress because our best-sellers are basically everything creamy, custardy and pudding-y – pot de creme, crème brûlée and semifreddo.” And thus her fried milk was born.
We first tried Congress’ version as fried butterscotch pudding with tangerine supremes, English toffee and cocoa nibs. Since then, it’s shifted direction to be a fried malt pudding, served with praline mousse, Nutella crunchies and blood-orange sorbet. While traditional fried milk is made with a pastry cream set with cornstarch, Waksmunski’s fried pudding is set with agar, because she says she “digs the way it melts.” Like Speer’s dish, the creamy inside bursts from the crunchy nuggets on first tap.
Over at Perla’s, Gazaui’s most-popular dessert has been through several incarnations. The last one was vanilla bean pudding served with pistachio crumble, pear sorbet, champagne-poached pears, saffron sabayon and pomegranate seeds. These days it’s fried caramel pudding with banana-malt ice cream, spiced toffee cashews and milk chocolate fudge. The pudding itself is set and dense, which means you can pick up the fried treasures, straight from plate to mouth. However, we recommend getting the taste of each flavor in every bite, since the toffee cashews in particular add quite a bit of texture to the dish.
We like plated desserts as much as the next guy, but something tells us that fried pudding has the potential to be a handheld dessert, in the vein of donuts or cupcakes. After all, if they can do it with butter, pudding is just around the corner.