Crazy Cat Bakers' bread pudding has all the right taste notes for a good throaty purr.
Fluffy. Sweet. Buttery. Candied pecan crunchy. Buzzed with brandy. Enough creamy, custardy gooeyness to make you wonder whether to fork it in or lap it up.
The brandy butter sauce glistens with invitation in the late afternoon sun. With an ice cream server, Crazy Cat owner Jon Lansdale scoops up luscious pillowy mounds. It's a prescient move.
In the last four outings of Taste of Mississippi, he's scooped up the best dessert award and now he's going for five.
"We're in it to feed the hungry," he said, "but if there is a competition, we're in it to win it, baby."
At Taste of Mississippi, 7 p.m. Monday in Highland Village, he's defending home turf in a way; the lunch spot (and dinner two nights a week) is tucked into the southeast corner of center court. Crazy Cat Bakers will be among some 40 restaurants dishing up goodies for the crowd, estimated at 1,500 last year.
In 2011, the event raised $103,000 for Stewpot Community Services, helping support its 17 ministries to help the homeless and those in need. "We do not charge anything for our services," Stewpot special events coordinator Michelle Bingham said. "What is given to us, we in turn give right back out."
A successful event is critical to Stewpot's ministry, chief executive officer Frank Spencer said. "First of all, it will provide us about $100,000 in operating funds to carry on our various ministries that help over 650 people a day." A fifth of its $1.75 million annual budget is raised through its fundraisers. Taste of Mississippi is the ministry's largest annual fundraiser; it also helps keep Stewpot's work in the public eye.
"The community tends to think of Stewpot as just a feeding ministry," Spencer said, "but it operates four overnight shelters, a day shelter and an after-school program and various smaller ministries which reach a lot of people in need."
The Taste of Mississippi gala combines a party atmosphere with a restaurant showcase as patrons graze on tasty tidbits. Live music by Hunter Gibson and the Gators and Pryor and the Tombstones adds a spirited atmosphere. There's a silent auction and this year sees the return of a live auction.
"We're excited about this year. I think all our winners from the previous year are coming back," said Amy Marquez, who'll wrangle a team of 15 judges and keep her own eye out for Ameristar's Mississippi Mud Pie in shot glasses. "I hope they're doing that again." Tops for 2011 also included Julep (best entree), Babalu (best appetizer) and Ameristar (best presentation).
"The area restaurants really embrace it because they know it's for a great cause," said Georgana Keenum, who recruits participating eateries. Bravo, Char, Lumpkins BBQ, That Special Touch, Walker's Drive In, AJ's and Sophia's are among those on board.
For Lansdale, bread pudding is the star standby and supporting players rotate in and out from year to year. This time, it may be Tastes Like a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup Brownie and Butterscotch Bars with Brown Sugar Glaze.
But that could change.
"I try to have a variety - something chocolate and something nonchocolate (although we don't understand why), maybe something with fruit in it.
"The bread pudding is what people come back for every year, and ask for."
Why? His explanation, beyond the initial "because it's ... awesome" declaration goes like this: "It's comforting. It's got enough liquor in it. It's got pecans. And it doesn't have anything you have to pick out, like raisins or peaches or - someone told me they went to New Orleans last week and had it with grapes. ... I can't comprehend it."
He can comprehend the value of the dessert that's become his cash cow.
He's tried branching out, with a Chocolate Bread Pudding, with chocolate chips and shavings, plus kahlua.
"It's really good. But even when we make it, all that we hear is, it's not as good as the other. So we just gave in. We don't make it anymore," he said.
Don't ask for his bread pudding recipe.
He'll share it "upon my deathbed."
It's one he found and tweaked. "We added more butter, more brandy, more pecans.
"Jenny Craig will not be serving up a slice," he said, grinning, and added, "It may be on Oprah's diet."
But it's not all about the win.
"I think everybody has fun with it," Lansdale said of the event's competition. "It is for a good cause. But you know, a little competition does the soul good."
What: Taste of Mississippi
When: 7-10 p.m. Monday, March 26
Where: Highland Village, Jackson
Cost: $65 advance (Fresh Ink, Highland Village office, McDade's, St. James Episcopal Church or www.ticketmaster.com), $80 at the gate
Contact: 601-353-2759 or www.atasteofms.org