I recently had the honor of hosting a notable birthday dinner for one of my besties, Kristin Russell. It was notable for a number of reasons -- a celebration of life, resilience, and all things new. Kristin has been one of my go-to touchstones for the past few years in this wildly complex journey of life to date. The least I could do to show my gratitude for her constant feeding of my soul was to feed her beautiful belly, as well as the beautiful bellies of some of her lovely friends.

The menu was all things Comforting (capital C, if you know what I mean). Chicken liver mousse with strawberry and pomegranate gelée and all the accoutrement, sun dried tomato and chickpea dip, cornish game hens with pear bourbon sauce, zucchini gratin, creamy parmesan and garlic polenta made with local Riverplains Farms corn meal, and the pièce de résistance which I would like to share with you now -- mango butterscotch pudding.

This sweet, salty, creamy, and cloud-like dessert was a complete brainstorm.

Translation: I had no idea what I was doing.

I'm not a major dessert eater. Never have been. When I do partake, I rarely take more than a couple of bites of the thing -- even if I spent hours creating it. I generally fret about making desserts overall, unless we're talking about pies. To me, though, pie making is all about the dough and the crust, so I'm just saying that I'd much rather wrap my all-butter-crust around some chicken or corned beef instead of, say, apples ... if it's all the same to you.

So back to fretting; I had stayed up the night before until almost 4 am reading through dessert recipes. I had gone foraging in the fridge already to see what I had that I might be able to utilize. I found two beautifully ripened mangos -- so that was happening. I also knew that a friend of Kristin's (and now a friend of mine), Jennifer Niceley, would be bringing a harvest of farm fresh chicken's eggs from her family's East Tennessee farm, Riverplains, so I was Googling "dessert recipes with a LOT of eggs." Would it be a mousse? Hmm ... Meringues? Weeeelll? Then, I read through a pudding recipe and got that spark in the dark! Seven other pudding recipes and a few videos later, I had my marching orders for the next day.

I woke up at 8 am the next morning with pudding on the brain. I efficiently completed the remainder of prep work for the meal I had to do, put some Nina Simone on the speakers, then sat on a kitchen stool like a kid on Christmas morning waiting for Miss Niceley and the Eggs to arrive. "Miss Niceley and the Eggs" ... I need to hurry up and write that children's book.

When Jennifer arrived, it was like handing your baby to grandma. I confidently handed my iPad to Jennifer with some additional gibberish-filled mad science instructions about my hopes for this dessert. Let it be said that only another fellow avid cook could interpret what I told Jennifer that day. I also have to note that I don't know what I would've done without Jennifer's warm presence and helping hands that afternoon, in general ... We shouted to each other over the Vitamix the whats and hows of pudding prep and muscled through the steps together. The biggest challenge for me in the process was eliminating the sensation that you were eating fur while eating the mangoes. I solved that by straining the mango pulp (after blending it) two or three times through a sieve until I could guarantee that not an ounce of the puréed mangoes' texture resembled cat fur.

In the end, it looked and tasted like all birthday pudding should taste -- immaculate. Indeed.

Hope you think so, too.

Mango-Butterscotch Pudding

SERVINGS: 8

INGREDIENTS
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter*
3/4 cup (packed) light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (*leave this out if using salted butter)
3 1/2 cups whole milk
6 large egg yolks (or 7 small)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 ripe mangoes -- peeled, chopped, puréed, and STRAINED (They're hairy little buggers, so you will need to use a sieve to remove the "hair.")
1 small packet or sheet gelatin
1/4 cup cornstarch, sifted
3 tablespoon sugar

Optional: fresh mint, pomegranate seeds, berries, whipped cream, and/or crumbled ginger cookies for garnish

DIRECTIONS
Melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat until just golden brown; do not let it get dark or, sorry to tell ya, you'll need to start over.
Add brown sugar and cook while stirring, until sugar is just starting to dissolve.
Add milk and salt; bring to a simmer. Remove from heat.
Whisk egg yolks, sifted cornstarch, and sugar in a large bowl until smooth.
Add puréed and strained mango to egg mixture. Stir until smooth.
Add gelatin to hot milk mixture, whisking with speed constantly to avoid getting lumps.
Pour hot milk mixture from saucepan into egg & mango mixture, slowly and in rounds, whisking per every small pour.
Wipe out saucepan. Strain custard through a fine-mesh sieve back into saucepan and cook over medium heat, whisking very often, until it bubbles occasionally and starts to thicken (about 5–6 minutes).

Optional: If you do have any lumps in your mixture for some reason, transfer the mixture to a blender and blend briefly on low speed until smooth.

Place 8 ramekins or bowls on a rimmed baking sheet. Divide pudding evenly among ramekins and chill until set, at least 3 hours.

Optional: Top each pudding with whipped cream and any of the suggested garnishes, if desired.

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