Win, Place, Show: 3 Derby Day Sweets

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May Day Pie [Photographs: Sarah Baird]

There are three crucial skills every Kentucky born-and-bred lady acquires by the time she reaches the age of dinner parties and cocktail hours: how to mix up a stellar mint julep, how to pick out the perfect hat for the Kentucky Derby, and how to make at least one of the official sweet indulgences of the Run for the Roses. If you're looking to add a touch of authentic Kentucky flair to your derby party this year, whip up one of these boozy and butter rich desserts or candies while figuring out how to bet a box trifecta on your favorite horse.

May Day Pie

This Kentucky Derby favorite has one of the most controversy-rich histories of any dessert out there today. While most know this dish colloquially as "Derby Pie", that name is actually trademarked by a local restaurant and cannot be used to describe the dessert in any sort of official capacity. (Seriously—there have been over 60 lawsuits about it.) The alternative "May Day" namesake springs from the famous horse race's annual time slot-—the first Saturday in May—but the regional favorite can also be seen dappling dessert tables and luncheon spreads under the name Pegasus or Horse Race Pie.

The use of a high-quality bourbon in both the pie crust and the filling is key: Knob Creek, bottled just miles away from the Derby's home at the Churchill Downs racetrack, has the ideal oaky, toasted nuttiness to help the savory flavors in the pie shine. For the dark liquor enthusiasts among us, a light coating of bourbon around the inside of the pie crust prior to pouring the filling can pack a subtle, but noticeable, punch once the pie leaves the oven and make the dish a decidedly adult treat.

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May Day Pie »

Bourbon Balls

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While there will never be a shortage of liquor during a Kentucky Derby celebration, the omission of bourbon balls from a festive spread would be almost as big of a faux pas as leaving the Four Roses at home. Bourbon balls are usually made in one of two fashions. The first, more widely embraced nationwide, involves a combination of gingersnaps and pecans with a powdered sugar exterior, making the candy more akin to a rum ball than the confection Kentuckians know and love. The version decidedly owned by the Bluegrass State was made popular by local candy company Rebecca Ruth, who claim to have invented the boozy treat in 1936 and still keep their special formula under wraps.

The buttercream center, which is similar in pulled cream consistency to the Kentucky-classic Blue Monday candy bar, is overwhelmingly rich, and can be made flecked with bits of pecans or without. The importance of wrapping each center individually while freezing is critical to the candymaking process, and will bode well for their success when they are ready to take a chocolate dip. Some argue that bourbon balls should be allowed to mellow—much like bourbon itself—overnight or for a period of days before consumption, but I've always found that to be quite the impossible task.

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Bourbon Balls »

Kentucky Butter Cake

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If the Kentucky Derby already covers several notorious vices as an event (betting on horse races, drinking bourbon, smoking cigars) it's fitting to just round out that list with a glorious, gluttonous cake. The Kentucky Butter Cake lives up to the hype of its name with a heaping lot of butter in both the batter and glaze, while still managing to maintain a refined, well-balanced flavor that will be a winner with all members of the family.

The glaze itself is the crowning jewel of the cake, creating a texture that walks the line between pound cake and a giant Krispy Kreme doughnut. When preparing the glaze, keep a constant, low-to-medium temperature and whisk continuously to ensure the proper thickness is reached without boiling. If the mixture boils, it will begin to enter into brown butter territory, which completely shifts the nature of the cake.

While the cake is good at any hour of the day, there is something magical about eating it in the most traditional way: early on Derby morning, warm, with a cup of black coffee.

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Kentucky Butter Cake »


About the author: Sarah Baird is a writer, editor, and petit four aficionado living in New Orleans, Louisiana. She likes planning elaborate dinner parties surrounded by her collection of dwarf citrus trees. You can read her latest musings and about her various misadventures on her website: hellosarahbaird.com or follow her on Twitter: @scbaird.

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