Secret Ingredient: Dessert Edition

This year, we asked locals to reveal the secret ingredient in their most esteemed desserts – and they obliged, mostly. See if you can guess the unexpected additions to these sublime sweets!

Chances are, if you ask a Southerner for the secret ingredient to their prized recipe, you’ll be met with a sly smile and a polite rejection. You see, secret ingredients can completely transform a run-of-the-mill dish into a mind-blowing creation, but you can expect its elusive contents to be taken to the grave.


This year, we asked locals to reveal the secret ingredient in their most esteemed desserts – and they obliged, mostly. See if you can guess the unexpected additions to these sublime sweets!


By  Mary Beth Wallace

Photography by  Rich Smith

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Christine Nguyen’s

Blueberry Pie

Yields: 6-8 servings


CHRISTINE NGUYEN holding her blueberry pie



  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
  • 10 oz. butter (1 1/4 blocks Kerrygold butter), diced and chilled
  • 5-6 Tbsp. ice water
  • 5 cups fresh or frozen blueberries
  • 1 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 3/4 cup + 2 Tbsp. cornstarch
  • 2 Tbsp. water
  • 1 Tbsp. lemon juice
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 2-3 drops TOP SECRET
  • Egg white, beaten
  • Cane sugar, for topping


In a food processor, combine flour, salt, and butter. Pulse 1-3 times to combine. Slowly add ice water until mixture just starts to ball together. Wrap in plastic and let rest at least 30 minutes before rolling.

In a medium pot, combine blueberries, sugar, cornstarch, and water and stir until well-mixed. Heat over medium to medium-high heat until berries start to release moisture, about 5 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low and allow mixture to simmer until thickened (mixture will be quite thick), about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and allow blueberry filling to cool. Once cool, add lemon juice, vanilla,

Preheat oven to 375°. Roll out pie dough and trim edges so there is a 1-inch overhang over the lip of the pie pan. Fill shell with blueberry filling. Brush overhang with egg white for sealing. Combine trimmed and extra pie dough. Then reroll and cut into 6 thick fluted strips. Cut out various flowers and leaves to decorate on top. Top pie with fluted strips in a lattice style (3 strips each way) and trim the edges. Fold over overhang and crimp the crust edge. Brush with egg white and top with flower cutouts before brushing with egg white again and topping with cane sugar. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown.




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Amber Gardner’s

Chocolate Chip Crackle Cookies

Yields: 24 cookies



  • 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
  • 4 cups crushed TOP SECRET
  • Extra chocolate chips, M&M’s, or melted chocolate (options for topping)


Preheat oven to 375° and line 2 baking sheets with parchment. In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream together butter, granulated sugar, and brown sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 3-5 minutes. Add vanilla and eggs and beat on medium speed until just combined. Add flour, baking soda, and salt, then mix on low speed until just combined. Stir in chocolate chips and 2 cups of crushed TOP SECRET. Put the remaining 2 cups of crushed TOP SECRET in a shallow bowl.

Roll dough into 2-inch balls, then roll them in the remaining TOP SECRET so they are completely coated. Place cookies 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheets and bake until golden, 8-10 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. While cookies are cooling, you can add a few chocolate chips, M&M’s, or drizzle melted chocolate on top for added flavor and presentation.

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Jessica Revels’

Southern Bread Pudding

Yields: 20 servings


Jessica Revels holding her southern bread pudding



  • 1 cup golden raisins
  • 1/2 cup TOP SECRET
  • 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
  • 4 cups day-old Bread & Butter bakery’s challah
  • 8 cups heavy cream
  • 6 eggs
  • 3 1/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 Tbsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/2 pint fresh blueberries
For the pudding sauce:
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup TOP SECRET


Combine raisins and 1/2 cup TOP SECRET in a small saucepan. Heat just to a simmer; cover and set aside. Use a portion of butter to coat a 2-inch deep pan, and reserve remaining butter. Tear challah into chunks and place in a large bowl, then pour heavy cream over bread and set aside until soft. Whisk eggs and sugar in a bowl until smooth and thick. Add vanilla, remaining butter, blueberries, and the raisin and  TOP SECRET mixture. Gently toss egg mixture with bread. Rest mixture for at least an hour, if not overnight, before baking.

Preheat oven to 350°. Pour mixture into prepared pan and bake until browned and almost set, approximately 45 minutes, rotating halfway through. Serve with warm pudding sauce.

For the pudding sauce:

Melt butter; stir in sugar and beaten eggs and simmer to thicken. Add TOP SECRET and keep warm until serving.

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Misa Ankar’s


Yields: 10 servings


Misa Ankar



For the custard (Ashta) filling:
  • 4 Tbsp. cornstarch
  • 6 Tbsp. sugar
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 Tbsp. TOP SECRET
For the syrup (Ater):
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 tsp. lemon juice
  • 1 Tbsp. TOP SECRET
For the Warbat:
  • 1 package frozen phyllo dough (16 sheets)
  • 1 cup sweet cream butter, melted
  • Ground pistachios for decoration (optional)


Make the custard filling. In a medium nonstick pan, add cornstarch, sugar, milk, and heavy cream. Stir until combined and starch and sugar dissolve. Heat mixture on medium heat while stirring continuously. When mixture comes to a gentle boil and thickens (like a pudding), add TOP SECRET and turn heat off. Set on a countertop to cool, stir every 15 minutes, and after an hour, cover and place in the refrigerator to cool for at least 2 hours.

Make the syrup. In a pan, add water and sugar. Stir until all sugar dissolves. Boil on  medium heat for 5 minutes. Add lemon juice and let boil again for 5 minutes. Turn heat off and stir in TOP SECRET. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 400°. Lay out a sheet of room temperature phyllo dough, brush with melted butter, and layer another sheet of phyllo dough on top. Cut sheets into 3 equal-size columns, each about 3-4 inches wide. Place 3 Tbsp. of the custard filling at one end of each column and fold the bottom-right corner up and over custard. Pull up bottom-left corner and repeat, folding each corner up to the opposite corner and forming a triangle as you fold. Repeat for each column of dough to create approximately 10 servings. Place triangle pockets on a baking sheet, brush with more butter, and bake for 10 minutes or until golden brown. Serve warm or cold, drizzled with syrup and sprinkled with pistachios.

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Elizabeth Held’s

Vegan Brownies

Yields: 12 brownies


Elizabeth Held



For the date paste:
  • 14 Medjool dates
  • Water, to cover dates
For the brownies:
  • 1/2 cup chia gel (2 Tbsp. chia seeds + 6 Tbsp. water, stirred and left to rest for 15 minutes)
  • 1 (15 oz.) can TOP SECRET, rinsed and drained
  • 1 heaping cup date paste
  • 4 Tbsp. coconut oil, melted
  • 2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cup raw cacao powder
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. sea salt
  • Chopped walnuts, pecans, or dark chocolate (options for topping)


For the date paste:

Remove stems and seeds from the dates and place in a bowl. Cover dates with enough water to just barely cover them and let soak for 1 hour. After an hour, drain dates and reserve soaking liquid. Blend dates in a blender, adding soaking liquid 1 Tbsp. at a time until mixture is smooth but still thick. This will require 1/4-1/2 cup of soaking liquid depending on the freshness of the dates and length of time they soaked.

For the brownies:

Preheat oven to 350°. Lightly grease a 12-slot standard muffin pan. Combine chia seeds and water to make chia gel, then set aside until it becomes a gel (about 15 minutes). Blend chia gel, TOP SECRET, date paste, coconut oil, and vanilla extract in a blender or food processer until smooth. Add cacao, baking powder, and sea salt to the mixture and process again until smooth, scraping down the sides as needed. It should eventually look like brownie batter. If needed, add a tsp. of water at a time and blend further. Fill each muffin slot with about 1/4 cup of batter. If needed, even out the tops with a spatula. Sprinkle with toppings of choice, pushing the pieces slightly into the top of the brownies.

Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until tops are firm and edges have pulled away slightly from the sides. Remove from oven and let cool for 30 minutes in the pan. This will result in a soft and gooey center. If you prefer a firmer texture, turn oven off and let baked brownies sit in oven to cool. When the brownies are completely cool, gently remove them from the muffin tin.

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