Given that he now stands at a towering six feet, three inches, it’s hard to imagine Father Kenneth Allen being too short to reach the stove.
Yet the pastor of St. Jane de Chantal in Abita Springs clearly remembers that height was one of the reasons he was a kitchen spectator through about age 9 – the year he learned how to make his grandmother’s French toast.
“I became a French toast nut. I cooked it all the time,” chuckled Father Allen, 54, who grew up in Metairie’s St. Catherine of Siena Parish watching his Houma-born mother drinking in “every PBS show on cooking” and preparing seafood gumbo, jambalaya and a peerless rendition of maque choux that got its “caramelized deliciousness” from roasted corn and tomatoes.
A baker emerges
Food, coupled with an interest in researching and putting his own twist on recipes, have been Father Allen’s passions ever since. The priest’s culinary inquisitiveness includes working through all of Julia Child’s cookbooks, both on his own and alongside his longstanding “cooking club” of friends (one of those friends, Barbara Martin, submitted two recipes for this issue of Holy Smoke).
As a result, the breakfast nook that abuts Father Allen’s rectory-kitchen is stocked with cookbooks of every stripe, including individual volumes devoted to sauces, broths and bread.
“I’ll make a dish over and over and over again and then I’ll get sick of it and move onto something else,” said Father Allen, recalling how he once “played around” with the carrot cake recipe from the iconic River Road Cookbook by trying different ways to impart moistness through the addition of oil and crushed pineapple.
“One day – I think I was in my early 20s – The Times-Picayune published a recipe for king cake,” Father Allen recalls. “It never had dawned on me that you could make a king cake at home. I made one and everyone loved it.”
Not long after that epiphany, the newspaper printed one of the best-kept secrets of the New Orleans culinary scene: Paul Prudhomme’s recipe for bread pudding.
“It was just phenomenal! Everyone went bananas over that,” Father Allen recalls.
Father Allen, a graduate of Archbishop Rummel High who was ordained to the priesthood in 2004, played organ as a lay minister for 30 years at St. James Major, St. Pius X, St. Catherine of Siena and St. Philip Neri parishes, and then as a seminarian at Notre Dame Seminary Masses and Mater Dolorosa Parish. Now that his priestly duties have reduced his keyboard time, cooking and baking fill his creative void, he said.
“Music is very creative and it’s also very physical,” Father Allen notes. “It really is a lot going on all at once. Your whole body is involved and really your spirit is involved, because you’re creating. Cooking kind of reminds me of that because it is also a creative process.”
In semi-rural Abita Springs, St. Jane parishioners often will surprise Father Allen and their parochial vicar, Father Kevin DeLerno, with deliveries of farm-fresh eggs, honey, pickled vegetables and seasonal local produce, such as blueberries, okra, corn and tomatoes.
While the infusion of fresh ingredients has lately inspired Father Allen to experiment with bone-based broths, heart-healthy cooking and fermented foods – those produced or preserved by the action of microorganisms – he remains, at heart, a baker, and an extravagant one at that.
“It makes the house smell homey and also people like it,” he said.
Occasionally, Father Allen will rise extra early to bake a coffee cake from scratch to serve at the daily “coffee klatch” held after the 8 a.m. Mass. The morning socials, held in St. Joseph Hall across from the church, typically attract 20 to 30 people, he said.
“I like to try out new coffee cake recipes – sour cream, almond, cinnamon roll brioche,” Father Allen said. “Sometimes I’ll make coconut rolls. They are just like cinnamon rolls, but there’s is no cinnamon in them. I’ll add a little cognac for that extra little something.”
The talented priest also makes his own ice cream.
“At night, I should probably be reading an inspirational or spiritual book, but I’ll often read cookbooks,” he said. “There’s a lot about ice cream in (cookbooks), so finally I just bought an ice cream maker. (A parish favorite) is vanilla bourbon with spiced pecans,” he said, adding, “I feel you should have your cake, but eat it in moderation. You don’t want to be eating cake and buttercream every day.”
While working through Julia Child’s canon, Father Allen created a dish in honor of his Houma relatives – Eggplant Lapeyrouse – a succulent casserole layered with eggplant, crab, shrimp and shaved Parmesan. While meatless, it might not be suitable for Lent “because it is so good,” he said, smiling.
Last summer, Father Allen was inspired by something other than his cookbooks: He and a fellow archdiocesan priest, Father James Jeanfreau, walked 160 miles of the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain, a pilgrims’ path connected with St. James the Great.
“I became really enchanted with Spanish food, which I’d never really had before,” said Father Allen, who became a fan of the ubiquitous Spanish tortilla, “which is basically a potato omelet” served as a bitesize tapa. When he researched the dish upon his return to the United States, he was surprised to learn that the potatoes are poached first in olive oil.
“I was really surprised because when I was eating them I said they must boil the potatoes first because they’re so melt-in-you-mouth tender.”
Beth Donze can be reached email@example.com.