Two Desserts, because company’s coming
November 14, 2016; Savannah GA: I pretty much stopped buying cookbooks years ago. At one point, I had about 10,000 titles. I have whittled it down to less than 500. When we moved overseas in 2011, I took a mere handful with me – and I wrote about those books then on the blog. The book I use more than any is still my dear friend Elizabeth Schneider’s encyclopedic and poetic Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini. Being back in the Lowcountry, I find myself poring through the old southern journals and cookbooks again, but I rarely see new stuff unless my “son” Scot Hinson, who is the reason I moved to Savannah, turns me on to something in his general store, or if one of my editors or colleagues in the business sends me something. I am mostly disappointed when I eat out, unless it is a restaurant that features a foreign cuisine that I simply can’t – or won’t – prepare at home. I have had three mediocre to bad experiences in the most highly lauded restaurant in Savannah, so I won’t be going back there. Savannah seems to me to lack a professionalism in its food industry that is mirrored in its lack of civic leadership. Many people are actually proud that we are “15 years behind Charleston.” Charleston’s traffic and expense are both nightmares now, but I have had great food and service in restaurants there, though it is difficult for me to go out to eat in Charleston because I am usually at the home of friends and family. Sit-down dinner at my wine guru Debbie Marlowe’s house one night, my brother comes from Columbia and we have quail and barbecue and oysters and family style meals at my nephew’s and my sisters’ homes. Bessie Hanahan usually has everyone over, and there is invariably an oyster roast or potluck at Mary Edna’s. So there is little time to eat out.
When I do take time away from my house and garden, it is usually with my husband, who works in DC, so we are either up there or visiting his mother up near the North Carolina border. So I don’t often get to other cities. Having gone to both undergraduate and graduate school in idyllic Athens, Georgia, I have never much cared for the hustle and bustle of Atlanta. Talk about bad traffic! But one of the restaurants I would like to try is Steven Satterfield’s Miller Union. I had never heard of it until Scot got a copy of his Root to Leaf book in the shop. The recipes look really good. But the last thing I need is another cookbook. One of the recipes in the book particularly caught my eye – a red velvet cake made with beets instead of red food coloring. And with a goat cheese icing! I’ve never cared for cream cheese or those powdered sugar icings (I have always frosted my red velvet with the old fashioned “Noxema” icing – a shiny white, creamy combination of butter, milk, and sugar cooked in a double boiler with a little flour for thickening.) But, living alone most of the time, I would need to have a big party in order to even bother with the cake.
And then I got Anne Byrn’s American Cake in the mail. (Anne used two of my recipes in the book.) The last recipe in the book, which is arranged historically/chronologically, is “slightly adadpted” from the one his pastry chef Pamela Moxley created for Satterfield’s restaurant. Since I was having a party for 20 to celebrate a one-man show of new artwork by my friend of 42 years, Julia Christian, I thought I would make Anne’s version. It was the hit of the party, and people were cutting huge slices to take home. But there were problems with the recipe.
I don’t blame Anne. 20 years ago, I had a contract with Harper Collins to write a book about southern baking (when Harper had financial problems, I – and all its new authors – were paid our advances in full NOT to write our books!). While testing recipes, I became absolutely convinced that every bag of flour, every egg, and every oven is different. I found that the humidity of the day, the barometric pressure, and the amount of natural yeasts in the air all affect baked goods. Though I am a decent baker and generally know when a recipe could use a little more liquid or a little more flour or a little more time in the oven, those skills are nearly impossible to translate into recipes. But I also generally follow recipes for dishes that I have never made before to a “t.” I followed Anne’s recipe exactly as it is laid out, b ut the cake was very, very dense and I ended up baking it for TWICE as long as she recommended. It was delicious, but fudgelike and difficult to remove from the pans.
I compared Anne’s ingredient list to my own red velvet cake recipe and made major adjustments: more egg, more flour, different leavening, more time in the oven. I also replaced almost all of the cream cheese in the icing for goat cheese. (I only had 2 ounces of cream cheese left from the last cake, so I used it. Net time, I will use all goat cheese.) The cake is astonishing.
Beet Red Velvet Cake with Goat Cheese Icing, adapted from recipes by Pamela Moxley and Anne Byrn
For the cake:
1 medium to large beet
1 cup buttermilk at room temperature
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon white vinegar
2-1/4 cups soft southern flour such as White Lily brand
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
10 tablespoons (1-1/4 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature plus butter for greasing the pans
1-3/4 cups sugar
4 large eggs at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350º. Wash the beet then wrap in heavy duty aluminum foil and bake until a knife slips easily into the beet, one to two hours (I use my toaster oven with inexact temperature controls. You still need to preheat the oven for the cake). When the beet has cooled, peel it (I use the foil to rub the skin off). Cut it into small pieces, dropping them into a measuring cup. Fill it above the one cup line – you’ll want a cup of finely chopped beets. Place the beet pieces in a food processor and chop finely. Measure out a cup and return the chopped beets to the processor.
Grease two 9”cake pans, line with parchment paper, grease again, and dust with flour.
Add the buttermilk, lemon juice, and vinegar to the beets and process until smooth. Don’t worry if there are bits of beet not fully ground. No one will taste the cake and go, “Eewww, beets!”
Sift the flour, soda, salt, and cocoa powder together into a bowl and set aside.
Beat the butter in the large bowl of an electric mixer until smooth. Gradually add the sugar and beat until creamy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, until well blended. Alternately add the flour mixture and the beet mixture, mixing in well after each addition, beginning and ending with the flour. Add the vanilla and beat one last time. Divide the batter between the cake pans and bake until a toothpick inserted into the cakes comes out clean and the cakes are just beginning to pull from the sides of the pan, 30 minutes or so (I baked mine for 40 minutes).
Cool the cakes completely on racks. In the meantime, make the icing.
For the icing:
6 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature
1-3/4 cups sifted confectioner’s sugar
a pinch of salt
8 ounces soft mild goat cheese or a combination of goat cheese and cream cheese
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Beat the butter until creamy, add the sugar and salt and mix in well, then add the cheese and vanilla and beat until perfectly creamy.
For the assembly:
When the layers are cooled, run a knife around the edge and invert one layer onto a cake plate. Remove the paper and spread a thin layer of icing on the top. Remove the second cake from its pan, remove the paper, and invert it back right side up onto the top of the first layer. Now spread a thin layer on the top and sides of the cake. This is to form a “crumb coat” to prevent crumbs from getting in the icing. Refrigerate the cake for 15 minutes or until the icing has set. Complete the icing of the cake, generously spreading it on on the tops and sides.
I have out of town guests, plus my sister is coming to town today, and she is a real blackberry lover. As those of you who are familiar with my work know, I have been an avid advocate of fresh and local and traditional ingredients and dishes for over 30 years. However, I was in our local Lucky’s yesterday and there were clamshells of blackberries from Mexico for 68 cents/each! Given the outcome of the presidential election, I’m afraid that our trade with our southern neighbor may be hindered by the new administration, so I said What the Hell! and bought 6 clamshells – their limit. I’ve made a very simple blackberry pie, with a lard/butter crust and a little sugar and cornstarch in with the berries (I always crush a few but leave most of them whole), which I dot with butter before adding the top crust, which I brushed with almond milk (I didn’t have cow’s milk) and sprinkled with a little sugar. I baked the pie in a clear pyrex dish in an oven preheated to 450º for 10 minutes, then turned down the heat to 350º and continued to bake until the pie was golden brown not only on top but on the bottom as well. If the edges of your pie are browning more quickly than the center, you can put a pie crust shield around the edges or fashion one out of aluminum foil. It can take as long as an hour.
greased 9” pie pan
4 cups soft southern flour such as White Lily brand
1 tablespoon sugar, plus 1/3 cup for the berries
pinch of salt
3 ounces chilled lard plus 1 ounce chilled unsalted butter (or any combination of lard, butter, and shortening)
½ cup water, plus ice cubes
5 cups blackberries, rinsed and any signs of stems or leaves removed
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
milk, half-and-half, or almond milk for brushing the top of the pie
sugar to sprinkle on top of the pie
Preheat the oven to 450º. Sift the flour with the salt and the sugar into a large mixing bowl. Add a few ice cubes to the measured water and set aside. Cut the lard into the flour with a pastry blender, a large fork, or two knives, until the mixture is uniform and, as the old cookbooks say, it resembles small peas (though BBs are more like it). Do not touch the dough with your hands. Place a wet towel under the bowl so that it will not slide around on the counter. Working deftly, scoop up large spoonfuls of the mixture from the bottom of the bowl with a metal slotted spoon while sprinkling water into the mixture a little at a time. Work quickly as you “lift in” the water, stopping before all the water is in. You should stop the second you feel the dough will hold together without more water. Now grab the entire mass of dough up in your hands and push it all together into a ball. If the pie filling is ready, wrap the dough in some wax paper or plastic wrap and put it in the freezer for ten minutes; otherwise put the wrapped dough in the refrigerator to chill while you prepare the fruit.
Mix 4 cups of the blackberries with the cornstarch, mashing a few to make a slurry but leaving most of them whole.
Remove the pastry dough from the freezer or refrigerator and place on a large, lightly floured surface. Try not to touch it with your hands. Roll it out evenly to a thickness of 1/8″. Place a 9″ pie plate on top of the dough and, with a blunt knife, cut across the dough so that an area large enough to fill the pie plate is marked off as one large piece. Set the pie plate off to the side. Place the rolling pin on one edge of this large piece of dough, and gently roll it up off the surface and onto the pin. Lay the dough down in the pie plate, allowing it to roll off the pin, and always avoiding handling the dough. Press it lightly into place, allowing any excess dough to hang over the sides. Fill with the fruit. Fill in with as much of the remaining blackberries as the pie will hold. Distribute the butter pieces evenly on the filling.
Roll the remaining dough into a circle slightly bigger than the pie. Roll it up on the rolling pin and unroll it onto the top of the pie. Run a sharp knife blade at an angle around the rim of the pie plate, trimming excess dough off. Crimp the edges together with a fork and cut slits in the top to allow steam to escape. Brush the top of the pie crust very lightly with the milk, then sprinkle the pie lightly all over with a little sugar and place in the middle of the preheated oven and bake for ten minutes. Lower the heat to 350º and bake for another 30 to 50 minutes or until the crust is nicely browned all over. You don’t want to let the crimped edge get too dark, but you want to be sure to bake the pie well so that the crust will not be soggy. You can fashion a collar of aluminum foil to cover the rim as soon as it’s browned or you can buy a pie crust shield online at any number of sites. If you have clear glass pie plates, you can leave the pie in until the bottom has begun to brown. Don’t worry about the timing. All ovens and batches of flour bake differently. Bake the pie until it is a rich golden brown and it will be delicious.
PHOTOS TO FOLLOW AFTER MY DINNER PARTY TONIGHT! Oh, and why two desserts for only 6 people? Well, it’s Sunday. Company’s coming. And it’s what we do down here.