In just a few short weeks, the Great State of Mississippi will inaugurate its 65th chief executive, Governor-elect Tate Reeves. In honor of this auspicious occasion, I’ve created a cake especially with a mind to Mr. Reeves and all the qualities he will bring to the office to commemorate the event.
Take a pound of frozen tater tots (the brand doesn’t matter; a frozen grated potato is a frozen grated potato) and cook according to package directions. It’s best to use the “fry” option, since the more grease the better. Fry a half-pound of bacon or cube a half-pound of ham, or do both. This recipe should include LOTS and LOTS of pork. Stir the tater tots and pork together with a half cup mayonnaise and two cups grated American cheese or Velveeta. Spray a Bundt pan with the nonstick cooking spray or grease with lard. Pack the tots, pork and cheese into the pan and bake for about forty-five minutes. Invert cake onto foil-covered surface and serve.
There you have it: greasy, ugly and no damn good for you at all. Not one bit. It’s even shaped like a big asshole.
Cornbread is the South’s oldest icon. My Choctaw ancestors were making bread from maize long before the rest of my DNA was run out of the British Isles. The Choctaws made what is called shuck bread, or “bunaha”, by mixing water and cornmeal into a stiff paste, forming the paste into balls, wrapping them in cooked corn shucks and boiling them for about an hour. They stored well and were reheated by boiling before serving. The early settlers made a simple type of cornbread by mixing meal, water, salt and lard into a batter and cooking it on a flat metal surface like a pancake. These are called hoecakes or dogbread. Much later came what we know as cornbread. Or at least what I know it as.
When it comes to cornbread, I labored long under the impression that I was a confirmed orthodox. Yellow corn meal? A quarter cup of sugar? Nuh-uh, no way. That’s not cornbread, that’s corncake. A recipe using yellow meal, sugar and even (horror of horrors) butter just has Yankee written all over it. A Michigan-born hostess once served me such bread, and I’m sorry to say I was so rude as to point out what a culinary abomination it was. She set me in my place by being quite gracious about my gaffe, which made her a lady, and after dinner her husband offered to punch me in the nose, which made him a gentleman. (We still exchange Christmas cards.) I once ran up on a California recipe for cornbread using vanilla flavoring that confirmed a whole slew of suspicions I’d long harbored about the frivolity if not to say instability of the West Coast mentality. I’ve also come across recipes with dill, cheddar cheese, yogurt, skim milk, blue corn meal, creamed corn, and even (I swear to God) tofu. What passes under the name of Mexican cornbread is subject to all manner of atrocities, the most bizarre of which I’ve found includes beef jerky and cactus flowers.
As a confirmed orthodox, I thought I was sitting on the front pew with my recipe, which has only white meal, just a little flour, eggs, buttermilk, salt and baking powders. But I found out that there are those who would cry, “Backslider!” at the thought of using bleached meal or even eggs. I just had never considered making cornbread without eggs, then I found that among the recipes you see printed on most meal packages you see this is called “egg bread,” and my faith began to falter. These no-egg purists, I began to believe, were true cornbread devotees who enjoyed a more chaste form of elemental Southern sustenance. I felt horribly decadent, which was not such a new sensation for me, but a cornbread recipe certainly was a novel indicator of my moral turpitude (more official records exist). I got over it. After all, I had learned how to make cornbread at my mother’s knee, and she was a queen among cooks: “Honi soit qui mal y pense”, you heathen peasants.
To make cornbread, put about an eighth of an inch of oil, corn or vegetable, in the bottom of a proper skillet, and stick it in the oven at about 450. Then take one and a half cups of white self-rising corn meal and about half a cup self-rising flour, mix in a bowl with a scant teaspoon baking soda and a dash or so of salt. Add about 1/3 cup of corn or vegetable oil and mix with dry ingredients until about the consistency of rice. Add one large beaten egg, mix well, and then add enough buttermilk to make a thick batter. Add just a couple of tablespoons of water to this to thin slightly; this enables the meal to swell and makes for lighter bread. Take your skillet out of the oven, tilt to coat the sides with oil, and test the oil with a drop of batter. It should sizzle a bit; if not, heat some more. When oil is sufficiently hot, pour in the batter and put back in oven. Bake until golden brown. Remove by inverting skillet. If your skillet is properly seasoned and your oil was hot enough, the cornbread should just pop out of the skillet with a fine brown crust. Eat with butter immediately and enjoy being alive.
If your ham comes with one of those foil packets of glaze, grab it with a pair of tongs and drop it in the nearest hazardous waste receptacle. Not even Divine would use that gunk (she’d probably use edible glitter). Instead, make your own in a matter of minutes with just a few ingredients you can pick up at the store. This recipe is not only simple, you can modify it to your taste, use as much as you need and refrigerate the rest. It’s good on pork and game roasts, too, but I think it’s a bit heavy for fowl.
For a 15-20 lb. ham, use 1 jar (12 oz.) of apricot, pineapple, peach or cherry preserves, a half cup brown sugar, a mixture of two tablespoons Coleman’s dry mustard and a quarter cup honey, dark corn syrup or molasses and a half stick butter. Mix the mustard and honey/syrup/molasses before adding to other ingredients in a small saucepan over medium heat. Whisk continually until thoroughly mixed. Let ham sit covered at room temperature at least two hours before removing from packaging. Heat oven to 325˚F with the oven rack in the lower third of the oven. Brush half of the glaze on ham, cover with foil and bake at 325 for 10-11 minutes per pound. Increase oven to 425˚, brush ham with remaining glaze and roast uncovered until a brown crust has formed. Remove the ham from the oven and let it rest uncovered for no more than an hour before basting with pan drippings and plating.
Vardaman, Mississippi is in southeast Calhoun County, near the source of the Yalobusha River, the largest tributary of the Yazoo. Like many towns in the upland South, Vardaman grew up around a lumber railhead. Some of the lordliest white oaks that ever left the Continent descended from the hills above Vardaman and were shipped across the Atlantic to construct the great wine barrels for the 1925 Paris Exposition. When the great forests of the southeast were depleted, Vardaman, like so many towns in the rolling hills, needed a sustainable crop. Farmers turned to the sweet potato and their efforts found success. Vardaman, Mississippi IS the Sweet Potato Capital of the World; all others claimants are pretenders.
Vardaman holds an annual Sweet Potato Festival in October—this year the 46th—that includes music, arts and crafts, exhibitions, cook-offs and lots and lots of food. Sweet Potato Kings and Queens are selected in no less than four events with contestants from infancy to high school. Many people consider the recipe contest the main event, and people go all out for the coveted prizes, including the Mayor’s Cup, which this year was won by Lyndsey Wade for her Scrumptious Sweet Potato Coconut Bars. I’m also giving you the winner in the cake category, Melissa Edmondson’s spectacular Sweet Potato Cake with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting. Either or both of these desserts would be a splendid addition to your holiday table.
¾ Cup Butter, melted
1 ½ Cups Graham Cracker Crumbs
1 (14 oz.) can Sweetened Condensed Milk
3 Cups Sweet Potato puree
2 Cups White Chocolate Morsels
11/3 Cups Flaked Coconut
1 Cup Chopped Nuts
Heat oven to 350 degrees and coat 9×13 baking pan with non-stick cooking spray. Combine graham cracker crumbs and butter. Press into bottom of prepared pan. Pour sweetened condensed milk evenly over crumb mixture. Scoop sweet potato from the peeling and mix until smooth. Using a piping bag (or plastic freezer bag with hole cut in one corner), layer the graham cracker crust with sweet potatoes. Layer white chocolate chips, coconut and nuts. Press firmly.Bake 25 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool and cut into bars. Store covered at room temperature.
Sweet Potato Cake with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting
1 ½ Cups butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 large eggs, separated
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup buttermilk
2 cups finely grated sweet potato
1 cup chopped walnuts
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray 3 (8in) cake pans with nonstick baking spray with flour. In a large bowl, beat butter, sugar, and vanilla at medium speed with a mixer until fluffy. Add egg yolks, beating until combined. In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, salt and nutmeg. Gradually add to butter mixture alternately with buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour mixture, beating just until combined after each addition. In a medium bowl, beat egg whites at high speed with a mixture until stiff peaks form. Gently fold into batter. Gently stir in sweet potatoes and walnuts. Spoon batter into prepared pans. Bake for 20 to 23 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted comes out clean. Cool in pans for 10 minutes. Remove from pans, cool completely on wire racks. Spread White Chocolate-Cream Cheese Frosting evenly between layers and on top and sides of cake.
White Chocolate-Cream Cheese Frosting
1 (4oz) white chocolate baking bar, chopped
1/3 cup heavy whipping cream
1 cup butter, softened
16 oz. cream cheese softened
2lbs. powdered sugar
In a small sauce pan, combine chopped white chocolate and cream. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until chocolate melts and mixture is smooth. Remove from heat, and cool for 1 hour. In a large bowl, beat butter and cream cheese at medium speed with a mixer until creamy. Add white chocolate mixture, beating until combined. Gradually add powdered sugar, beating until smooth. Note: Cake layers can be made up to 1 month ahead; wrap cooled layers tightly in plastic wrap and Freeze. To serve, spread frosting on frozen cake layers (frozen layers are easier to frost), and thaw. Store thawed cake, covered, in refrigerator up to 3 days.
The job of a food photographer is make what’s in front of their lens look like you’d want to eat it, just as the job of a porn photographer is to make their subject look like you’d want to buy it a couple of martinis and rent a room in a cheap hotel.
Confections take well to the camera because confectionery itself is an art involving brilliant colors, textures and shapes, not to mention architecture, especially when it comes to cakes, which can be monumental. Candies are easy, too, but cookies can be tricky, with the exception of window cookies, which are a combination of architecture and cookie. Window cookies are sugar cookies with a transparent candy center. You’re going to find other types called the same thing, of course. In the Midwest, they have what are called cathedral cookies, which are made by with colored mini-marshmallows rolled chocolate cookie dough, sliced and baked. Then you have what are called thumbprint cookies, dimple cookies or jelly cookies, which are made by making a depression in the middle of raw cookies, filling it with fruit preserves and baking.
The most essential ingredient for proper window cookies is a translucent hard candy like Jolly Ranchers or Life Savers. Coarsely crush the candy, and use a basic cookie dough. I use cocoa for color, chopped nuts for texture, and if I’m really froggy, sliced almonds for “tiles/bricks”. (Yeah, it’s goofy, I know.) Bring ingredients to room temperature before mixing. Roll out dough to a half inch thickness, and take care not to overfill the centers with candy. You can also bake hollow cookies and fill them with chocolate or peppermint. Both versions are best a bit large, over three inches. Cook in a low oven, 300, for the while it takes to dry the dough and melt the candy. Cool thoroughly on a secondary surface.
Make Florentine your own. I use a Mornay for a base, and aside from the essential spinach, mild peppers or whatever good onion that’s on hand. The sauce should be creamy and savory rather than pungent, always served hot. Florentine is wonderful on chicken and seafoods–Rockefeller is a variation–and this cream version works well with most light (non-oily) fish and shellfish. Not so much on oysters, however, which are better in the minimally lighter Bienville.
Use a sharp hard cheese and do NOT add parsley, which compromises the spinach. For two, oil and line a small gratin with peeled shrimp, whole or chopped, cover with sauce and and broil until bubbling.
Petty and potent, this easily-made holiday kicker makes for a nice party present. Have fun putting it in gift containers and sprucing it up with ribbons and whatnot. For a fifth of vodka, use about a dozen full-size candy canes. You can crush the canes in their wrappers with the flat of a hammer if you’re careful, or if you have a mortar and pestle, unwrap them and use that. Me, I unwrap them, break them into a bowl, then crush them with a salt shaker. Of course you can use a food processor to grind them into dust. Some people keep the canes whole and just let them dissolve over time, but that takes at least a day. However you do it, once the sugar canes are dissolves, strain the vodka then pour it into whatever containers you’re using for a gift. You can use the round peppermints, too, if you can’t find the canes anywhere.