Naomi’s Thumbprint Cookies

This recipe is from my grandmother Nyma McCraine Lewis, so it either came from Woodville MS or Valdosta, GA. Take 3/4 cup softened unsalted butter 1/2 cup sugar 1 egg yolk 1 1/2 cup cake flour. Cream butter well, add sugar and blend thoroughly. Add egg yolk, fold in flour, knead a little bit, wrap in wax paper and chill for several hours. Roll into 1/2 inch balls, and make a small depression in the middle. Fill with red currant jelly. Bake at 325 until golden.

I use powdered sugar on my hands and on the wax paper instead of flour; these cookies are floury enough. Make sure it is unsalted butter, and don’t think any red jelly will do; almost anything other than the red currant jelly is too sweet. Use a baby spoon or even better a grapefruit spoon to put the jelly in the depression. If you break it up some, it will be less likely to bubble up and spill over the cookie. Chill the dough overnight or all day. It will hold its shape better, and use parchment paper. Naomi Gardner Freeman

Winners from Vardaman

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.

Scrumptious Sweet Potato Coconut Bars
Lyndsey Wade

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
Melissa Edmondson

1 ½ Cups butter, softened
2cups sugar
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.

Melissa’s cake

 

Jezebel Sauce

Most recipes named for a person tend to have documented pedigrees; we can trace bananas Foster, Melba toast and chicken tetrazzini to a particular person and chef in a particular restaurant. But Jezebel sauce is an orphan. Jezebel herself was a 9th century BCE Phoenician princess known best as the wife of Ahab, King of Israel, who she converted to the worship of the Lord of the Flies. Her foe Elijah, speaking through the prophet Elisha, brought about her downfall, and it’s because of her idolatry and animosity towards Hebrew prophets (she had a number of them killed) that she is remembered as a voluptuous temptress who led the righteous Ahab astray.

Jezebel’s association with sexual promiscuity has even more recent vintage (e.g. Frankie Laine’s 1951 hit “Jezebel”), and this cloying reputation doubtless led to the naming of this blend of sweet condiments mixed with pungent horseradish. Jezebel sauce is most often served with ham or other smoked meats, but is often poured over cream cheese for use as a cocktail dip with crackers. This Jackson recipe is from the splendid Southern Hospitality Cookbook by Winifred Greene Cheney, who claims, “Some of this sauce would have made Ahab’s wife a better woman,” but I doubt it. Jezebel was a real bitch.

Fidelia’s Jezebel Sauce

1 (16-ounce) jar of pineapple preserves, 1 (12-ounce) jar apple jelly, 6 ounces prepared mustard (I use a Creole brown), 1 (5-ounce) jar horseradish, salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. You can add Coleman’s Mustard for added kick. Blend all ingredients well with a fork or whip. This sauce keeps well for weeks refrigerated in a sealed container.

 

Window Cookies

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.

Sauce Florentine

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.

Candy Cane Vodka

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.

Winter Squash

My father was a lawyer in a rural county in Mississippi during the 50s and 60s, and while we never were rich, we had what we needed: we never had to buy firewood, we always had a freezer full of farm-slaughtered meat wrapped in white butcher paper, and around Christmas Daddy would at times go to the door at night and return with bottles tightly wrapped in paper sacks.

In Septembers, when it was still hot and dry, Daddy would drive my sister, brother and me to the Ellard community where an old man and his wife lived on a small farm. Across the road from their house the slope of a hill was covered with yellowing vines bearing winter squashes. We’d gather all we could carry, which really wasn’t much, while Daddy sat on the porch with them and talked. Once after we left, I asked him why he didn’t pay the man. “Son, they wouldn’t take my money,” he said. “Years back, their boy got into trouble, a lot of trouble. I did everything I could to keep him out of prison. But I couldn’t, and they understood. I never asked them for a penny. I knew they didn’t have it. But he’d feel bad if I didn’t come out and get some of these squash every year. It’s his gift, and you don’t turn down gifts from a man who doesn’t have much to give. It means more to me–and him–than anything anybody else would give me.

The squash were acorns and yellow Hubbards. Some were peeled, cubed and parboiled for a casserole or pie. Others were split, seeded, usually scored, brushed with melted butter mixed with orange juice, sprinkled with brown sugar, and baked in a hot oven until soft and slightly browned. Once on the table, we’d scoop out the flesh with a spoon, put it on our plates and mash it with a fork. While the more durable sweet potatoes were on our table throughout the year, winter squash are seasonal. When I see them in the store, I know winter is coming, and my mind goes back to a that dry autumn hillside at an old failing farm in north Mississippi.