Amalgamation Cake

Anyone who entrusts you with a family recipe loves you and will give you other instructions like, “Why don’t you get a job?” Such memories bind us all. Heirloom recipes should be treasured as records of home life that reflect the character of a people and a region. I’m always on the lookout for old recipes from family lines, for any dish not mentioned in that harangue of books and magazines devoted to Southern cuisine. Community cookbooks are a fine source of these recipes, but you can bet your bottom dollar that more than a few contributors are simply not going to share essential details because the church secretary was caught sleeping with her brother-in-law.

This holiday season I found a recipe that stands out: amalgamation cake. Yes, it’s a cake, but amalgamation is a word you usually stumble on in cookery works by dreary academic organizations devoted to foodways. I first heard it mentioned from a friend in Tupelo; queries to others brought about a dozen responses, all of them indicating that the amalgamation cake originated from northeast Mississippi and adjacent Alabama. I felt smug about isolating a true north Mississippi heirloom when someone popped up and pointed out that Ferrol Sams mentions amalgamation cake, “And he’s from Georgia.” Recipes also hail from northwest Tennessee, western South Carolina and a bundt from Florida that seems way off all maps, but they are few. No mention is made of amalgamation cake in “Southern Living”, not in any of Quail Ridge Press’ “Best of the Bests” series, nor in any of my Jackson cookbooks. It is in The Mississippi Cookbook, published by the Mississippi Cooperative Extension Service in 1972, confirming that amalgamation cake is a rural tradition.

Courtesy of Bob Franks, Fulton, Mississippi
Courtesy of Bob Franks, Fulton, Mississippi

Research on the origins of this recipe became a grail quest for me, but as Janet Clarkson (“The Old Foodie”) claims, it’s impossible to cite the first source for any recipe, since none are completely new. “Meringues were made for centuries before somebody called one a pavlova,” and at best we can only give the first known written or published version. When it comes to the amalgamation cake the earliest recipe I have found is handwritten from Itawamba County in 1939, sent to me by Bob Franks in Fulton. Recipes for amalgamation cake are jealously guarded in families, passed down and shared only with close friends and relatives. True to form, every recipe I received came with stringent instructions to follow; those who shared recipes with me said if I didn’t use fresh coconut that I would die and go to a deeper level of hell.

They all told me to get a job, too.

Amalgamation cake is always made for Christmas, and is similar to Alabama’s Lane cake, made famous by its mention in To Kill a Mockingbird. The Lane cake was created by Emma Lane of Clayton, Alabama who published her recipe in 1898. Most recipes for both cakes result in layers of white sponge cake with a filling of raisins, pecans, and coconut. The main difference between a Lane cake, which has it, and an amalgamation cake, which doesn’t, is liquor. The Lane cake, like its cousin the Lady Baltimore, is always infused with bourbon or some such, while the sober amalgamation abstains from spirits. The sole exception to this rule is a recipe from my home county (“Vote dry and drink wet!”) Calhoun, which calls for a sweet wine wrap overnight.

The following recipe was published in The Tuscaloosa News, Nov. 2011, from Billie Ruth Armstrong Moore, a student in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute’s “Preserving Your Family History” class. Asked to bring in a family recipe and write about it, she wrote:

Granny’s Amalgamation Cake was a favorite dessert at Thanksgiving and Christmas which our extended Armstrong family always celebrated at the home of my grandmother, Georgia Elizabeth Shumpert Armstrong. Her home was located near the Evergreen Community which is in the southwest corner of Itawamba County, Mississippi.

Billie Ruth includes scaly bark hickory nuts, a distinctively native ingredient. White raisins were mentioned as a refinement, and seven minute frosting is standard.

BATTER
1 1⁄2 cups sugar
1⁄2 cup Crisco
3 eggs (or 9 egg whites)
1 cup milk
2 1⁄2 cups plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla flavoring

FILLING

9 egg yolks
2 cups sugar
1 3⁄4 cups milk
1⁄4 pound butter
1 15-ounce box raisins
1 1⁄2 cups mixed nuts (1 cup pecans and 1⁄2 cup scaly barks)
1 big coconut, grated

Bake batter in 2 or three layers. For filling, beat egg yolks well, and then add sugar, milk and butter. Mix well and cook on medium heat until thickened slightly. Add raisins and nuts, cook until thick, add coconut last. Beat well, cool, spread between layers, then assemble and frost cake. Let rest several hours–overnight if possible–before serving.

Southern Stewed Greens

Buy three bunches of turnip, two of mustard, and cut right above the gather. Some people cook turnip roots with their greens, but I don’t.

Strip the leaves from the stems and put them into a clean, stoppered sink. Sprinkle with a generous amount of salt, cover with cold water, and agitate to knock off sand or other debris. Repeat the process until the greens are thoroughly clean. There’s nothing worse than taking a bite of gritty greens or gagging on a stewed slug, and this, brothers and sisters, is the voice of experience you hear.

After washing, load your greens into a big pot, set it on the stove at a medium heat. Add about two cups of light stock, a chopped white onion, and a pound of smoked ham or turkey, preferably bone-in. Reduce heat and cover. Stew for at least two hours, adjust salt, and let sit a bit to set before serving.

Governor from Calhoun: Dennis Murphree

Dennis Murphree was three times elected lieutenant governor of Mississippi, and on two of those times he succeeded to the governor’s office upon the death of the incumbent. Although he ran for governor in his own right three times, he was never elected. Few people ever wanted to be elected governor more than did Dennis Murphree, but the political scales in Mississippi during his lifetime did not permit this. The following text is adopted from The Governors of Mississippi (Pelican Publishing: 1980) by Cecil L. Sumners.

Dennis Herron Murphree was three times elected lieutenant governor of Mississippi and was twice elevated to the governor’s office. He was born at Pittsboro, Mississippi, on January 6, 1886, the first child of Thomas Martin Murphree and Callie Cooper Murphree. His father, who was prominent in the local affairs of Calhoun County, served four years in the Confederate army and two terms as justice of the peace. He was a member of the school board, twice served as circuit clerk, and was twice elected state representative from Calhoun County. Dennis Murphree’s father was also a newspaper editor and died during his second term as state representative.

The first American ancestors of this Murphree family were three brothers named Murphy who had taken part in Emmet’s Rebellion and had fled the country, seeking refuge in America. When they came to America, they changed their name to Murphree and settled in Tennessee and Alabama. However, his great-grandfather David Murphree, who was a resident of South Carolina at the time, served as a soldier in the American Revolution. His grandfather Martin Murphree served under General Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812 and was in the Battle of New Orleans. He moved from Tennessee to Chickasaw County after 1830. There he served on the county board of police (board of supervisors) from 1847 to 1849. When the legislature provided for the creation of Calhoun County from parts of Chickasaw, Lafayette, and Yalobusha counties on March 8, 1852, Martin Murphree was one of the seven commissioners charged with bringing the new county into being. He served as the secretary of that commission and helped locate the present county site.

With this distinguished record of public service among his ancestors, it was natural for Dennis Murphree to want to hold public office. Taking over the printing and newspaper office at his father’s death, he was successful in that business and in banking as well. In 1911 he was elected state representative from Calhoun County, Mississippi, the youngest person to be elected to that office from Calhoun County up to that time. His formal education was limited, but he obtained a vast amount of experience in the printing office of his father. He was reelected state representative in 1915 and again in 1919.

Dennis Murphree married Clara Minnie Martin of Pittsboro, Mississippi. They had three daughters and one son. Dennis Murphree was a Methodist and belonged to several fraternal organizations.

Dennis Murphree had oratorical ability, and in 1920 he was unanimously elected as temporary speaker of the house of representatives to serve during the sickness of Mike Conner, the regularly elected speaker. He served thirty days and obtained valuable experience presiding over that body, experience that he used later as presiding officer of the senate.

In 1923 Dennis Murphree ran for lieutenant governor, hopeful that he would not have any opposition. His opponent, however, was Hernando DeSoto Money, the son of Senator Money. Although Dennis Murphree did little campaigning, he won by a vote of 122,827 to 103,065. Mississippi, at the time of Dennis Murphree’s term as lieutenant governor, was experiencing depressed prices for the agricultural products; therefore, he helped promote legislation to help the farmers. Delta State Teachers College (now Delta State University) was established, and the mental institution in Jackson was moved to Rankin County and later named Whitfield. When Governor Henry Whitfield became ill in the summer of 1926, Murphree acted as governor much of the time. On March 16, 1927, Governor Whitfield died, and Murphree was sworn in as governor on March 18, 1927.

Governor Murphree had already announced that he would be a candidate to succeed himself as lieutenant governor; but after he became governor, the pressure was so great from his friends that he felt that he had to run for governor. He thought he should have retired from politics and awaited his turn to run for governor in 1931, but he listened to his friends and entered the governor’s race. He faced two well-seasoned and tough opponents: former Governor Theodore G. Bilbo and Speaker of the House Mike Conner. As opponents, these men were as strong as could be found anywhere in the state. Backed financially by Hugh L. White and L. O. Crosby, who agreed to underwrite his campaign expenses, he ran for governor. During the last part of his term as governor, there was a disastrous flood in the delta, a flood that almost took his life. It required most of his time and prevented him from campaigning properly. He went into the second primary with former governor Theodore G. Bilbo, but Bilbo defeated him by a vote of 147,669 to 137,130.

In 1931 Murphree ran for lieutenant governor against Bidwell Adams and won by a vote of 173,339 to 108,022. Again in 1935 he ran for governor against Hugh L. White and Paul B. Johnson, Sr. He ran third and failed to get into the second primary. In 1939 he ran his third successful race for lieutenant governor, receiving 172,201 votes and defeating three able opponents in the first primary by more than 40,000 votes.

Lieutenant Governor Murphree helped Paul Johnson carry out most of his proposed legislation. This included free textbooks for the schoolchildren of the state, an increased homestead exemption (from $3,500 to $5,000), and an expanded membership for the Board of Trustees of Institutions of Higher Learning. This latter move was an attempt to remove the board from political influences. BAWI laws were passed to help “Balance Agriculture With Industry,” as was proposed under Governor Hugh L. White’s administration.

In 1943 he ran for governor the third time against strong opposition consisting of former Governor Mike Conner, Thomas L. Bailey, and Lester C. Franklin. This was a hotly contested race; Bailey barely eased into the second primary with former Governor Conner. Murphree was eliminated. In an upset victory, Tom Bailey won the election for governor.

Then a little more than a month after the November general election, Governor Paul B. Johnson, Sr., died on December 26, 1943. Once again, Lieutenant Governor Dennis Murphree was elevated to the governor’s office to serve the remainder of the Johnson term. He served as governor of Mississippi from December 26, 1943, to January 18, 1944, when Governor-Elect Thomas L. Bailey was inaugurated. He had failed to get into the second primary by less than 400 votes. Governor Murphree believed for the rest of his life that if he had followed his own political judgment, he could have beaten Thomas L. Bailey in the first primary and would have eventually been elected in the second primary as governor.

After making three strenuous countrywide races and six hard-fought statewide campaigns, Murphree died of a stroke on February 9, 1949, at the age of sixty-three. He was buried near his home in Pittsboro, Mississippi.

Fried Turkey

Food historians agree that deep-fried turkeys trace their roots to bayou Louisiana/Texas cuisine although no exact year, restaurant, or person is connected to this particular food by primary documentation.

There is no mention of fried turkey in Lafcadio Hearn’s La Cuisine Creole: A Collection of Culinary Recipes [New Orleans: 1885] or The Picayune Creole Cook Book, 2nd edition [New Orleans: 1901], but according to tradition fried turkeys were cooked outdoors for large popular events (family reunions, charity dinners, church suppers, etc.) in the early years of the twentieth century. About twenty years ago fried turkeys received national press and caught the attention of mainstream America. This recipe migrated from Louisiana/Texas to Missouri, Tennessee, Georgia (peanut oil), then up the eastern seaboard to D.C. before it took a drastic turn northwesterly to Seattle and Vancouver. Most articles written in the last couple of years simply reference fried turkey as a tasty alternative to the traditional holiday roast, usually with some sort of vague warning about frying anything that size inside the home.

Paul Prudhomme includes a recipe for “Cajun Fried Turkey (D’inde Frite) in The Prudhomme Family Cookbook: Old-Time Louisiana Recipes [William Morrow:New York] 1987 (p. 105- 109)

“Fried turkey has been all the rage at least for the last decade in New Orleans, and long before that it was a tradition in the bayou and throughout the South. Like many a vainglorious culinary mania before it, the national renown of fried turkeys can be traced directly to Martha Stewart, who plucked them from regional obscurity and put them in her magazine in 1996. “—It’s Treacherous, But Oh So Tasty; Fried-Turkey Fans Take the Risk, Annie Gowen, Washington Post, November 22, 2001 (p. B1)

“Frying whole turkeys is sort of the Southern version of making fondue. You have a lot of your friends over, you poke around in a pot of hot oil with some sticks, and then you pull out your dinner. Justin Wilson, he of Cajun fame, recalls first seeing a turkey fry in Louisiana in the 1930s.”—Something Different: Deep-Fried Turkey, Beverly Bundy, St. Louis Dispatch, November 24, 1997 (Food p. 4)

“A longtime food favorite in the southern United States, the delicious deep-fried turkey has quickly grown in popularity thanks to celebrity chefs such as Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse. While some people rave about this tasty creation, Underwriters Laboratories Inc.’s (UL) safety experts are concerned that backyard chefs may be sacrificing safety for good taste. “We’re worried by the increasing reports of fires related with turkey fryer use,” says John Drengenberg, UL consumer affairs manager. “Based on our test findings, the fryers used to produce those great-tasting birds are not worth the risks. And, as a result of these tests, UL has decided not to certify any turkey fryers with our trusted UL Mark.”—Deep-Frying That Turkey Could Land You in Hot Water; UL Warns Against Turkey Fryer Use, PR Newswire, June 27, 2002

Sweet Potato Cake with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting

1 ½ cups butter, softened
2 cups 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.

Recipe and photo from Melissa Edmondson

Classic Southern Giblet Gravy

You must use a quart of the clearest, richest broth thickened while hot with a thin paste of corn starch and water. To this add the yolks of at least two eggs which have been creamed with a pat of butter. Then add two more chopped hard boiled eggs (yolks and whites), the cooked and chopped livers and gizzards of the turkey as well as the hen you used for your stock ( a half cup or so of each), but not the meat from the necks, which are superfluous and troublesome. I often add a half cup of chopped, sauteed celery for texture. Salt to taste and season with white pepper. Parsley is pretty, and a smidgen of thyme is a nice accent.

 

Thanksgiving Muffins

Kitchen innovation emphasizing technique rather than ingredients can have impressive results, especially when you’re dealing with what’s familiar, and this one is simple: Bake dressing in a muffin pan. It’s easy to do, and the result is a morsel that’s eaten handily, stored easily and kids love them. I like to top some of them with a bit of whole-berry cranberry sauce. They also look good piled on a pretty plate alongside your other buffet items. They take a little more care than simply pouring your dressing into a casserole dish as is usually done, but they more than make up for the initial effort by freeing up space in the refrigerator and freezer, space you’ll no doubt need for other holiday leftovers. You can make these days before, freeze, and heat when needed.

Use a cooking spray to oil the muffin tin. Spoon dressing batter into the cups and fill to the top, since these do not rise as much as a bread muffin would. Place your pans in the middle rack of the oven and bake at 350 until the tops are firm and the edges have just begun to brown, about 25 minutes. Top with whole berry cranberries when they’re about half-way done. Brush with melted butter and let them cool before taking them from the pan (use a fork) and removing the paper. Store for later and reheat on a cookie sheet.

Pecan Pie: A Moderate Opinion

Let’s not quibble and just admit in our hearts that pecan pie is made up of every ingredient condemned by food Nazis as downright deadly: eggs, sugar, flour and lard or butter. It’s a sure bet that not a few of those Aryans have petty issues with vanilla flavoring, and some left-wing faction probably thinks pecans will wreck your colon. But you know what? We shouldn’t care; pecan pie is the most iconic dish of the season. Trust me, use the Karo recipe with light syrup, a quarter cup of bourbon, and wrap loosely in foil to prevent scorching.

The Agony of Ambrosia

One Thanksgiving as we were unpacking her car, my sister Cindy passed me a sack of oranges, a pineapple and two coconuts. I shuddered, knowing she wanted to make ambrosia. Ambrosia, literally translated, means “immortal,” which is appropriate because it takes forever to make. It’s a fruit salad traditionally made with orange, pineapple and coconut. Some sort of sweetener is also involved, either syrup macerated from the fruits themselves or, more formally, grenadine or maraschino. Because ambrosia is so time-consuming, most people nowadays use processed ingredients like canned mandarin oranges, Dole pineapple chunks and zip-lock grated coconut. But Cindy was an old-school kitchen Nazi; it was going to be done right.

First, the coconuts; I twisted a clean screwdriver into the eyes, a Phillips head, which come to think of it is probably the best tool for the job. (I wouldn’t be surprised if some outfit actually sold a customized screwdriver with a teak handle for fifty bucks as a “coconut pick.”) Then I drained the milk and drank it with a jigger of rum. Cindy already had a claw hammer out for the next step in this brutal affair, so I broke the nuts into pieces with it on the back porch. Once the meat was extracted, it had to be skinned and grated. This took about an hour. Fortunately, the pineapple was soft and ripe. I twisted the top off, trimmed it a bit, set it off in a glass of water and assaulted the fruit, quartering it, cutting out the core, peeling off the skin and nicking out the eyes. I diced the flesh coarsely, sprinkled a little sugar on it, and set it in the refrigerator. Sis said she could not find Valencias, which are sweeter, so she had navel oranges which despite their shortcomings in the sugar department are infinitely easier to section. Frankly, I’d rather have my teeth filed with a rock than section citrus, but somebody had to do it, and in a half hour I had about a quart of orange sections to macerate.

Cindy, always the traditionalist, opted for a layered presentation. The oranges were drained and pressed into the bottom of a cut-glass bowl along with a sprinkling of powdered sugar. Then a generous sprinkling of hand-grated coconut, the pineapple, also drained and topped with the rest of the coconut. The juices from the maceration processes were saved, mixed together and some was poured over the salad before serving (not much, just enough to moisten) and the rest was reserved for rum punch.

Cindy’s ambrosia was a dish for (and from) the ages. How I wish she were still here to bully me into making it.

 

Chicken and Dressing

Regional favorites always have local trends in their preparation. Barbecue springs to mind, but more subtle examples are available. Chicken and dressing is a staple in the South all year long, but the farther south you get, you’ll find more people using wheat bread rather than corn bread. In southern Louisiana, you’ll likely find an oyster dressing using a dried French loaf, but in Mississippi north of the Florida Parishes, chicken and cornbread are the rule.

Make two skillets of cornbread the night before, stick in a paper sack and put it on a table somewhere it won’t get knocked off. Then crumble the bread and add enough strong chicken stock to make thick slurry. To two quarts of this mixture, add no more than 4 eggs well-beaten and at least two cups shredded chicken. Sauté a half cup (more if you like) each of finely-diced white onion and celery in a half a stick of butter and add to the mix. Some people like diced pepper in their dressing, but I find it overpowers the stock. Season liberally with salt, pepper, thyme and sage; I like plenty of sage in mine, about a teaspoon per cup of bread crumbs. Pour into a greased casserole and bake at a medium high heat (350) until the top is browned and the center firm.

This goes with any thing, any time.