French Silk Pie

This old bake-off recipe from the “Ice Box Pie” category is a Southern favorite. It’s basically a chocolate mousse in a crust, and it’s an absolute bitch to make, but so damn worth it.

Use an oiled glass pie pan. Drape crust over a rolling pin and ease it into the pan without stretching. Gradually work the crust firmly against the sides and bottom. Moisten your fingers and fill in the cracks. It helps to pop it into the freezer for five minutes or so to keep it from slumping down the sides. Generously prick the crust on the bottom and sides to prevent bubbling, and line the inner edges with heavy-duty aluminum foil. Bake the crust for 10 minutes at 300 with the foil, remove the foil and return to the oven to brown.

Whip a cup of heavy cream to stiff peaks, cover, and chill. Melt 8 oz. chopped bittersweet chocolate (I use a glass bowl in the microwave). Stir until smooth and set aside. Add 3 eggs, ¾ cup sugar, and a couple of tablespoons of water to glass bowl. Beat with an electric mixer 5 minutes, until pale yellow and thick. Place this bowl over a smaller pot of simmering water and cook, whisking continually, until the mixture is hot through and through. Remove from heat and continue beating until cooled and fluffy. (This might take up to 10 minutes because you want some serious fluff.) Add the melted chocolate, 2 teaspoons vanilla, a stick of very soft butter, and beat until very smooth. Now carefully blend in the whipped cream, just until you have a more or less even color; don’t over-mix.

Pour mixture into crust and spread evenly. Top with another half cup of whipped cream sweetened with a quarter cup powdered sugar and a teaspoon vanilla (or almond) extract.  Spread over chocolate filling. Cover lightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least three hours.

Charlotte’s Mummy

Charlotte Capers, long-time director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History was—in stark contrast to her current successor—a woman of considerable integrity, intelligence, and wit. This is an excerpt from a speech given before the Mississippi Historical Society in March 1972.

After its creation in 1902, the Department remained in the basement of the New Capitol until 1940, when more commodious quarters, but not much more, were provided in the War Memorial Building. Since Dr. Rowland’s day, the Department has acted as a clearing-house historical agency, and the Museum function was included in this. However, when the Department moved into the War Memorial Building, the collection housed in the New Capitol was, of necessity, abandoned. Certainly, there was no space in the north wing of the new building for a full-fledged museum. Thus, we left in the basement of the New Capitol, a mysterious and miscellaneous collection including an Egyptian mummy, the hip-bone of a North Dakota dinosaur, a pair of size 20 shoes worn by an Alabama Negro in World War I, and a toy snake from the Philippines.

The star of this collection was the mummy, who had enchanted visitors to Jackson ever since she had been acquired as lagniappe in a collection of Indian artifacts many years ago. A real mummy mystique had developed, and grandfathers brought their toddling grandchildren in to see the mummy that they had seen as boys. When the board of trustees quite properly adopted in the Old Capitol Restoration, the collection was limited to items associated with Mississippi history. The mummy, an Egyptian, was plainly out of place. It fell my lot to separate the little Egyptian, known variously to her public as ‘The Little Gypsy Lady,” or occasionally as ”The Dummy,” from her admirers. I knew that such a move was to court disaster, for my generation, too, had visited the mummy on our way to Central High School, and we considered her as much a part of our American heritage as George Washington, Robert E. Lee, or Theodore G. Bilbo.

But, in what may have been my finest hour, I saw my duty and I did it. And I firmly withdrew ”The Little Gypsy Lady” whose connection with Mississippi history was tenuous at best, from the Museum exhibits. She was relegated to a collection file room in the old Capitol to be seen only on demand by her most avid admirers. Her admirers all turned out to be avid, and they continued to demand her until the day when a staff member, annoyed by constant calls for our most popular tenant, stated in a speech that he would like to bury the mummy.

That blew it. The wire services picked up the story and the shot went round the world. The public from all over arose to defend “The Little Gypsy Lady.” We got insulting mail and insulting telephone calls; and one concerned gentle man wrote from Germany about “das mumi,” calling us bigots for some reason. Offers of adoption for the mummy flowed in. An undertaker from Ohio wanted “‘The Little Gypsy Lady” as an example of his art. An archaeologist said that when he examined her he found her to be a young female offered her a home provided that her esophagus came with her (translate: sarcophagus).

The strife went on, I held my ground, the story of Mississippi, as you will see, is told in thirty-three permanent exhibits in this Old Capitol Museum, and the small foreigner slept on in a collection file room. Way back in Dr. Rowland’s day he had a seal designed for the Department with the motto ‘Veritas,” or “Truth.” Seldom in our lifetime, however, are we justified for taking an unpopular stand on the side of the truth. The mummy proved to be a heartening exception. In the 1960s a young medical student at the University of Mississippi asked for permission to x-ray the mummy. In the interest of truth, permission was granted. The startling results of this scientific investigation were reported in The Mississippi History Newsletter as follows:

“Our mummy, who has been the star of our museum for as long as we can remember, was exposed as a fake when Gentry Yeatman, an enterprising Ole Miss medical student x-rayed the little Egyptian princess and found her heart was full of nails. Further, she had a German language newspaper in her left foot, and her right arm yielded a copy of The Milwaukee Journal, 1898. Again we note that things are not always what they seem, and the mummy is a dummy after all.”

(The mummy received a proper entombment in the Old Capitol, and comes on display every Halloween.)

Candy Corn Krispies

Rice Krispies Treats are the American version of marzipan, easily molded into such things as teddy bears, clowns, and the inevitable boobs and balls. This clever little innovation is fun to make, just cute as can be, and a great Halloween treat. Please read through this recipe first; you need to know what you’re doing before you make it.

For the outer yellow ring use 5 cups Rice Krispies, 5 cups miniature marshmallows, and a quarter stick butter with yellow food coloring; for the middle orange ring, 3 cups Rice Krispies, 3 cups miniature marshmallows, and a quarter stick of butter, with orange food coloring; and for the white center, 2 cups Rice Krispies, 2 cups miniature marshmallows, and a quarter stick of butter.

For each ring, combine marshmallows and butter, and microwave for about 3 minutes, stirring after a minute or so, until blended. Stir in food coloring; you don’t need much, only a few drops of yellow and a couple of yellow and red for the orange. Pour over the cereal, coat your hands with butter and mix the marshmallows into the cereal with your fingers until the color is uniform.

Working quickly, divide each color batch in two, then beginning on the outside of greased 8 in. cake tins, make your rings: yellow first, then orange, then the white center. Keep them an even width. Press the cereal/marshmallow mixture into the pan to ensure they stick together and make them a consistent thickness. Let the rings set for thirty minutes, then turn out on a cutting board and slice first in half, then into quarters, then into eight even wedges. Store with waxed paper between layers.

Black Bean Chili

This recipe comes from the Harvest Café in Oxford. We always served it with a dollop of sour cream and sides of (brown) rice and dense crusty bread we got from some stoner in Abbeville. It was a substantial dish. The tomatoes were optional depending who was cooking and how hungover, but were always added after the beans were cooked; this is crucial: if you add tomatoes or salt before, the beans will toughen and sour.

1 lb. black beans
2 medium white onions finely chopped
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 4 oz. can chopped green chilies
4 poblanos diced
1 can diced tomatoes, drained (optional)
2 tablespoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 teaspoon black pepper
corn oil
Salt

Sort and rinse beans, place in a heavy metal pot with six cups water (or vegetable stock) and bring to a rolling boil for fifteen minutes. Reduce heat, add onions, garlic and chilies; simmer until beans are soft, adding liquid as needed. Season, add tomatoes if you want, and cook on low heat. Add a slash of corn oil for consistency.  Salt to taste. Provide more heat on the table, pico de gallo or a pepper sauce, and toppings: diced avocado, fresh chopped cilantro, diced red onion, jalapeños, and/or serranos.

Molasses Popcorn Balls

Mix two cups white sugar with a cup of molasses and a half cup water.; vanilla is a nice touch. Stir until smooth, add a half stick of butter, bring to a slow boil, and cook to hard-crack. Pour six cups popped corn in a large oiled bowl, throw in a pack (or two) of red skin peanuts, and drizzle with molasses syrup while tossing with a spoon. Working quickly, rub a pat of butter between your hands, and form popcorn into balls. Spear with sharpened Popsicle sticks, and place on a greasy pan. Dust with salt.

The Compromise Cake

One of my friends who has an eye out for old community cookbooks at rummage sales, flea markets, and thrift shops ran upon a Christmas Sampler from the girls of Ladies’ Night Out at the First Baptist Church of Florence, Mississippi. Therein I found a recipe for compromise cake, not just any old compromise cake, mind you, but “THE COMPROMISE CAKE.”

The recipe just stopped me in my tracks; just what kind of compromise does this cake represent? Given the zeitgeist I suspected some sort of quasi-political origin such as a traditional dessert for such a Southern political–a barbecue or fish fry–but when I passed the recipe around on social media for clues, a friend, upon seeing the applesauce ingredient, pointed out that apple cakes were traditionally served at hillbilly weddings back in the day, so maybe the compromise is between the groom cake and the bride cake.

That’s how I learned about apple stack cakes, which mountain housewives made from apples they’d dry for the winter. Pieces of apples were threaded onto strings and hung in the rafters or in a special outbuilding that had a small kiln inside for drying fruit and other foods. Dried apples were cooked with water and sweetening into a thick, fragrant sauce. The layers were made with sorghum, applesauce, and flour, thin and crisp, really more like a big cookie than a cake.

Stories were told about poor mountain brides who could not afford a wedding cake and were gifted with stack-cake layers donated by friends and family members. The layers were brought to the wedding, stacked and cut on the spot; the more layers, the more popular the bride. Stack cakes usually had at least five layers and most people believed there should be an odd number for luck. I’m sure someone had a stack or two ready in case things didn’t add up right.

The catch is that because of the dryness of the layers, a stack cake–at any height–must sit for at least two days. Given that time, the moisture from the apples–and more often than not the applesauce between–softens the layers a bit, melding the flavors and making the cake moist and delectable. Cutting into a stack cake as soon as it is assembled is a disservice to the cake and the cooks. My theory is that the cake was intended to go with the couple on their honeymoon in case things got out of hand.

I offer their decidedly non-traditional recipe as a hopeful aside, not to past matrimonials, but to present reconciliations.

Compromise Cake

1 1/2 c. applesauce
1 c. raisins
1 c. chopped pecans
1 1/3 c. sugar
2 c. cake flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. cloves
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 c. chopped dates
1/2 c. shortening
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla

Lightly oil and flour a 10-inch tube pan; refrigerate. Combine applesauce and soda; set aside. Mix raisins, dates, and pecans; set aside. Whip shortening with sugar, add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Combine flour and spices; add 1/2 cup flour mixture to raisin mixture. Gradually mix very well remaining flour with shortening. Add applesauce and fruit/nuts mix. Stir in vanilla. Spoon batter into prepared pan. Bake at 350 degrees for an hour, or until toothpick dry. Cool thoroughly before removing.

Buttermilk Gingerbread

For a deeply-scented, well-textured loaf, cream a stick of softened unsalted butter with a half cup of light brown sugar. Beat until fluffy. Mix well with two beaten eggs and a half cup of sorghum molasses. Sift one and a half cups of flour with a half teaspoon of baking soda, a heaping tablespoon of ground ginger, and a teaspoon of each of cinnamon and ground cloves. Blend into butter with a teaspoon vanilla extract and a half cup buttermilk. Mix wery well and pour into a buttered loaf pan. Bake at 350 for about an hour, until the loaf pulls from the edges. This is so very good with cider.

Orange Spice Cake

Cream 3 cups sugar with 3 sticks softened butter until light and fluffy. Beating well, add 5 eggs one at a time. Sift 3 cups plain flour with a teaspoon each of cinnamon, nutmeg, and ground cloves. Add to butter with a cup of milk, a half cup of orange juice concentrate, and a teaspoon of vanilla extract . Mix thoroughly, pour into an oiled and papered loaf pan, and bake at medium high (375) until toothpick dry. Slice, toast, and drizzle with honey.

Jumping Chicken

At the Warehouse in Oxford we had frog legs on the menu and made damn sure we had them prepped, because if someone came in for frog legs, by God, they wanted frog legs, and raised Cain if we didn’t have any.

The legs came to us individually wrapped and block frozen from—of all places—Pakistan (actually, East Pakistan, aka Bangladesh). This might seem puzzling because we do have a frog season in Mississippi, but the Warehouse operated in the 1980s, before all this half-harted emphasis on local sourcing.

Though the frogs were from Asia, they were undoubtedly American bullfrogs, the frog of choice for their large, meaty hind legs. If you’re going to fry them–you’re on your own any other way–soak overnight in buttermilk.