Gingerbread Home

Over time many dishes have been needlessly–and recklessly–consigned to specific holidays. How often do you roast a turkey, stuff eggs, or make a fruitcake? What’s sad and paradoxical about this occasional consignment is that many dishes we prepare only for the holidays are those that bring us the most comfort, that make us feel most at home and closest to the heart of our lives.

Gingerbread is an extreme example of this culinary exile, particularly because when gingerbread is prepared even for the holidays it’s most often make into cookies. Instead, let’s make loaves any day of the year, any time of the day. Many recipes employ equal measures of cinnamon, cloves, and allspice as well as ginger–almost as an afterthought–but ginger should shine.

Cream a stick of unsalted butter with a half cup of light brown sugar, beat until fluffy, and mix well with two eggs and a half cup of sorghum molasses. Mix one and a half cups of flour with a half teaspoon of baking soda, a teaspoon each of cinnamon, ground cloves, and allspice along with a heaping tablespoon of ground ginger. Add two teaspoons vanilla and a half cup buttermilk. Pour batter into a buttered loaf pan and bake at 350 for about an hour. If you have the willpower, cool before slicing. I never do.

Peach Melba

For sheer succulence, few fruits on earth can match a ripe-on-point peach fresh off the tree, and Escoffier, “the king of chefs and the chef of kings,” affirmed the fruit’s supremacy when he created an astoundingly superb yet simple dish to celebrate the great operatic coloratura soprano, Nellie Melba.

Dame Nellie Melba, (1861-1931), was a skilled pianist and organist as a youngster, but she did not study singing until in her twenties. She made her operatic debut as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto in 1887 at Brussels under the name Melba, derived from that of the city of Melbourne. Until 1926 she sang in the principal opera houses of Europe and the United States, particularly Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera, excelling in Delibes’s Lakmé, as Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust, and as Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata. She was created a Dame of the British Empire in 1918. She returned to Melbourne in 1926. Her image is on the Australian one-hundred-dollar bill.

Melba was not known as a Wagnerian singer, although she occasionally sang Elsa in Lohengrin, which she did to acclaim in 1892, at Covent Garden. The Duke of Orléans gave a dinner party at the Savoy to celebrate her triumph. For the occasion, Escoffier created a new dessert, and to display it, he used an ice sculpture of a swan, which is featured in the opera. The swan carried peaches topped with spun sugar which rested on a bed of vanilla ice cream. In 1900, Escoffier created a new version of the dessert for the occasion of the opening of the Carlton Hotel, where he was head chef. Escoffier topped the peaches with raspberry purée.

Incidentally, in 1897, Nellie, who was “slimming,” complained that her bread was much too thick and sent it to Escoffier in the Savoy kitchen. The chef returned to her table with a thinly sliced piece of toasted bread and promptly named it Melba toast in her honor.

Inferior versions of peach Melba substitute pears, apricots, or strawberries instead of peaches or use raspberry sauce or melted redcurrant jelly instead of raspberry purée. The original dessert used simple ingredients of “tender and very ripe peaches, vanilla ice cream, and a purée of sugared raspberry”. Escoffier himself said, “Any variation on this recipe ruins the delicate balance of its taste.”

Heart of Cream

This dish, like so many others, has become needlessly consigned to a specific holiday, but such a rich dessert should grace our tables much more often. Most recipes for coeur a la creme have only four ingredients—crème fraiche, cream cheese, egg whites and sugar—though the misguided might add vanilla or lemon. For years I’ve been making a coeur a la crème using cottage cheese for convenience, but this year, I’ve upped my game and made crème fraiche, which is not difficult, a little goes a long way and keeps quite well.

You can make a simple crème fraiche by adding a packet of culture to store-bought dairy, but that’s a slacker’s option; me, I trotted down to the Mississippi Farmer’s Market and bought lightly pasteurized  local products that retain enough lactic bacteria for the process. I mixed a cup of whole milk and a quarter cup of buttermilk along with a spoonful of store-bought sour cream, which does have a tiny bit of its characteristic bacteria, enough to make a bit of a bite. I kept the starter out overnight; by morning it had thickened to a dense slurry. I added a half cup or so of this culture to a quart of whole cream from the supermarket, and it worked like a charm. I ended up with a thick, tart crème fraiche. If you’re so inclined, the culture can be tended as you would a sourdough, and in time will mellow and deepen.

If you happen to frequent the kinds of stores that sell such things as stainless steel strawberry stem removers,  chromium banana slicers, and cast-iron hot dog toasters, then you’re likely to run into these cute little ceramic heart molds with holes that are made specifically for a coeur a le crème. Since I am most assuredly not the Williams-Sonoma-type, I went to the Dollar Store and found a purple plastic, heart-shaped container with Ninja Turtles embossed on the front (“Be My Bodacious Valentine!”) that was just the right size, about a pint. I burned holes in the plastic with a hot nail, and lined the mold—for that’s what it had become—with damp cheesecloth, mixed one cup of my crème fraiche with six ounces of cream cheese, blended in two (organic) stiffly-beaten egg whites and a tablespoon of confectioner’s sugar.

I placed the coeur on a plate in the coldest part of the refrigerator for several hours. After inverting the mold onto a server and removing the cloth, I added a puddle of pureed raspberries, though any kind of berry would have been good. One of these days I’m going to try bananas.

Poppy Seed Pound Cake

If I speak of chicken and dumplings as a Southern dish, soon enough some foodways pundit—you can’t throw a rock without hitting one, and if you ask me, the bigger the rock the better—will declare it’s served as dim sum by expatriated Alabamans living in Hong Kong. Even on a national scale (not that nationalism exists, of course) it’s no longer safe for me to assume that pound cake is a New England recipe. A friend from Texas—east Texas, mind you—now living in Maine said that their neighbors considered pound cake Southern because it’s so simple and practical. Well, dear hearts, those are the very reasons Americans have baked this cake well before Burr shot Hamilton, so quit sequesterizing recipes that have been on the tables of our country even before it became a country. Read Beard. This recipe is a felony with fruit, a mortal sin with ice cream.

Preheat oven to 350 (a crucial step). Grease, line and set aside a 10-inch loaf pan or Bundt. Combine 2 cups sugar with a cup of softened butter and beat until creamy. Stir in two tablespoons of poppy seeds, a cup of buttermilk, 4 beaten eggs, and at least a tablespoon of vanilla extract. Gradually mix in 3 cups of plain flour sifted with a teaspoon each of baking powder and soda. Blend until smooth. Bake for an hour, then turn the oven off and leave the cake in until the oven has cooled. Rest on a rack an hour before slicing.

 

Bobbie Gentry’s Cherry Cookie Bars

This recipe appeared in Bayou Cuisine (1970) and was credited to Edith Streetner of Greenwood. Bobbie Gentry was born Bobbie Lee Streeter July 27, 1944, on her paternal grandparents’ farm near Mantee, Mississippi. Her father, Robert H. Streeter, lived in Greenwood, Mississippi. Bobbi Lee Gentry moved to Arcadia, California at age thirteen to live with her mother and stepfather. They relocated to Palm Springs two years later, where Bobbie graduated from Palm Springs High School. She changed her name to Gentry after seeing the 1952 film Ruby Gentry, starring Jennifer Jones and Charlton Heston. Likely Edith is Gentry’s stepmother, who writes, “Bobbie’s favorite recipe that she has loved since she was a little girl, and I always made them for her when she came home.”

These are two-in one cookie bars. They have a rich, buttery cream-colored layer below and scarlet cherries, coconut, and nuts in the layer on top.

Sift together 1 cup plain flour and 1/4 cup confectioner’s sugar. Cut in 1/2 c. butter until mixture resembles coarse meal. Press mixture firmly into the bottom of an ungreased 11×7 or 9×9 inch pan. Bake in a moderate (350) oven for 10 minutes. Sift together 1/4 c. plain flour 1/2 tsp. baking powder 1/2 teaspoon salt and 3/4 c. sugar. Add 2 eggs lightly beaten, then fold in 1/2 c. maraschino cherries, finely cut, 1/2 c. grated coconut, and 1/2 c. chopped nuts (walnuts, pecans, or almonds). Spread over partially baked dough and bake in a moderate (350) oven 30-40 minutes. Cool and cut into bars or squares. Makes about 3 dozen.

This also makes a delicious main dessert. Cut into larger servings and top with whipped cream or ice cream.

Lemon Ice

For each cup of finely crushed ice, add 1/4 cup granulated sugar and the juice of a lemon.  A drop of vanilla is a nice touch. Mix very well and serve with ginger snaps.

 

A Proper Fool

The British have an absolute genius when it comes to naming foods; there’s bangers and mash, which are nothing more than sausages and mashed potatoes; Welsh rabbit, a dish made with bread and cheese; spotted dick, a pudding made with suet and fruit; and toad in the hole, eggs or sausages in bread. You can also include laver bread (seaweed), black pudding (blood sausage), haggis (stuffed sheep’s stomach), and many others, but my favorite is a fool.

In Britain, a fool is nothing more than fruit in whipped cream or more traditionally sweet custard, sort of an unfrozen parfait (which, by the way, in Britain is what they call a pâté). For instance, in England, what we’d call peaches and cream would be called a peach fool. The oldest versions of a fruit foole, which use gooseberries, may date back to the 15th century, though it is first mentioned as a dessert (together with the trifle) in 1598, and the earliest recipe dates to the mid-17th century. Why it’s called a fool is anyone’s guess, though some claim it derives from the French verb fouler meaning “to crush” or “to press” (as in pressing grapes for wine), a claim dismissed by those pontificating nitpickers of the Oxford English Dictionary as “baseless and inconsistent with the early use of the word”.

Most recipes you find today are nothing more than whipped cream and fruit. Unsurprisingly, you’re not going to find gooseberries used very often at all, since even if you find them they’re going to cost you an arm and a leg, but we have many types of fruit available here throughout our long warm season: Louisiana strawberries, foraged blackberries, Chilton County peaches, figs from your grandmother’s tree, hill country blueberries, even that good late-season cantaloupe from the Ozarks as well as the early Florida Valencias. But simply using whipped cream is improper, and substituting yogurt or even worse vanilla pudding is just trashy; to make a proper fool, you must make custard.

For six servings, scald two cups milk and add to  a blend of two well-beaten eggs with a half cup sugar. Put in a double boiler and heat. As it begins to thicken, add a tablespoon of corn starch blended very well in a tablespoon of milk. Once very thick, refrigerate. As to the fruit, it should be chopped or sliced and macerated with a sugar (a quarter cup sugar to two cups of fruit) to leach out the excess water. Layer fruit, custard and sweetened very stiff whipped cream in a pretty glass, and refrigerate until serving.

Bugs Bunny’s Carrot Cake

This recipe is the only one I’ve ever used, and the only one you’ll ever need. Many recipes label alcoholic ingredients—in this case the dark rum—optional, but I consider the flavor essential to the recipe; even if you’re a teetotaler, the alcohol burns off in the cooking and good heavens you’re bound to know someone with a bottle around the house. I like a mix of gold and dark raisins and prefer salted pecans to walnuts. Like so many great cakes, this one is best made the day before.

Mix thoroughly ¾ cup vegetable oil and ¾ cup warm buttermilk with ¾ cup white and ¾ cup light brown sugar (you don’t have to pack it). Set aside. Sift together 2 ½ cups plain flour, 2 teaspoons baking soda, 2 teaspoons each ground cinnamon and ground ginger, a teaspoon salt and a couple dashes of nutmeg. Add half the dry ingredients to the oil/buttermilk mixture, and the rest alternately with 4 well-beaten eggs at room temperature. Add two cups grated carrots, about ¾ cup raisins, ¾ cup chopped nuts and a cup of drained crushed pineapple. Finish off with a tablespoon of vanilla extract and a generous slug of dark rum (okay, three ounces). Pour batter into a Bundt or two 9 in. layer pans and bake at 375 until fragrant and springy. For the frosting, mix a pound of cream cheese and ½ stick butter at room temperature with powdered sugar to texture, a teaspoon almond extract and grated orange zests. Dust with nuts.

Bailey’s Cheesecake

Mix 32 oz. of softened cream cheese with 1 1/2 cups sugar and two heaping tablespoons of cornstarch. Get it fluffy, then blend in 4 eggs beaten very well until you have a smooth batter. Pound 4 Oreos to teeny-tiny little pieces and add them to the batter along with a cup of Bailey’s Irish Cream. I always throw in a teaspoon of almond extract. Pour the batter into a 10 in. spring pan lined with a Graham cracker crust with chocolate chips and chopped nuts. Bake at 350 for an hour or so. Dust with cocoa. Indulge yourself; it’s been a tough year.

Scripture Cake

Scripture cake is a kitchen riddle that compels cooks to consult a work holding far more potential than dessert, but even those with the most in-depth knowledge of the written Word would have to consult chapter and verse before making it for the first time. Scripture cakes are an old pass-along recipe, a premiere example of culinary evangelism.

1 1/2 cups Judges 5:25
2 cups Jeremiah 6:20
2 cups 1 Samuel 30:12
2 cups Nahum 3:12
1 cup Numbers 17:8
2 tsp. 1 Samuel 14:25
4 1/2 cups 1 Kings 4:22
6 of Jeremiah 17:11
1 1/2 cup Judges 4:19
2 tsp. Amos 4:5
a pinch of Leviticus 2:13
season to taste with:
2 Chronicles 9:9

Follow Solomon’s prescription for making a good boy in Proverbs 23:14. Bake at 350 until done.