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.

Pondering Divinity

God bless Uncle Daniel! If anyone can be generous to a fault it’s him, though Grandpa called it an open disposition and claimed that within the realm of reason there were people who would take advantage of such, which is how Uncle Daniel, attracting love and friendship with the best will and the lightest heart in the world, ended up with Grandpa in his new Studebaker sitting with old Judge Tip Calahan driving through the country on his way to the asylum in Jackson. From the word go Uncle Daniel got more vacations than anyone because they couldn’t find a thing in the world wrong with him, and he was so precious all he had to do was ask and he’d be on the branch-line train headed back to Clay County. Everybody missed Uncle Daniel so bad when he was gone that they spent all their time at the post office sending him things to eat. Divinity travels perfectly, if you ever need to know.

Pecan Divinity

It’s important to know that divinity, as with all recipes using whipped egg whites, is best made when the weather is dry. Having said that, boil three cups of sugar, one-half cup of Karo corn syrup, three-fourths cup of water to the hard ball stage. Beat the whites of two eggs  with a teaspoon each salt and vanilla until stiff. Pour the warm syrup over the whites and blend in chopped pecans. When it begins to harden drop by spoonfuls onto wax paper or spread in a  oiled pan and cut to shape.

Pineapple Coconut Sheet Cake

Way back when, die-hard home cooks would sniff and curl a lip if someone—invariably a newlywed or (worse) single parent—brought a sheet pan cake to a bake sale (THEY, of course, brought heirloom 8-layer caramel/German chocolate in handmade paper mache decoupage boxes). Even worse, those die-hards naturally felt compelled to extract a timorous confession from the donor that a boxed cake mix was involved. (In those days, canned frosting had limited distribution, otherwise that would have been the coup de grace; admission to the bridge club would be ever afterwards inconceivable.) Granted, homemade cakes are a certified source of pride and satisfaction; given the time, they’re worth the effort. If you’ve got other things on your hands, make a sheet cake from a boxed mix. But don’t use canned frosting; that’s just SO tacky.

Combine 1 box Pillsbury White Supreme cake mix, 8 oz. sour cream, ¼ cup melted butter, 3 large eggs at room temperature, half of an 8-oz. can of crushed pineapple (drained and squeezed), and a can of cream of coconut (Coco Lopez). Mix on medium speed until smooth. Pour batter into a 9×13-inch pan greased with butter and lined with parchment paper. Place in a preheated 350 oven until toothpick-clean and firm in the middle, about 30 mins. Cool on a rack. Blend 8 oz. softened cream cheese with two cups confectioner’s sugar, (the other 4 ounces of crushed, drained, and squeezed pineapple, and a tablespoon coconut extract. If needed, thin to spreading consistency with milk, top cake, and sprinkle with 2 cups toasted shredded coconut or coconut chips.

Cooking with Booze

Bourbon plays a key role in Southern holiday cooking; both Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Capote’s A Christmas Memory tell of Prohibition-era ladies sending someone to the local bootlegger to get a bottle for their fruitcakes and eggnog as well as for that indispensable Southern holiday dessert, pecan pie.

But it’s not about the booze; it’s about flavor. Alcohol boils at a much lower temperature than water, so even a simmer will cause the alcohol in any dish—even eggnog, if it’s served hot—to evaporate. Not completely, of course, but you can usually reduce the amount of alcohol in any dish to an insignificant amount by heating. Then, of course, if you use only a few tablespoons in a cake or pie, it’s diluted in the mix. Even if you’re just dousing a cake with bourbon over a period of time, most of that alcohol will evaporate. Alcohol also brings out flavor compounds not soluble by water or heat. That’s exactly what happens in this recipe; the sweet, mellow bourbon just snuggles up to the bar with the brown sugar and pecans.

Beat together ¾ cup Karo Light, ¾ cup packed light brown sugar, 3 large eggs (at room temperature), a tablespoon of corn starch or arrowroot mixed with a tablespoon of water, 2 tablespoons melted butter, a teaspoon salt, a tablespoon vanilla extract, and 2 shots (1/4 cup) good bourbon. I use Southern Comfort because it’s sweet. Add a cup of chopped pecans and mix very well. This is your filling Melt a quarter cup butter, add a half cup brown sugar, stir in a cup and a half pecan halves, cook for a few minutes, drain and cool Pour filling into a 9-inch pie crust. Topping with pecan halves, and place on the center rack of 350 oven. After 30 minutes, cover loosely with foil and cook until set, about 15 minutes or so. Cool and refrigerate before serving.

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