Barbara Yancy took a great deal of pride in her table and was a superb cook, but like many (if not most) such people, she was an absolute tyrant in the kitchen (both characteristics she passed down to her daughter), demanding absolute obedience to instruction and perfection in results. Her Thanksgiving table was a symphony of flavor, and her crowning note, the one dish made at the last possible moment and brought to the table with a flourish once everyone was seated before the blessing, was her giblet gravy, which was only made for the holiday table and had to be done just so.
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 she considered superfluous as well as “messy-looking”. Salt to taste and season with white pepper.
I agree with mother about chicken neck meat, but when I add chopped green onions to my gravy, I can just hear her heavy sigh of disapproval.
Great cakes don’t come out of a box. No, they come from handwork, sacks and shells, from old tried-and-true recipes and those who have made them. Such cakes are not only worthy of serving to family and guests, but they’re also fun to make. Most of the best of them involve complicated procedures that aren’t that time-consuming at all if you’re a dedicated home cook in the first place, and pulling a perfectly-cooked cake out of the oven is a simply unmatchable experience. After beaming at your creation for a few minutes, you get to decorate; the cake is your canvas, and you are the artist of this most temporary of masterpieces.
Legend has it that the original recipe for the red velvet cake is from the kitchens of the Waldorf-Astoria, but there’s no solid opinion on that. The cake became popular here sometime after World War II, when the South began to become much more a part of the nation as a whole. Me, I think that the red velvet cake is a variation of the old devil’s food cake and that the name changed because many good religious women were just not going to bring Satan’s bounty to their tables. It has the same texture, and while no cocoa is used in the icing, the cake’s primary flavoring is cocoa. This is a family recipe, one of the dozen or so I still have from my mother’s hand. I’m almost sure she got it from her grandmother Eula, who came from a line of exceptional cooks. Her sister, my Aunt Leila, became legendary for her cakes, pickles and preserves. They were all very strict Baptists, and I suspect they were among the ones who would simply not feed their folks devil’s food; doubtless they didn’t want to nurture what they knew was a genetic predisposition for devilment. (It didn’t work.)
Two elements of this recipe betray its age. First is that it employs a “boiled icing”, meaning an icing that is produced pretty much in the way you would make a sauce or a gravy, by heating starch in a liquid. In some cookbooks, this is referred to as a “roux icing”, but it’s a very raw roux indeed. The advantage to this type of icing is that you don’t have to warm it to ice your cake (in fact it needs cooling), and it tastes so much better than that lard and confectioner’s sugar gloop you get at the supermarket. Second is the leavening, which involves that chemistry set action of putting baking soda in a bit of vinegar and watching it foam. The acidic buttermilk in the batter provides additional frothing and the end result is, well, velvety. Many of you will probably take issue with the amount of food coloring involved, but try to relax; besides, it’s so much fun dribbling that red food coloring into your white batter and swirling it in. The absolute best part of course is eating it. If you really want it good, wrap layers in wax paper individually overnight before frosting.
Batter: 1 cup vegetable shortening, 1 ¼ cup sugar, 2 eggs, 1 teaspoon vanilla flavoring, 2 ¼ cups plain flour, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 tablespoon cocoa, 1 cup buttermilk, 2 ounces red food coloring, 1 teaspoon baking soda and 1 tablespoon vinegar. Cream shortening and sugar, and add well-beaten eggs and vanilla. Sift flour, salt and cocoa three times. Add dry ingredients alternately with buttermilk. Blend in food coloring. Dissolve soda in vinegar, and fold into batter. Bake in 3 layers at 350 degrees. Frosting: 1 ½ cups milk, 4 ½ tablespoons flour, 1 ½ cups butter (3 sticks), 1 ½ cups sugar, 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla flavoring. Gradually add milk to flour in double boiler, stirring constantly until it is thicker than pudding. Remove from heat and stir until cooled. Cream butter and sugar for at least ten minutes, then add vanilla and continue creaming until fluffy. Add flour and milk mixture to creamed butter and sugar and beat at least ten minutes or until no grains of sugar can be detected. Frost cake and sprinkle with crushed walnuts or pecans.
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.
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.
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.