Trying to Get My Bake On

I can’t even think about baking right now, even though this is the time of year when bakers are at their fullest glory. Baking begins in earnest once the days begin to shorten and the sweltering heat of summer’s grip loosens and allows the crisp air of autumn to fill the days. However, what does one do when you live in the South? Summer holds on with desperation, it doesn’t take notice that the local supermarkets are filled with displays of spices and dried fruits for decadent cakes and pies we associate with cozy homes and warm ovens.

Right about now, I would be perusing cookbooks in search of a better apple pie recipe; one that could stand alone as the ultimate best ever apple pie. But tomorrow temperatures are expected to reach 90* and the thought of firing up a hot oven  and rolling out pie dough is not my idea of fun. Baking is meant to be an activity that evokes feelings are warmth and family, not sweat and remorse for having thought a pie in the oven on a blistering hot day is just what I need right now.

I don’t know when this horrid heat and humidity will give way to cooler nights and bright colors from the changing leaves, but for right now, I am content to use my microwave as much as possible. A baked potato and a tall glass of iced tea is the best I can manage. Desserts will have to be store-bought cookies and a cold glass of milk.

baked cookies and glass of milk
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

I wonder if other baking devotees go through moods like this. Is there a time of year or a season that just puts them “off” baking? And if so. how do they get back into their baking “groove?” My annual apple pie might have to wait until Christmas before it sees the inside of an oven if these temps continue.

I wish for everyone to enjoy baking in parts far and away from the heat and humidity of my “neck of the woods,” and inspiration for many successful bakes!

No S’more Hurricanes

low angle photography of coconut trees
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My blog has been neglected lately as the Carolinas prepares for Hurricane Florence. Hurricanes are nothing unusual in this part of the country and those of us bred, born, and raised in the Southeast have learned to “pray for the best and prepare for the worst.”

I can’t even think about baking right now as I scurry from store to store in search of water, fresh batteries, and other essentials to ride out the storm. Along with the drastic winds, torrential rains, and flooding, I know from previous experience power outages will be only a matter of when and for how long.

Baking may be an impossibility right now, however, I am reminded of a saying from long ago, “Bread and water can easily become tea and toast.”

Boiling water for a proper cup of tea might only be possible with a small tabletop grill, and only if the rain and wind are cooperating long enough for me to light a match to the coals, and toast might take more patience than I have available, but there is the assurance of better days and hard times make us all the more appreciative of the electricity once the power is restored.

Tea and toast are simple enough, but what about that delicious treat from the campfire that has become a part of our American food heritage? Good ‘ole S’mores! No need for electricity with this heavenly delight. A candle’s flame burning bright can transform a marshmallow into a toasty, gooey treat. Once the chocolate bars and graham crackers are added, it becomes sumptuous.

fried marshmallows on top of black steel nonstick frying pan
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For anyone desiring a bit of health to this American classic, some shredded coconut added to the mix gives this dessert a reason to indulge. Of course everyone has their favorites for add-ins, and times like these give us time to help ourselves and practice a bit of culinary creativeness.

I hope and pray for everyone’s safety and for common sense to prevail as Florence cuts her path through our backyards. Please don’t believe you are stronger than the storm, only God is. Keep indoors, seek shelter, and remember your pets. If you can’t make arrangements for them to stay with you, ask a relative or call your local vet or animal shelter for help. Our fur babies need to be safe as well.

Take care, and God Bless,

Suzanne

The Southern Biscuit Conspiracy

My Homemade Biscuits
Don’t fall for the twisted biscuit cutting technique as I did, biscuits will not rise as high!

My mother’s tales of her mother’s southern biscuits I fear, are soon to be all that’s left of the true southern biscuit. That fluffy, delightful quick bread, slathered in melted butter, that is of southern legend, is quickly fading away. Only a few remain working to keep the basic recipes alive. We can only hope our efforts are not wasted.

If biscuits were wild animals, not doubt they would be an endangered species. No one bakes biscuits anymore, at least not a really true honest to goodness southern biscuit. The kind our mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers and so on and so on mixed in their kitchens. Today’s world is filled with plenty of “new southern” cuisine cookbooks explaining step-by-step how to make the traditional southern biscuit. However, a traditional southern biscuit it is surely not.

Biscuits are complicated, but their ingredients are not. The simpler the better. It only requires self-rising flour, butter or lard, maybe shortening if you so desire, a pinch of salt, and milk. Perhaps buttermilk if we want a tang in our biscuit. But never more than that.

I recently subscribed to a magazine dedicated to baking in the hopes I would find tips and techniques to help improve my baking skills. I was thrilled to see my first copy subtitled, “The Southern Issue,” and as I scanned the pages my joy turned to disgust. Page after page of recipes resembled nothing I knew of southern baking. The section covering how to make a perfect southern biscuit was nothing less than a slap in the face to the many who could stir up a batch of the mouth watering, buttered bread with only a few scant ingredients.

Of the various dedications to southern baked biscuits from scratch, only one required no less than seven ingredients. And not one was without requiring yeast, cake flour, and sugar. One recipe called for twelve ingredients! I am not making this up. What’s worse, anyone looking through these pages, unfamiliar with southern baking, would be terrified at the attempt of making biscuits altogether.

If I sound like a regional baking snob, I apologize. It’s fine to experiment with the basics and create something new, but please don’t change the basics and call it “authentic.” I am proud of my “southerness,” and the traditions of our culinary heritage. Just as anyone from the Midwest, or other regions of the United States feel a deep connection to the fare that has graced the family table for generations would be, or those from shores far away take pride in the uniqueness of their own recipes handed down through the years. But what is it about southern cuisine that creates in many of my fellow Southerners, a desire to change the very roots of our traditional dishes?

As a Southerner, I have heard many snipes about the South. Always by those who have decided to move here for a better life only to whine about how “backward,” we are, how strange our foods are, how we talk, how we live, the list goes on and on. Years ago, I read an article about how many transplanted southerners were attempting to rid themselves of their accent because they felt it was a handicap in business dealings. Every time I watch a movie with an actor attempting a southern accent, I cringe. So many who didn’t grow up in the South, have such stereotypes of us as a people, it probably isn’t difficult to understand why many have tried to re-invent themselves as someone else. I wonder if others with regional accents are struggling with the same issue. Apparently, we have all been told the very things that make us different are not acceptable, right down to the foods we eat and love so much.

How terrible! What would our lives be if the immigrants who came to this country never shared the heart of their beloved cuisine? Everyone wants everyone to be like everyone else, and in so doing, we are losing the very core of our identity.

Okay, maybe it’s not a conspiracy. It just feels like it. Especially when my fellow southerners have been brainwashed by the masses to “modern up” the old recipes, the recipe itself is no longer recognizable. A southern biscuit is a beautiful bread. It takes several attempts and many fails to get the mix just right and produce a biscuit worthy of the family table, but as we have all heard before, nothing worth having ever came easy.

Conspirators be gone! The southern biscuit lives!

Recipe for a Simple Southern Biscuit:

2 cups of self-rising flour

1/4 cup butter or lard, well chilled

3/4 cups of sweet milk or buttermilk, chilled (don’t allow the milk to stand for to long)

2-3 tablespoons of melted butter, for brushing over tops of fresh baked biscuits

Heat oven to 450*

Measure flour and pour into a large mixing bowl. Add butter or lard by “cutting” it into the flour. You can use a pastry blender or use your hands by rubbing the butter/lard together until the dough is shaggy in appearance and moistened.

Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and begin pouring the milk or buttermilk into the well.

Little by little, work the flour into the center until the milk is incorporated. Don’t over-do it. Overworked dough will be tough; not flaky.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured table or board. Roll or pat out the dough until it is roughly an inch thick. If rolling out the dough, work from the center and out. Not back and forth. The dough must be handled as little as possible.

Dip a biscuit cutter or the top of a beverage glass into a little flour and press straight down into the dough. Do not twist the cutter. The biscuits will not rise up high if the cutter is twisted. (I learned this the hard way, as you can see from the picture above of my biscuits). You should be able to get around 12 biscuits from this recipe.

Place biscuits on a baking tray or shallow cookie sheet and bake for about 10-12 minutes. Once the biscuits are out of the oven, brush the tops with the melted butter.

Serve hot.

 

 

 

 

Easy As Tater Tot Pie

Easy As Tater Tot Pie
An easy recipe for busy back-to-school families

The heat index may be spiking at 101, but the school bells are ringing everywhere beckoning  students back to the classroom. In my town, classes begin in one week, and as busy parents are scrambling through aisles in big department stores for those essentials their children need, its east to forget how important a decent meal can be in a hectic lifestyle.

Maybe not everyone loves potatoes as much as I do, (my heritage is part Irish), but the simple spuds are staples in the American diet and versatile for many dishes.

The American Tater Tot is probably thought of as a food fit for toddlers and small children, but with a little imagination, these quick finger foods can transform into a hearty dish filled with vegetables in as little as an hour. This casserole is so simple to make and will be perfect for evenings when you are in hurry and leftovers are a cinch. Add a pre-mixed salad and you have your meal ready for everyone.

Many recipes for tater tots in casseroles exist, perhaps due to their simplicity. I have adapted my own version into something similar to a Shepherd’s Pie. of course, you can add in your own favorites to suit your family’s needs and likes, however, this is so simple and easy to make, you might even save yourself some work by asking your kids to help out. The only real hard work consists of browning ground beef, or for a healthier alternative, use ground turkey instead.

Here is a list of what you will need:

1 lb. ground beef or turkey

1 can of condensed cream of mushroom soup

1/2 cup of milk

1 can of mixed vegetables

1 small bag of tater tots

1 cup of shredded cheddar cheese

a dash of salt and pepper

Directions for Easy As Tater Tot Pie

Brown ground beef or turkey in a saucepan. Drain the meat once browned and no longer pink.

Add the meat to a casserole dish and cover with the mixed vegetables. combine the milk and cream of mushroom soup. Pour over the vegetable layer.

Arrange tater tots over the soups layer and sprinkle with shredded cheddar cheese.

Place in oven and bake for 30 minutes. Allow to set for five minutes.

You can always adapt this recipe for your family. If they prefer other vegetables, of course, try those. Your kids can help in layering vegetables, tater tots, soup, and cheese. This helps you out and gives them a responsibility in helping out at meal time without the dangers of knives and heating elements. If you would like to supervise them  browning meat, just make sure you are close by and never allow small children to take out the casserole, or place it in a hot oven!

 

 

 

 

Butter…Beautiful and Bad

butter woman

If the history of butter were told as a novel, its story would be as epic and gripping as any tale written by Shakespeare. A beloved hero/heroine begins a journey of most celebrated status. Butter once offered to gods of many varying religions, gifted as a prized possession for newlywed couples as a symbol of fertility and longevity, used in rituals, and considered the most sacred dish in the ancient world, became chastised, rebuked and nearly destroyed by gossip, misinformation, and greed in the 20th century, only to find itself being rediscovered and saved from death by a new generation seeking purity and simplicity as well as the truth in a new millennium.
Butter began its journey from the ancient world some 10,000 years ago, cultured from the earliest domesticated animals. Sheep, yaks, and goats provided sustenance for many a shepherd and wayfaring tribes across Asia to the North African continents long before cows were a domesticated species. And though the exact story of how milk became butter is little known, it is believed that as tribes wandered the land in search of food, shelter and safety, hind skins from animals were tied and filled with milk before straddling a horse or donkey in the journey. As the animal bustled along, it is thought the constant jostling made the curdled milk that became butter.

The Holy Bible contains many references to butter, or, “chemah,” as it is known in Hebrew. Genesis 18:1-8 tells the story of Abraham being visited by three strangers, thought by many bible scholars to be God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and is told he will be the father of nations and Sarah in her old age will give birth, it is a meal of bread and curds offered to the three visitors.
In India and Tibet, Hindus often use ghee, clarified butter, in religious ceremonies such as weddings as a blessing for the couple. The Hindu god, Krishna, is often depicted as eating from a vessel flowing with butter. Hindus today still give butter as an offering to Krishna.
However, the Romans considered butter a dish of barbarous peoples and they would not partake of the dish. They did value butter as a cosmetic and healing balm noting that it held such properties and rubbed it into their skin and over their lips, in doing so I’m sure they licked it from lips and thus enjoyed the silky creaminess of butter despite their protests as a meal not fit for their own people.
So, if butter was so celebrated, how did it fall from grace? Enter the 20th century, mechanization and two world wars. Food rationing made everyone look for alternatives to the daily staples they had come to depend upon and were a part of daily life. Scientists found they could produce a vegetable oil substitute in the forms of margarine and shortening and it would be less expensive than butter. It didn’t take long for advertising and campaigns about the benefits of these newer, cheaper products to sweep across North America and as families struggled to make their dollar stretch further, margarine and shortening must have appeared as a godsend. Producers of vegetable oil were getting richer and dairy farmers were getting poorer. Soon, margarine was touted as the “healthy” choice in place of butter. And by the eighties, the health and fitness craze made butter a dirty word. Butter was on the verge of extinction.
Thank goodness butter is making a comeback! Science has taught us the margarines and shortenings we were told was so good for us, contains more of those pesky trans fats we are supposed to be avoiding. Butter is filled with huge amounts of vitamin A, in addition to vitamins D, E, and K. Along with the minerals chromium, copper, iodine, manganese, selenium, and zinc, butter is filled with the necessary nutrients our bodies need to maintain health. The picture below gives an idea of the added chemicals and only a scant 10% vitamin A added to margarine as opossed to butter with a vitamin A content of 97%. Though it is important to note here, that doesn’t mean everyone should begin consuming butter in mass quantity. Butter is still a product of animal fats and though it is healthier than margarine or shortening, it is always best to consume them in moderation. Certainly, if you are advised by your doctor to limit your intake of fatty foods, check with your doctor before adding butter to your diet.
As an amateur baker, I find myself using butter more regularly. My family history is filled with heart related issues and I know it is best to pay careful attention to my diet even though I love those sweet treats I bake up. I even prefer to make my own butter using heavy whipping cream, though fresh cream is best. I am still looking for a local source. I think when we look at butter more closely and see the evidence of people around the world thriving on butter, we need to examine our ‘western” ideas of what once held a reputation of highest esteem, could become so tarnished by expediency and greed, is now making a comeback. Our hero/heroine has survived! I wonder if Hollywood is interested? Probably not, after all, it’s the story of butter…not hemp.

A Flour by Any Other Name…

close up colors design drawing
Photo by Juan Pablo Arenas on Pexels.com

Flour.

Like most, I always believed there were only two kinds of flour; all-purpose and self-rising. As it turns out, ignorance is NOT bliss. Flour is a complicated substance and if you want your bakes to be the best, a little knowledge goes a long way.

My mother always used flour by Red Band; a staple in the American South. She used it because her mother used it and the results were always the same…perfect bakes every time. I always used what I thought were better flours because they cost more and were produced by big corporations who surely employed people who tested every recipe in some secret kitchen, on site, and guaranteed perfection. Like I stated before, ignorance is not bliss.

My cakes always came out of the oven perfect, but only if you needed something suitable for playing Frisbee in the backyard. My biscuits were sure to fill in for standard hockey pucks at any pro game. Obviously, the recipes were the problem. I just knew the author of the recipe got something wrong. They forgot to list a certain ingredient, or they didn’t know what they were doing in the first place.

My oven was next on my list of reasons for my failures. Obviously the temperature was incorrect. I bought an oven thermometer and was ready to aim my wrath at the appliance after my next bake. The temp was right.  Maybe it was the tools I used. The cake tins must not be exactly 9 inch tins. The manufacturer was behind my ruined cakes. They didn’t measure them right. They were playing with the numbers and didn’t think anyone would notice. I took out a tape measure and placed it inside the tin. (Honestly. I did this.) A perfect 9 inches! I came to the conclusion I had wanted to avoid…it was me. I just couldn’t bake. I was a disgrace to Southern women everywhere. My grandmother who was a master at biscuits she could make in her sleep, was turning over in her grave! I was glad she wasn’t here to see how far her talents had fell away from the family tree.

food man person eating
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My mother stepped in and tried to calm my frayed nerves. She hadn’t baked in a long time due to her hand tremors and arthritic knees, but she recommended I go back to the basics and try good ‘ole Red Band, as it what she and her mother used and they never had any problems when they used it.  I decided it was worth another try and on my next trip to the grocery store, I would pick up a bag of Red Band. Though, I couldn’t remember seeing it as much as I used to.

After perusing the aisles of many local grocery stores, I found various brands of flour, though the familiar white bag with the stand out red banner was nowhere in sight. I had been using Gold Medal with no luck, so I tried Pillsbury. The results were okay, but not much better. King Arthur? About the same, and far more expensive. I began scanning the internet to see if perhaps there might be one bag of Red Band flour somewhere out there, unopened and perfectly preserved. Nothing. It was then my eye caught a link to an article originally published in The Charlotte Observer, about the fate of the dissapearing flour mills once so prevalent in the South.

Where once one could drive through any southern town and spot the tall towers of a mill grinding wheat into the white fluff that is the basic neccesity of every baker, now they were a ghost of times past. Big corporations had bought out the once familiar staple of the American South and their thriving economy, were now in the hands of executives in skyscrapers and business suits.

I learned my mother and grandmother’s choice for making the lightest cakes and flakiest biscuits had been bought out by J.M. Smucker’s Corporation, and in an attempt to “economize.” they discontinued Red Band in 2009, choosing to focus on another regional flour; White Lily.

I know little about White Lily. The brand is one I have only seen recently upon shelves in local grocery stores. I researched reviews of the flour and found a mix of positive and negative. Some like it. Some don’t. But one thing was a certainty; everyone loved Red Band best. And to futher complicate our choices, not all flour is the same. All-Purpose is not for every purpose in baking. Different flours produce different results and one recipe will differ depending on the brand used. A hodgepodge of wheat thrown together in a mill and ground down into a single bag will not suffice, especially when it comes to something as technical and precise as baking. Summer wheat is fine for breads, but the delicacy of biscuits, cakes and pastry require the soft, red winter wheat grown in the South. Finding the right flour that can handle the job is tough business and with so many mills handled by corporate America, and grocers attempting to eradicate Southern staples for a more “diverse” consumer, (more on that later), it seems bakers are being forgotten.

abundance agricultural agriculture arm
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Through my research, I discovered a few scant independently owned mills still survived the greed of corporations in the 20th and 21st century. According to the article in The Charlotte Observer, only 6 are still in operation in North Carolina and can be found in truly Southern grocery stores. I bought a bag of Daily Bread, a brand manufactured in Henderson, NC  by Sanford Milling Inc., and put their recipe for sweet milk biscuits to the test. Their self-rising flour produced a light biscuit as good, if not better, than any biscuit from those fast-food chains we so often frequent in our hurried mornings any day of the week. I found their brand, Snow Flake, in a Piggly Wiggly in Kenly, NC and immediately scooped up a bag. After reading so many positives of the brand online, I am ready to attempt another cake!

So, where do we go from here? For me, I am fighting against the grain, so to speak, and searching the smaller markets for the quality I remember and my heritage are known for. I will support my local mills with pride and not allow myself to be homogenized by corporations and dollar signs. It will not be easy. Grocers see little merit in stocking their shelves with what they consider old fashioned and unappealing to “upscale” shoppers. If this means I have to spend a little more, drive a little further away, I am resolved to do so. I am proud of my “Southerness,” right down to my buttered, lard filled biscuits made with good ‘ole, unsophisticated, non-upscale, down-to-earth, locally owned and operated, by those who know…flour.

Read the article about the loss of Southern mills at the link below:

http://www.newsobserver.com/news/business/article42066846.html

 

 

 

 

The Wonderful Coconut Cake

As my father’s 80th birthday approached, I was in a bind as to what kind of cake to bake for this special occasion. Not just any old cake would do, since an 80th birthday is quite a special milestone, a special cake was called for.

I perused every cookbook I had. Surely there would be just the right kind of cake for my father’s birthday. I thought about his likes and dislikes, though I have never known him to turn down any kind of cake, I needed something that wasn’t oversweet as he has diabetes and too much sugar would make for something unsuitable. His health is quite remakable given his age, and despite a bad fall last summer that sent him to the ER for stitches across his forehead, he continues to walk every day and keep involved in social functions at the senior community where he lives.

Looking through pages and pages of cakes left me dizzy with information. None of the cakes seemed to be “just right.” I thought of a Hummingbird Cake, but given it’s denseness and heaviness, I decided against it. Then it came to me…coconut cake.

Coconut would be ideal as it is light and has a low glycemic index. With my father’s birthday occurring just before Memorial Day, coconut sounded perfect for the time of year and just exotic enough for a special occasion. Finding the right recipe though, was more challenging than baking the cake itself.

It appears many of the recipes for coconut cake have succumed to what is easy and quick in place of true and thoughtful. Yes, there are those who feel shortcuts are better and if the same result is an edible cake, then what’s the difference?

The difference is in the taste. Cake mixes and pre-sweetened ingredients will produce a cake that is edible, but will leave a manufactured taste in your mouth long after the last bite is eaten. I have found many markets selling organic and unsweetened coconut from a bag and I can say they are fine as a substitution when in a pinch. I found myself resorting to organic from a bag for this cake as two coconuts I bought from different stores where sour!

Years ago, my mother had a cookbook called, Country Cakes by Bevelyn Blair through Blair of Columbus, Inc. My mother made a Red Velvet Cake for my birthday that we still speak of today. It was huge! And tasted wonderful. Unfortunately, after several moves and many yard sales, the cookbook was lost. I was sure I could find it on the internet and began looking. Isn’t the World Wide Web a wonderful invention… when it works?!

From Amazon, I located the cookbook and ordered it right away. I knew if anyone would have a recipe for a classic Coconut cake, this one was sure to have it. I waited anxiously for the book to arrive. And I was pleased, and more than a little releived to find tucked within the pages, not just one, but several versions of a good ‘ole classic Coconut cake! The recipe is as follows:

Coconut Cake

3/4 cups of butter                                                             2 cups of sugar

3 cups sifted cake flour                                                   3 teaspoons baking powder

6 egg yolks                                                                          Dash of salt

3 egg whites                                                                        1 cup of milk

1 teaspoon vanilla

Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Sift together the flour and baking powder; add alternately with milk. Beat egg whites until stiff along with the salt; fold into batter. Add the vanilla flavoring and bake at 350*F. for 30 minutes or until done. Frost with Coconut Frosting of your choice.

I used the coconut frosting recipe that followed and added about one cup of shredded coconut to the mix. I also used lemon curd to spread between the cooled layers of cake as I didn’t want the cake too sweet.

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Coconut Frosting

2 cups sugar                                                                         1 cup water (or coconut water)

1/4 cup white syrup                                                            1 teaspoon vanilla

2 coconuts grated                                                                3 egg whites

(or large package fresh-frozen grated coconut)            Dash of salt

P.S. The coconut water substitution is my own and not from the original recipe.

Boil sugar, water and syrup until it spins a thread. Beat egg whites and salt until stiff. Gradually add hot syrup, beating all the time. Add vanillaflavoring and cool until stiff enough to spread. Frost between and on top of layers with frosting and layers of coconut. Or add the coconut to frosting and spread evenly over cake.

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This cake was well received. Everyone liked it and my father told everyone how good it was. A successful cake for a most special occasion.

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