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Recipes and Stories

14 September 2019: Blackberry Cobbler

Old-Fashioned Blackberry Cobbler, with a proper pastry crust.

Some of my loveliest late-summer memories are of foraging for wild blackberries in the pastures, woodland thickets, and shoulders of country lanes in the rural communities and small towns where I grew up in upstate South Carolina.

 

We'd come in from those outings tired and sweaty (we had to wear long sleeves, thick jeans, and sturdy shoes as protection not only from the brambles but crawling varmints), our hands and wrists scratched and deeply stained with purple, filled with at least as many berries as we had in our pails. I could close my eyes and literally see mound upon mound of shiny purple-black fruit.

 

Nowadays, those wild spots for foraging have dwindled, and with the careless way that pesticides and herbicides have been used on the shoulders of country lanes, gathering from those once-choice spots is no longer really safe. Unless I get up to visit my parents while the brambles that edge their and their neighbors' properties are in fruit, I have to be content with cultivated cane berries from the market.

 

While they're far more expensive than wild ones, and never seem to have the same intense, concentrated flavor and natural sweetness, they're still worthwhile and the rush of nostalgia that they inevitably bring more than makes up for their deficiencies.

 

Fortunately, as the season for cane berries winds to a close, the cultivated ones can often be had at a very reasonable price. When they are, I can never pass them up. And my favorite way to cook them is in an old-fashioned cobbler, the kind that has a homemade pastry rather than that now-popular batter thing that rises as it bakes to form a cake-like top crust.

 

And if there are enough berries to make the cobbler really deep so that there can be an intermediate layer of pastry that turns into dumplings when baked, so much the better.

 

Blackberry cobbler was by far my favorite childhood summer dessert, and whenever I have one baking in my oven, it takes me back to my mother's and grandmothers' kitchens, and fragrantly recalls those carefree summers that we raced through barefoot and shirtless.

 

But cobblers also somehow whisper of autumn for me, and now that I'm actually in my autumn years, the poignant reminders of those carefree childhood summers, coupled with the warm promise of fall, have become more precious than ever.

 

Blackberry Bourbon Cobbler

 

My mother often froze the berries that didn't make it into a cobbler or her jam pot, so that when autumn and winter set in, we could have a fragrant little bit of summer at the table. So if you don't find good fresh berries or the ones you do find aren't very promising, by all means try individually quick frozen (IQF) berries, which work every bit as well as fresh ones in a cobbler.

 

Serves 6

 

6 cups blackberries, rinsed well and drained

1-1¼ cups sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1-2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice or vinegar

2 tablespoons bourbon

1 recipe Basic Pastry (recipe follows)

4 tablespoons instant-blending or all-purpose flour

1 large egg white lightly beaten with 1 tablespoon cold water

1 tablespoon turbinado sugar

Vanilla, cinnamon, or dulce de leche ice cream, for serving, optional

 

1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat it to 400° F. Put the berries in a ceramic or glass bowl and sprinkle them with sugar to taste and the cinnamon, lemon juice or vinegar, and bourbon. Toss gently and set aside while you make the pastry.

 

2. Roll out 2/3 of the pastry and line a 9-to-9½-inch deep-dish pie plate or 9-inch round casserole with it. Trim edges of crust so that pastry overlaps sides by about half an inch. Lightly prick bottom with fork. Instead of lining the dish, you can instead put crust only around the edges and leave the bottom bare, then lay strips of pastry in between layers of the berries (see step 3). They'll become like dumplings.

 

3. Sprinkle instant-blending flour over the berries, fold it in, and pour them into the prepared dish. Level with spatula. Roll out remaining pastry, trim it to cover top of the cobbler with an overlap of about half an inch. Cut vent holes in pastry with a small, decorative cutter and lay the pastry over the berries. Moisten edge with cold water and fold bottom pastry over it, then crimp the edges to seal them.

 

4. If you like, you may cut decorative shapes out of the excess pastry, paint the backs with cold water, and lay them over the edges of the crust. Brush the top crust lightly with diluted egg white and sprinkle it with turbinado sugar.

 

5. Set the dish on a rimmed baking sheet and bake center of oven 25 minutes, then reduce temperature to 375 degrees. Bake until the filling is bubbling at the center and the crust is golden brown, about 30-35 minutes longer. Let it cool on a wire rack for 15-20 minutes before serving it plain or with ice cream.

 

Basic Pastry

 

Makes enough to make 2 9-inch pie shells, 1 double crust pie

 

10 ounces (about 2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 ounce (2 tablespoons) chilled lard or shortening, cut into bits

4 ounces (8 tablespoons) chilled unsalted butter, cut into bits

¼ to ½ cup ice water

 

1. Sift or whisk together the flour and salt. Cut in the shortening and butter with a pastry blender until the flour resembles coarse meal with random lumps of fat no larger than small peas. Stir in ¼ cup of ice water and work it in. Continue adding water by spoonfuls as needed until the dough is holding together but not wet.

 

2. Gather the pastry into two balls (for the above recipe, make one a little larger than the other) press each one into a 1-inch thick flat disk, and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes or for up to 2 days. Let it come almost to room temperature before rolling it out.

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1 November 2017: Of Writers’ Block and Bourbon Apple Cobbler

Bourbon Apple Cobbler

Any writer will tell you that there’s nothing to equal the exhilarating feeling that comes with finishing a piece of writing. Whether it’s a whole book, a magazine article, or just a short essay like this, it’s like winning a door prize, finally being let out of jail, and reaching the top of an impossible mountain climb or finish line of a marathon, all at once.

But then. What immediately follows is an awful, restless sense of “what now?” It’s almost like being abandoned. That piece of writing has been your sole life’s purpose for days, months, sometimes years. And now it’s finished . . . with nothing to take its place. It’s not quite like writer’s block, but sometimes it feels worse. Read More 

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20 June 2016: Fresh Blueberry Compote for the First Day of Summer

Fresh Blueberry Compote with Bourbon and Cinnamon

Today’s the summer solstice, the longest day in the year (or rather, the longest stretch of daylight), marking the official beginning of summer. Our ancestors made a bigger thing of the solstice than we do nowadays, but its a good excuse to turn a regular back-to-the-grind Monday into something a little more special.

It needn’t be any more involved than taking a little more care with tonight’s supper, say, finishing it off with one of the quintessential fruits of early summer’s table: fresh blueberries. Read More 

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30 July 2013: A Bowlful of Cherries and Cherry Pie

Bourbon Cherry Pie, from Essentials of Southern Cooking (fall 2013)

Cherries have been at their peak over the last couple of weeks and, this year, have been unusually sweet and juicy. Luckily, when they’re seasonal and at their best, their cost per pound is correspondingly at its lowest. And since they’re a favorite summer fruit in our house, there has almost always been a bowl of them on our kitchen table, ready for grabbing by the handful. Read More 

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10 April 2013 Strawberries and Bourbon

Spring in a bowl: strawberries macerated in bourbon and lemon

It’s usually a mistake to assume that someone who looks back to history is somehow bound and gagged by the past. Yet, the prejudice is commonplace, and seems to be especially prominent in the culinary community, where so-called “cutting edge” trends whiz past at light speed, seemingly leaving us dusty old historians behind to stew in our own marmite. Read More 

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4 May 2012: The Perfect Julep

The perfect Mint Julep, photographed by John Carrington, From Classical Southern Cooking

With Derby Day upon us, it seems appropriate to revisit one of the South’s most venerable and, in some ways, notorious drinks—the Mint Julep.

It is popularly supposed to have originated in Kentucky, where true bourbon is made, and perhaps the classic version was—Lord knows, it ought to have been, since tomorrow at Derby time mint juleps will be flowing across Kentucky like rainwater after a spring thunderstorm. Read More 

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26 October 2011: Mexican Vanilla

Bourbon Mexican Vanilla Extract, day one: the liquid is still pale and clear.
One of the most enduringly popular spices in the baker’s pantry is vanilla, the bean or seedpod of a variety subtropical orchid native to the Western hemisphere. So many of our sweets and baked goods contain it that it’s hard to imagine what the broad repertory of European and North American baking and desserts would be without it.

It may, in fact, have become a little too popular, thanks to the proliferation of cheap imitation flavorings, which have made vanilla so commonplace that the very word has become a synonym for bland, predictable and boring.

There is nothing bland or boring about real vanilla, and nothing that can equal its heady, fragrant magic. And while its imitations may be had for next to nothing, the real thing is still exotic and expensive.

However, a single bean can be made to go a very long way by infusing it into an extract. There are quality commercial extracts available, but making your own is very simple and gives a lot of satisfaction, not to mention flavor, that money can’t buy. All it takes is a couple of first quality vanilla beans, some decent bourbon, and a little patience.

Some people use vodka or brandy, but I prefer the mellowness that bourbon lends. The most fragrant proportion is one bean for every quarter cup of alcohol, about half the alcohol usually called for in these infusions. You simply split the bean lengthwise, halve it, put it into a clean glass jar and cover it with the prescribed amount of booze. Seal and give it a vigorous shake, then put it in a cool dark cupboard that you’ll be going into every day. For the first week or two, give it a shake every day.

Homemade extract lasts a lot longer because you leave the beans in the brew, replacing the extract as it is used with the same quantity of alcohol. It’ll last you for a couple of years at the least. Once the flavor starts to weaken, use it up and start a new batch.

Though I have full bottle of bourbon infused with excellent Madagascar vanilla beans, there’s another new batch infusing in my pantry, thanks to friend Colleen Crislip, who came home from her last trip to Mexico with one of the loveliest gifts imaginable: a slim glass tube containing three supple, fragrant Mexican vanilla beans. One of the most aromatic vanillas in the world, they haven’t always been available to us north of the Rio Grande. They make the most fragrant extract imaginable, rich with hints of coconut and chocolate.

The photograph was taken yesterday, just after the bourbon was poured over the beans. As it matures during the next couple of weeks, I’ll share its progress. Read More 
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19 October 2011: Tasting Authentic History

Chicken Kentuckian on the sideboard of a late eighteenth century dining room. The silver belonged to Fr. Ralston. Photography by John Carrington
At the Association of Food Journalists’ conference in Charleston earlier this month, four of us participated in a panel about Gullah cooking, the cuisine of Lowcountry residents of mostly West African descent. The core of the panel was a pair of women who were Gullah, author and cultural anthropologist Vertamae Grosvenor and Chef Charlotte Jenkins; Jeff Allen and I rode shotgun as outsider journalist and historian on either side.

The main task was to define Gullah cooking and address whether or not its present incarnation was authentic.

During the question and answer period, a man lamented that Gullah culture had been entirely obliterated by twentieth century development of the barrier islands of Carolina and Georgia.

This even though two Gullah women were sitting right in front of him.

His remark, however, did bring the real issue into focus: it forced the acknowledgment that the discussion had been less about definitions and context than authenticity within the framework of history. Had the Gullah community ceased to exist because its people had changed and adapted to cultural encroachment, and was their cooking, both in the Lowcountry and in the diaspora, still “authentic” in the face of these cultural adaptations?

If you think on that for half a minute, you’ll answer yes, of course it is—as authentic as it was three hundred years ago when the West African slaves who founded this culture first adapted their rice based cuisines to incorporate new ingredients such as cornmeal, beans, and salt pork. To argue otherwise would be like arguing that Italian food has not been authentic since the sixteenth century, when chocolate, coffee, corn, beans, tomatoes, and zucchini were introduced from the New World.

The only constant in life is change. When confronted with that constant, civilizations have three choices: move, adapt, or die. A cuisine that adapts to the forces of change is simply following a natural continuum that began the day the first men and women learned that holding food over a fire did good things to it.

The history of cooking is not a series of contained plateaus ascending like stairs but a free-flowing river that picks things up along the way, has things thrown into it, and in turn tosses things onto its banks and leaves them behind.

The logical illustration of this would be something from a Gullah kitchen; but as Jeff obligingly pointed out to our audience (and as you will readily notice from my picture), Gullah cookery is not part of my heritage.

A dish that is a part of it, that has been on my mind ever since the season turned, is Chicken Kentuckian, a handsome sauté of young chickens basted with bourbon and finished with mushrooms and cream.

It came to me from my former minister, the late Rev. William H. Ralston. Its lineage in his Kentucky family goes back at least to his grandmother, who made it with the family’s young yard chickens, rough homemade whiskey, and mushrooms that had been gathered in nearby horse pastures.

Fr. Ralston used a chicken from the market, refined distillery-brewed whiskey, and white button mushrooms. Though I routinely use the same whiskey that he did, my original rendition added dried porcini mushrooms to lend the earthy depth of the wild mushrooms his grandmother used. In more than twenty years of making it, subtleties that I’m not even conscious of have crept into the pan, making it uniquely my own.

Which version is the most “authentic?” All of them are. No, Fr. Ralston’s probably was not quite like his mother’s and certainly not his grandmother’s, and mine is no longer quite like his, just as your interpretation will eventually become uniquely your own.

Will what you taste be what Fr. Ralston’s grandmother did a hundred years ago, or what he did a mere two decades ago, or even what I do today? No. But will you still be experiencing an authentic taste of history? You bet.

Chicken Kentuckian
Serves 6

2 young frying chickens, no more than 2½-3-pounds each, disjointed as for frying
Salt
½ cup all-purpose flour
8-10 large, wild mushrooms, sliced thick, or ½ pound crimini or portabella mushrooms
½ ounce dried boletus edulis mushrooms (porcini or cèpes), optional
¼ cup unsalted butter
1½ tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons chopped scallion
½ cup well-aged bourbon
1 cup heavy cream (minimum 36 percent milkfat)

1. Wash the chickens, pat dry, and spread them on a platter. Lightly dust with salt and flour. Wipe the fresh mushrooms with a dry cloth and slice them thickly. If using dried mushrooms, put them in a heatproof bowl, pour 1 cup of boiling water over them, and soak until cooled.

2. In a large, heavy skillet that will hold all the chicken without crowding, heat the butter and olive oil over low heat. Add the chicken and chopped scallions and sauté, turning frequently, until it is golden and tender, about half an hour. While it cooks, baste every few minutes with spoonfuls of the bourbon, being careful to add it in small amounts so there is never any liquid accumulated in the pan: it should sauté, not steam. When the chicken is cooked through and golden and all the bourbon has been used, remove it to a warm platter.

3. Turn up the heat to medium high. If using the dried mushrooms, lift them out of their soaking liquid, dipping to loosen any sand that is clinging to them, and put them in the pan. Filter the soaking water through a paper towel or coffee filter and add it to the pan. Bring to a boil, stirring frequently, and boil until all the liquid is evaporated. Add the fresh mushrooms and sauté, tossing constantly, until beginning to color, about 3 minutes.

4. Add the cream and scrape loose any residue that may be stuck to the skillet. Simmer until just heated through and starting to thicken, about 1-2 minutes, depending on the richness of the cream. Taste the sauce and correct the seasonings, pour it over the chicken, and serve at once. Read More 
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