Moravian Sugar Cake

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Realizing only now that this will be my last post before Thanksgiving. Holy smokes! Then it’s Christmastime! Which, in this house, means fancy at-home steak dinners with wine (our coziest tradition ever before the holidays), lots of Hallmark movies (don’t look at me, Alex is the one who really loves them), and oodles of homemade Chex Mix. Last year, between the two of us, we polished off two large batches in, like, two days. Can we beat that record this year? I believe in us.

In November of 1789, North Carolina became a state, but more than 30 years earlier, a religious group called the Moravians settled in the area that is now Forsyth County. The Moravians were one of the earliest Protestant sects, and some claim it is the earliest Protestant group, formed in the 1400s, in what is today the Czech Republic. They were held to be radical at the time because of beliefs we would consider today to be basic tenets of the Protestant church, such as allowing priests to marry and the disbelief in Purgatory. While the group flourished in the early years, they were forced to flee their country when the devoutly Catholic Hapsburg King Ferdinand II came to power. They first settled in what is the present-day Saxony region of Germany.

Eventually arriving in the new world, the group first attempted to settle in Savannah, Georgia, in 1735, but within five years, the group had broken apart, in part because they were looking for another location for a permanent settlement. One of the group’s main tenets was to proselytize and, after being invited by several Algonquin chiefs in the New York region, the group set up a mission there. However, by 1744, the group was expelled by the local powers. (Side literary/movie note: Chief Chingachgook, a fictional character in James Cooper Fennimore’s Last of the Mohicans, is a Moravian convert during this time, who ends up rejecting the faith at the end of his life.)

The first permanent settlement for the Moravians came on Christmas Eve of 1741, when the mission of Bethlehem was settled in Pennsylvania. A little more than a decade later, a group was sent south, to present-day North Carolina to establish a settlement there, which they did in what is modern-day Winston-Salem, in 1752.

Bethlehem, PA, in the north and Salem, NC, in the south were considered “homes” for the church. The northern and southern “homes” did frequently visit one another, though, and one thing they shared was old-fashioned sugar cake. Moravian sugar cake was similar to German kuchens, or cakes, that were made with a yeasted dough and topped with streusel. It is also a slightly simpler version of what we know as “coffee cake” in the United States today. The real difference to Moravian sugar cake is mashed potatoes. Mashed potatoes are thought to have been used in the dough to help the yeast’s growth. This common-man’s ingredient is balanced against a cinnamon-sugar topping, so it’s sweet but not too sweet. The topping, applied after bakers made deep pockets in the dough with their thumbs, sinks in, making a dimpled and rumpled topping as the cake bakes. It is said that Moravians took their sugar cake so seriously that when a Moravian man went looking for a wife, he looked for one with large thumbs who would be able to make the best sugar cake. (Gross, yes.)

Recipes for Moravian sugar cake appear in the mid-1800s in both Pennsylvanian and North Carolinian newspapers. It is frequently mentioned in early newspapers being served along with coffee for church anniversaries and “love feasts.” Now commonly served for Easter celebrations, it has become a regional favorite, even for those outside of the church.

Moravian Sugar Cake

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Moravian Sugar Cake
Makes one 8×2-inch round cake. Adapted from Garden & Gun’s recipe.

Ingredients:
For cake: 1 1/4 tsp dry-active yeast
1/4 cup sugar
6 tbsp milk, warm (about 115 degrees)
1/4 cup mashed potatoes
1 egg
2 tbsp butter, room temperature
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups flour
For topping: 3 tbsp butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
3/4 tsp cinnamon

Instructions: 

In a large bowl, combine the warm milk, yeast, and a tablespoon of sugar. Whisk together and allow to sit and get frothy for about 10 minutes.

Stir in the remaining sugar, as well as the potato, egg, butter, salt. Then add the flour and stir with a wooden spoon until the flour streaks are gone and the dough begins to form a ball.

Pour the dough onto a floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Place the ball of dough into clean, slightly greased bowl. Cover and allow to rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours.

Grease a round 8×2-inch cake pan. Punch the dough down and press into the greased cake pan. Set aside as you prepare the topping.

Melt the butter and stir in the brown sugar and cinnamon.

Using your thumbs, make deep indentations all over the top of the dough, making sure to not poke all the way through the dough. Pour the butter-brown sugar mixture over the dough and spread evenly over the top.

Cover and allow to rise in a warm place for another 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Bake for 15 minutes.

Allow to cool slightly before serving.

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I just love this kind of food history. Here is a perfectly innocent-looking cake, that actually serves as a reminder of pre-Revolutionary pioneering, radical European Protestantism, and entrenched US regionalism. Also, you know, it’s just great with coffee. 😉

The Melungeons + Chocolate Gravy

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Ooh! That feeling of spring is in the air! Meaning, it’s supposed to get over 40 for consecutive days this week. We’re already well into March, and I’m slowly starting to remember how much I love Chicago when it’s not gray and only 5 degrees. We’re almost through this, guys.

Before we’re able to dig into all the beautiful fruit recipes of spring and summer, right now we’re keeping our focus on chocolate. More specifically, we’re talking about chocolate gravy. Stay with me here. When my friends ask about my blog, they’re often curious where I get my recipes. It varies, but sometimes my research projects lead me in an unexpected direction. A while back, when looking into a family in southern Kentucky, my research led me to a group of people in the area known as Melungeons, which then led me down a rabbit hole of trying to figure out who exactly these people were, and where they had come from.

If you have never heard of the Melungeons, as I hadn’t: The group is mostly found in the Appalachian region now, but it’s thought that they may have originally come from North Carolina or Virginia. The term Melungeon, likely coming from the French word melange, meaning “mixed,” was used in the past as a derogatory way of distinguishing this particular mixed-race group. Today, the term has been reclaimed by descendants of the earliest members of the group.

But the question–that not even those identified by this name could answer for a long time–is: Who were the Melungeons?

The mystery surrounding the Melungeons comes from the fact that they lived in Appalachia, but had different physical traits than many of those settlers of northern European heritage in the area. While today many Melungeons would appear Caucasian, Melungeons a century ago were identified by their darker skin and light eyes. These features led to rumors about the origin of the group. They were alternatively identified as gypsies, or Turks, or even as the long-lost descendants of the Aztecs. However, their heritage was most commonly believed, even among the Melungeons themselves, to be Portuguese.

Before 2012, historians and genealogists guessed that the group was composed of the descendants of Native Americans, free African Americans, and possibly Portuguese. However, in 2012, with the emergence of DNA testing, the group finally began to learn their real heritage, and it proved fascinating. While, of course, there is no single type of Melungeon DNA, samples taken from modern-day members identified a common result: that they were likely descended from men with Sub-Saharan African lineage, and white women of European descent. The best assumption is that these groups would have intermarried sometime around the 1600s, likely between free, formerly enslaved men, and white indentured servant women.

It is hard to say where the suggestion of Mediterranean or Middle Eastern heritage came from, but it is very likely that the group, appearing darker than those of European ancestry, were trying to make sure family members remained free, and did not suffer legal repercussions. For example, in 1874, a woman named Martha Simmerman was challenged for her inheritance, and if it had been determined that she had African ancestry, she would have lost the case. However, her attorney asserted that her family was descended from the Phoenicians, an ancient Mediterranean civilization, who had migrated to Portugal before arriving in the United States. Additionally, as recently as 1924, Virginia passed the Racial Integrity Act that included the so-called “one drop” rule, which would deny legal privileges to anyone of even partial African descent.

The obscurity of the history of the Melungeons is terribly sad, but is also a reminder of the incredible things that genealogical research, as well as DNA testing, can dig up.

After learning the amazing story of the Melungeons, I looked at several Melungeon cookbooks, and found today’s recipe: Chocolate gravy. More broadly, this is a fairly common southern recipe. The Gravy (that is, the Southern Foodways Alliance, not the chocolate gravy referenced in this post) says that chocolate gravy should be thicker than a chocolate sauce, thinner than chocolate pudding, and is commonly served with biscuits. It is associated with the Blue Ridge Mountains, an area also associated with a large Melungeon population.

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Chocolate Gravy

Ingredients:
2 tbsp unsalted butter, or bacon fat
1/4 cup cocoa
1 1/3 cups milk
1 cup water, or strongly brewed coffee
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
salt, to taste

Instructions:

Bring coffee to a boil over medium heat. Add in the butter or bacon fat.

Mix cocoa, sugar, flour, and salt in a small bowl, and mix in a little milk to make a paste. Add remaining milk to the coffee in the saucepan.

Add the chocolate paste to the saucepan, and whisk together over low heat until smooth and thick.

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There are particular family names associated with the Melungeon group, such as Collins, Gibson, Goins, and Denham (one of these names is what led me down this rabbit hole in the first place). I’m curious if any of my readers know of any connections they have to the Melungeons! Alternatively, did any of you grow up eating chocolate gravy for breakfast? (Lucky!) Or, do you have any other genealogical mysteries that have (or haven’t!) been solved? Those are totally my jam, and I’d love to hear about them. Particularly if you have a recipe to go along with them!

Lemon Atlantic Beach Pie

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What? It’s July now? Where is time going?? As amazing as summer is in Chicago, it can sometimes feel like a sprint. Almost every single one of our summer weekends are already booked. I’m not complaining, of course. It’s just always amazing to me how, when warm weather finally arrives, Chicagoans rush to pack in every ounce of living that we can. It’s because we know that in a few months it will be dark and cold again and, as much as you’ll want to see your friends, you’ll want much more to stay inside, curl up on the couch, and watch TV. Anyway, we’re now in summer-mode, which means we’ve been outside far more than we’ve been inside, and baking seems like a distant memory to me. However, also with summer comes a slew of backyard BBQs, and the tricky question of what to contribute. Luckily for me, I have discovered the perfect potluck dessert solution: Lemon Atlantic Beach Pie.

My initial interest in this recipe sprung from my love of superstition. Along the coast of North Carolina, where seafood is a staple, an old wives’ tale says that eating dessert after consuming seafood will make you terribly sick–with the single exception of a lemon pie, made from condensed milk, with a cracker crust.

Atlantic Beach Pie is known up and down the North Carolina coast. Sometimes it is called Harker’s Island Pie, and sometimes Down East Lemon Milk Pie. While searching for recipes, I came upon many variations. Some used Ritz crackers for the crust, instead of saltines. Most recipes were topped with meringue, instead of whipped cream. And all recipes called for condensed milk, but some were very, very particular that Eagle Brand condensed milk had to be used.

What was once just a local favorite has been brought into the national spotlight by Bill Smith, chef at Crooks Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In 2014, Chef Smith’s recipe for Atlantic Beach Pie made its way around the internet and was featured on food websites, from NPR’s Found Recipes to Food52’s Genius Recipes.

Once you have a bite of this pie, you will understand why. It’s as though a key lime pie and lemon meringue pie had a baby. Salty, sweet, tart, and buttery; it’s a magical mix of simple flavors. Summer in a bite!

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Atlantic Beach Pie

Lemon Atlantic Beach Pie
Makes 1 9-inch pie. Slight variation of this recipe from NPR.

Ingredients:
For crust:
1 1/2 sleeves of saltine crackers
1/2 cup melted butter
3 tbsp sugar

For filling:
14 oz. sweetened condensed milk
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup combination of lemon and lime juice (about 2 large lemons, 1 small lime)

For whipped cream, optional:
1 cup heavy cream
1 tsp vanilla
2 tbsp powdered sugar
Sprinkle of sea salt, for garnish

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

For crust:
In a food processor, or with your hands, crumble saltine crackers into very small pieces, but not into a powder.

Add sugar and combine. Add the melted butter and mix with your hands, continuing to crumble the saltines.

Pour into a pie pan and press with your hands until the crust is shaped to your liking.

Chill for 15 minutes, then bake for 18 minutes. Leave the oven on at 350 degrees.

Allow the crust to cool as you make the filling.

For the filling:
Add condensed milk and egg yolks to a bowl. Beat with a hand mixer (or in a stand mixer) until thoroughly combined, about 1 minute.

Add lemon and lime juice to the mixture and continue to mix very thoroughly, approximately one more minute.

Pour the filling into the pie shell and bake for 16 minutes, just until the filling has set.

Chill for at least an hour and a half. If topping with whipped cream, beat together 1 cup of heavy cream, vanilla, and sugar until soft peaks form.

Top cooled pie with whipped cream and a sprinkling of sea salt.

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In terms of pie, I really feel like I’ve found my “one”. It’s a perfect balance of flavors, and, honestly, one of the easiest desserts I’ve ever made. Little baking, very little fuss, and only 6 ingredients! Sheesh, you probably already have most of the ingredients in your house!

I already took it to a July 4th BBQ and I can’t imagine that I won’t be making it several more times this summer. If you’re looking for a simple dessert to impress people, give it a try. And, if you do, let me know. I want to see if other people are as impressed with it as I am. Three cheers for summer desserts and easy living!