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!

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Rosa Parks + “Featherlite” Peanut Butter Pancakes

Rosa Parks

Today marks what would have been Rosa Parks’ 106th birthday. This being a food history blog, you might not expect her to make an appearance here, and you might not expect any particular recipe to be associated with this iconic figure of American history. However, in 2015, Rosa Parks’ personal papers were released by the Library of Congress, and found among her papers was a recipe, written in her own hand on the back of a Detroit bank envelope, for “featherlite” peanut butter pancakes. This was alongside notes from Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks’ own journals from the time of the famous Montgomery bus boycott, but this tiny slice of her story gives a glimpse of the real person behind the historic figure we all know today, who had to work hard and feed her family.

She was born Rosa Louise McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama, the daughter of Leona and James McCauley, a teacher and a carpenter, respectively. As a child, Parks was constantly confronted with racism: She was bullied by white children; the Ku Klux Klan marched through her town, while her grandfather stood watch at their front door with a shotgun; and, at one point, she was left standing in the rain by the same bus driver who would later have her arrested years later.

In 1932, McCauley married Raymond Parks, who was involved with the NAACP. She finished her high school studies (at the time, only 7% of African Americans had a high school diploma), and began working a variety of jobs to make ends meet. By 1943, Parks herself became involved with the NAACP and, being the only woman present, was asked to become the secretary to Edgar Nixon, the Montgomery chapter’s leader. Just a year into her time as secretary, she investigated the kidnapping and brutal gang-rape of Recy Taylor, a black woman from Alabama, who was attacked as she was leaving church. Parks and others organized The Committee for Equal Justice after Taylor identified her rapists, but an all-white jury dismissed her case. In addition to bringing national attention to Ms. Taylor’s case, the group helped to shine a light on the prevalence of sexual assault against black women, as well as help them report any abuse directly to the NAACP.

Throughout the 40’s and into the 50’s, Parks continued her work with the NAACP to end segregation and help register black voters. In 1955, Parks attended the Highlander Folk School, an education center dedicated to training emerging leaders in social justice and labor and civil rights. The same year, Emmett Till was murdered while visiting family in Mississippi. Till’s murder was discussed during Mass at Parks’ church. The white men accused of Till’s brutal murder had been acquitted, and this deeply upset Parks. Four days later, Parks changed history by refusing to stand up and move to the back of a public bus when a white man boarded. The act was not violent (and technically not illegal; Parks had been sitting in the “colored” section of the bus, but was expected to stand if white people boarded and there was no room for them to sit), but the driver of the bus notified the authorities and Parks was arrested. Contrary to the common belief that Parks was simply tired after a hard day’s work, she was not a meek seamstress. Explaining the act herself, she once said, “The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” It was a deliberate peaceful protest of an unjust system. In response to her arrest, Parks later said, “I had not planned to get arrested. I had plenty to do without having to end up in jail. But when I had to face that decision, I didn’t hesitate to do so because I felt that we had endured that too long.”

Parks was bailed out of jail that evening by her former boss Edgar Nixon, now the leader of the NAACP in Alabama and the President of the Pullman Porters Union. Nixon, along with Jo Ann Robinson, a professor at Alabama State College and a member of the Women’s Political Council, came up with the idea of a bus boycott as a way of using the publicity of Parks’ arrest. Three days after Parks was arrested, the Montgomery bus boycott was announced. Four days later, the boycott began. Pamphlets asked African Americans to avoid taking buses, and find another means of transportation, if possible. The call was heard and, as the Montgomery public transportation network consisted primarily of African American riders, the system was crippled. The boycott continued for an astounding 381 days, until on December 21, 1956, Montgomery public transportation was integrated.

While this was a triumph, Parks did not escape unscathed. Shortly after refusing to give up her seat, she was fired from her job as a seamstress. Her husband eventually lost his job as well, and her family regularly received death threats. In 1957, they left Alabama for Virginia, in hopes of finding work. Shortly afterward, the Parks family moved again, this time to Detroit, where Rosa lived the rest of her life. She died in 2005, at the age of 92. She received many honors in the last years of her life, including the Presidential Medal of Honor and the Congressional Gold Medal. She also became the first woman to lie in honor at the Capitol rotunda after her death.

In honor of Parks’ birthday, and her contributions to our country–and also as a reminder that she was a regular person, who needed to feed herself and her family–I made her recipe for “featherlite” peanut butter pancakes.

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“Featherlite” Peanut Butter Pancakes
Makes approximately 12 4-inch pancakes.

Ingredients: 
1 cup flour
2 tbsp baking powder
2 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/4 cups milk
1 egg
1/3 cup smooth peanut butter
1 tbsp shortening or oil

Instructions:

Combine flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt in a small bowl.

In a larger bowl, whisk together the milk, egg, and peanut butter. (The peanut butter will take some time to combine. You want to eliminate large clumps, but small ribbons are fine.)

Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and stir together, just until flour disappears. Stop stirring when you see no more ribbons of flour. The mixture will still be lumpy.

Melt shortening or oil in a large flat skillet or griddle. Heat until a drop of water sizzles when added to pan.

Use a 1/4 cup measuring cup, not quite filled to the top, to scoop batter. Drop into the hot skillet and flip after about 1 minute. Continue until batter is gone. Serve warm.

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Obviously this pancake recipe is a tiny part of Rosa Parks’ story, but the neat thing about history is that it was all created by real people. Parks’ contribution to the civil rights movement was monumental, but while her name is now a by-word for the successful boycott and a type of heroism rarely seen, we can perhaps appreciate that heroism even more by remembering how she and her family privately suffered for years as a result of the stand that she took. I hope that this small piece of her personal history, a humble pancake recipe, can shine a light on the real life of an American icon.

(Photo of Rosa Parks from Wikimedia Commons)

Thanksgiving + Crawberry Pie

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While planning some upcoming travel recently, I had the shocking realization that Thanksgiving is, in fact, TOMORROW! And that there are only five weekends separating us from Christmas. Who plans these years, with January located directly next to November?? Anyway, I freaked out about that for a while, resisted the urge to take a stress nap, then decided to start planning what sides I am going to make for Thanksgiving dinner. If we have dinner here, we usually make Ina’s herb-roasted turkey breast (which is still enough to feed a small army and forces me to get creative with the leftovers). We also always have sweet potatoes of some kind, stuffing, and green bean casserole (did you know the creator of the green bean casserole died this year? Her name was Dorcas Reilly, she was 92). We probably won’t go all out this year. Is an all-carb Thanksgiving dinner a thing? Trick question. It is, and we’re having one! Oh, and pie. We will definitely have pie. I’m planning a sweet potato pecan with a gingersnap crust. It might be too adventurous, though. We’ll see.

Before I really get into my Thanksgiving planning, I’m doing a little procrasti-blogging, which leads me to today’s recipe: crawberry pie. Let me explain. Occasionally, we have Friendsgiving, often with our friends David and Quinn. When we do, one of my favorite parts of the dinner is Quinn’s family’s crawberry pie. If you are unfamiliar with crawberries, that’s OK. It’s actually just cranberries, written in Quinn’s grandmother’s hand, and mistaken for “crawberry”. Quinn was nice enough to give me the recipe, which she found out along the way was not her grandmother’s recipe, as she thought, but a recipe from one of her mom’s coworkers, who gave it to her grandmother and it became her specialty at family dinners after that. Funny how family recipes work sometimes. I suppose there are more than a few of our “grandma’s famous” bouncing around out there that are actually clipped from a magazine, or originate from other families. There’s beauty in that. (I was hoping to share a photo of the recipe in her grandma’s handwriting, but Quinn grew up in New Orleans and, unfortunately, the recipe didn’t survive Hurricane Katrina. Luckily, though, the recipe was preserved!)

How to describe this dessert? It’s basically a crustless pie, almost a cake, really. The top is not really a crumble, as it’s sweeter. However, it’s a little more dense than a cake. It’s hard to explain, but it’s in a class all its own, and it’s delicious.

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Crawberry Pie
Makes 1 nine-inch pie.

Ingredients:
2 eggs
1 cup of sugar
1 cup of flour
3/4 cup melted butter
Cranberries, enough to cover bottom of pie pan
1/4-1/2 cup of sugar

Instructions:

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.

In a medium bowl, beat eggs well.

Gradually beat in one cup of sugar. Then, beat in the flour and melted butter.

Grease the bottom of a pie pan, and add enough cranberries to cover the bottom.

Sprinkle the additional 1/2 cup of sugar over the top of the cranberries.

Pour the batter over the top of the sugared cranberries.

Bake for 30-40 minutes, or until the top of the pie is just golden.

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If you’re a cranberry fan like me, I think you’ll like this. The cranberries rise up through the batter as it bakes, distributing just the right amount of tartness throughout the sweet pastry. It’s a very simple-to-make (and probably welcome) addition to your Thanksgiving table. I hope you’ll give it a try and let me know what you think. Then I can pass all your kind words on to Quinn and her family!

Thanks so much for sharing, Quinn!

Sweet Tea + Sweet Tea Pie

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We are one, I repeat, one day away from summer! We had a positively searing weekend, and I was all about it. Do you have any habits, patterns, or routines that change with the seasons? For me, summer means that, in the mornings, I have no interest in hot coffee, but instead I want iced tea or a matcha latte. I love those little changes my body insists on, without much thought, because it gets me really excited for the upcoming season.

And, speaking of iced tea, June is National Iced Tea Month. (Side note: I think people wouldn’t be so eye-rolly with national food days/months if we just knew where the hell they came from. For example, I just recently found out that National Rhubarb Day is in January. January?! But why?!)

Anyway, at least iced tea month in June makes sense. It’s a great porch-sitting drink for a great porch-sitting month.

So here’s my question: Are you a plain tea, or a sweet tea person? Have you ever even had sweet tea? I used to hear that sweet tea was especially a southern favorite, but I dismissed that as just a stereotype. But it turns out many of my friends who grew up in the south really do love sweet tea!

In Indiana, when you went to restaurants, usually the only option was sweetened tea. (When I got to Chicago and was asked if I wanted sweetened or unsweetened, I thought it was a trick.) But sweetened tea and sweet tea are two different beasts. The main difference between sweetened iced tea and sweet tea is when the sugar is added. Traditional sweet tea is sweetened while still warm or hot, while it’s brewing. In fact, in the early 2000’s, a politician in Georgia, partially as a joke, drafted a bill requiring that “sweet tea must be sweetened when brewed,” and that any restaurant serving iced tea must also serve sweet tea. The bill never went to vote, but it does give you an idea of how serious southerners are about their sweet tea.

So how did sweet tea become part of southern identity?

The very British practice of drinking hot tea first came to the colonies with the British. (Tea drinking became more commonplace in England when Catherine de Braganza, a Portuguese princess, arrived in England to marry King Charles II in 1662. The first gift of two pounds of tea were presented to Charles II by the British East India Company two years earlier–and they have never looked back.) Before the American colonies fought for their independence, disputes over the taxation of British tea lead to the Boston Tea Party, a protest by colonists against British taxation without representation, which would become one of the first steps toward the American Revolutionary War. In the years that followed, Americans generally tended to favor coffee, thought of as a more “patriotic” beverage.

By the early 1800’s, cold green tea was being served, often spiked with alcohol, as a punch. There are recipes for a cold tea punch dating back to 1839 in Kentucky. By the mid-to-late-1800’s, iced tea, sans alcohol, began making its appearance in the north. Before the days of ice production or refrigeration, iced tea was non-existent in the south. The first recipe for sweet tea came from Housekeeping in Old Virginia, a cookbook by Marion Cabell Tyree that was printed in 1879. This recipe called for the use of green tea and suggested the sugar be added after steeping. Green tea was the preferred choice for tea drinking, until lower-cost black tea from Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia was made accessible. And during the second War War, the US was almost completely cut off from its supply of green tea, which strengthened Americans’ black tea habit.

Sweet iced tea became a popular alternative to alcohol during Prohibition, and it was also during this time that it began appearing more often in Southern cookbooks, eventually turning it into a staple in the south.

To play with this ingredient–and to, you know, make a pie–I decided to make a sweet tea pie! Sweet tea pie appears not to be an old southern recipe. I can find references to sweet tea pie dating back to only the early 2000s in newspapers and, in 2010, Martha Hall Foose included a recipe for a sweet tea pie in her book Screen Doors and Sweet Tea: Recipes and Tales from a Southern Cook (which won a James Beard Award). I guess it’s not, as I hoped, very historical. Too bad, because it’s heavenly.

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Sweet Tea Pie
Makes one 9-inch pie. Recipe from Taste of the South Magazine.

Ingredients:
1-crust pie shell (I love this recipe from Epicurious, halved. You can also use store-bought, frozen.)
1 cup sugar
1 tbsp flour
1 tbsp cornmeal
1/8 tsp salt
2 egg yolks
2 eggs
1/2 cup strongly-brewed unsweetened tea, cooled
4 tbsp unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 tsp lemon zest
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
Whipped cream and lemon zest for serving

Instructions: 

Roll out your pie crust to fit a 9-inch pie pan. Trim, fold, and crimp edges, then poke holes all over the bottom and sides of the crust with a fork. Trim a piece of parchment paper to fit the inside of the pie crust and fill with pie weights. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees, while refrigerating your pie crust for 15 minutes.

Bake your chilled pie crust for 15 minutes, remove from oven and allow to cool at least 30 minutes as your prepare the pie filling.

In a bowl, combine the sugar, flour, cornmeal, and salt. Stir together, then add the eggs and the egg yolks. Beat together until everything is well combined.

Add the tea, melted butter, and lemon zest. Stir to combine. Pour into the pre-baked crust.

Bake for 35-45 minutes. Begin checking for doneness at 35 minutes. The middle of the pie should not jiggle when done.

Allow to cool completely before serving, or refrigerate until ready to serve.

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Whether you take your iced tea sweet or “unsweet,” I think you’ll love this creamy, tea-scented custard pie, reminiscent of my home state’s sugar cream pie. And, although you brew unsweetened tea for this recipe, you eventually mix it with butter and sugar–amen! It’s not a great beauty but, guys, it’s good. You will find yourself taking bites and asking, “What is that flavor?” It’s not exactly tea-flavored. For sure you will taste the lemon, while there is only a hint of tea.

Next time I really want to make it with green tea (the original tea of choice!) to see if I notice a difference. You guys will be the first to know!

Peanut Butter Cookies

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Hey! It’s June now! You can barely tell, but here it is! On a recent June day, walking to the store, I found myself angrily cursing at how cold and windy it was. Since then, I’ve been looking at Craigslist apartments in… Austin? Savannah? Should we just move back to New Orleans? I mean, summer used to be Chicago’s saving grace, but these last few springs and summers have just been… chilly.

June is a funny time anyway because work is quieter for us both, and our summer trips don’t usually pick up until July 4th, so we’re just here, dealing with the moody Chicago weather, mostly inside, watching scary movies. We just finished Tabula Rasa, a Belgium mystery, on Netflix and we both loved it! Now we’re on to Requiem, which is so far good, a little slow, but I would happily watch paint dry so long as it were set in the Welsh landscape, so we’re sticking with it.

Also, of course, I’ve been hunting around for new recipes to write about. I saw that today was national peanut butter cookie day. I know. I don’t get it. But it did set me on a quest to learn some peanut butter history, and it was actually pretty great! Some things I learned: Peanut butter, as we know it, is a fairly modern marvel, only first appearing in the late 1800’s. George Washington Carver did NOT invent peanut butter! (I feel like I learned this in elementary school at some point. And now I feel like I’ve been living a lie.) GWC did have an important role in its promotion, though. Finally, peanut butter is just not a big deal in other countries. It’s a very American snack. Depending on your peanut butter views, this may come as no surprise.

In 1884, Marcellus Gilmore Edson, a Canadian chemist, obtained the first patent for peanut flavoring paste to be used in sweets or candies. Ten year later, in 1894, George Bayle began producing peanut butter as a snack food, mostly selling it near St. Louis.

By 1898, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (you might know him by his cereals), began using boiled peanut paste in his sanitarium, the Western Health Reform Institute in Battle Creek, Michigan. The paste provided patients, particularly those who were unable to chew, with a protein-rich, vegetarian food option, which Dr. Kellogg promoted. At this time, peanut butter was not available to the masses, as it did not transport well, and was generally only considered a health food for the rich.

By 1903, however, Ambrose Straub, also of St. Louis, had patented a peanut butter-making machine, and a year later, peanut butter made an appearance at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Shortly after that, it gained popularity on a nation-wide scale and, less than a decade later, recipes for peanut butter cookies began appearing in newspapers.

If you’re curious about George Washington Carver’s role in the history of peanut butter in the United States, it did not begin until about 1915. During this time, the boll weevil, a type of beetle, had devastated southern cotton crops. In response, Carver began focusing his research on crops for farmers to alternate with their cotton crops, such as peanuts and sweet potatoes, which were both healthy for human consumption and would help restore nitrogen in the depleted soil. As part of his work, Carver began promoting the use of sweet potatoes and peanuts in recipes.

By the early 1920s, a chemist named Joseph Rosefield added partially hydrogenated oil to the peanut butter, which prevented it from separating. And by the 1920s, the first peanut butter company, Peter Pan, was founded using a license provided by Dr. Rosefield.

Nutritious and affordable, good for the soil and good for the body. And delicious in a cookie! For the recipe, I adapted one of my favorite cookie recipes: the America’s Test Kitchen Crinkle Cookie. I wanted a lot of peanut butter flavor, but I didn’t want them to be too thick, chewy, or crispy. The results were… very fluffy, and very dangerous.

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Peanut Butter Cookies
Makes between 24 and 36 cookies.

Ingredients:
3/4 cup creamy peanut butter
1/4 cup unsalted butter (1/2 stick)
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup packed light brown sugar
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract 
1 cup white granulated sugar, for rolling 

Instructions:

In a small bowl, melt together the peanut butter and butter, stir to mix together, and set aside to cool slightly.

In a bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

In a large bowl, beat together the brown sugar, eggs, and vanilla extract until well-combined.

Add the peanut butter mixture to the sugar and eggs mixture and stir together until combined. Add the flour mixture all at once and stir together until there are no more white flour streaks. Cover the bowl with a dish towel and allow to sit for 10-15 minutes.

Move a rack to the middle rung in oven. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.

Fill a bowl with granulated sugar. Scoop 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons of the peanut butter mixture into the sugar. Once all sides are coated, pick up and form into a ball in your hands. Place on cookie sheet. Continue, leaving about 1 1/2 inches between each ball, until you’ve filled the baking sheet. Using a fork, slightly flatten each ball and make a crisscross shape across the top of each ball. Bake for 6 minutes, then turn the pan 180 degrees, and continue baking for another 6 minutes. The cookies will look soft, but they will be done. Don’t over-cook! Continue on the second baking pan, until you’ve used all the dough.

Allow the cookies to cool on the pan before serving or transferring to an airtight container.

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My husband described these as cookies for people who love cake. They are incredibly soft, with the slightest crisp edge. You will have a terrible time not eating the whole batch because they’re so light and pillowy. Because of this, they do not hold their traditional crisscross imprint very well, but you won’t hardly have time to notice.

 

Chocolate Coca-Cola Cake

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Happy New Year!

We are still trying to dig out of the holidays over here. A couple days before Christmas, we made our annual trek up to Marie’s for pizza. On Christmas Eve morning, I made Chex Mix (I used the recipe that one of my guests, Mandy Ross, shared on here a while back, because it’s very easy and very good), while playing Christmas music. We had our traditional Christmas Eve dinner of steak, potatoes, and mulled wine. Then we woke up to a white Christmas, exchanged gifts, and had a Christmas dinner of delicious Indian food with Alex’s dad. Solid times. But now it’s just cold, cold, cold. It’s the time of the year when I try not to leave my house and I eat my body weight in Clementines.

For New Year’s Eve, we did nothing. Alex kept giving me updates on the temperature that went something like, “It feels like -9… and now it feels like -17”. I fell asleep by 10:30, woke up at 11:59:45 to countdown to the New Year, then promptly fell back asleep, like a rock star.

And, speaking of New Year’s Eve, you may want to stop reading right now if you made a New Year’s resolution to avoid any of the following: cake… chocolate… carbs… desserts… soda… butter… Because this post is basically your New Year’s resolutions’ biggest nightmare.

Last year, when Alex was on a business trip in Atlanta, I got lost down a rabbit hole reading about Coca-Cola’s history and requested that Alex bring me something called a Coca-Cola cake. Unfortunately, he was traveling with colleagues and didn’t feel comfortable demanding a stop to buy cake. So, the idea of a chocolate cake made with soda pop sat at the back of my mind. Until now.

Today marks the 230th anniversary of Georgia becoming a state. And, of course, Coca-Cola was born and raised in Georgia. Coca-Cola was created by John Pemberton, a pharmacist by trade who suffered a saber wound to the chest (!!) during the Civil War and became addicted to opiates as a way to combat his pain. He developed the early version of Coca-Cola, made from coca leaves (and, yes, at least trace amounts its famous alkaloid), and kola nuts, which contain both caffeine and other stimulants that Pemberton hoped would help conquer his addiction. Before his death, needing money, Pemberton began selling some of the rights to the Coca-Cola formula. After his death, his son Charley, also suffering from alcoholism and a morphine addiction, possibly coerced, sold the remaining rights to Asa Griggs Candler, a business tycoon who would later become the mayor of Atlanta, and who was responsible for the aggressive marketing that led to Coca-Cola’s status as an American staple.

As for the cake, there is not a lot of information on how it got started. It doesn’t seem that it was created by the Coca-Cola Company as a marketing ploy. There have been suggestions that, because of its importance to American morale during the second World War (both Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley were said to be addicted to it!), the Coca-Cola company was not subject to the sugar rationing that restricted the American public, so it was a way to sweeten a chocolate cake. That seemed like a fair assumption, but the recipe also calls for an egg, and a fair amount of butter and buttermilk–items that were either rationed themselves, or just scarce at the time. More likely, it seems that the recipe was created by happy accident, as a way for home bakers in the south to infuse the beloved soda into their chocolate cake. The earliest recipes for the cake that I found were from newspapers in the 1960’s, and interestingly enough, not from Georgia. A frequently-used version is often attributed to Lee Avery Catts, a member of the Junior League of Atlanta, whose recipe was published in the Junior League’s Atlanta Cooknotes starting in the early 80’s. Her recipe closely follows the recipes I found in earlier newspapers.

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Chocolate Coca-Cola Cake
Serves 12-15. I followed this recipe from Serious Eats, which seems to be very close to several recipes I found from newspapers in the 60’s.

Ingredients:
For cake:
Cooking spray
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup white sugar
1 cup dark brown sugar
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 tsp baking soda
2 sticks of butter, unsalted
1/4 cup cocoa powder, unsweetened
1 cup Coca-Cola
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups miniature marshmallows

For icing:
2 cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted
1/4 tsp salt
1 stick of butter, unsalted
1/4 cup cocoa powder, unsweetened
6 tbsp Coca-Cola
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup chopped pecans, optional

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Coat the inside of a 9×13-inch pan with cooking spray.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, white and brown sugar, and salt. Whisk to combine.

In a small bowl or measuring cup, combine the buttermilk and baking soda. Stir to combine thoroughly. (Be sure to use a bowl that is at least 1 cup in size because the mixture will foam up to almost double.)

In a small saucepan, combine the butter, cocoa, and Coca-Cola. Heat to boiling, stirring occasionally. Pour the Coca-Cola mixture into the flour mixture and stir until fully combined. Add the buttermilk mixture, stirring until combined. Add the eggs and vanilla, and finally stir in the marshmallows.

Pour the mixture into the 9×13-inch pan, spreading the mixture to the edges with a spoon and moving the marshmallows around so they’re evenly distributed.

Bake between 35 and 45 minutes. The cake is done when a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.

Allow the cake to cool for about 10 minutes before beginning the icing.

Sift the confectioner’s sugar and salt into a small bowl. In a small saucepan, combine the butter, cocoa powder, and Coca-Cola. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Pour the Coca-Cola mixture into the confectioner’s sugar. Whisk together until completely combined and smooth. Stir in the vanilla.

Pour the icing over the still-warm cake. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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This cake was actually quite different than I imagined it would be. I figured it would be extremely sweet and very dense like a brownie. Definitely not! It’s actually just a really tasty chocolate cake. You can also include pecans in your icing. I did not, because I’m almost exclusively a no-nuts-in-dessert type of girl. Use your discretion.

Happy birthday to the great state of Georgia! And, Alex says, congrats to your Dawgs! (I literally have no idea what that means.)

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!