The locksmith eyed this birdfeeder and mentioned it might attract more bears than birds...oops.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Miss Edna's Coconut Cake

When I attend country church funerals, I can usually count on three things: sweating, singing hymns I know the words to and eating good food. 

Being that these churches are often quite old and not air-conditioned, the temperature depends on how fast you can swish the church bulletin back and forth. You wouldn’t want things getting too comfortable though, or the preacher wouldn’t know when to quit talking.

 It’s not like on Sunday, when he has the parishioners for one whole church hour. A funeral crowd is a captive audience and, like the guest-of-honor up there in the casket, no one’s leaving till the preacher’s done preaching.

I love singing the classic hymns to music that needs no electricity or fancy pipes. All a funeral needs is an old, slightly scratched upright piano and a retired Sunday school teacher with Ben Gay on her arthritic joints playing Amazing Grace. It’s pure, sweet, and a bit simple. It seems appropriate… we didn’t have organs and synthesizers comin’ into this world and we sure don’t need them goin’ out.

Oftentimes, there’s an attached building behind the church. This is where the ladies place the after-the-funeral food. All of the church tables are put end to end and are weighted down with platters of deviled eggs, coca-cola ham, watermelon rind pickles, and homemade banana puddin’.

  It was in one of those buildings, where I first tasted Miss Edna’s coconut cake.

I had noticed the commanding cake at the end of the table and was struck by the height and abundance of flaky coconut. The knife was a mess, all covered down to the handle with icing. I cut a piece and sat down to eat. After swallowing the first bite, I lowered my plastic fork and said, “Oh my.” 

 Several local women were pouring iced tea in the kitchen, so I casually approached them and inquired about the cake, indicating I’d love to have the recipe. Knowing some recipes are prized family secrets, I tried to appear quite innocent and appreciative.

 “Oh, you must mean Miss Edna’s cake!” the preacher’s wife said“, She brings that to every funeral. You just missed her though.”

 There was no rolling of eyes at my audacity or snorting at my ignorance. I took that as a good indication the recipe just might be available. 

I thought about the cake a good deal over the next week and finally decided to call Miss Edna. I tracked her down and she seemed quite happy to send me the recipe. Almost too happy.  

I waited until Christmas to bake the cake. Following the instructions to the letter, I poured the creamy batter into the pans but something didn’t look right. The batter seemed a bit scant. I was beginning to feel uneasy and remembered Miss Edna’s glee at sharing the recipe. 

Undaunted, I baked the cake and applied the filling and icing. It was quite pretty and didn’t taste bad either. However, it definitely wasn’t Miss Edna’s famous coconut cake.

That was many, many years ago. I had forgotten about the cake until the recent passing of an elderly loved one, when I found myself back in that old country church. So much time had passed, I doubted there was any chance of seeing Miss Edna or one of her cakes, but I couldn’t help wondering during the service as I swished the church bulletin back and forth.

 When the service ended, I quickly made my way to the back building and couldn’t believe my eyes when there, down at the end of the table, was a tall, grand coconut cake! 

This time, there was no hesitancy, no call for discretion. I headed straight for the kitchen.

 “Excuse me, is that Miss Edna’s coconut cake over there?”

 The lady pouring the tea smiled and said, "It sure is, honey.”

 I stationed myself next to the cake and mentally willed some rude child to start the filling of the plates before all the guests were present. I didn’t have to wait long. My own son, bless his heart, began heaping massive amounts of food on a plate. 

Soon, others followed and in less than five minutes I was closing my mouth over a fork and shutting my eyes in ecstasy…oh, yes, that was it and this time I would get the real recipe! 
Unfortunately, when I went to find Miss Edna, I was told she had just left!

I received a phone call the next day from some local ladies who had attended the funeral and eaten the coconut cake. Was it true I had acquired the actual recipe years ago? 

Oh, dear. I realized I couldn’t rightfully share the recipe I knew to be …how should I say, incomplete. If I shared the recipe I had, the Baptist church ladies would think I had pulled the leave-out-one-ingredient trick on them!

 I didn’t want to speak ill of Miss Edna, so I was all the more determined to get the real recipe.

I waited two days, and then called Miss Edna. I could sense the hesitancy in her voice, as she wasn’t sure she remembered me from years ago (or was that guilt I was hearing?) 

I poured out compliments and exclamations of her absolute celebrity status in regards to this cake. We discussed the recipe and I spent at least 25 minutes going over every detail….questioning the pan size, oven temperature, flour type, milk-fat percentage, coconut brand. I finally felt I was ready to try baking the cake again. 

“So, Miss Edna,” I asked, “do you think that’s it? We’ve got all the ingredients right, the time, the pan size, the temperature?”

“Weeeell…” she paused, “I rightly believe so”.

Then I could’ve sworn I heard a giggle.

“Actually, you know what I do?” she began. “I set out my eggs, six for the batter and three for the whites in the icing and I just go ahead and add those extra three egg yolks into the cake batter.” 

There was that giggle again. I distinctly heard excitement in her voice as she continued, “And then do you know what else I do?”

From there the whole recipe changed.

Daddy always told me wise, old cooks leave out ingredients so nobody can fully duplicate their original recipes and yet here I sat, probably the only person in the entire universe to witness the actual admission of the omission.

 Elderly cooks all over the south probably paused just then. They furrowed their brows and uneasily twisted their checkered aprons. For just a moment, there was something amiss in the sisterhood of cooks…they could feel it. Somebody had told.

I must admit I felt honored and just a little bit guilty. I got out a new piece of paper and rewrote the entire recipe…including all the little extra things she forgot to include the first go-around.

So that coconut cake recipe isn’t just a cake recipe. It’s a bit of a confession, a true willingness to share and a tiny glimpse into the secret society of elderly southern cooks.

I was feeling quite triumphant when we finished the conversation, but I must admit, I had to wonder… as she placed her phone in the cradle did she laugh out loud and say, “Heh, heh…that’ll keep her busy for awhile!”?

Miss Edna’s Famous Coconut Cake
1 cup Crisco                                     3 cups White Lily self rising flour
2 cups sugar                                    1 ½ cups milk (2 % or whole)
6 eggs plus 3 extra yolks                 1 teaspoon vanilla
Preheat oven to 350. Grease with Crisco and flour three 9-inch pans.   Cream Crisco and sugar till blended well and add eggs one at a time.  Add vanilla, then flour and milk starting with flour, then adding some milk, then some more flour, milk then ending with flour.  Mix a little more.  Bake about 20 minutes for the 9-inch pan.  (Edna uses an electric oven)
As soon as the pans go in the oven, start on your filling.
3 cups of sugar
2 cups of milk
7 oz. Baker’s angel flake coconut (buy the 14 oz. bag as the other 7 oz will be used over the icing)
In a heavy pan, cook sugar and milk over medium heat.  Let come to a boil.  Add coconut and bring to second boil and boil for 2 minutes.  Remove from heat.  When cake layers come out of oven, let sit for a minute or two then remove from the pans.  Poke holes with fork and slowly ladle filling over all three layers.  Let layers cool before covering with the never fail icing.

Never fail icing:
3 egg whites                                     1 teaspoon water
¾ cups sugar                                      ½ teaspoon vanilla
¾ cups light corn syrup
Put ingredients in double boiler over boiling water and beat with mixer for 7 minutes. Take off heat and let cool. Ice sides and top of cake after assembling layers. Cover outside of cake with another 7 oz. of coconut.

Ode to Miss Miriam

My former mother in law died five years ago, this week. She never considered me anything less than a daughter and I miss her like I'd miss my own mother. I sat with her the weekend she passed away, and held her hand. Though she was in a coma, she raised her eyebrows at my comments and twitched her hand when I rose to leave. I'm sure she knew I was there. I also noticed, on her bedside table, along with her glasses, cell phone, and Chap Stick, a 3 X 5 card with my name and two contact numbers. With all the friends and family who considered her their matriarch, that in itself was such an honor. This is something I wrote in the Atlanta Journal guest book to remember her by.

The passing of an era. Miss Miriam was the closest thing our town had to a matriarch. She was the quintessential southern lady, identifying most folks by who their Mama and Daddy were, and making sure the Lay's potato chips were always served in a cut-glass crystal bowl. All the way up into her latter years, she still made reference to skills and mannerisms taught to her by her Mama and Grandmother.

 Miss Miriam could whip up a pound cake with one hand and fill out a real estate contract with the other, all the while giving sage advice to one of her 'young'uns'. When summoning one of the boys, she would usually start out calling the name of the oldest and sift through the names, sons and grandsons, laughing when she finally got to the intended child.

 If Miriam knew someone was sick, her first response was always "What can I do?" She would bring dinner or a pound cake, and call on the phone until she was certain health was restored. Even this summer, after her car keys were put away forever, she was still asking how she could help when I came down with a summer cold. 

She was the strong tower in the storm. Everyone around Miriam was cared for, from the sons, daughter-in-laws and grandchildren, all the way out to the birds flitting around her fig bushes and magnolia trees.

 She could name every flowering bush in her yard and loved a vase of her or a family member's cut flowers. Plants that would otherwise die off under the care of another would live through the winter in her garage and warm on her porch the following spring. 

"Did you get the peonies I split off for you and left on the porch?" she once asked me. I had to laugh, as peonies were the most fretful flowers to transplant and required such particular care. I spent the afternoon working the warm soil wishing my peonies could even begin to rival her huge ruffled, pink blossoms. If there was a flower in season, it was in a vase, decorating her room.

Miss Miriam loved the history of things and could tell the origins of every decorative plate and each piece of furniture. She kept clippings of old cards and letters and cherished the memories of love shared. There wasn't hardly a question she didn't have the answer to or at least a well-thought-out opinion, whether the topic was the coming election or if Mrs. Wilkes' Boarding House in Savannah had better fried chicken than The Lady and Sons. She could walk me through the best way to make shrimp and grits, and follow up with a tale of a long-ago supper at her Mama's table. 

 You always walked away from Miriam with a gift, whether it was a story, a recipe, a jar for canning preserves, or an affirmation of love. I guess that's why she was forever propagating plant stems in a glass jar on a sunny windowsill.

 Her heart was about sharing and spreading the things she loved out to those she cared about. And because of that, the love she nurtured and invested in her family and friends will remain strong and carry on for generations to come. She lived well, loved well and we are all blessed and better people for having known her. 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Muscadine - Part One

The humble grape.

Have you ever considered how our lives have been affected by grapes?
We all grew up eating raisins, our baby fingers prying open the cardboard lid of the tiny red Sun-Maid raisin box, the one with the dark-haired girl on the cover, holding a large basket of grapes.

We learned from our Mamas to always taste one grape at the A&P just in case they were sour. As adults, we eyed the expensive Bordeaux glasses at William Sonoma, but wisely knew they'd only last 8.4 days before crashing to the hardwood floor into thousands of tiny splinters. (Mama always said a piece of white bread is the best way to grab onto those wickedly hard-to-find shards of glass.)

Haven't we dreamt of a vacation in Napa, sipping Cabernet, Zinfandel and Port, and in church, we remembered the blood of Jesus thanks to Welch's juice in a thimble sized cup.

Over our lifetime, we've consumed hundreds of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and we've snickered at the tweed-jacketed fellow tilting back his head, while swirling a mouthful of wine, saying, "I detect a hint of black cherry and cigar, with a tinny finish of sheep wearing sweaters and celery root tea"

Why, the grape has played such a visible role in the average person's life, it's a marriage of sorts, sealed with the vow 'Till death do us part."

However, growing up Southern Baptist, we drank the 'Table Wine' of the South, sweet iced tea. Never did we sip the intoxicating juice of the fermented grape from a stemmed glass. That would have been a sin in the eyes of the Southern Baptist Convention.

We did, however, have liquor in the house. See, the way it worked was, we couldn't drink alcohol, but we could eat it. Mama loved to make bread pudding with whiskey sauce and I'm pretty sure she set her hair in rollers using beer to hold the curls. We abstained from drinking alcohol. Period.

And yet.

There was the muscadine.

 Every respectable Southern Baptist I knew, who was born south of the Mason Dixon line, kept a bottle of nectar-like muscadine wine in the pantry. While typically muscadine, it could also have been peach or blackberry wine.
Always homemade. And always thick with sweet.

 It wasn't necessarily spoken about out loud, or even served to guests. It was just there.  Even my mother-in-law, Miss Miriam, (who once told me if her son were elected President he could just serve lemonade at State dinners like Lemonade Lucy, President Hayes' wife), had a dusty bottle of  homemade, summer-peach wine hidden in the back of the cabinet, to soothe my early labor contractions.  (I'll have to admit I was shocked at the time and thought we'd have to drive north to Atlanta, leaving her Tyrone house, in the middle of the night, to find the doctor-prescribed glass of wine)

 But there it was.

After all, she was a daughter of the South, so of course, she had a bottle of homemade sweet wine hidden away. For just such a time as this.

I still remember standing in the kitchen, back in 1976, and sampling my first taste of muscadine wine. Mama and Daddy's friend, Jack, had a make-shift wine celler in his backyard, where he buried his bottles of muscadine wine in a hole in the ground, sort of like hiding the family silver from the yankees.

My own Grandmama made homemade wine, but this fact was unknown to me until many years after her passing into the Great By-and-By. She gave my Grandaddy Pop fits when his doctor advised an ounce of liquor a day for his Parkinson's. But after his passing, she'd sit with lady friends sipping her homemade wine, made from a jug of Welch's grape juice.

I guess this shouldn't surprise me. As soon as the drinking age was lowered to 18, back in 1977, she enlisted my help getting her 'medicine' at the local package store. " A little glass of Manischewitz blackberry wine helps me sleep, "she'd smile and say as she handed me a ten-dollar bill.

While we never made muscadine wine, we did make muscadine hull preserves. Daddy and I stood by the picnic table on the screened-in porch and hulled 2000 dark purple muscadines one warm, late September afternoon. There was nothing like rich, sweet preserves made with the jam and the skins. The only other place I had tasted such a treat was Calloway Gardens, and they had served it over ice cream.

Over the years, I've continued to preserve this tradition, so steeped in Southern history.  I want to share it with you, in the hopes you will also follow in the footsteps of your long-ago Southern ancestors, and 'put-up' the fruit of the woods, the humble muscadine. William Sonoma may never feature a muscadine sippin' glass, but your descendents will thank you for keeping this tradition alive.

Instructions for making Muscadine Preserves are in the following blog post.

The Muscadine - Part TWO

Instructions for making Muscadine Preserves:

Come about the middle of September, start looking for a vineyard. They'll most likely be out from the city, in a small, country town. Bring cash and expect to pay around $8 or so for a gallon of muscadines. I got mine at Brown's in Union City. If you subscribe to the Ga. Farmers and Consumers Bulletin they'll have the local listings. (Be sure to wear proper shoes. I stepped in an ant hill wearing sandels.) Also, be aware that yellow jackets love muscadines and the warmer the day, the more activity you'll see.

As you look over the vines,  choose the dark muscadines. The unripe reddish ones won't 'pop' and will be sour. There may also be scuppernong vines, the bronze cousin of the muscadine. These taste very similar, but are a golden hue instead of the dark purple.

Once you get at least a gallon, go ahead and eat a few. You may want to get a few more for eating, after you make your preserves. We picked 5 gallons, which made 2.5 gallons of preserves. I haven't done the math to break it down but that's the ratio. This batch was 8 cups of pulps and skins after popping the grapes.

Now, you're going to need some equipment. Kmart or Walmart will do as they have a canning section in the Housewares dept. Get a funnel, a magnetic stick, a jar lifter, a  big ol'water bath pot, a ladle,  and a case of 8, 12, or 16 ounce canning jars. You'll also need some white sugar, some Ball low sugar pectin and a lemon. And a food sieve. You'll use these every time you make jelly, jam or preserves so it's a great investment. Lay out your tools and keep a wet cloth on hand to wipe the rims of the jars later on.

Sterilization is the key factor in making preserves. Just keep lots of pots of boiling water for everything you're using. A bit like birthing a baby back in the day.

 About an hour before you start, fill the water bath pot with water full enough to completely cover the jars. This is where you're going to sterilize the jars while you cook the preserves. Wash your jars and gently place them into the cool water to rest on the metal rack inside the pot. Turn the heat up and bring it to a boil and keep it boiling, with the lid on. It takes a while for it to boil, and it needs to stay at a hard boil.

Place the lids in a small pot of water and bring to a boil, and keep it simmering on the back burner. I also keep my ladle in this simmering water and sterlize the funnel.

 Wash your hands, wash the muscadines and start popping the pulp out of the skins.

  Place the pulps (with their many seeds) in a decent size pot and place the skins in a separate pot after running the skins through a whirl in a food processor to cut them up a bit. I used my nifty Ninja mixer and give it four hits.

You're going to want to add some water to the skins, so it's a loose mix and begin cooking them over medium to medium high heat. This will tenderize the skins. Cook them about 20 or so minutes until they turn a pale purple color and are tender to taste. They'll still taste sour, though.

While the skins are cooking, start cooking the pulp in a separate pot. If you have a lemon, add the juice of one lemon. I mash the pulp with a potato masher a bit, and cook them on medium to medium high heat until they are all melded together into a big pot of what eventually looks like green snot. This took about 30 minutes, give or take. Make sure you're stirring both pots often.
 Once the pulps have thoroughly broken down and released their seeds, you'll gently pour the pulps into an old-fashioned sieve. I found mine at a yard sale.  Turn the handle and the pulp will easily go down into a mixing bowl, leaving the seeds behind. I tried to do it without cooking the pulp, but it has to be cooked.

This is a good time to double check that your water bath pot is still boiling.

Now, take the cooked skins and drain off the liquid. Put the pulp into a large bowl and add enough skins to bring the total of pulp and skins to 8 cups. It will all be nice and purple. Put the 8 cups of jammy mix back into a pot and add 9 Tablespoons of Ball low sugar pectin and 2 cups of water. These measurements are precise and if you are cooking less than 8 cups, refer to the pectin package for directions.  Stir this constantly, and cook over medium high heat, bringing to a hard boil, one which you can't stir down. That means, when it comes to a full boil, big bursting bubbles, stir and if it stops bubbling, it isn't boiling enough. Once it boils and you can't stir it away, boil for one minute.

Then, add 3 cups of sugar. Bring to a hard boil again and boil one minute and then take the pot off of the heat.

(This very important time....when all your hard work has come to a pivotal moment, is when the phone will ring. Not once, but twice. It happens every time. Be prepared. When it happened to me today, I grabbed the phone, saw it was Mama and Daddy, hit the button and said, "Ican'ttalkmymuscadinesarealmostdoneI'llcallyourightbackohmygosh!" and hung up.)

Okay...this is the moment. Lift a hot jar out of the water bath pot with a jar grabber and dump the boiling water out of its middle back into the boiling water pot. Place this jar on a little plate next to your cooking jam pot.
Place the funnel inside the jar and ladle the hot preserves into the jar until you have 1/4 inch of room left. This is very important.  Not one inch, not 1/16 of an inch. One. Fourth.

Next, take that wet cloth, and carefully wipe off the rim to ensure there is NO muscadine on the rim. Be careful about this. It will affect the jar sealing and whether or not you give your friends botulism.  (We should take canning very seriously and follow the recommended canning directions from your local county extension agency. Please follow safe canning so we won't all die when we eat muscadine preserves or other jams.)

When you have that little 1/4 inch left, and the rim is wiped clean, then gently lift up a flat lid out of your simmering pot of lids, using that neat little magnetic stick.

Now, while holding the jar steady with a cloth in your hand (because it is HOT) screw on the band, that's been in the simmering water, and set it aside for a moment. Is your big water bath pot still boiling? Make sure it is.
Repeat these steps for the rest of the preserves. This recipe makes six 12-ounce jars, or nine 8-ounce jars or about four pints.

Once the jars are full and the lids are screwed on, carefully place each jar, with the jar grabber, onto the rack in the boiling water bath pot and put the lid on. They should be covered by an inch or two of boiling water. Boil for 10 minutes with the lid on the pot.  When they're done, take the lid off, turn off the heat and let them sit in the hot water for five minutes.

 Carefully remove the jars and let them sit on a counter, untouched, for about 12 hours. If the seal took correctly, you will hear a *POP* from each lid and you'll notice the lid is slightly concave in the middle. Do NOT push it down yourself. If it didn't seal, you can either repeat a water bath or place this jar in the frig for eating that week. The jar must seal properly for your jam/preserves/jelly to be safe to eat.

It's very satisfying to hear the little *pop* *pop* *pop* sounds coming from the kitchen.

There. You're all done. Was this a lot of trouble? Yes, Ma'am, it was. But all things of value come at a price, and your friends will know they are cherished when you give them a precious jar of your muscadine preserves.
Enjoy it on a hot, tender buttermilk biscuit and savor the taste of the South.