Baking a Coconut Cake for John Egerton

My Southern Foodways class culminated this evening with a class dinner at the lovely home of one of my professors [writer Alice Randall–read her new book, Rebel Yell! :)].  Our honorary guest was Southern food writer and scholar John Egerton.  We read his Southern Food for class, so it was great opportunity meeting him.  My professors asked me to bake my coconut cake, which is a recipe adapted from Consuming Passions: A Food Obsessed Life by Michael Lee West, one of my mom’s favorite books.  I make it with local and organic/natural ingredients and tweak a few things here and there.  It was a big hit when I baked it for my class earlier in the semester, but I was nervous about making it for THE John Egerton.

My coconut cake was only a small part of a wonderful vegetarian “locavore” Southern meal that my professors put together.  First of all, the dining room was decorated beautifully.  I felt like I was in a magazine.  We started with three little bread crackers that were spread with three different local pepper jellies.

The main course was a hearty soup of collard greens, black-eyed peas, and more, swimming in Alice’s special sweet potato broth. (It’s so difficult to photograph soup in an appetizing way, but I can assure you it was delicious!)  A cornbread madeleine accompanied the soup. (You can see it on the plate in the picture above.)

Afterward, we had pears poached in a local wine, along with local goat cheese and honey.  The pears looked like jewels and were absolutely delicious.  I am definitely going to try making this sometime because it’s so simple and elegant.

Finally, it was time for dessert, strawberries, caramel cake, and my coconut cake.  I cut the first slice for Mr. Egerton and to my delight he loved it!  He said it was gorgeous and delicious, and that his cake wasn’t as good as mine.  Needless to say, I was pretty ecstatic.  My classmates also enjoyed it; one guy exclaimed, “HOW DO YOU DO THIS? IT’S SO GOOD,” and one girl joked that she wanted to marry me.   One of my professors took a slice home to her husband so he would experience what she’d been raving about since the first time I baked it.

Egerton had lots of interesting stories, and he was so kind.  He even gave me the contact info for his son since he lives in Dallas, where I’ll be moving to in the summer.  So now I sit in my room, with inflated stomach and inflated ego.   Can’t think of a better way to finish a class.

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Dulce de leche cortada

I’m a little stubborn in some ways.  If at first I don’t succeed, I’ll try and try again until it is physically and mentally impossible.  There are recipes I try over and over again because I just can’t get them right.   I’ve tried making dulce de leche cortada four times and each time, for unknown reasons, I failed.  Dulce de leche cortada is like regular dulce de leche caramel but its texture is chunky, kind of like cottage cheese.  It is a Cuban dish but other countries in the Caribbean eat it as well.  (Plus Venezuela, which is close enough.)  You “cut” the milk into curds by adding lemon juice or vinegar before caramelizing it.  I had half a liter of milk I needed to get rid of so I decided to give it another good ole try.

I used a recipe from Three Guys from Miami but I changed a couple things and I cut the portions down to roughly half a liter of milk, but I got lazy with the real math and I made it too sweet.  Other than that, it turned out right, finally.  At least I think so.  I may have caramelized it too much…I ate it after it cooled for about 20 minutes (do NOT by any means touch this when it’s hot) and it was soft and warm and easy to eat, but after refrigerating it, which is what most recipes called for, it became much more like caramel candy, which is not bad, but I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be this way.  When my great aunt Tia Edesa made it for our family reunion last summer, I could easily spoon it to my mouth, so I’m not sure I got it completely right.  She doesn’t use the eggs, she just uses milk, lemon or vinegar, and sugar.  Hers also had a much lighter color than mine and the pictures I found online, so she didn’t caramelize it as much.  Makes sense.

Nevertheless, it’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to getting it right.  Although this dessert is by no stretch of the imagination healthy, I did make it with local and/or organic ingredients.   It’s a long process, so I wouldn’t quite recommend it, but if you’re curious, go for it.  I think I would rather have regular dulce de leche.  (You can even make it from canned condensed milk.) You don’t really see this stuff very often; I had never heard of this or seen it in ANY cookbooks or anywhere until my mom and dad told me about it.  I’ll have to make it for them sometime to get their opinions on how I can make it right, if I’m missing the mark.  Knowing my stubbornness, I won’t rest until it’s right.  Which reminds me that I need to try making habichuelas con dulce again.

Here’s a series of pics showing the transformation:

After it's been simmering for a little while...
After I added the frothy eggs...getting really "curdley" now...
The liquid is evaporating and it's getting darker...should I perhaps have stopped here?
The finished dulce, garnished with a cinnamon stick

 

Spinach Tomato Egg Drop Soup

Most of what I cook comes from cravings.  I crave, then I cook.  A couple days ago I was craving egg drop soup but I didn’t have any stock.  I found this vegetarian egg drop soup recipe from Nina Simond’s A Spoonful of Ginger and adapted it to what I had in my pantry and fridge, i.e. organic spinach, onion, and tomato.   I also wanted to use an organic portabello mushroom I had sitting in my fridge so I decided to marinate it in balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, and olive oil, roast it for about 15 minutes at 400 degrees, and then stuffed it with cooked spinach, leftover barley, and local goat cheese.  Sometimes the most satisfying meals come from throwing together what you currently have in your pantry or fridge.  That egg drop soup (with some drops of sriracha sauce, which I put on almost everything) was liquid happiness.  I was also really hungry, so that might have something to do with it.

Spinach Tomato Egg Drop Soup

  • 1 ½ tsp vegetable oil
  • ½ cup chopped tomatoes
  • ¼ cup finely chopped onion
  • 3 tbsp soy sauce, or to taste
  • 3 cups water
  • 1 tsp salt, or to taste
  • ½ cup of frozen spinach
  • 1 1/2 tbsp corn starch mixed with 3 tbsp water
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • Sriracha sauce to taste
  • A dash of sesame oil to taste

Heat oil in a soup pot until hot. Add tomatoes and onions, and stir fry for about a minute. Add the soy sauce and continue to stir fry for another minute or so. Add the water and salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium. Add spinach and stir.  Add the corn starch mixed with water slowly and stir rapidly to prevent lumps.  Once it’s thick, slowly add the beaten eggs and stir gently.  The egg will cook and form streams.  Remove from heat.  Taste and adjust seasonings.  Eat!

Marché

Marché is a charming European-style café in east Nashville that serves breakfast, brunch, lunch, and dinner.  I met my lovely friend Julie there for brunch this past Sunday, thinking that I had never been there before, but when I walked into the large, open restaurant, I instantly remembered that I had, in fact, been there a couple of years ago.  (Look at that, at the ripe age of 21 I’m already losing my memory.)

Blood Orange Mimosa

“Walked into” is perhaps not accurate.  People waiting for their tables awkwardly crowded the entrance area since there’s no designated place to wait; instead, they have various goods on sale by the door, such as marmalades, honey, ham, and sausage.  They even had some “local” eggs and milk.  We got there around 10am so luckily we didn’t have to wait too long.

The restaurant has a fresh rustic style, and the dining area is surrounded by huge glass windows that let in lots of light.  We were seated right next to the window, so it almost felt like we were outside.  Julie and I both ordered the two eggs any style on a croissant with Boar’s Head ham and gruyere cheese, which came with a refreshing plain green salad.  Feeling gluttonous, we both ordered something sweet: Julie, the half order of croissant French toast, and me, the strawberry shortcake with a sweet cornmeal biscuit and whipped cream, in old Southern style.  The croissant French toast is a lighter, crispier, flakier version of traditional French toast that is just as amazing as it sounds.  If I ever go back, I’m definitely getting a full order of it.

Marché is a little pricy for a college student, but it was a nice treat on a sunny Sunday morning, the food was great, and it didn’t leave me comatose like brunch often does.

Walnut Hills Farm

Sometimes I don’t like people–when I’m driving, for example—but I have met some of the nicest people while working on my southern foodways class project.  Doug and Sue of Walnut Hills Farm are some of those people.  They raise natural grass-fed beef that has developed quite a following in Nashville.   The Nashville Scene’s Best of Nashville 2009 named it “Best Beef.”   Sean Maloney, who is a loyal patron and wrote the blurb, said, “Their ground beef on the grill, over hickory hardwood, will make you forget every other hamburger you’ve ever had—and their steaks eclipse anything you’ll ever find at the grocery store.”  I bought their ground beef patties last week, and I definitely have to agree.

I had the opportunity to talk to Doug and Sue at the Farmer’s Market and learn more about them and their business.  Doug and Sue started their own farm, Walnut Hills, about seven years ago. They had never intended to become farmers, but after their mission work in Africa, they discovered that they loved being outside.  They wanted to stay and work there, but their vocations weren’t in need.  Back in Nashville, their children had grown up and left home, and their neighbors were encroaching closer and closer, so they decided to look for a farm.  Three years later they found some acreage that seemed to have a lot of potential: great views and the land had not been chemically treated in years.

Although they had always been outdoorsy, they had to learn a lot of agriculture knowledge.  Doug knew a little bit more than Sue because he was very involved in 4-H as a child in Indiana and worked on farms throughout his teenage years.  The decision to raise grass-fed beef was not an intentional decision.  They had bought the most efficient breed of cattle, meaning that they put on muscle very easily and didn’t have a lot of fat.  Doug chose this breed because his family has a history of heart disease, and he wanted to eat and sell something healthier.  The feed for the cows was expensive, so one winter he decided that he was just going to feed the cows grass.  He stockpiled grass, not quite sure of what he was doing, and checked on the cattle periodically.  “They looked as good on that grass as they did with me putting them in a barn and throwing high dollar food to them,” Doug said.  There was a clear economic advantage to raising them, so he asked himself if there was a market for grass-fed beef.  He discovered that there was a demand so Walnut Hills Farm took off from there.

The cattle are treated with respect and live in happiness.  “We want to make sure they have a happy life when they’re on our farm.  We want them to have the least amount of trauma,” Sue said.  She described that many farms, for example, will castrate some bulls to create steers.  Castrating decreases testosterone, which helps them grow, so castrated bulls are often given hormones to make up for lost testosterone.  “It’s like cutting off the end of the blanket and sewing on the other end to make it longer…we just leave them intact and they get along just fine,” she said.

When I asked them where they get their groceries, I was happy to hear that they buy their vegetables and fruit at the farmer’s market and get some basic staples that aren’t easily available at Kroger or Publix, such as Doug’s “pop.”  Understandably, they hardly ever buy protein.  They’ve learned, Sue says, that the money used to purchase from local sources stays local and helps people stay employed, where only about 20% of purchases stay in the community.  “It’s better quality produce,” Sue says,  “And we want to support Tennessee.”

Doug and Sue are some of the nicest people I’ve met, and their products are of the highest quality.   Knowing where the beef came from, how it was raised, and who raised it was a truly satisfying experience that I’d love to have with most of my food.

I’ve struggled back and forth for a long time about whether or not to become a vegetarian, but if I am going to eat meat, I want it to be from an animal that had a happy, healthy life on a farm.