Good Eatin Y'All

This past weekend, we made a long-planned pilgrimage to North Carolina to visit our newlywed friends and take in a show at Cat's Cradle in Chapel Hill. The trip was a whirlwind 36 hours, filled with blue crabs, vinegar-tinged barbecue and heaping bowls of cheese grits.

There was a country song playing on the radio while we drove into town, something about 'honky-tonk badonkadonks' and I had to smile--- with food this good, I'd probably become a muse for some such lyrics if I stayed any longer. And I blame it all on the biscuits. Delicious, hot out of the oven, buttery biscuits.

My two favorite stops closed one day and opened another:
Late night, we followed the Chapel Hill college crowd and post-concert goers down the street to a hopping 24 hours diner of sorts known as Time Out.
Before diving headfirst into my late night meal, this is the last sight I can recall...a buffet of southern comfort, replete with barbecue, fried chicken, okra, mac 'n cheese and just about any other homestyle ingredient specially designed to soak up whatever moonshine you consumed earlier that evening.

For our group, it was various incarnations of the "four corner biscuit" that captured our favor. The biscuit, a huge square consisting of nothing but the fluffy, melt in your mouth insides of a biscuit could sandwich anything from fried chicken (sublime) to bacon, egg and oozing cheddar cheese (take that McDonalds!), to my choice- a simple drizzle of honey. The bite was perfectly soft, tinged with a sunny taste of orange and clover that took me back to my childhood days of a Golden Blossom-kissed biscuits at the breakfast table. A solid, decidedly Carolinian way to end the night.

The next day, after a slow start and a bit of laziness, the group gathered at an infamous Southern food spot at the end of the Chapel Hill drag, known for writer and cook Bill Smith's influence in shaping the national perception of 'shrimp and grits' in the 70's. What better way to celebrate our last few hours than a brunch at Crook's Corner, laden with grits, fried oysters and feathered eggs (lighter, creamier frittatas) ...and of course, plenty of biscuits on the side. The biscuits here were more of the traditional, round and thick variety, pre-sliced and ready to be slathered with the butter and strawberry preserves served alongside. The crunchy exterior provided a satisfying crumble while the fluffy inside was every bit the taste of buttery tradition.

Perhaps by no coincidence but the mere fact that I'm destined to bring a bit of the South home with me, my travel reading (Bon Appetit December issue) shared a treasured Baltimore family recipe for sweet potato biscuits from Molly Wizenberg. If there's anything we love in my kitchen more than buttery bread, it's buttery sweet potatoes. I can't wait to try this one out--- and maybe I'll blast a little of that honky-tonk song, just for good measure.

One 3/4 pound-red-skinned sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoon (packed) dark brown sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch of cayenne pepper
8 tablespoons (1 stick) chilled butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes, plus 2 tablespoons butter, melted
1/3 cup chilled buttermilk

Cook sweet potato in medium saucepan of boiling water until tender, 8-10 minutes.
Drain, cool and mash.
Position rack in lower third of oven, preheat to 425 F.
Butter bottom and sides of 9 inch cake pan (with 1 1/2 inch high sides)
Whisk flour and next five ingredients in large bowl. Add cubed butter to flour mixture; toss to coat and rub in with fingertips until mixture resembles coarse meal.
Whisk 3/4 cup mashed sweet potatoes and buttermilk in medium bowl. Add to flour mixture; toss with fork.
Gather mixture in bowl, kneading until dough comes together. Turn dough out onto floured work surface and pat into 1 inch think round. Cut using 1 1/2 inch think biscuit cutter, flouring after each cut.
Arrange biscuits side by side in prepared cake pan. Brush with melted butter.
Bake until puffed and golden on top and toothpick inserted into center biscuit comes out clean (about 22 minutes).
Cool for 10 minutes in pan, then turn biscuits out and gently pull them apart.

Cut crosswise and fill with whatever you wish. Wizenberg recommends salty cured ham and sweet-hot mustard. I recommend simply a dab of butter and a drizzle of honey, of course.


Take Five...

By now, if you've followed the apple pie saga, you might be wondering- where is she? Did she burn out, give up...face plant in her pie dish? Absolutely not! I wanted to take a bit of a break and share a delicious foodie discovery perfect for after a long day in the kitchen. And of course, it will make your mouth water just the same!

I decided to treat myself to a delicious indulgence, in the form of a bubble bath, for some calorie-free detox. The warm, spicy scent of butterscotch and nutmeg with a hit of spice make the pumpkin fragrance in this bath soap sing. Mmmm...and wouldn't you know it, there's a recipe on the bottle! Guess it will take more than a long soak to keep me out of the kitchen.


Pumpkin Spice Muffins, courtesy of Philosophy products.
2 c. flour
2/3 c. brown sugar
1/3 c. sugar, 1 tbsp. baking powder, 1 tsp. salt, 1/4 tsp. baking soda, 1 tsp. cinnamon, 1/4 tsp. nutmeg, 1/4 tsp. ground ginger, 1/2 c. melted butter, 1/2 c. cooked pumpkin, 1/3 c. buttermilk, 2 eggs- slightly beaten.

Heat oven to 400 degrees.
Stir together all ingredients except butter, pumpkin, buttermilk and eggs, in large bowl.
Stir together all remaining ingredients in medium bowl.
Stir into flour mixture just until moistened.
Spoon batter into greased muffin pan. bake for 15-20 min. or until toothpick comes out clean. Cool 5 minutes; remove from pan.


The Aftermath...

I wish I could return to you with news of blue-ribbon glory, but participating in the Bucktown Apple Pie Contest (not to mention my own challenge of taking on an unknown pastry in less than a month's time) did come up as a winning experience in my books.

After dropping off contestant pie #7 early Sunday morning, I was awed at just how big this 5-year-old event had gotten- 120 beautiful pies and a waiting list of bakers in the wings! I met contestants that quoted an heirloom depression-era recipe, some that shared a few secrets-apple butter and orange juice, and a few very strange renditions for show-hickory smoked apple pie is not on my list to reproduce any time soon!

I found myself wandering not one but two 'pie rooms', trying to guess which crusts were shortening and which were butter simply by appearance, finally comparing my pie to others gathered by my ticket holding friends. And naturally, that resident taste tester had nothing but superlative words for my 'rustic' little number. I call it rustic because at 1 a.m. in the morning, crimping pie crusts by hand is not high on the priority list.

And so I discovered I'm a flavor person, not a precision baker. I'm proud that I was able to produce edible pies that sold tickets, but like anyone that's worked as a busboy or waitress, sometimes it's just better to be on the receiving end of a good meal.

Perhaps by Thanksgiving I'll be able to present my family with an apple pie remember! Or I might just take this year off...



The Calm Before the Storm...

I've included the last of my 'practice pies' above, opting for a straightforward route- Granny Smith Apples, a few left over Empires (a tad mushy when baked but the potential for outrageous applesauce is great!) and my one-time nemesis, the butter crust.

I'm getting a little better with the timing but I venture to say, it's important to nail the crust execution before starting the apple filler. Even peeling the apples too soon and certainly mixing the filling too soon likely influences the texture of the filler. Also, it's important to toss the apples thoroughly so there aren't too many pockets of cinnamon and sugar.

I'm getting a tad better at crimping my crust, but I'm still trying to figure out the best technique for that...thoughts anyone? I did managed to have some leftover dough to experiment with a leaf or two...to add a little festive smile.

The competition at Holstein Park is this Sunday! I can't believe it...it's come way too soon. Wish me luck and perhaps I'll see some of you there for a taste. I'd love the support and can't wait to take part in this great tradition (5 years running!).