Sunday, December 14, 2014

Debbie Moose celebrates tasty traditions in ‘Southern Holidays’

Debbie Moose, author of 'Southern Holidays,' a new volume in the Savor the South series from the University of North Carolina Press, will be the guest speaker at the 7pm Wednesday meeting of Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina (CHOPNC) at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. The gathering also will be a holiday potluck, so feel free to bring your favorite seasonal snack.

Debbie Moose remembers leaving a plate of cookies for Santa at her childhood home in Winston-Salem. Since her mother wasn’t much of a cook, they were usually store bought and set out with a tall glass of milk.

“My dad would hover around the corner say, ‘I’d rather have bourbon,’” quips Moose, author of the new Southern Holidays cookbook from UNC Press.  

One year, her mother surprised them both by announcing she would bake wafer-thin Moravian cookies from a recipe she’d seen in the newspaper.

“My mother dragged a rolling pin out of the back of a cabinet somewhere. I didn’t know she had one,” Moose says dryly. “Those are not easy cookies. The more you work with the dough, the worse it gets. My mother said things. It’s the one and only time I saw her make cookies.”

Moose does not include a recipe for Moravian cookies in Southern Holidays, but she does acknowledge her Triad community’s impact on her holiday thinking with a classic Moravian sugar cake. As challenging as the cookies are for a novice baker, the cakes are a breeze; plus one batch yields three cakes.

“Mine is a little different. I wanted it to be thicker and more cakelike, and I use a ton more cinnamon,” says Moose, who has several tucked in her freezer to share with neighbors and take to parties. “It’s great for if you get invited somewhere at the last minute.”

Moose covers a full-year range of traditional religious observances and all-American July 4th, as well as such distinctly Southern occasions as Mardi Gras (brandy milk punch and coconut king cake), the Texas emancipation celebration of Juneteenth (smoky red rice) and – perhaps her favorite – March Madness.

Debbie Moose
“Elaine Maisner, my editor, agreed with me. We were of sisterly mind on that,” says Moose, who welcomes likeminded friends with Smokin’ Mary cocktails for round-ball parties at the Raleigh home she shares with her husband, whose own childhood inspired some of the Jewish recipes in the book. Moose’s Chipotle Brisket is standard Hanukkah fare; her kicked-up Cajun matzo balls will make their annual appearance during Passover.

“It’s a small book, so really it’s just a snapshot of how we celebrate in the South,” explains Moose, who also wrote Buttermilk. “There are so many food festivals, and a lot of them are in the summer. I tried to pick ones that reflect cultural and historical things, like the Blessing of the Fleet. Any coastal community has a blessing of the fleet celebration when the fishing season starts. I chose to focus on the Gulf Coast because so many of the fishermen are Vietnamese.”

Tucked into the spring chapter, the section includes Vietnamese spring rolls and a seafood gumbo with oysters, crabmeat and shrimp. Other featured festivals leave a reader pining for peaches, Greek chicken from Raleigh’s Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church and creamy cheese blintzes from Savannah’s Shalom Y’All food fest.

This week, Moose will be turning her attention to Hanukkah, which begins at sunset on Tuesday. In part, the holiday commemorates the occasion where a single day’s supply of oil miraculously burned for eight nights.

“It’s a lot of fried stuff. Who doesn’t like that?” Moose says. “I have a recipe for sweet potato latkes, which I really love. I kept trying to make them grease-free until my husband point out that the oil is what it’s all about.”

Moravian Sugar Cake
Reprinted with permission of UNC Press from 'Southern Holidays,' a Savor the South Cookbook by Debbie Moose.

Winston-Salem, North Carolina, has a Moravian community that goes back to the 1700s, when members of the church founded Old Salem. Moravian breads, which come from the German baking tradition, are wonderful, and this sweet yeasted coffee cake was a holiday favorite of mine growing up.  Today, I follow the lead of my neighbor, Cathy Hedburg, who bakes and freezes sugar cakes in disposable foil pans for Christmas gifts. They’re great for breakfast on Christmas Day.

Makes 3 sugar cakes

For the cake
2 (¼-ounce) packages active dry yeast
2/3 cup plain, unseasoned mashed potatoes (see NOTE below)
1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
¼ cup vegetable shortening
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons salt
2 large eggs, slightly beaten
3½ to 4 cups flour

For the topping
¾ cup brown sugar
3 teaspoons cinnamon
1 stick unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter three 9-inch cake pans.

In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast in ½ cup warm water. Set aside until it foams, about 10 minutes.

In the bowl of the stand mixer, combine the mashed potatoes, 1 cup hot tap water, and the butter, shortening, sugar and salt. Mix on low until the ingredients look like watery scrambled eggs. Stir in the eggs and dissolved yeast. Gradually stir in the flour until the dough resembles heavy but not too dry muffin batter. Cover bowl with a lint-free tea towel and let the dough rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1½ hours.

Punch down the dough, then divide it evenly among the three prepared pans. Cover the pans with your trusty tea towel and let the dough in each pan rise in a warm place until it reaches the top of the pan, about 30 minutes.

Prepare the topping by stirring the brown sugar, cinnamon and melted butter until combined.

Use your thumb to make indentations all over the top of the dough in each pan, about 1 inch apart. Push all the way down to the bottom of the pan. Drizzle the topping evenly over the three cakes.

Bake for 15-20 minutes or longer until light brown. Serve warm or cool completely, place in airtight plastic freezer bags, and freeze.

NOTE: If using leftover mashed potatoes, be sure they contain no butter, milk or salt. You can use instant mashed potatoes, but be sure to buy the unseasoned variety.  

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