Friday, December 11, 2015

Slingshot Coffee offers a different sort of big-box relief for December

We all know that winter is coming, but gray skies and dropping temperatures have little impact on consumers who prefer a glassed of chilled coffee to a mug of hot java.

Jenny Bonchak of Slingshot Coffee Company is counting on those dedicated fans from Massachusetts to Florida to make the Raleigh's business' seemingly off-season debut—a new, 64-ounce container of cold-brewed coffee, with its own tap—a success. Packaged like boxed wine, Slingshot's new format holds four times as much coffee as their 16-ounce bottle. And at around $15 for the box and $4-5 per bottle, it's value packaging that will a stay fresh for up to six weeks. 

"Who wouldn't want their own personal Slingshot tap in their refrigerator?" says Bonchak, who launched the company in 2012 and is on track to produce as much as 10,000 gallons of cold-brewed coffee this year. "Bottles are great to grab on the go, but the box creates an option to enjoy at home."

Bonchak and her husband, Jonathan Bonchak (formerly of Durham-based Counter Culture, whose beans Slingshot uses exclusively), spent a lot of time this year considering options for selling a larger-capacity version of Slingshot. She believes they currently are the only producer of cold-brewed coffee in the U.S. packing their product this way for home use.

While boxed wines still carry a certain stigma of cheapness or low quality, Bonchak says they opted for the format for several reasons. Notably, it preserves the fresh taste of their high-quality brew for an extended period. With the exception of the hard plastic tap, the package is entirely recyclable, too.

This marks the second major product introduction this year for Slingshot, which collaborated with Durham Distillery to create Damn Fine Coffee Liqueur. It would seem that a boxed version of Slingshot's popular Cascara Tea—referenced this week by NPR's The Salt, which examined the growing popularity of the beverage—would be the obvious next step. But Bonchak says they are in no hurry.

"We're just focused on getting the Slingshot box into stores and filling holiday orders," she offers. "We're still a really small team. We'll take things on step at a time."

The boxed option, meanwhile, will be available starting today at local Whole Foods stores and many independent retailers, as well as online through the Slingshot website. Orders guaranteed for Christmas delivery will be taken through Dec. 11. 

This post first appeared in Indy Week.

Durham's Loaf helping to launch new Bien Cuit bread cookbook

Apricot Buckwheat Bread (photo courtesy Loaf)
Ron Graff was surprised when he received an email from Zachary Golper, owner of Brooklyn's renowned Bien Cuit bakery.

"We knew of them, but I don't think they knew ofus before reaching out to the Bread Bakers Guild of America," says Graff, owner of Durham's Loaf bakery. Golper was looking for top artisan bakeries nationwide to help promote the release of his new book, Bien Cuit: The Art of Bread, by baking and selling featured loaves well outside of Brooklyn.

Having just received a fresh supply of North-Carolina grown buckwheat from Carolina Ground—and with the blessing of his staff—Graff agreed to produce Golper's Apricot Buckwheat Bread recipe. 

"It was a fun convergence of things, and customers really like it," Graff says. The bread will be available only through Saturday. "It created a great opportunity for us to use buckwheat flour, which a lot of people are not familiar with."

Graff credits the long fermentation for the loaf's deep flavor. A tweak on the recipe to eliminate butter will likely put the bread into Loaf's long-term rotation. "Unless we label something as having cheese in it, all of our products are vegan," Graff says. "We'll be happy to offer a recipe inspired by Bien Cuit for our customers."

Graff is impressed with the book, too, a stunning production that would be at home on the coffee table of any cookbook lover. Appropriately, The Art of Bread has earned rave reviews from numerous critics for its clear, step-by-step instructions for baking fermented breads at home, even landing on best-of lists at Bon Appetit and Epicurious. Its innovative design allows the book to open flat, too.

Golper offered a recipe from the book for INDY readers as a taste of what to expect in the The Art of Bread. Its length may seem intimidating, but the process is broken down into clearly described steps. Additionally, techniques used in this one are cross-referenced with other recipes throughout the book.

Excerpted from Bien Cuit: The Art of Bread by Zachary Golper and Peter Kaminsky (© 2015, with permission of Regan Arts).

Makes 4 small loaves

Through much of Europe, especially in antiquity, chestnuts were an important source of  starch and protein before the introduction of wheat and, later, potatoes. This is not the  cheapest bread in the book, simply because a can or jar of peeled chestnuts costs more than typical baking ingredients. However, you might find it a bit of a pain to roast and peel chestnuts. (I definitely do.)

If you purchase peeled chestnuts, it becomes a simple dump and stir process. As in the Hazelnut Bread, for this recipe I use a nut puree with milk, which ferments, I incorporate chunks of the featured ingredient (in this case, chestnuts) into the dough to create islands of contrasting texture and flavor in the finished loaf. As for the currants, well, those seemed appropriate for a holiday-themed bread. Come to think of it, while I'm doing this mini inventory of the inspirations for this bread, they’re informed by an impulse similar to that behind my Raisin Walnut Bread, only sweeter and with a softer crumb. 

50 grams (1/4 c + 2 tbsp) white flour 
5 grams (11/4 tsp) granulated sugar 
1 gram (generous 1⁄8 tsp) fine sea salt 
0.2 gram (pinch) instant yeast 
44 grams (2 tbsp + 2 1/4 tsp) cold whole milk 


150 grams (1/2 c + 2 tbsp) chestnut puree 
350 grams (11/4 c + 21/2 tbsp) cold whole milk 
0.2 gram (pinch) fine sea salt 

grams (31/2 c + 1 tbsp) white flour, plus additional as needed for working with the dough, 
and for the linen liner and shaped loaves 
40 grams (31/2 tbsp) granulated sugar 
15 grams (21/2 tsp) fine sea salt 
5 grams (11/2 tsp) instant yeast 
60 grams (31/2 tbsp) cold whole milk 
45 grams (2 tbsp) Grade A maple syrup 
150 grams (1 c) coarsely chopped roasted chestnuts 
75 grams (1/4 c + 31/2 tbsp) dried currants 

Stir together the flour, sugar, salt, and yeast in a medium storage container. Pour in the 
milk. Mix with your fingers, pressing the mixture into the sides, bottom, and corners until all 
of the flour is wet and fully incorporated. This starter is best if covered and left at room 
temperature for 6 hours, then chilled in the refrigerator for 6 hours.But if the timing is better, you can also leave it at room temperature for 2 to 3 hours and then move it to the refrigerator to chill for 9 to 12. 

Whisk the chestnut puree, milk, and salt together in a medium saucepan and heat, stirring 
often, until steaming but not simmering, about 164°F (73°C). 
Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature. Whisk again and refrigerate until ready to use.

Stir together the flour, sugar, salt, and yeast in a medium bowl. 

Whisk the chestnut milk, then pour about one-third of it around the edges of the starter to release it from the sides of the container. Transfer the starter and chestnut milk to an extra-large bowl along with the remaining chestnut milk, the milk, and the maple syrup. Using a wooden spoon, break the starter up to distribute it in the liquid.

Add the flour mixture, reserving about one-sixth of it along the edge of the bowl. Continue to mix with the spoon until most of the dry ingredients have been combined with the starter mixture. Switch to a plastic bowl scraper and continue to mix until incorporated. At this point the dough will be very sticky to the touch and have an almost gluey texture. 

Push the dough to one side of the bowl. Roll and tuck the dough, adding the reserved flour mixture and a small amount of additional flour to the bowl and your hands as needed, until the dough feels stronger and begins to resist any further rolling, about 16 times. Then, with cupped hands, tuck the sides under toward the center. Place the dough, seam-side down, in a clean bowl, cover the top of the bowl with a 
clean kitchen towel, and let rest at room temperature for 45 minutes. 

For the first stretch and fold, lightly dust the work surface and your hands with flour. Using the plastic bowl scraper, release the dough from the bowl and set it, seam-side down, on the work surface. Gently stretch it into a roughly rectangular shape. Fold the dough in thirds from top to bottom and then from left to right. With cupped hands, tuck the sides under toward the center. Place the dough in the bowl, 
seam-side down, cover the bowl with the towel, and let rest for 45 minutes. 

For the second stretch and fold, gently stretch the dough into a rectangle, scatter the chopped chestnuts and the currants evenly over the top, and press them gently into the dough. Roll up the dough tightly from the end closest to you; at the end of the roll the dough will be seam-side down. Turn it over, seam-side up, and gently press on the seam to flatten the dough slightly. Fold in thirds from left to right and then do 1 roll and tuck sequence to incorporate the chestnuts and currants. Turn the dough seam-side down and tuck the sides under toward the center. Return the dough to the bowl, cover with the towel, and let rest for 45 minutes. 

For the third and final stretch and fold, repeat the steps for the first stretch and fold, then 
return the dough to the bowl, cover with the towel, and let rest for 30 minutes. 

Line a half sheet pan with a linen liner and dust fairly generously with white flour. 

Lightly dust the work surface and your hands with flour. Using a bench scraper, divide the 
dough into 4 equal pieces. Press each piece into a 5-inch (13 cm) square, then roll into a loose tube about 5 inches (13 cm) long. Let rest for 5 minutes. Press each piece out again and then shape into a very tight tube about 8 inches (20 cm) long. Transfer to the lined pan, seam-side up, positioning the loaves across the width of the pan, rather than lengthwise. Dust the top and sides of the loaves with flour. Fold the linen to create support walls on both sides of each loaf, then fold any extra length of 
the linen liner over the top or cover with a kitchen towel. Transfer the pan to the refrigerator and chill for 14 to 20 hours. 

Set up the oven with a baking stone and a cast-iron skillet for steam, then preheat the oven to 480°F (250°C). 

Using the linen liner, lift and gently flip the loaves off the pan and onto a transfer peel, seam-side down. Slide the loaves, still seam-side down, onto a dusted baking peel (see Using a Transfer Peel and Baking Peel, page 311). Score the top of each. Working quickly but carefully, transfer the loaves to the stone using heavy-duty oven mitts or potholders. Pull out the hot skillet, add about 3 cups of ice cubes, then slide it back in and close the oven door. Immediately lower the oven temperature to 410°F (210°C). Bake, switching the positions of the loaves about two-thirds of the way through baking, until the crust is a rich golden brown, about 40 minutes. 

Using the baking peel, transfer the loaves to a cooling rack. When the bottoms of the loaves are tapped, they should sound hollow. If not, return to the stone and bake for 5 minutes longer. 

Let the bread cool completely before slicing and eating, at least 4 hours but preferably 8 to 24 hours. 

This post first appeared in Indy Week.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Parlour continues its dessert flights series next week with East Durham Pie

There are few certainties in life, but this is sure: A really great slice of pie can improve almost any situation. Combined with an amazing scoop of ice cream? Now that's real power. 

The Parlour, Durham's ice cream mecca, will celebrate such a marvel at 6 p.m. Monday in a collaboration with East Durham Pie CompanyTickets for timed seatings are required for the event, which includes a four-part flight of desserts for $12. 

Ali Rudel launched East Durham Pie Company only in October. She learned her craft a decade ago while working at Four & Twenty Blackbirds, whose owners, Emily and Melissa Elsen, included her recipe for Salt Pork Apple Pie in their The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book: Uncommon Recipes from the Celebrated Brooklyn Pie Shop.

That recipe is a nod to Rudel's New England childhood. One of the pies she's making for The Parlour event, Maple Sweet Potato, also blends that experience with her current life as  Southerner.

"I sometimes feel like no one will ever see me as Southern. I moved to Virginia when I was 10, but it doesn't seem to count," she says. "I feel like this pie in a combination of north and south."

She'll also be making Ginger Apple Pie (which uses North Carolina-grown Stayman apples and local ginger) Malted Pumpkin Pie and Honey Bourbon Pecan Pie. Parlour will incorporate these into standalone ice creams and milkshakes. 

While a storefront shop is part of East Durham Pie Company's long term plan, Rudel currently bakes in her certified home kitchen. If you miss Monday's event, you can buy her mini pies at Respite CafĂ© and Cocoa Cinnamon, too.

This post first appeared in Indy Week.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The making of a documentary about legendary Southern chef Bill Neal teaches his son, Matt, new things about his late father

Matt and Sheila Neal moved into the Carrboro home where Matt's father,
Bill Neal, lived. In the attic they discovered boxes filled with items from
Bill's life, some of which was used to create footage for the film
"They Came for Shrimp & Grits: The Life and Work of Bill Neal."
Indy Week photos by Alex Boerner.
Matt Neal has been interviewed many times about his famous father, the chef Bill Neal.
He has answers about how Neal, a small-town North Carolina boy who taught himself to cook by working his way through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, achieved so much in so little time. By his mid 30s, the elder Neal had helmed two essential Triangle restaurants and written a book, Bill Neal's Southern Cooking, that became a landmark of the region's cuisine. He was arguably the cook who made shrimp and grits a staple of contemporary Southern cuisine.
The gracious co-owner of Neals' Deli in Carrboro has even decided there's no point in getting offended when asked about the end of his parents' decade-long marriage or his father's romance with Gene Hamer, a colleague at La Residence and partner at Crook's Corner. He's even accustomed to being asked how it felt when, in 1991, his charismatic father died from AIDS at the age of 41.
click to enlargeKate Medley and her fellow filmmaker, Jesse Paddock, left, recently completed the film "The Came for Shrimp & Grits: The Life and Work of Bill Neal" about Matt's father, chef Bill Neal. - PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Kate Medley and her fellow filmmaker, Jesse Paddock, left, recently completed the film "The Came for Shrimp & Grits: The Life and Work of Bill Neal." 
So when Matt agreed to be interviewed yet again last spring for a documentary about his father commissioned by the Southern Foodways Alliance, he expected not to be surprised by revisiting the familiar turf. What caught him off guard, however, was the filmmakers' interest in a casual reference to his father's writings, stashed away in a box in the attic.
Durham filmmakers Kate Medley and Jesse Paddock were surprised, too, that this wealth of materials had been sitting, almost forgotten and entirely unexplored, in Bill Neal's post-divorce home so long. Matt, who lives their now with his wife, Sheila, and two children, escorted Medley upstairs. What they found became the key of They Came for Shrimp and Grits: The Life and Work of Bill Neal, a short but dense and powerful documentary that explores and expands the scope of Neal's accomplishments.
"The family was very generous. They gave us full access," recalls Medley, who works as a photographer and filmmaker for Whole Foods Market. "Matt had boxes of things in his attic that he'd never looked at. It was a treasure trove of handwritten recipes, writing and correspondence and sketchbooks. There also were medical bills and records."
The scope of unpublished documents in the boxes dumbfounded Matt, offering new insight into the father he'd lost nearly a quarter-century earlier. They covered not only his food writing but also drafts of pieces about other interests—gardening, travel, his declining health. While Matt lived and worked elsewhere before returning to live at his dad's old house, renters had miraculously left the boxes intact.
"Most of it is cookbook notes, menus, journals, sketches. In some cases, I really remember what he was writing about, or when it was," says Matt, now 44. "I thought I had about a third of what I actually had."
Medley and Paddock finished the 13-minute documentary just minutes before the film premiered last month at the annual SFA symposium in Oxford, Mississippi. (A local screening is in the works for January in Chapel Hill.) Neal is open to working with them on an extended version of the documentary. After all, they helped him learn about his own late father.
How the sausage was made: Filmmaker Jesse Paddock holds the rescued sausage recipe of Bill Neal. - PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER

How the sausage was made: Filmmaker Jesse Paddock holds the rescued sausage recipe of Bill Neal.
"They were sensitive and smart to the story," he says. "I found it very moving and engaging, though I'm a bit biased."
John T. Edge, the executive director of SFA, agrees that the film represents a balanced look at Neal's brief, brilliant life and a significant achievement for Medley. She previously produced a series of SFA shorts called Counter Histories, regarding the role of food in the civil rights movement.
"Last year, we asked her to explore the burdens of racism and the heroic stories of Southerners who fought that bastard Jim Crow," Edge explains. "This year, our assignment required more subtlety. She juggled narratives of fame, creativity, sexuality, family and mythology. She accomplished all with aplomb and sensitivity."
Medley and Paddock interviewed many people who were part of Neal's culinary circle, some of whom are still active in the area's food scene. There's Moreton Neal, his former wife and the author ofRemembering Bill Neal: Favorite Recipes From a Life in Cooking, and Crook's Corner chef Bill Smith, who succeeded Neal in that role just as he'd done previously at La Residence.
Last May, Gene Hamer, Crook's owner and Neal's former partner, was inexplicably omitted from a panel discussion on the 30th anniversary and enduring impact of Bill Neal's Southern Cooking at a UNC conference. They Came for Shrimp and Grits corrects that, allowing Hamer to offer red-eyed recollections of his last conversation with Neal and his sense of his friend's lingering presence at Crook's.

New York Times food writer Kim Severson presents a thoughtful assessment of Neal's role as a magnet for exceptional talent, even if he famously declined to give a break to Magnolia Grill's Ben and Karen Barker. (Still, the couple later required all Magnolia cooks to study Bill Neal's Southern Kitchen.)
And those who did put in time with Neal at Crook's before achieving renown elsewhere share insights about Neal's passion for promoting regional foodways and his seemingly manic temperament in the kitchen. John Currence of City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi, for instance, speaks with palpable regret about never mending fences after an argument with Neal that ended with the younger chef flinging a cup of hot coffee at his boss. But there are many references to Neal's influence in Currence's cookbook, Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey.
"You can still see that it really hurts him," notes Matt. "But John has paid his own dues in the meantime. He's really pushed and promoted my dad's legacy."
Neal's importance extends far beyond his recipes, though. He believed food could say a lot about who someone was and where that person was from. He made the claim in 1986 to Bill Friday during an episode of North Carolina People in a rare video appearance that opens They Came for Shrimp & Grits. Young and confident, Neal contends that, whether a conscious decision or reflexive habit, the food we choose to consume connects each of us with a time and place. Now a tenet of foodways studies, that notion was still novel at the time. In only 13 minutes, They Came for Shrimp & Grits gets to the core of Neal's decades of impact.
"It's really touching for me and my family," Matt says. "It's like when Dean Smith's players started missing him again; they, like others, talk with praise. They don't have to do that, but they've all gone out of their way to do so."
This article appeared in Indy Week with the headline "A simmering history."

Daniel Whittaker's big plans for Person Street Pharmacy's cafe

If it wasn't already clear from chef Scott Crawford's opening of the long-awaited Standard Food, the success of Oak City Cycling Project or the existence of So & So Books, last week's announcement by New Raleigh of new ownership of the cafe at Person Street Pharmacy makes it clear: The North Person sector near downtown Raleigh is suddenly one of the city's busiest zones.

Daniel Whittaker of Green Planet Catering has taken the reins of the cafe, which was renovated and reopened just a few months ago by Chad McIntrye and Craig Rudewicz. If you don't have your notes handy, Rudewicz is best known as the owner and creative force behind Raleigh-made Crude Bitters. McIntrye was the chef at The Market restaurant, which was located next-door to Escazu in their Blount Street strip. (It's occupied by Stanbury these days.)

Before that transition, McIntyre—now owner of Eco-Tech Draft Systems, which delivers environmentally friendly means of tapping kegs—was in discussion to open a restaurant-grocery concept at the address that is now the innovative Standard. His one-time partner in the plan was, indeed, Whittaker. 

click to enlargePHOTO BY JOLEE TODD
  • Photo by Jolee Todd

"It's funny the way things work out sometimes," says Whittaker. "I look across the street at Standard and wonder what might have been. But when [pharmacy owner Trey Waters] approached me about the cafe, I felt it was the perfect opportunity to grow Green Planet Catering. We're thrilled to be part of the neighborhood."

He's also glad to maintain relationships with McIntyre, who services the Eco-Draft system he designed for the cafe's vintage soda fountain, and Rudewicz, whose bitters and syrups are essential to creating their soft drinks, shrubs and cocktails. 

Whittaker says the deal took shape in the past two months, around the same time he hired Patrick Cowden as Green Planet's executive chef. Cowden has cooked in Chapel Hill at Southern Season's Weathervane restaurant, Michael Jordan's 23 Sport Cafe (where he and Whitaker first met) and kitchens in both Durham and Raleigh. He's currently completing his obligations as executive chef for Tobacco Road Sports Cafe, which has three Triangle sites.

There will be considerable overlap between operations at Green Planet and the Pharmacy Cafe. Cowden will helm both, training staff and developing menus. Currently open 8 a.m.–4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, the cafe menu will continue to focus on breakfast and lunch offerings, though Whittaker wants to add dinner service during the next few months. 

"I see it being something like Hayes Barton Cafe, which serves dinner just a few nights a week," says Whittaker. "My first goal is to become the go-to place for great sandwiches in the neighborhood. I live there myself, and I know it's something that's been missing. I want to see lines out the door at lunch time."

Whittaker will provide plenty of seating for those lines; he'll soon add an 18-foot community dining table, with some seating outdoors for al fresco service. They'll also emphasize to-go service. Whittaker is planning other neighborhood-friendly features, too, like taco nights and expanded barista service. 

But he's confident that deli-style sandwiches (with cured meats imported from Brooklyn), soups and salads will serve as the primary draws for those craving well made comfort food. 

This post first appeared in Indy Week

Heritage turkeys aren’t your usual holiday birds of a feather

Turkeys wander around at one of Coon Rock Farm's free range areas.
The local sustainable family farm raises lean heritage turkeys for sale
each Thanksgiving. (Photos by Chuck Liddy/The News & Observer)

HILLSBOROUGH-- With their scaly legs and fierce temperaments, lean heritage turkeys appear to have more in common with dinosaurs than their rotund grocery store cousins. And without farmers committed to making these specialty breeds available for holiday tables, they’d just as likely be extinct.
“It’s an interesting concept that we raise these breeds, and kill them, to keep them viable,” says Jamie DeMent of Coon Rock Farm. “Without customers who want to serve them at Thanksgiving, they’d all be gone.”
Before last week, a raucous mix of about 300 specialty birds roamed the sustainable, 55-acre farm, which is tucked into a bend of the Eno River. Their lives were very different from turkeys raised at so-called factory farms, which are kept in tight quarters and fattened up at a rate two to three times faster than those raised outdoors on pasture.
“Most commercial turkeys have gigantic breasts that throw off their balance and make it difficult to get around. It actually prevents Tom and Tina Turkey from natural procreation,” DeMent says, noting that spirited heritage birds enjoy considerable freedom and protein-rich foraging on land shared with cows and pigs. “Our customers want to know that their bird had a happy life. I can’t promise it was happy, but I can guarantee that it was natural and healthy, and its end was humane.”
DeMent and Richard Holcomb, who bought Coon Rock Farm 12 years ago this month, have been raising heritage turkeys for seven years. They started with a few pairs of registered breeds but now save the best from each year’s flock to repopulate the following season’s stock. They grow several types not only to ward against issues that might affect one breed and not others, but also to ensure that they have a range of sizes to meet consumer needs.
“Sometimes there’s just two people at the holiday table but they still want a turkey,” says DeMent, noting that a petite Beltsville White, which resembles a very large chicken, might be ideal. “For those who want a big, meaty bird to feed a crowd, we’ve got them.”
Through a snug plastic bag, DeMent lightly pokes the muscular thigh of a bird that was just processed in the spacious abbatoir located directly across from the front door of her 1870s farm house. “You can tell that bird spent a lot of time walking around here,” she says of the outstretched limb, which might surprise those accustomed to buying a turkey shaped more like a bowling ball. “That’s a lot of meat.”
And it doesn’t come cheap. Like many other small-scale growers, Coon Rock Farm requires a $50 down payment to reserve a bird. Early orders are billed at $9 per pound, with later ones at $10 per pound.
This means that many folks gladly fork over upward of $200 to feed their family and friends – not counting sides. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average price for whole, frozen turkey in the South is $1.60 per pound, though many grocery stores slash prices as loss leaders.
DeMent and Holcomb strive to educate and advise their customers about the benefits of consuming heritage poultry.
Jamie DeMent of Coon Rock Farm
“There’s a bigger difference between commercial and heritage birds than other commercial and heritage meats,” Holcolmb says. “With turkeys, 10 percent of a commercial bird’s weight is (saline) flavor enhancer. Without that, it would taste like nothing. And since those birds never move, the texture of the meat is like mush.”
A more muscled bird requires a different approach to cooking, a fact they say many customers forget despite numerous email reminders.
“One year, someone called and said they had cooked their bird for eight hours and the pop-up thermometer still was not working,” DeMent recalls with a laugh. “I had to explain that our birds don’t have pop-up thermometers. If it’s not on them in the pasture, it’s not in the bag.”
Coon Rock Farm recommends having a proper thermometer on hand and generally following the heritage turkey technique prescribed by Food Network host Alton Brown, which is available online. Brown begins with a wet brine to keep the bird moist and flavorful. Cooking starts in a hot oven to turn the fatty skin into a crisp, moisture-retaining shell, then he dials the temperature down to ensure even roasting. The method can yield improved results with commercial turkeys, too.
To keep customers engaged in the months that often pass between order and delivery, Holcomb indulges them with emailed photos and videos of the maturing flock outside doing their thing. It’s kind of like getting pictures of your kids at summer camp, except the kids get to come home and eat the bird with you.
In the days leading to Thanksgiving, Holcomb says they receive constant emails and phone calls, especially from anxious first timers.
“He always hands off the nervous and crying ones to me,” DeMent says. “Sometimes it’s really sad, like their mama died and they have no idea how she did things. One year, I met a lady at a farmers market and she had a complete meltdown as soon as she picked up the bird to take it home. Taking on that responsibility can be a very emotional experience for people.”
DeMent, however, is matter of fact about their family celebration. “We’ll cook one of the turkeys, probably one that got a clipped wing and isn’t pretty enough to sell,” she says as Holcomb shrugs in bemused acknowledgement. “But by the time we sit down to eat, we’re all pretty much over it. We’ll be having ham and enjoying some bourbon.”
This post first appeared in The News & Observer on Thanksgiving, Nov. 25.

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Sunday, November 15, 2015

Raleigh woman’s pie business inspired by son’s military service

Pam Runyans prepping pie crusts in her Oakwood kitchen.
Photo by Robert Willett of The News & Observer 
When her son received an appointment to West Point in 2000, Pam Runyans thought it was not possible for her heart to be more full of love and pride.
Four years later, when Bob was sent on his first conflict deployment to Iraq, the Raleigh mother of three found that fullness turned to sleep-starving fear. She’d rise from her bed in the middle of the night, wide awake, calculating the time zones and wondering what he might be doing.
“He was in an armored Humvee,” she says. “Those were the days before instant messaging. We lived for phone calls.”
Bob Runyans at Ur in Iraq.
Photo courtesy Pam Runyans.
Alarmed by vivid news coverage, the only way Runyans could keep her thoughts from wandering toward danger was to focus squarely and positively on something she enjoyed doing for him. So, night after night, Runyans rolled pastry and baked pies. She baked a lot of pecan pies, Bob’s favorite, and apple, her favorite because they were distractingly time consuming. She baked recipes she learned from her grandmother (lemon with billowy meringue) and mother (peach) and experimented with dozens more torn from magazines.
In the beginning, neighbors and friends were surprised when she’d knock on their doors and hand off pies. “I couldn’t possibly keep them all. I’d be big as a house,” says Runyans. She relied on husband Robert, a Raleigh architect, to serve as her taste tester.
Pam Runyans, about what she did while her son was serving in Iraq
Runyans, whose father tinkered with his birth certificate to join the Navy at age 15 during World War II, kept baking throughout Bob’s service. Her technique developed from tentative to masterly. At her son’s urging, she launched ABC Pie Company in 2010.
“Just before his second deployment, he told me I needed something to do that made me happy, and baking pies makes me happy,” she recalls from the pristine kitchen of her home in the historic Oakwood neighborhood, where two commercial convection ovens are preheating. “I’d make pies and think about him and pray. I’d watch the news and worry and make more pies. I had to keep myself occupied so I’d be sane.”

Military family

The business draws its name from children Abigail, Bob and Camille, each of whom has pursued a military career. Abigail is a physician assistant who serves in the U.S. Army Reserve in Colorado Springs. Camille, who graduated from West Point last year, will report to Fort Bragg in February to fly Blackhawk helicopters.
“She graduates from flight school the day before Thanksgiving. Does the Army have a sense of humor or what?” quips her proud mother. “It’s not like this is my busiest time of year or anything.”
Camille is engaged to an Army Ranger also stationed at Fort Bragg. Bob, who now serves in the Army’s Judge Advocate General division in the Netherlands, met his wife when they were both in service at Fort Campbell, Ky.
While Runyans developed her skills making full-size pies, her ABC pies usually are produced in endearing 5-inch rounds. She got the idea from Arnold Wilkerson of Little Pie Company of the Big Apple, a renowned baker she befriended while traveling to New York to visit Camille at West Point.
Arnold Wilkerson of Little Pie Company of the Big Apple, about Pam Runyans
Wilkerson recalls they had a lot in common because he started his business in his apartment. “I didn’t know her family story then, that she would bake because of her son’s service,” he says. “She understood pie baking, but being a successful entrepreneur takes a kind of love that you just can’t describe. Clearly, she’s got it.”
Photo by Robert Willett, The News & Observer
Runyans continues to infuse her pies with genuine affection. They look so perfect, and they have such appealing texture and flavor, that some people doubt she makes each by hand.
“Take a look,” she says, opening one of three freezers in a former breakfast room repurposed several years ago for her one-woman, home-based business. It is stacked high with nearly 200 frozen pastry shells, each with elegantly fluted edges. “Oh, that’s nothing. You should see what it looks like around here just before Thanksgiving.”

Busy month

November is her busiest month as customers seek her pies for family gatherings and hostess gifts. Among her most popular fall flavors are apple caramel crumble, pumpkin with pecan streusel, maple walnut, Mayan chocolate pecan, pear cranberry custard and red velvet custard.
Most will be sold through Southern Season, the Chapel Hill-based gourmet market and home store. Runyans credits the business for giving her opportunity and exposure.
“I was so nervous. I brought all these different pies for them to try, but they didn’t take a single bite,” Runyans recalls. “She just looked at them and said she’d take two dozen. You could have knocked me over with a feather.”
With help from her husband, Runyans continues to sell pies there as well as NoFo@The Pig in Raleigh’s Five Points area. Neomonde recently started carrying her smaller, cupcake-sized pies in Raleigh and Morrisville. ABC Pies also are sold at the Washington, D.C., outpost of Dean & DeLuca, the prestigious New York-based market.
Runyans’ normally busy baking schedule slowed this fall as she sorted through the estate of her beloved father, Gene L. Watterson, who was pastor of First Baptist Church in Shelby for 26 years. She and her husband spent weekends clearing his home, where they rediscovered ample evidence of his impact on his community. “It was hard work, but we found so many lovely things, personalized books and things he and Mama collected when they traveled,” she says. “Now, I’m back to making pies around the clock.”
This time, however, she’s driven not by worry but to please loyal customers, for whom Thanksgiving would be incomplete without her pies.

This post first appeared in The News & Observer on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2015.

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