“Shugah,” as we say in the South, helped build southern Louisiana into what it is today. In the mid-19th century, more than 1,200 plantations produced the state’s sugar crop, which plummeted during the Civil War but continues today as a thriving industry.
Drive along River Road and, for miles on either side, the fields of sugar cane contrast ever so slightly with surrounding swamps to give the terrain that distinct look of Louisiana, as unique as its alligators and cooking style.
About 60 of the nation’s food writers took the drive recently to view the heart of the sugar industry, from fields to refineries, LSU research stations to the Pennington Biomedical Research Center. Some news was bad – we should drink only one soft drink per week – but inspiration for the holidays stole the show with sparkling ideas for using the shiny white crystals and their darkened-by-molasses counterparts.
Our sweets differ from the American norm, mainly because we love tradition and haven’t departed from the ways of our ancestors. They browned sugar into pralines and sweetened stale bread into delicious puddings. We still sugar our pecans and savor our molasses. And the deep-fried rice balls known as calas are making a comeback on menus everywhere.
Busing around sugar cane country, members of the Association of Food Journalists visited the Rural Life Museum in Baton Rouge, where chef John Folse created a field worker’s lunch of sweet potatoes, greens, smoked pork poor boys and pecan-rum cake. The grand finale was a sugar baron’s dinner at the sprawling Houmas House Plantation and Gardens, where a menu of pumpkin and crawfish bisque, crab salad, lacquered duck breast and chocolate mousse-filled crêpes were served. The lifestyle of the Old South may be bittersweet, but the cooking from all fronts provides the legacy of Creole and Cajun cuisine.
Folse, author of The Encyclopedia of Cajun & Creole Cuisine, created this stick-to-your-ribs old-fashioned spice cake, redolent of local pecans and rum, a spirit made from sugar cane.
RUM AND PECAN SPICE CAKE
2 1/2 cups cake flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup white sugar
4 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 cup whole milk, divided
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/2 cups chopped pecans
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup rum
Roasted pecan halves, optional
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter 2 9-inch cake pans with 2-inch sides. Line bottom of pan with buttered parchment paper or spray well with vegetable spray.
In a large mixing bowl, sift flour, baking powder and salt, and set aside.
In a separate mixing bowl, using an electric mixer, beat butter, brown sugar and 1 cup white sugar until fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating until light yellow and ribbony. Continue until all eggs are added. Stir in vanilla. Slowly blend in dry ingredients in three equal additions alternately with milk, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Blend in cinnamon, clove and chopped pecans. Divide batter equally between 2 pans. Place cakes in center of oven and bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until toothpick inserted into center of cakes comes out clean. Cool cakes in pans for 10 minutes. Turn cakes out onto racks and peel off parchment paper. Cool completely.
To make rum syrup, combine water, 1/4 cup sugar and rum. Bring to a rolling boil, reduce to simmer and cook until sugar is dissolved completely and syrup coats the back of the spoon. Syrup should be reduced by 25 per cent. Cool slightly. Using a toothpick or skewer, punch 10 to 12 holes in each cake and brush with syrup. The holes will allow the syrup to reach the center of the cake. To serve, cut into serving pieces. If desired frost whole cakes with your favorite icing to create a layer cake. Top with roasted pecan halves if desired.
Serves 10 to 12.
Chocolate mousse-filled crêpes delighted food writers at the beautifully restored Houmas House Plantation and Gardens on the Mississippi River at Darrow. Here is the recipe from chef Jeremy Langlois:
CHOCOLATE MOUSSE-FILLED Crêpes
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate
3 tablespoons sugar
4 egg yolks
6 tablespoons heavy cream
1 1/2 cups heavy cream,
Splash of Tabasco
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons sugar
3/4 cup flour
1/4 cup cocoa powder
For the mousse filling, melt the chocolate to 104 to 113 degrees. In a bowl, combine sugar, yolks and 6 tablespoons heavy cream in the top of a double boiler. Whisk well over simmering water, cooking to thicken, making a sabayon.
Whisk half the whipped cream into the chocolate and then fold in the sabayon. Add remaining whipped cream and Tabasco, fold in, and chill until ready to use.
For the crêpe batter, whisk the eggs well, add milk and whisk again. Whisk in remaining ingredients. Let sit for 20 minutes; then strain.
Ladle small amounts, about 1/4 cup, of crêpe batter into buttered crêpe pan, swirl and cook on both sides until lightly browned. Repeat until all the batter is used. Let the crêpes cool before filling. To fill, place about 2 tablespoons of chocolate mousse into each crêpe and fold it over to enclose the mousse. Serve 2 filled crêpes per person. If desired, sprinkle crêpes with powdered sugar and serve with berries for garnish.
The following recipe is from New Orleans caterer Chiqui Collier, who taught food writers her no-fail formula for making pralines. The secret is in the timing.
1 pound light brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups coarsely broken pecans
1 cup heavy whipping cream
In a 4-quart heavy saucepan, combine all ingredients. Stir over high heat and bring to a slight rolling boil. Cook until mixture reaches 240 degrees on a candy thermometer. Remove from heat and cool for 5 minutes without stirring.
Then, using a wooden spoon, stir briskly until the mixture begins to thicken. The color will change distinctly, becoming darker, and the consistency will be noticeably thicker. The stirring should take about 5 minutes. Quickly drop by tablespoon (not a serving spoon) onto sheets of parchment paper. Allow to set. This should take about 20 minutes or more.
Makes about 36 pralines.
Collier says that if the pralines do not set up right, do not throw the expensive ingredients away. If too runny, use as praline sauce for cake or ice cream. If too hard, crumble and put over ice cream or cake.
New Orleans cooking teacher Poppy Tooker heads the local chapter of Slow Food, an international movement to revive endangered food practices. One of these in New Orleans is calas, a rice cake once sold on the streets of the French Quarter. Sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar, they’re similar to eating a beignet. Here is her recipe:
2 cups cooked rice
6 tablespoons flour
3 heaping tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
Vegetable oil for deep-frying
In bowl, combine rice, flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and nutmeg; mix well. Add eggs and vanilla and mix well. In a deep pot or fryer, heat vegetable oil to 360 degrees. Carefully drop rice mixture by spoonfuls into hot oil and fry until brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar. Serve hot.