On Cooking Southern: Spring Teatime Offers Treats Even A Manly Man Will Like

SOUTHERNISM OF THE WEEK
I’m losing my religion: Some extreme situation or person has provoked the speaker almost to the point of no return, beyond redemption, to the nth degree. For example, “I’m losing my religion over waiting for the highway department to fix that awful pothole on Highway 20.”  Or “I’m losing my religion over those airlines that waive common human decency when they put customers last … almost dead last.”


Can you hear it? The very air in our town is abuzz with life. Spring has sprung, the clocks have moved forward.  And like clockwork, the weather heated up last week just in time for the Masters Golf tournament and for our Easter and Passover celebrations. 

The latest round of storms blew away the annual tons of annoying fluff and stuff falling from every leaf-bearing plant in the region. Even better, the rains washed down the worst yellow pollen haze in this Southerner’s memory. Our backyards are suddenly dotted with swallowtail butterflies, hummingbirds and bees — all dancing and dipping merrily through the red clover and trumpet vine blossoms.

Hallelujah and Amen, I say. 

Now it’s time to concentrate on the next round of matters near and dear to a Southerner’s heart. Baseball. Spring football training. Spring Teas and weddings.  Late afternoon meet-and-greet cocktail parties. Graduation.

Each activity commands a specialty menu. All-gender finger foods predominate: Sausage and cheese platters. Grilled brats. Boiled crawfish and shrimp. Sliders and spanikopeta. Assorted salads in go-cups.

But for this Oxonian, nothing beats great girlie Southern Tea cuisine. Hot chicken salad in miniature pastry cups. Dainty, crustless pimento cheese and cucumber finger sandwiches. Homemade petite scones with clotted cream and likewise homemade strawberry jam and lemon curd. Petits fours with pastel icing. Pecan cheese wafers. Miniature brownies.

The Tea Party may have originated in England, but Southern Belles throughout the Delta perfected it, in my opinion. During my growing up years, Spring Honor Teas were a ritual rite of passage for young females nearing graduation from high school, or about to get married.

Of course, genuine, properly brewed tea is fundamental to the Tea Party. This means brewing loose-leaf good quality teas (not tea bag stuff). But the key to success for proper Tea party food is to miniaturize everything while concentrating on flavor. Think cocktail finger foods in gloves.

This week’s recipes honor the Spring Tea tradition, but offer substance sure to appeal to even the manliest of males. 

Speaking of Spring Teas, the Cedar Oaks Guild is hosting its Second Annual Spring Tea at Cedar Oaks Historic House on Saturday, April 22. The Tea is one of the Guild’s fundraisers to support maintenance and programming at the 1859 house. Guild hostesses will be dressed in period costumes from the antebellum period to the 1960s, representing the span of time during which the house was occupied as a residence. Tickets will be $22 per person. For more last-minute information, contact Lisa Towery at thetowerys@aol.com


SKILLET ALMOND SHORTBREAD

Believe it or not, this fabulous treat works best in a traditional cast-iron skillet. The shortbread is delicious with coffee if not serving with tea!

1-1/2 c all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 large eggs
1/2 c white granulated sugar
1-1/2 sticks (3/4 c) butter, melted, cooled
1/2 tsp almond extract
1/4 c sliced almonds
3 T white granulated sugar

Line a 10-inch cast iron skillet with foil. Grease the foil with butter. Preheat oven to 350˚F. Sift together the flour and salt. Set aside. 

Mix sugar and eggs until fluffy, add butter and flavoring until blended. Whisk in dry ingredients until blended.

Scrape batter into the skillet and spread out until it touches the sides. Sprinkle almonds evenly over top. Sprinkle second sugar evenly over almonds. Bake in preheated oven for 35 minutes, until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean. Cool on rack. 

When cooled, lift foil out of skillet and slide the shortbread onto a serving platter. Cut into wedges like a pie. 


GENOISE SPONGE

The classic European “Genoise” sponge cake is supposed to be somewhat difficult to achieve, but I found this variation in “The Monet Cookbook, Recipes from Giverny” by Florence Gentner and Francis Hammond. The addition of pulverized almonds guarantees the sponge will not pancake! Kirsch is a cherry liqueur, but in keeping with my almond theme, I stuck with the more delicate Amaretto.

1-1/2 c pulverized almonds
8 T (1 stick) 
1-1/2 c superfine sugar
5 large eggs
3 T kirsch or Amaretto 
1 scant c all purpose flour
Confectioners sugar

Grease a springform pan. I use shortening, but butter may be used. Preheat oven to 350˚F. Pulverize the almonds almost to powder in a food processor (I use a small food chopper.) Cream butter and add the sugar until blended and creamy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Mix in the pulverized almonds and stir in the kirsch or Amaretto. Mix in the flour last. 

Bake on center rack in preheated oven for 40 minutes, until blade inserted in center comes out clean.

Cool completely on a rack before turning cake out onto a serving plate. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve with fresh berries or clotted cream.


STRAWBERRY SOUFFLÉ

This is a delicate but gorgeous dessert. Be sure to use totally clean and dry utensils because any smidgen of grease could prevent the egg whites from rising. DO NOT OPEN OVEN WHILE BAKING or the soufflé will collapse. The soufflé will begin to fall within minutes of removal from the oven, or as soon as pierced by a spoon.

1 T salted butter
1-1/2 c strawberries, sliced, pureed, sweetened
1/2  to 1 c superfine sugar
4  large egg whites
Pinch of table salt

Grease seven or eight 7-ounce ramekins, or a single large round tall casserole dish. Preheat oven to 375˚F. 

Mash the sliced strawberries and puree them in blender or with a potato masher. Strain the puree into a large mixing bowl through a sieve to remove large seeds. This is the most difficult, time-consuming step, so be patient. Sweeten to taste, depending on quality of the berries.

Beat the egg whites into stiff peaks with a pinch of salt. Carefully fold the stiff-beaten egg whites into the puree, folding in one direction only to retain air in the beaten egg whites. Ladle mixture evenly into greased baking dishes positioned on a cookie sheet. 

Place on center rack of oven and lower heat to 350˚F. Bake on center rack in oven for 10 minutes, until the mixture rises above the dish. Remove from oven. Serve immediately while hot, with a dollop of vanilla ice cream or whipped cream and a slice of almond shortbread.


LEMON TARTS

This simple recipe takes advantage of premade pastry. The cook will look like a super star with minimal effort. I prefer Meyer lemons for the zest and the juice, which contain a more intense citrus flavor than regular lemons. But feel free to use regular lemons or even limes.

1 pkg of miniature tart pastries (8 per pkg), thawed in fridge
2/3 c juice  from 4-5 lemons or Meyer lemons 
1 to 3 tsp lemon zest, to taste
1-2/3 c white granulated sugar
3 large eggs, room temperature
2 large egg yolks, room temperature
1/8 tsp kosher salt
1 stick (8 T) unsalted butter, room temperature

Preheat oven to 350˚F. Place the tart pastries on a cookie sheet and pierce bottoms with a fork to allow steam to escape during baking. Bake until golden brown and remove from oven to cool. 

Carefully zest the uncut citrus, being careful not to remove the underlying white pith, which is bitter. Set zest aside.

Squeeze the lemons to make 1/2- to 2/3-cup of juice. Combine zest and sugar in a blender or short food processor; pulse until the zest is minced fine. Cream the zested sugar and eggs in a 3-quart saucepan. Beat in the lemon juice and salt until completely mixed. 

Slowly cook on medium-low heat, stirring constantly with a silicon spatula, until thickened, about 10-15 minutes of constant stirring. 

As mixture begins to thicken, coating back of spatula or spoon, stir in the butter and continue slowly stirring until mixture reaches 175˚F – just below a simmer. Remove from heat to cool. Strain it through a sieve while hot if you prefer silky smooth texture (the zest will be removed).  Ladle into tart shells. Store unused filling in a clean jar. 

Cool completely and refrigerate until ready to serve. To serve tarts, embellish each with thin slices of kiwi or strawberries. Unused curd filling freezes well. 


Laurie Triplette is a writer, historian and accredited appraiser of fine arts, dedicated to preserving Southern culture and foodways. Author of the award-winning community family cookbook GIMME SOME SUGAR, DARLIN’, and editor of ZEBRA TALES (Tailgating Recipes from the Ladies of the NFLRA), Triplette is a member of the Association of Food Journalists, Southern Foodways Alliance and the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. Check out the GIMME SOME SUGAR, DARLIN’ website and follow Laurie’s food adventures on Facebook and Twitter.

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