Tennessee Mountain Stories

A Delicious Failure

I’ve been thinking a lot about food lately – would it surprise you to know that it’s a result of trying to be more disciplined in my eating?  In talking with a friend about cakes and icings, I got to thinking about old fashioned boiled icing so I made this lovely cake.

Just take a moment to laugh, it’s fine, we all did.

Now I’m willing to admit – even photograph – my less than perfect creations.  I’m willing for two reasons.  First, I’m far from perfect and a product like this helps remind me.  Secondly, I always want to encourage people to try new-to-you recipes even if they don’t always turn out perfectly.

But it’s a third reason why I’m sharing this failure with you today.  I made this in my climate-controlled home on my easily adjustable electric stove and whipped the egg whites with my counter-top mixer.  Yet this is a very, very old recipe.  In fact, it was the standard cake icing for my grandmother’s generation.  However, they made this sweet treat with none of the conveniences I just listed. 

Can you even imagine cooking delicate foods like this icing or candy over a wood-fired stove?  No temperature control, just drag the pot farther from the fire box if it gets too hot.  And by the way, it’s a warm day today and standing over that old woodstove would have been hot everyday of the year.

Then there’s the question of beating egg whites.  How do you even accomplish that without a mixer?  Grandma had a hand beater – like the blades of the electric mixer but with a handle, gear and crank at the top.  I suppose if you didn’t have one of those you could beat a wire whisk hard enough and long enough to transform egg whites into meringue but it makes me tired to even think about it.

I’m sure it turned out runny sometimes in that generation too.  They ate it anyway – just like we did.

Now, I don’t own a candy thermometer- and maybe today’s fiasco is the reminder that will make me add that tool to my kitchen toolbox – but I can see my Grandma standing at the stove with a tablespoon held high above the pot, waiting for the syrup to “spin a thread”.  I had the hardest time learning what that meant and how you could ever see syrup in a thread.  Well, eventually she made me understand and I’ve been using her method ever since.  It really has worked in the past.

I learned so much in Grandma’s kitchen.  The fact is, there were lessons learned there that I didn’t realize until much later – maybe she’s still teaching me despite losing her nearly ten years ago.  Pulling out a recipe like this is a sweet reminder of Grandma and big family dinners at her house and the clan all gathering together to fellowship despite the quality of the food that was served.  (But didn’t the food seem better at those meals?)  Maybe that’s why they were able to make this beautiful icing with rudimentary tools – they knew it would be appreciated no matter how it looked.

Do you remember scratch cakes and boiled icing?  I’d love to hear about it.  Please click “Comments” below and if you have any trouble leaving a comment, you can click here for easy instructions.


Chocolate Gravy and Other Comfort Foods

As I continue preparing to speak to the Monterey Depot Museum on April ninth, I was thrilled to read chef Bruce Wilson’s description of the dessert he’s planning:

“…my personal favorite course for this dinner is my signature dessert that combines my love of sundaes with my favorite childhood breakfast of chocolate gravy and biscuits! The freshly made whipped cream melts with the ice cream into the chocolate sauce and soaks into the sour cream pound cake and replicates the texture of that breakfast dish that we've all had growing up in this region”

And you know, that got me thinking…

Chocolate gravy was a favorite of my childhood too.  And I learned to make it at the feet of my Grandma Golda Stepp and I’ve continued to make it for the whole family.  In fact, we love to have family breakfasts – any time of the day – and hot biscuits and chocolate gravy are a staple of those meals.  Yet, outside of my family, I’ve found lots of people who’ve never enjoyed this delicacy.  In fact, an awful lot of people can’t quite imagine a combination of chocolate and gravy.  Still others don’t quite think chocolate for breakfast is proper.

But if you’re raised on it, this is the most normal thing in the world.  Of course, we think that of any foods from our childhood, don’t we?  I also ate “coffee and bread”, also known as “soaky” which is simply biscuits soaked in coffee with a little sugar on it.  I suppose that’s the ultimate comfort food for me – it’s certainly what I eat when I’m really stressed. 

All Gone!

All Gone!

I’ve seen an interpretation of some of my childhood foods in restaurants, especially in the South.  Apple dumplings are a popular restaurant food but I’ve never seen anyone make them like my Grandma and they’re never as good as hers.  Apple stack cake is rarely presented in public eateries, probably because you can’t quite make it pretty yet it’s an utterly Appalachian treat, as are blackberry dumplings.

I’m eager to see Chef Wilson’s adaptation of chocolate gravy and biscuits!

I’ve never really discovered the origin of chocolate gravy.  So maybe y’uns can help me with this one, because I’m thrilled to have readers who hale from all over the place.  How many of you have ever eaten Chocolate Gravy?  And was it from your childhood or something you were blessed with later on in life?  Just click “comments” below – if you have any trouble leaving your comment, click here for simple instructions.