When I announced to my family that I was going to do a Paula Deen post, they were not particularly supportive. To quote Jessie’s text message: “I don’t exactly have high cookbook standards and I have never been tempted to buy one of her cookbooks!” Danny suggested that I should take the same approach to Paula Deen and her recent remarks as Nancy Pelosi took regarding Michelle Bachmann’s remarks on the DOMA decision: “Who cares?” However, I have laid down my rules for this blog: I must cook at least two recipes from every cookbook I own (if at all possible), and report on the results. I happen to own three Paula Deen cookbooks, and so my course is set.
I do not intend to get into the question of whether Paula is a sassy Southern “lady” or a racist redneck; nor will I discuss the morality of being a closet diabetic for three years while promoting a diet that almost guarantees succumbing to type 2 diabetes. I will also attempt to resist making fun of Paula, as she is just too easy a target. To be positive, it is easy to admire Paula for developing her vast food empire from absolutely nothing, and she appears to be loyal to and supportive of her family.
The obvious question is: how did I end up with three Paula Deen cookbooks? Two of them were mistakes: they were book club selections that I did not decline in time. The Lady & Sons Just Desserts I actually decided to keep; it has some of the same attraction that community cookbooks often have. Even if the recipes are not great, this type of cookbook reflects (sometimes rather horrifyingly) the way real people cook and eat, and is of anthropological interest. As for Paula Deen Celebrates!, I do not remember why I did not return it, but I should have done so. Paula Deen’s Southern Cooking Bible, named one of the five unhealthiest cookbooks of 2011 by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, was actually an intentional purchase, as I approve of her visible ghost author, Melissa Clark.
It turned out to be quite difficult to find things to cook from these books. Paula has been lambasted for her overuse of sugar and butter; I find her use of vegetable shortening (i.e., Crisco), saltine crackers (I’m not sure if any other cookbooks I own have an entry for “saltine crackers” in the index), and lots and lots of processed ingredients much more problematic. Nevertheless I persevered: I looked for recipes without noxious ingredients; I looked for recipes that were standards; I looked for recipes that I thought Paula had just copied from someone else and never cooked herself. I ended up with two amazingly good desserts, a cole slaw that definitely merits a place on my slaw rotation, and a very good tomato soup. There were also a couple of dishes that Henry, a world class picky eater, enjoyed, as well as a satisfactory macaroni salad, and a total loser of a hot pasta dish. There was not much else, though, that I found of interest in these books, except for a novel apple butter-pumpkin pie, that I may make at some future date. Also, after eating this food, I did feel the need to get up and run eight miles the next morning.
The Lady & Sons Just Desserts is the earliest and best of the three cookbooks. This book, which originally came out as a spiral bound book in 2002, is somewhat charmingly unprofessional. There are two sections of unattractive color photos, heart-warming (if you are a Paula fan) family stories, and helpful hints, which I found somewhat unhelpful. Recipe headnotes are often scant or absent; the lengthier ones usually credit the source of the recipe (which is good), or tell a restaurant story. As for the recipes, there are some really scary ones! The recipe for “Gooey Butter Cakes”, one of Paula’s signature recipes, is for a tricked out cake mix with an extra half pound of butter and pound of sugar. “Peach Cobbler” calls for a large can of peaches in heavy syrup: aren’t there any fresh peaches in Georgia? The ingredients for “Cherry Torte” include broken saltine crackers, a tub of Dream Whip, and two cans of cherry pie filling. Not everything in the book, though, is completely processed or fake.
I’m not sure that Paula Deen would recognize my version of “Fresh Pear Cake” (page 38). Actually, I’m not even sure that this is a recipe she has ever made, since it calls for fresh, not canned (in heavy syrup) pears. I halved the sugar, going from two cups to one cup. I thought about reducing the oil, but the recipe called for the same amount of oil I use for carrot cake, which I had tried, without success, to reduce. Thus I settled for using walnut oil, more expensive than Wesson oil, but lots more flavorful and healthy. I think I ended up using more pears also. The resulting cake was so delicious. Danny commented that Paula Deen really knew how to get the right amount of sweetness. I laughed and laughed.
The first time I had chess pie was when I was ten, on a family visit to High Point to see relatives: Aunt Jessie, Cousin Lettie, and Dorothy (an archetypical female trio if ever there was one). Chess pie is a plain pie, composed of eggs, butter, and sugar, as well as a tiny bit of cornmeal and appropriate flavors: vinegar for plain, or lemons for lemon chess pie, chocolate for chocolate chess pie. Proportions in chess pie recipes vary; Paula’s recipe (a lemon chess pie) is heavy on the sugar, light on the butter. She says her recipe is 60 years old; it is identical to the lemon chess pie recipe in Prudence Hilburn’s A Treasury of Southern Baking. Their ingredients are: 2 cups sugar, 1 tablespoon cornmeal, 1 tablespoon flour, a pinch of salt, ¼ cup melted butter, ¼ cup milk, 4 eggs, and the juice and grated zest of 2 lemons (Prudence gives volume measurements for juice and zest). Mix it up, pour it into a partially baked pie shell (homemade, please), and bake at 350º for 30 to 40 minutes. Who needs convenience food when something this good can be so easy? Nobody pretends that chess pie is health food. I have made it perhaps three times in the last thirty years, but I like it so very much. I encourage the curious to do a Google search on chess pie to find out a bit of its history and some other recipes.
I should note that Paula Deen never, in this cookbook, gives a stand alone recipe for pie crust, and is very inconsistent in specifying crusts for her various pies. This, to me, is a sign of bad (or nonexistent) editing. I suspect that Paula usually uses store-bought frozen crusts, as her “tip”, to run the unbaked crust under the broiler before filling, simply does not work for homemade unbaked pie crusts.
It would be incorrect to say that Paula Deen Celebrates! was a disappointment, since I was not expecting much. The most positive thing I can think to say about this book is that Paula’s make-up artist applied considerably less make-up to Paula’s eyes than for photos in subsequent books. The book is arranged according to various celebration events, only one or two of which (out of twenty-one) I might even begin to consider observing. (Elvis’s birthday? Sunday afternoon football party? Okay; I know her fans lead different lives.) The book is studded with “Paula’s Pearls of Wisdom” and “Brandon’s Decorating Tips”, and there are lots of family photos. As in the previous book, there are two sections of unattractive color photos, including one of radioactive “Crème de Menthe Brownies”. It was a problem finding recipes, but I eventually tried three (three!) recipes.
“Macaroni Salad” (page 138) looked safe, and safe it was: macaroni plus vegetables and hard boiled eggs, in a sour cream-mayonnaise dressing. Paula used three parts sour cream to one part mayonnaise; I think that I would have preferred these proportions reversed. But this salad was perfectly adequate as far as macaroni salad goes.
“Baked Olive Puffs” (page 135) were a little strange. Pimiento stuffed green olives are encased in a cheesy pastry. Both Danny and Henry were quite surprised to bite into one of these and find the big green olive. Henry, however, ate these up during his midnight maraudings, so there is some virtue to these things.
Several moths ago, I saw some King Arthur unbleached (I don’t like to use bleached) self-rising flour at Hiller’s, our local grocery. I grabbed some up, since lots of British cookbook authors (e.g., Nigella Lawson) call for self-rising flour. I know I can just add baking powder and salt to all-purpose flour, but it’s easier not to, and I assume that self-rising flour is made with softer wheat. Thus I was primed to try out Paula’s “Buttermilk Biscuits” (page 28). Paula’s recipe is identical to the one on the bag of flour, except she doubles the amount of fat, and adds a little bit of sugar. Paula, of course, calls for vegetable shortening; I used butter. Hot homemade biscuits are pretty good; these were no exception. I made these in the food processor, and I think the time to make these is when you already have the food processor out to make something bready such as pie crust. Pulsing the butter and flour, then adding the buttermilk and pulsing a little more is no more work than cracking open a tube of pre-made over-salted artificial-tasting biscuits from the grocery.
Paula Deen’s Southern Cooking Bible is presumably Paula’s magnum opus, although she is busy enough with her other projects that I wonder how much she actually had to do with it. Her publishers found for Paula a well-established ghost author, well-established enough to have her name mentioned (and I think that Melissa Clark should perhaps think twice in the future as to just where she wants her name to appear). It is surprising that for as important (?) a book as this that Paula’s publishers did not try to integrate the photos, but like the previous two books there are just the two section of unattractive color photos. This book has over 300 recipes, and I would not be surprised if there were at least that many uses of the contraction “y’all”. There are plenty of dropped “g”s also, so we may well imagine Paula talking to us in her folksy manner (as, no doubt, scripted by Melissa). Some of the 300 recipes are indubitably Paula’s: we get a variation on “Gooey Butter Cakes”, namely, “Ooey Gooey Butter Layer Cakes”. I am not sure that Paula has been near some of the other recipes, but since Melissa chose them to match Paula’s style, they are still pretty terrible. I did find two very nice recipes, though.
“Coleslaw with Raisins. Dill, and Honey-Roasted Peanuts” (page 49) looked like just another cole slaw, and since I disliked the currants in Mollie Katzen’s cole slaw, I was expecting to dislike the raisins in this one. But somehow this cole slaw worked! Or at least, the version I made worked. I salted my cabbage, and used more vegetables or, equivalently, less dressing. I could not find Paula’s honey-roasted peanuts in the bins at Whole Foods Market, and so had to settle for maple syrup-roasted cashews. At some point, I started preferring agave syrup to sugar as a slaw sweetener, and so I used that here. And, by the way, raisins are a lot better than Zante currants, which are not really currants at all but just small tasteless raisins. Finally, I must give Paula (or Melissa) credit for not going overboard with the sugar.
We all liked “Creamy Creole Tomato Soup” (page 83). The title of the recipe says it all: it’s just a standard cream of tomato soup (which one could make lower fat by just using milk instead of cream) with “Cajun seasoning”. I found some product at the grocery called “Creole seasoning” that provided a low level but pleasing amount of heat.
“Pasta with Creamy Primavera Sauce” (page 112) was totally tasteless. This is a pasta with not particularly spring-like vegetables in a cream and Parmesan sauce, with a gratuitous chunk of cream cheese thrown in. I can only imagine eating leftovers of this with a generous squirt of sriracha.
Thus I finish my Paula Deen adventures. The conclusion I reach is that she doesn’t have many recipes that I want to try, but there are amongst the few that I do want to try some good recipes, at least if modified to my taste.
Adapted from Paula Deen, The Lady & Sons Just Desserts
1 cup sugar
3 cups flour
1½ teaspoons baking soda
1½ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1½ cups walnut oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
Preheat the oven to 350º. Butter or otherwise grease up a Bundt pan. (I used Spectrum spray on coconut oil.)
Mix the dry ingredients together. Beat together the oil, eggs, and vanilla. Add to the dry ingredients and mix together. The batter will be thick and clumpy at this point. Peel, quarter, and core the peaches. Chop up the pears, preferably in the food processor, into small pieces. Stir into the batter. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 1 hour and 15 minutes or until done. The cake will be quite moist, so you do not want to err on the side of being underdone.
Adapted from Paula Deen with Martha Nesbit, Paula Deen Celebrates!
1 cup unbleached self-rising flour (e.g., King Arthur)
1 teaspoon sugar
2-4 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons buttermilk
Preheat the oven to 450º. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Pulse the flour, sugar, and butter together until the butter is in small pieces, with the largest piece of butter about the size of a popcorn kernel. Add the buttermilk and pulse just until the dough comes together. You may have to dribble in a little more buttermilk. Remove the dough from the food processor and gently shape into a rectangle. Cut the rectangle into six square biscuits. Put on the baking sheet and bake 10-15 minutes, until nicely browned.
Adapted from Paula Deen with Melissa Clark, Paula Deen’s Southern Cooking Bible
1 cabbage (small to medium)
½ cup mayonnaise
¼ cup cider vinegar
1 tablespoon agave syrup
1 sweet onion (e.g., Vidalia)
½ cup raisins
½ cup maple syrup-roasted cashews (or honey-roasted peanuts)
Shred the cabbage and rub in about one tablespoon of salt. Let the cabbage sweat for at least half an hour. Then rinse, squeeze, and drain the cabbage.
Mix together the mayonnaise, vinegar, agave syrup, and a few grinds of pepper for the dressing.
Peel the carrots and onion and chop them into chunks. Add to the food processor together with a handhul of dill with the thick stalks removed. How much depends on how much you like dill. Pulse until the vegetables are finely chopped. For the last few pulses, toss in the raisins. Alternatively, grate the carrots and chop up the onions and dill by hand. Whack the bag yopu have the nuts in a few time with a rolling pin to break them up.
Combine all the ingredients.