Homage To Flavorful Sweet Treats

From the kitchens of Harlem, and all over the Old and New South, comes a book of dessert recipes that goes back to a time when folks would just drop and sit for a spell. Before the world become so busy, nary a home went without having a few desserts around, in case company were to come.

Sharing a family dessert was the way many folks, especially those in the South and African American communities across the country, shared their love with family, some strangers and dear friends.

"Brown Sugar: Soul Food Desserts from Family and Friends," by food writer Joyce White captures the essence of that experience of love through food. In this, her second cookbook, White has collected classic dessert recipes from friends and family and contributed a few of her own. With each turn of the page, from each endearing story White shares generations of kitchen wisdom.

Although White has worked with food almost all her life she says she is still in awe of her aunts who could take even the barest of ingredients and turn them into something flavorful and wholesome.

White says she chose the title "Brown Sugar" because, "Brown Sugar is a term of endearment, used for black women. It also was the name of a popular Broadway show, "Bubbling Brown Sugar," and recently, the name of a popular movie, "Brown Sugar," a love story. So she says her book really is a salute to the culinary genius and creativity of African-American women.

The following are her recipes:

Short'nin' Bread Cookies:
Makes 48 cookies

Anna Vernell Coaxum said that she hadn't eaten these cookies in years when I delivered her a box as a gift.

Dear Anna heads the nursing unit at Metropolitan A.M.E. Church in Harlem, and after all, she did invite me to several book signings when I was on the road the "Soul Food." And I know how friends appreciate home-baked cookies and candies. Better than an old store-bought gift any day.

But Anna particularly like the story I told her about baking those cookies during my childhood, where nobody ever called them "shortbread." So Scottish. She couldn't remember what they called these rich and buttery cookies down in McClellanville, South Carolina, where she grew up.

So when I broke out in the little song I sang as a child: "Mama's little baby loves short'nin', short'nin'..." she started laughing like crazy.

But she really keeled over when I added: "These scrumptious cookies belong to us; right out of those plantation kitchens."

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch of salt
1 cup walnuts or pecans
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

4 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate
2 tablespoons unsalted butter


  1. Sift together the flour, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt, and set aside. Chop the nuts coarsely.
  2. Combine the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Using a handheld electric mixer set at medium-high or creaming speed, beat until light and fluffy, for about 2 minutes, scraping the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula once or twice. Stir in the vanilla extract and the nuts, mixing well.
  3. Using a large spoon, stir in the flour, mixing only until blended. Form the dough into a ball, dusting lightly with flour if sticky.
  4. Wrap the dough in wax paper or plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for about 1 ½ hours or until the dough is firm and easy to handle.
  5. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Have available a baking sheet but don't butter or grease it.
  6. Divide the dough in half, and return one piece to the refrigerator. Lightly flour a work surface. Roll out the dough into a 6 X 7 inch rectangle, about ½ inch thick.
  7. Using a sharp, damp knife, cut the dough in half lengthwise. Cut crosswise into 1-inch strips...Then cut the dough strips into 1 X 1 1/2 inch pieces for each cookie.
  8. Place the cookies at least 1-inch apart on the un greased baking sheet. Set the pan of cookies in the center of the hot oven on the middle shelf. Bake for 15-18 minutes of until bottoms are just lightly brown, turning the pan from front to back in the oven midway through the baking.
  9. Remove the cookies from the oven and remove from the pan with a metal spatula. Cool on a wire rack. Bake the remaining dough in the same way, one pan at a time.
  10. Prepare the glaze. Cut the chocolate into small pieces. Melt the butter in a small skillet over low heat. Add the chocolate and stir briskly until melted and smooth.
  11. Remove the pan from the heat and cool the glaze for a few minutes.
  12. Place a sheet of wax paper or foil under a wire rack. Dip half of the cookie into the glaze or drizzle the chocolate over the top of the cookies. Let the cookies set until the glaze hardens.
  13. These cookies keep superbly in an airtight container, in one layer.

Variation: I also like these cookies dipped into or coated with an exquisite brown sugar glaze made with buttermilk.

Double Fudge Brownies:
Makes 24

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa, not Dutch-process
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup pecans, or more if desired
6 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs, at room temperature


  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8- or 9-inch square baking or cake pan and dust lightly with flour, shaking out any excess.
  2. Sift together the flour, cocoa, baking soda, and salt. Coarsely shop the pecans. Set aside. Coarsely chop the chocolate into 1-inch pieces.
  3. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over low heat. Add the chocolate and heat, stirring, until the chocolate melts. Remove the pan from the heat right away.
  4. Stir in the sugar and vanilla and mix well. Cool the mixture for about 10 minutes, or until just lukewarm. Whisk in the eggs one at a time, and beat the batter until it is smooth and glossy.
  5. Stir in the flour mixture and then the nuts, and mix only until the batter is just blended.
    Spread the batter evenly in the prepared pan. Set the pan on the middle oven rack and bake the brownies for 20-25 minutes, or until a tester inserted in the center comes out moist but clean.
  6. Remove the pan from the oven and set on a wire rack. Allow the brownies to remain in the pan for at least 3 hours or longer.
  7. When thoroughly cooled, using a serrated knife, cut the brownies in the pan into 2 X 2 inch square pieces. Run a metal spatula around the edge of the brownies and remove the pieces from the pan.

New Banana Pudding
Makes 6 to 8 servings

4 eggs
1 cup granulated sugar plus 1/2 cup
3 tablespoons flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 cups milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons dark rum
12 to 15 gingersnaps
2 or 3 very ripe bananas
1/4 teaspoon cider vinegar or cream of tartar


  1. Generously butter a 1 1/2 quart baking dish and set aside.
  2. Carefully crack the eggs one at a time and place the yolk and the egg white in two separate small bowls. If the egg white is free of yolk, transfer to a large spotless clean bowl for whipping or to the bowl of a standing mixer. If any egg yolk drips into the egg white, discard that egg white and break another egg, using a clean small bowl. Set aside the egg whites to warm to room temperature and return the yolks to the refrigerator until ready to use.
  3. Combine the 1 cup sugar, flour, and salt in the top of a double boiler over hot water. Whisk in the milk, mixing well. Bring the milk almost to a boil, cooking until it is hot and bubbly and begins to thicken, stirring occasionally. This should take 5 to 7 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat.
  4. Whisk the egg yolks until just blended. Add the vanilla extract.
  5. Add 2 or 3 tablespoons of the hot milk to the egg yolks and beat again. Stir another cup of the milk into the egg yolks and mix again. Now add the egg mixture to the milk in the double boiler and mix well.
  6. Set the pan back on the heat and cook the custard over boiling water 10 to 12 minutes, or until it is very thick and creamy, stirring constantly. Watch this carefully, for you don't want the eggs to scramble.
  7. When it is very thick, immediately remove the custard from the heat and stir in the rum.
  8. Pour the custard through a strainer into a large bowl. Set the bowl in an ice water bath, and stir occasionally until chilled.
  9. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  10. Spread 1/2 cup of the custard on the bottom of the buttered dish. Top with Gingersnaps and spoon over another 1/2 cup custard.
  11. Peel the bananas and cut the crosswise into 1/4 -inch-thick slices. Top the custard and Gingersnaps with the sliced bananas, overlapping if necessary. Spread the remaining custard evenly over the bananas.
  12. Prepare the meringue: Sprinkle the egg whites with vinegar or cream of tartar. Using an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat the egg whites until foamy. Gradually add the remaining ½ cup sugar, about 2 tablespoons at a time, and beat on high speed until the peaks are stiff and shiny, but not dry. This should take about 5 minutes; don't over-beat.
  13. Spread a generous cup of the meringue over the filling, and smooth it to the edge of the baking dish. Spread on the rest of the meringue and using the back of a tablespoon, swirl for decorative effect.
  14. Place the pudding on the middle shelf in the preheated oven. Bake 12 to 15 minutes or until the meringue is tinged golden brown. Cool the pie completely on a wire rack, and then chill for several hours, or overnight if desired. Serve cold.

Biscuit Bread Pudding
Makes 8 servings

6 to 10 buttermilk biscuits, preferably day-old
3 large eggs
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed, plus ¼ cup
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 cups buttermilk
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts, or less if desired


  1. Generously butter a 2-quart glass or porcelain baking dish (an 8 x 12-inch pan works nicely).
  2. Slice the biscuits in half crosswise with a serrated knife and place the bread in the bottom of the baking dish, cut side down. Set aside. If you like your bread pudding with a lot of custard, use six biscuits; if you prefer more bread, add a few more biscuits.
  3. Place the eggs in a large mixing bowl and beat until blended. Stir in the granulated sugar, ½ cup of the light brown sugar, the flour, butter, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla extract, and salt and whisk again. Add the buttermilk and mix well.
  4. Pour the custard over the biscuits. Press the bread down with the back of a spoon, making sure that the bread absorbs the custard and is soaked through. Let the custard stand at room temperature for 30 minutes, occasionally ladling the custard over the biscuits.
  5. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  6. Toss together the walnuts and the remaining 1/4 cup brown sugar and scatter over the top of the bread pudding.
  7. Set the baking dish inside a large roasting pan or cast-iron skillet. Bring a kettle of water to a boil. Carefully pour the water into the roasting pan, about halfway up the sides of the baking dish, creating a water bath.
  8. Set the pan on the middle shelf of a preheated oven. Bake for 40 minutes or until the pudding is puffy and browned around the edges, firm in the center and no longer runny. A knife inserted in the center should come out almost clean.
  9. Remove the pudding from the oven and the water bath and set on a wire rack. Cool the pudding to room temperature and serve, or chill, if desired.

Note: Black walnuts are especially delicious in this pudding, but they have a robust flavor and if you use them you may want to reduce the amount to 1/2 cup.

Pistachio Brittle
Makes 1 pound

2 cups pistachio nuts in shells
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/2cup water
1/2 cup light corn syrup
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Shell the pistachio nuts. (Pistachios sold in their shell have better flavor than most salted shells and are worth the extra effort.) Spread them in a single layer across a baking sheet or jelly-roll pan. Place on the middle shelf of the preheated oven and toast until just lightly brown, 5 to 7 minutes, stirring once or twice with a wooden spoon or shaking the pan. Remove the nuts immediately from the oven as soon as you smell them baking or see signs of browning.
  3. Spread the nuts on a kitchen towel and using your fingers, rub briskly with the towel to remove the skins. Or, cut away the skins with a small knife. Do this carefully, making sure that all bits of skin are removed. Set the nuts aside.
  4. Have ready a wooden spoon to stir the candy, a metal spatula for spreading, and a pastry brush, a cup of hot water to brush down the sugar crystals from the sides of the pan, a candy thermometer, and a metal spatula for spreading.
  5. Butter a 10 x 15-inch jelly-roll pan and set aside.
  6. In a large, heavy 4-quart saucepan, combine the sugar, water, and corn syrup, and mix until well blended.
  7. Place on medium-high heat and bring the syrup to a boil, stirring constantly with the wooden spoon, until the sugar is dissolved. Cover the pan and boil the syrup for 3 minutes.
  8. Remove the lid. Dip the brush in the water and brush down the sides of the pan. Attach the candy thermometer to the side of the pan.
  9. Continue cooking the syrup over high heat, swirling the pan but not stirring until it is golden brown and reaches the hard crack stage, or 300 to 310 degrees, frequently brushing down the sides of the pan. This should take about 10 minutes.
  10. Remove the pan from the heat and remove the thermometer. Swirl in the butter, vanilla extract, and the toasted pistachio nuts, mixing well. Quickly pour the candy onto the jelly-roll pan. Using the metal spatula, spread the candy as evenly and as thinly as possible.
  11. Let the candy set until it hardens, at least several hours or overnight and then break into 2-inch pieces.
  12. To serve with ice cream, wrap the candy in a towel, crush with a mallet or hammer, and then scatter over the ice cream.
  13. Store in the candy pieces in airtight containers.

Candied Pecans
Makes 1 1/2 cups

1/2 cup superfine sugar
2 tablespoons water
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg or ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar or 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
1 1/2 cups pecan halves


  1. Generously butter a shallow baking pan (preferably a 15 x 10-inch jelly-roll pan) and set aside. Have ready a long-handled wooden spoon, a pastry brush, and a cup of water.
  2. Combine the sugar, water, nutmeg or cinnamon, and cream of tartar or lemon juice in a 1-quart heavy saucepan or skillet and mix well. Place on medium-high heat and cook, stirring with the wooden spoon, until the sugar dissolves.
  3. Bring the syrup to a boil, cover the pan, and boil 3 minutes longer.
  4. Uncover the pan. Dip the pastry brush in the water and wash down the sides of the pan.
  5. Cook the syrup over high heat without stirring, but swirling the pan by the handle, for 2 to 3 minutes, or just until the syrup turns the color of lightly brewed tea.
  6. Scatter the pecans over the syrup and stir quickly with the wooden spoon to cover the nuts with the liquid.
  7. Cook the syrup 2 or 3 minutes longer or until it is golden brown and the nuts are just lightly toasted.
  8. Immediately pour the nuts and syrup onto the baking pan. Working quickly, separate the pecans with a fork. Set the pan on a wire rack and cool the candy until hard, at least an hour. Or place the pan on a wire rack and let the candy set in one layer, at least an hour. Break into pieces.

Variation: Substitute shelled Brazil, walnuts, blanched almonds, or unsalted cashew nuts for the pecans, and proceed as directed above.