The Genius Recipe Tapes

The Pie Pep Talk We All Needed | Cheryl Day

Episode Summary

Baker and 'Treasury of Southern Baking' author Cheryl Day gives us a holiday p(r)ep talk.

Episode Notes

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Episode Transcription

Kristen Miglore (voiceover): Hi, I'm Kristen Miglore, a lifelong genius hunter. For a decade, I've been unearthing the recipes that have changed the way we cook. Now on The Genius Recipe Tapes, we go behind the scenes with the geniuses themselves, and we get to hear from you. This week. I had the pleasure of talking with Cheryl Day, the founder of Back in the Day Bakery in Savannah, Georgia, and the New York Times bestselling author of the cookbook by the same name. And most recently, the founder of Janie Q Provisions and author of the new book. Cheryl Day's Treasury of Southern Baking. We will get into lots of pie, inspiration, and pep talks from Cheryl in a bit. But first, here she is to let us in on more about the ingenuity, the recipes, and the stories of Southern that she felt was so vital to preserve in her new book.

Cheryl: I want to shine a light on the creators of Southern baking. And I want to share the legacy and the heritage of these recipes. Some are family recipes that I've been baking for years. Others are recipes that I've uncovered. I want to make sure everyone understands the importance of keeping these treasures alive and how important that is to American culture.

Kristen: And could you share a little bit more about how you uncover these recipes in your own family and elsewhere?.

Cheryl: So I was very fortunate. Well, unfortunate, and then fortunate, I lost my mom when I was 22, but she left me this beautiful journal, written in an Epistolary letter form. So she left letters telling me all about our family history–recipes and stories. Many that we shared when we were baking. My mom was 42 when she had me, which was very unheard of for her at the time. And she was a career woman, but she loved to tell stories. She was the best storyteller, and she left me this journal with so many of the recipes that I still used today. Also, I reached out in my community, and sometimes cookbooks would just turn up on my doorstep from community bakeshop cookbooks or church cookbooks. And I poured through those, and it took many years to write this cookbook. I wanted it to be both my personal story and also the story of so many other Southern bakers and a lot of women in particular who just left these traces of genius.

Kristen: That's so fascinating. And so touching that people would leave you cookbooks on your doorstep to, would they like leave little bookmarks of their favorite recipes or notes or anything like that?

Cheryl: They would. And I have this huge stack of them. Some were spiral-bound, and some of them were fancier. All of the women that edited the books took it seriously. It was so much a love letter to make sure that these recipes weren't being erased. And I just accept that legacy very seriously.

Kristen: Are there any favorite recipes that come to mind that you found in some of these community cookbooks?

Cheryl: Now that we're getting close to the holidays, one recipe, in particular, stands out. You'll often have family recipes that are oral accounts, and some things get lost in all families. It seems to be very common in Black culture that recipes are spoken, not written. I noticed that the cornbread dressing recipes always had one common ingredient in one particular stack of books. And there was one missing ingredient that I could never figure out when I was trying to recreate my mom's Southern cornbread dressing. The common ingredient was boiled eggs. And so they would boil the eggs, dice them and fold that into the dressing. I started talking to other women in my community, and they said, oh yeah, everyone does that. And it was something that I just didn't remember my mom doing. I remember that she did put eggs, but I didn't recognize the boiled eggs. They melt away in the final dressing. It's not that you see them. But it creates this richness that I like.

Kristen: So, after seeing that in the other community cookbooks, do you feel like you were able to get closer to your mom's version? Did that kind of fill in the missing puzzle piece?

Cheryl: It did. And here I'm a baker, so that's unusual. I don't do a lot of cooking, but there are certain times of the year when I cook. And Thanksgiving and the holidays are my time. My job is usually to make the cornbread and the bread for the dressing, but I wanted to create the whole recipe. And that did fill in that little puzzle piece for me.

Kristen: Wow. I would never have thought to add eggs in that way–hard-cooked eggs. And I, if I did, I would have expected them to make their presence more known. That sounds so good. We always make my grandmother's well, I call it stuffing, but it's dressing, technically.

Cheryl: I go both ways. My husband still calls it stuffing, but as long as there's cornbread in there for me, that just makes it Southern stuffing.

Kristen: I feel like this might be my first inspiration to add to my grandmother's recipe, though, because it's always the same. We always do the same thing year after year, but I would love to see what the hard-cooked eggs do.

Cheryl: Now, do you usually just use bread croutons?

Kristen: Hers is a box of Jiffy corn mix, cornbread,

Cheryl: Oh, so there is cornbread!

Kristen: She's from Oklahoma originally. We just passed what would have been her hundredth birthday, but she passed away a couple of years ago. But she used the Jiffy cornbread mix, some white sandwich bread torn up, celery, onions, poultry seasoning, and all the giblets and stock.

Cheryl: All of those things. I always felt like something was missing. I would add more sage, and that kind of pulled it together. But I'm telling you, these boiled eggs! And it doesn't take a lot of them, but you just boil them, chop them, and then you fold them in there, and it's just delicious. So I hope you'll try it.

Kristen: yes, I'm excited. It will be interesting to see what my family thinks about it too. I bet they'll love it. In the intro to your book, you talk about learning about your great grandmother, Hannah Queen Grubs. Could you share a bit of what she was like and her well-known desserts?

Cheryl: Obviously, this is again from my mother's stories because she did live until she was over a hundred years old. But she was born somewhere around 1838, the best that we can discover. She was a tiny woman, small and mighty. She was known for her biscuits, which is quite a coincidence since that's something that I've become known for. She was known for her gingerbread cake that she cut into squares. And she was known for her pies and all sorts of cakes. When I read my mom's journal, and you can imagine having lost my mother, I would turn to the journal now and then when I just wanted to feel closer to her. And every time I would read, something would jump up in front of me, depending on the different points of my life. So one particular thing that stuck out to me was my mom described that she made small cakes. And she said that she would frost them in delightfully colored pastel frostings. And I just had to stand in place the first time. I remembered reading that again because I am known for Cupcakes; we call them old-fashioned cupcakes. It's still one of our best sellers at the bakery, and they're in these pastel tints. And I just thought, wow, that's just interesting. And then I became fascinated with the fact of how in the world did she make these tints? And so in the book, I did add a little section on my ode to her and how I thought maybe she may have done that with natural food coloring.

Kristen: That is so amazing that you're walking in her footsteps but in your path.

Cheryl: It's been fun to think that baking is literally in my DNA. I feel like a lot of my life has been that way, especially in the culinary field. Much of my work takes nostalgic and historical recipes and somehow brings them into the here and now. And that's something that I pride myself on as well as finding what people crave these days.

Kristen: That is one thing that stood out about your book–just how many recipes carry histories with them. This is something I feel strongly about in sharing the Genius Recipes that I do. Could you share a few more of these sorts of histories and some of the recipes that stand out to you in the book? I'm thinking of the chess pie and the transparent pie. I had never heard of transparent pie before.

Cheryl: Chess pie, there's a lot of, I wouldn't say controversy, but it depends who you ask about how the name came to be. And I don't know the one that makes the most sense to me. That it sounds like Jes' Pie or some people said it was a chest, like in a crate. But the story that I've heard the most in my community is that a black woman would make these pies, and she was asked, what kind of pie is this? And she responded it's just pie. And then it just morphed into chess pie, and that's a story that makes the most sense to me. And so that's the one I resonate with the most. And the transparent pie. That's very similar to chess pie. It's an old-fashioned sugar pie that became famous in the frontier days by a small bakery in Kentucky. George Clooney is obsessed with transparent pie because I guess he's from Kentucky. The pie is just sugar, eggs, heavy cream, a little bit of flour, and vanilla. And it's just simple and delicious.

My favorite thing about what I do is that I think simple in baking is special. It can be extraordinary. I like to play around with specific ingredients to elevate the flavors, but if you let the elements be the star, that makes something unique. There's, for instance, the apple pie. So take the All-American apple pie. It's a straightforward recipe, but I marinate the apples overnight in the spices and the sugar, allowing the juices to develop and flavor. And then the next day, I'll take the juices and with a bit of butter, cook that down in a saucepan, and it creates this delicious sauce. And then I toss that back into the apples and toss it into the pie crust. But the other thing that makes it very historical and nostalgic is that I use rosewater, and that's a prevalent ingredient. It was one of the first flavorings ever used. Because if you think about it, it's easy to make rosewater from your garden. Vanilla was not something that would have been well known. I used the rosewater, and then I like to mix nutmeg and cinnamon and, sometimes, cardamom and just elevate those simple flavors. And then, of course, there's the pie crust. To me, a pie crust is a pride in the craft of Southern baking. You can see I'm very traditional,

Kristen: Well, you are traditional, but very thoughtfully traditional, and sometimes unexpectedly so. Like with the rosewater, I never would have thought that was something that has a deep history in Southern baking to add rosewater to things like apple pie.

Cheryl: In fact, I use rosewater in my jams. It's something actually that my mom and my grandmother used to do. Maybe this is just an old-fashioned technique, but they would go to the garden. And so that things wouldn't go to waste, they would use the petals and make hydrosols out of the leaves. And so we would have anything from rose geranium leaves that they would make rosewater, verbena, just all sorts of botanicals. And they did find their way into our baked goods.

Kristen (voiceover): Hey, It's Kristen. If you're enjoying this chat with Cheryl as much as I did, head over to The Genius Recipe Tapes. Hit follow so you don't miss out on other stories like this one. And like our recent story with Mayukh Sen on his new book tastemakers and the seven immigrant women who have forever changed the way that Americans cook and eat. In the second half of this episode, we will do a little pie matchmaking session with Cheryl, which I predict will make you very hungry and feel better prepared and so excited to make pies for Thanksgiving. No matter if you've baked zillions of pies in your day or none at all, meet you back here for that.

Kristen: I would love to do a little pie matchmaking session. I thought I'd love to hear from your book; which pie or other desserts would you recommend for a pie lover and someone who is a possible pie-hater?

Cheryl: Wow. Someone who thinks they're a pie-hater? Are there pie haters? There probably are. I would love people to try this sweet potato pie. Because I feel that most people tend to always go with pumpkin pie, but the sweet potato pie is a standout. It's a unique flavor, and the way we season it, it has all of the same warm spices you would have with pumpkin pie. And the pie in the book, we did a beautiful meringue top. And I just don't think anybody would be upset about that. I think people would be excited about that. And for Thanksgiving, I don't think you can hate pie when you see that.

Kristen: And then a pie lover, would you recommend the same?

Cheryl: For Thanksgiving. I just love tradition so much. But I'm going to say for the pie lover; I'm going to say the All-American Apple Rose Pie. I would love for the pie lover to try because it's double-crusted and has the rose, with the macerated apples and the caramel, and it's a little bit salty and caramel-y actually, that might be good for both.

Kristen: Both of those sound so good. The last sort of category would be a beginner versus an experienced speaker,

Cheryl: Beginner bakers should start with the short-cut crust. Which is almost like a cookie crust, but you can cheat, and you can crimp the sides and make people think that it's like a pastry crust/ But you just toss all the ingredients in the bowl, And you add melted butter. And then it's almost like a shortbread crust. And then you form it into the pan, and you can crimp the sides or fork it or pinch it just to make it look like you've crimped it. So I would do that, and I would do the pecan pie. Super simple to me. And again, for Thanksgiving, perfect on the table. But that short-cut crust is the way to go for a beginner. Or also, any cookie-pressed crust is always super easy. But if you want to up your game a little bit, I would do the short-cut crust with the pecan pie.

Kristen: And what is the texture of that one come out?

Cheryl: It does have a little bit of flakiness to it, but it is like a shortbread texture. Very buttery, that crisp shortbread texture. And it's delicious.

Kristen: And then for an experienced baker, what's a showstopper pie?

Cheryl: I would do the extra flaky, all-butter pie crust. I think someone would love to master that crust. It's just such a great technique. I've gotten emails and notes from professionals and experienced bakers, even beginner bakers when they are feeling a little daring to try it for sure. But practice makes perfect. It's a simple method, but you're cutting in the butter into the flour, and I do the fraisage technique where you smear it and fold it and make all these millions of layers. I would probably do either the sweet potato and that crust. Just to make it slightly different, or you could do the pecan pie in that crust. I think that'd be good.

Kristen: Do you have any tips, any pep talks for people baking on Thanksgiving, maybe who don't bake all that often? What are the main things that they should be thinking about and looking out for,

Cheryl: First of all, start simple and start early. One thing I think a lot of folks don't think about, and maybe since I've owned a bakery for so long, it's something that I've discovered over the years. You can make your apple pie from start to finish, and you can freeze it a couple of weeks in advance. And I talk about this in the book, in that way you don't have the pressure because goodness knows we have enough stress around the holidays. We don't need more. Think about making something that you want to do in advance or try something simple.

I've got some great bars in the book, and that I think pie bars are fantastic. You can make any pie into a slab pie or a bar. And I just think that's something that is a great thing to bring to the table with the crowd. And practice makes perfect, so don't go hard on yourself. Every time you do it, it's going to be better.

Kristen: And with those slab pies and bars, they're a little more forgiving. If you're filling is looser or firmer or whatever, it melds into a bar shape.

Cheryl: Exactly. And then you can make a cookie crust with those. You could do a shortbread crust–lots of great bar recipes in the book. There's a salted honey pie bar that is in the book that is so easy to make. Think of it like burnt honey or caramelized chess pie bar, which is super easy to make. They slice beautifully. We have brown sugar jam blondies that are another excellent bar recipe. And that would be super fun if you could pick up some cranberry jam or some sort of seasonal jam to swirl into the bars. That's a simple recipe, too.

Kristen: What is going to be on your Thanksgiving table this year?

Cheryl: I always have all the things, even though I will have a very small, it's usually a small table. It might be just Griff and me. But I still have to have the cornbread stuffing or dressing. And we'll probably do either a small Turkey if we can find it or a Turkey breast. And we will have sweet potato pie and apple pie, both. And we will have fresh-made cranberries with orange zest and a little liquor.

Kristen: That all sounds delicious. And I like the one pie per person ratio.

Cheryl: There are neighbors; you just never know. I always grew up with lots of people. That's not the case now, but I may take half a pie to my neighbor, who lives by themselves. I just love how baking connects people. And that's something that I try to continue to do even in these times. So if I have to wrap something up and drop it on someone's doorstep, I love to do that. And just think of somebody that may not have the same Thanksgiving traditions or be alone. I just love that they can connect people. That's why a lot of the recipes that I do for bread and loaf cakes, I always have the recipe make two. I think that it's something that people should continue to do. Think about a neighbor or someone who may not usually get to meet to drop something nice off on their doorstep.

Kristen: I love that. And having been the recipient of things like that just makes my day; I would love to be your neighbor.

Kristen (voiceover): Thanks for listening. And my thanks to Cheryl Day, founder of Back in the Day Bakery, and Janie Q Provisions. The new cookbook, Cheryl Day's Treasury of Southern Baking, is out in November. Just in time for the holiday baking blitz. This week's show is put together by Coral Lee, Amy Shuster, and Emily Hanhan.
If you have a genius recipe, maybe your favorite recipe to make and share mine, by the way, is my mom's banana bread. I would always love to hear from you And if you like The Genius Recipe Tapes and the Food52 podcast network, the very best thing that you can do to support us and to help other people find the podcast, to take a moment to leave us a five-star rating or review or send this episode to someone who would also love to be the recipient of a surprise bonus pie on Thanksgiving. Thanks so much. Talk to you next week.