Raskin Around: Frozen shrimp and Sugarpants

The 3-year old Hollings Cafe at MUSC serves up a substantial egg salad, thickened with mustard and tinged with garlic.

Local shrimp were in short supply this past fall, making it especially hard for restaurants to make good on their menu claims now that the commercial season is over.

“The biggest problem is we don’t have enough shrimp to really keep him busy,” Carolina Seafood’s Leland Rutledge says of Georgetown processor Johnny Roundtree, who’s equipped to freeze mass quantities of Carolina whites for Lowcountry restaurants.

Roundtree four years ago started freezing shrimp to carry buyers through the off-season, a time during which chefs are often forced to source their seafood from the Gulf. But because of the shrimp shortage, he’s working primarily on a contractual basis, and Rutledge says his services are financially out of reach for many restaurants.

For Acme Lowcountry Kitchen on Isle of Palms, the expense was worth it. Executive chef and managing partner Frank Kline recently arranged to have two tons of local shrimp frozen.

“We definitely don’t buy Asian shrimp, but we bought every American market we could,” Kline says of previous years. “It’s not what we wanted to do. Now we can guarantee local shrimp all of the time.”

In order to accommodate the shrimp shipment, Kline’s restaurant acquired a new 10-by-10 foot freezer.

“Basically, we bought a boatload,” Kline says.

At Acme, shrimp figures into many dishes, including eggs benedict, Lowcountry eggrolls, pasta, tacos, and six kinds of shrimp and grits. Kline estimates his shrimp inventory will last until May.

While Acme may still have shrimp in its freezer when the spring season begins, Kline stresses that open waters aren’t a guarantee of shrimp availability. Shrimpers have struggled with significantly depleted crops in recent years.

Crosby’s Seafood sells frozen local shrimp, but wholesale manager Dan Long says his stock will probably sell out in the next two or three months. Kate Dittloff of the S.C. Aquarium’s Good Catch program, which promotes sustainability, isn’t aware of any other distributors freezing local shrimp on a large scale.

“If you get into Asian (shrimp), you can save a whole ton of money,” Kline says. “But a few years ago, we switched our theme to local: No disclaimers.”

When I reviewed On Forty One, which I liked very much, I buried the lede.

That’s actually giving myself too much credit. I didn’t even mention the most striking dish, a sturdy slice of butterscotch cake that was sweet in the most sophisticated ways. Paired with a pool of salted caramel frosting, the cake presented deeper, darker flavors than most traditional Southern desserts can claim.

The problem with the cake was I couldn’t determine who was responsible for it. My server said a company called “Sugarpants” provided it, which set off a Googling session involving all kinds of pages that drive parents to install internet filters. I emailed the restaurant’s publicist, but my message apparently didn’t reach her.

As I finally learned, Sugarpants belongs to Carrie Cooper, a 2011 College of Charleston graduate who was bound for medical school before she fell hard for baking. “I’m all self-taught,” she says. “The internet is extremely beneficial for home bakers.”

Cooper worked as a kitchen manager for Haypenny Confections, a local marshmallow producer, until they shut down last spring. She handled pastries for The Granary from its debut in December 2012; when its chef, Brannon Florie, last fall opened On Forty One, she added it to her task list.

When I first spoke to Cooper, she told me she’d left both restaurants. “Brannon is a good guy, but they were so busy, and I was so busy,” she said, adding that she’d been working long hours as a server and part-time pastry chef at Sesame and Five Loaves Cafe, as well as continuing to bake on a freelance basis (she’s supporting her fiance while he applies for medical school.)

But Cooper a few days later emailed with an update: She’s going to restart her pastry work at On Forty One. Butterscotch cake for everyone!

Working out of her house gave Cooper the freedom to experiment with different kinds of pastries, such as modern riffs on familiar candy bars. Her home kitchen sessions inspired a Twix-like tart for a Restaurant Week menu at The Granary; she’s now developing a Three Musketeers cake.

“Anything with chocolate or caramel is my go-to,” she says.

For the butterscotch cake at On Forty One, she dispensed with plain white sugar and used dark sugar and molasses for the pastry, layered with butterscotch mousse. “I don’t like frosting, I like filling,” she says.

Although a biochemistry degree isn’t essential for baking, Cooper says it’s helped her sort out vexing issues in the kitchen: “So I didn’t waste seven years.”

Next up, Cooper is staging at Burwell’s, where the dessert menu is already dominated by chocolate and caramel. “Pastry full-time is my dream,” she says.

To learn more about Cooper’s cakes, email coop8008@hotmail.com.

The separation between the editorial and sales departments of newspapers is so firm that I often forget when I introduce myself over the phone as “Hanna Raskin from The Post and Courier” that the person on the other end has no clue why I’m calling. The staffer who last week answered the phone at Hollings Cafe, for instance, clearly figured I was looking to sell an ad.

“Maybe they want to do an article on how great we are,” I heard her say teasingly as she handed over the phone to owner Jose Perey.

Exactly right. The 3-year-old MUSC canteen is doing an excellent job with salads and sandwiches, although it’s largely unknown beyond the hospital. I was tipped off to Hollings Cafe’s substantial egg salad, thickened with mustard and tinged with garlic, by a friend who’s lately had the misfortune of having to make multiple visits to the Hollings Cancer Center. The sandwich is the only guaranteed good outcome of an appointment.

Perey is highly aware of the service his little cafe provides to people at difficult junctures.

“Where we are, folks are so vulnerable. They need as much kindness as they can get,” he says, his voice breaking. “I kind of choke up when I talk about it.”

Prior to opening in the hospital, Perey and his wife, Wendy, had a string of restaurants across the county.

In the 1980s, Wendy Perey’s mother owned Emperor’s Choice in North Charleston: “She had a food show in Singapore,” says Jose Perey, who became a customer after being transferred to a bank in the neighborhood. The Pereys married in 1985, and went on to open Taste of China on Isle of Palms, Chinatown in Monck’s Corner, Charlie Steakery franchises, Majestic Grille and Wholly Cow ice cream shops.

The menu at Hollings Cafe bears traces of the couple’s previous endeavors: They serve dessert coffee drinks and ice cream treats, as well as chicken wraps, BLTs, ham sandwiches, Cobb salads, soups and other midday staples.

“Everything is made to order,” Perey says.

Perey delivers lunches to different departments on campus, which he says has helped popularize the cafe’s chicken salad, spiced with curry.

“It kind of spreads the word,” he says. “When something’s good, people eventually hear about it.”

Hollings Cafe is located near the elevators on the first floor of the Hollings Cancer Center, 86 Jonathan Lucas Blvd. It’s open weekdays from 7 a.m.-4 p.m. For more information, call 792-1414 or go to http://www.muschealth.com/cancer/patient_resources/hollingscafemain.htm.