In broad terms — historic, coastal, Southern — Charleston and Savannah qualify as "sister cities." But in the details, they start drifting apart like eighth cousins twice removed.
That's what Janice Shay discovered when writing "Charleston Classic Desserts," a new cookbook and her first effort as an author. The book was published in April simultaneously with Shay's "Savannah Classic Desserts" and contains 45 recipes from local sources, mostly white-tablecloth restaurants.
"I expected because Charleston and Savannah have so much in common in terms of history and culture, that there would be more desserts that were shared. Obviously, there were some because the cities share an English background," Shay says.
"But there were desserts I found in Charleston that you didn't really find in Savannah ... like Huguenot torte, the souffles. I literally did not find a souffle in Savannah."
Ingredients used more in Charleston included fruits such as figs, plums and muscadines, reflected in recipes including Sticky Fig Cake from Lana and Muscadine Grape Hull Pie from Irvin-House Vineyards on Wadmalaw Island.
In Savannah, she says, "You'll always find strawberries and peaches, (but) Charleston seemed to go a little bit more out of the ordinary. ... You don't find Carolina gold rice pudding in Savannah at all." Carolina Gold is a revered long-grain rice first sown in the Lowcountry more than 300 years ago.
The two books are part of a series being produced by Pelican Publishing Co.
The first book focused on New Orleans' desserts. Shay, who owns the Savannah-based book packaging company Pinafore Press, was asked to author the second and third books. She now is producing books in Atlanta and Dallas, all with the same format.
The books serve as restaurant and travel guides as well as cookbooks. "Charleston Classic Desserts," for example, includes photographs of Charleston scenes and landmarks, along with historical sketches, musings and stories. Local food and travel writer Marion Sullivan, also a program specialist with the Culinary Institute of Charleston, wrote the foreword.
With Sullivan's help, Shay was able to learn about Charleston's desserts in a historical context and local chefs who were updating them for modern-day menus.
"Everyone was very good about sharing recipes," Shay says.
As for the skill level, Shay says she tried to keep a balance between easy recipes and those more challenging. "You always have the cookbook collector who likes the more difficult recipes. I think we're definitely weighted toward the simpler recipes, but we do have the more complex ones for people who like to stretch their abilities in the kitchen."
The book's five chapters cover Cakes & Souffles; Pies & Tarts; Cobblers, Compotes & Trifles; Custards and Puddings; and Ice Cream, Gelato, Cookies & Sauces. Recipes include a new-fashioned Peach Cobbler with a bourbon kick (Slightly North of Broad) and a lush Sweet Biscuits & Orange Custard Sauce with fresh strawberries (Magnolias). Silver Moon Caramel Cake (The Square Onion) is a family heirloom recipe passed down from a great-grandmother.
A "coffee and donuts" recipe (Wentworth Grill) uses Krispy Kreme doughnuts to make ice cream, which is shaped into rings. A "coffee" cup of hot fudge sauce and a dollop of raspberry whipped cream are served alongside.
"It's a visual joke, pretty funny, but it tasted great," Shay says.
The author hopes "a lot of good eating" will come out of the cookbook. "As much as we try to wax eloquent about cookbooks, I think that food just makes you happy. And nothing makes you happier than a good dessert."
Shay says she came away from the experience with a much greater respect for the food community in Charleston. "Everything seems to be very organized, running well. It's no wonder you have a lot of James Beard nominees coming out of Charleston."
"What a colorful, lovely twist on bread pudding!" Shay writes about Blossom's innovative dessert.
Red Velvet Bread Pudding
For Red Velvet Cake:
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 3/4 cups sugar
4 large eggs
1/2 cup red food color
2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
6 tablespoons cocoa powder, sifted
2 teaspoons salt
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups buttermilk
2 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
2 1/2 teaspoons cider vinegar
For Bread Pudding Mix:
1 1/2 cups milk
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
2 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
Strawberry or vanilla ice cream, to serve
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line an 11x17-inch sheet pan with parchment paper.
To make the cake: Combine the butter and sugar in an electric mixer with a paddle attachment. Beat together until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating until fully incorporated. Scrape down the bowl thoroughly and continue beating until the batter is completely smooth.
Mix together the food color, vanilla, cocoa powder and salt in a small bowl. Sift it with the flour. Stir into the egg mixture. Add the buttermilk, alternating in three additions, scraping the bowl and paddle thoroughly. Combine the baking soda and the cider vinegar and mix into the batter. Spread evenly in the prepared pan.
Bake for about 30 minutes, until a tester inserted near the center of the cake comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack. When the cake is completely cool, cut into 1-inch cubes.
To make the pudding mix: Combine the milk, cream, eggs, egg yolks, salt and vanilla in a medium bowl.
Combine the cream cheese and sugar in a separate large bowl and beat together until smooth. Add 1/2 cup of the milk mixture to the cream cheese and mix until smooth. Mix in the remaining milk mixture.
Fill a large baking dish with the red velvet cake cubes. Add the cream cheese mixture, filling the baking dish to the top. Press all the cake cubes down into the pudding so that they are completely covered. Set the baking dish in a large pan and fill the large pan with enough warm water to reach halfway up the sides of the baking dish.
Bake for about 45 minutes, until the pudding is set.
Serve the bread pudding warm with ice cream.