Cornmeal for Christmas

Cornmeal from Yates Mill in Raleigh, NC

The first time I visited Yates Mill in Raleigh, N.C. for its holiday sale, I was about eighth in line at opening time, directly behind someone who purchased 12 bags of cornmeal. I learned my lesson. Now, the mill allows advance orders of its white and yellow cornmeal, which is stone-ground at the water-powered  1756 gristmill, one of just a few of its type in the country.

The holiday sale is Dec. 12 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. You won’t be able to see the mill in operation – those tours are held March through November. You can place advance cornmeal orders by emailing

William Robbins, the miller and member of Yates Mill Associates, the non-profit group which raises funds to keep the mill going, says the dried corn he uses is grown in Franklin and Vance counties, and used by other mills. He thinks that the reason his cornmeal tastes better than many commercial version is in how it’s made and handled. The water-powered mill, which Robbins spent five years helping restore, turns at a slower speed than motor-driven mills (most commercial stone mills are driven by engines, he says). The higher speed grinding heats the cornmeal and changes the flavor. The slower speed lets the result taste more “corny.”

Yates Mill’s cornmeal is unbolted, meaning that it’s not sifted and contains the whole corn bran. Robbins advises sifting it before using, because sometimes a whole kernel of corn will slip through. Robbins advises refrigerating or freezing the cornmeal. It freezes almost indefinitely – just put the bag inside an airtight freezer bag first.

Robbins says the next project for the mill is purchasing equipment to make stone-ground grits as well. People ask me all the time where to get good stone-ground grits. Well, you grits fans should donate and join the associates by going here.

More Moravian Sugar Cake

Homemade sugar cake will be sold at Raleigh Moravian Church at its Candle Tea on Dec. 5. Rev. Suzanne P. Miller, associate pastor, says that more than 18 members will spend several days baking and packaging the goodies. The tea at the Ridge Road church will run 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., and include performances by area school choral groups. Crafts including the 26-pointed Moravian stars, also made by church members, will be for sale. More information here.

Deck the halls with Sugar Cake

I saw it today at Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh when I stopped to wave at Santa: The once-a year Dewey’s Bakery kiosk. Minutes later, two Moravian Sugar Cakes were in my hot hands.

I grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C., and made regular trips to Dewey’s for this health food of the soul. It’s made from a yeasted dough that includes mashed potatoes. The dimpled surface is abundantly topped with butter and sugar. “No coffee cake in the world – and there are hundreds of kinds – is better than Moravian Sugar Cake,” writes the late North Carolina food expert Beth Tartan in “North Carolina and Old Salem Cookery.”

The Moravians arrived in the Piedmont in the 1700s, after leaving their native Germany to pursue religious freedom, and built the settlement of Old Salem. They brought along German baking traditions that also include the famous paper-thin spice cookies. When I was a kid, the cookies were available only at Christmas. The sugar cake was baked year round at Dewey’s, which opened in the 1930s.

Until recent years, I had to make Dewey’s runs and stock my freezer (it freezes well for three to four months). I have made my own sugar cake, including one memorable effort in which the sugar and butter overflowed onto the bottom of my oven and caught fire. Now, Dewey’s sells the goodies at holiday kiosks, located in the Triangle this year at Cary Towne Center and Cameron Village in addition to the one at Crabtree. I told the salesperson how thrilled I was to get my sugar cake, and she informed me I can mail order it here. My hips may wish I had never heard that.

Food news roundup

It’s turkey day all over the place today. In The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., find out about chef Ben Barker of Durham’s Magnolia Grill’s turkey with 140 cloves of garlic. Follow your nose to here.

The Charlotte Observer boasts “your total Thanksgiving.” Green Beans with Pancetta and Mint? Where’s the cream of mushroom soup? Test the claim here.

The New York Times helps with that perennial problem of too many dishes and too little oven space. I say get others to bring stuff. The NYT has other ideas here.

Y’all know I’m all about hot oil and turkey, but some of you have a thing about large pots of oil and flame. Butterball has developed an electric, indoor turkey fryer. The Winston-Salem Journal of Winston-Salem, N.C. tells you if it works here.

Don't torch that turkey

Ah, the signs that Thanksgiving is on the way: Canned pumpkin shortage in the supermarket, Christmas songs on the radio and the annual photo of a turkey fryer going up in a fireball.

I have deep-fried turkeys for years, and I still have a house. Obviously, it’s possible to do this safely. But ever since the torched-turkey pics started hitting the media, people arrive, see the fryer and think I’m trying to kill us all. No, that congealed salad of coleslaw and lime Jell-O (my mother made that once) may kill us, not my turkey fryer.

I have extensive, safe directions for frying turkey in my cookbook “Fan Fare: A Playbook of Great Recipes for Tailgating or Watching the Game at Home” (Harvard Common Press, 2007). But the most important ones are: Use equipment specially designed for deep-frying whole turkeys, do this only outdoors (not in a garage or carport), do not overfill the fryer with oil and never leave the fryer unattended.

To get the right amount of oil, I place the turkey in the fryer pot, then measure and add water a quart at a time until the turkey is covered but there’s still a few inches of room at the top of the pot. The number of quarts of water you used equals the amount of oil you’ll need. Dry the pot and turkey thoroughly before heating the oil to prevent spattering.

Google vs. dead trees


I needed information on the differences between conventional garlic and elephant garlic, plus to check on the best ways to store both. Of course, I went to Google. After slogging through listing after listing of places selling garlic, garlic plants and garlic products, and dubious information, I picked up a book by my desk.

“The Deluxe Food Lover’s Companion” by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst (Barron’s $29.99) arrived a few weeks ago, but the book is an old friend. Previous paperback editions of this dictionary/encyclopedia of food have been old friends for years. This glitzy, new hardback version includes more than 6,700 entries plus expanded information on cooking techinques, meat cuts and more, along with illustrations.

In seconds I found out that elephant garlic is a relative of the leek, grown mainly in California and is the mildest tasting garlic. Also, store garlic in a cool, dark place in an open container, never in the refrigerator.

Score one for the dead-tree technology.

Saving rare breeds for the dinner table

The rabbit livers got sent to the wrong hotel, but chefs Scott Crawford of Herons and Bret Jennings of Elaine’s on Franklin didn’t miss a beat in the Herons kitchen in Cary. Chicken livers filled in quite nicely, and still fit the theme of today’s lunch: Offering the unusual in meat. While I was raised on fried chicken livers – packaged chicken parts didn’t exist in my childhood, so my mother cut up her own chicken and fried everything found in it – I still know many people who won’t touch one. I also picked up a great tip: Using finely ground dried potato flakes in the breading.

The meal was part of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy’s conference this weekend. The organization promotes preservation of 170 rare breeds of livestock and poultry in danger of extinction, including donkeys, cattle, goats, horses, sheep, pigs, rabbits, chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys. The Pittsboro organization was founded in 1977. Find out more about the ALBC here.

The roast lamb served today was from one of those breeds, the Hog Island sheep, which has a fascinating story. Farmer Bryan Childress, who raises the sheep on his southwest Virginia farm, said the sheep  lived on the Virginia island from the 1600s (likely brought by English settlers) through the early 1930s. The population was moved from the island – except they forgot a few sheep. When the Army wanted to use the island in 1974, a few of the sheep were found there, and he’s worked to save them ever since. “They’re good foragers,” Childress said. “They’ll eat acorns, lots of things.”

History usually doesn’t taste so good.

Food news roundup

In The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C. today is a story about Escazu, a local artisan chocolatier that will become one of a handful of companies nationwide that roast their own cacao beans and manufacture the chocolate from scratch. Mmmm. Read more here.

Get the secret to silky Thanksgiving gravy, mon cher, in The Charlotte Observer. It’s all here.

Southern baking will be the focus in Winston-Salem, N.C. as Chapel Hill author Nancie McDermott and others offer a program during the city’s Six Days in November arts festival. Read more in the Winston-Salem Journal, here.

Can’t get the H1N1 shot? The Salt Lake Tribune in Salt Lake City, Utah, offers soups said to boost immunity. Drop the hand sanitizer and start cooking here.

Liven up your Thanksgiving dinner with favorite New Orleans recipes. Read more from the New Orleans Times Picayune here.

Pork and corks

Bacon and champagne – why didn’t I think of this? But 3CUPS in Chapel Hill, N.C. has. Ari Weinzweig, author of “Zingerman’s Guide to Better Bacon,” will talk about bacon and host a pairing of bacon with French champagnes on Dec. 9 at 7 p.m. In his book, Weinzweig talks about the history of bacon, which he calls “the olive oil of North America.” For reservations or information about 3CUPS, visit here. Tickets are $35 per person in advance, $40 at the door.

Weinzweig will also be at a six-course bacon dinner at Lantern in Chapel Hill, N.C. on Dec. 8. The menu will feature a plethora of pork, from bacon by Allan Benton to acorn-fed Ossabaw pork belly. (And what chef Andrea Reusing can do with a pork belly will make you swoon.) The dinner is $75 per person, and will benefit Table, a Chapel Hill-Carrboro organization which feeds hungry children. More information here.

Turkey terminology

I called my local upscale market the other day to order my Thanksgiving turkey. The “holiday desk” confronted me with an array of choices: cooked or uncooked; then fresh, frozen, frozen organic, frozen kosher. I stopped her at that point. We didn’t even get to heirloom turkey or  – I hate to name the abomination – tofurky. Most people cook a whole turkey only once or twice a year, so I guess turkey producers are specializing. It used to be you hauled a frozen Butterball into your supermarket cart for 25 cents a pound (loss leaders to get you in the store to buy all the other holiday accouterments) and never gave it another thought.

Preparing Dressing

At the Association of Food Journalists conference I attended recently in New Orleans, I sampled a Creole-style Thanksgiving dinner. Besides learning that the Louisiana Thanksgiving table always includes gumbo to start the meal and that the deep-fried turkey phenomenon is strictly a Cajun thing, I tasted the best roasted turkey I’ve ever eaten. Why was it so good? The chef had rubbed a pound of butter into the bird.

Well, duh.

The chefs cooking for us that day included Frank Brigtsen of the classic New Orleans

restaurant Brigtsen’s. He said that he also cooks the turkey in two stages: at 500 degrees for a brief period of time, then at 325 for the rest of the cooking time, which he said was 15 to 20 minutes per pound. He also prepared a mirliton-shrimp dressing that is really different from the dressings you see around here. Mirliton is a squash that’s extremely popular in Louisiana. It’s also called chayote, which means you can find it here in the Hispanic section of the produce aisle or at Hispanic markets. Interested? Ask and I can dig up the recipe.