Southern Sympathy Tastes a Lot Like Butter

If I learned anything from reading “The Southern Sympathy Cookbook: Funeral Food With a Twist,” it’s that you can’t cook Southern food without a few essential ingredients: butter, buttermilk, cream and bourbon.

I get it. When grief hits you and your loved ones, concerns about counting calories and eating clean go out the window. In many cases, you just want them to eat, and they’re more likely to eat stuff that tastes good. Enter dishes such as hot chicken salad and pecan pie (with a shot of bourbon).

Author Perre Coleman Magness spells it out in the lead-in to her Gooey Butter Cake recipe: “I can’t help but think that in a time of particular stress and sadness, something with the words gooey and butter in the name can only be immensely comforting.”

The cookbook, new in January from The Countryman Press, is filled with comfort foods such as fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, banana pudding and Kentucky bourbon balls. There are gelatin molds galore, including tomato aspic, which Magness — who lives in Memphis, Tenn. — notes is still found on many funeral tables in the South.

You’ll also find ace-in-the-hole recipes for pulled pork, country ham and buttermilk biscuits. She calls them Angel Biscuits –with a touch of yeast so they “rise up to the heavens.”

Then there are what I believe are the “twist” recipes alluded to in the subtitle: Southern specialties prepared a little differently, ostensibly to make them portable. These include jambalaya casserole, hot brown casserole and a rendition of black-eyed peas and cornbread colorfully assembled in a layered salad that “feeds a crowd” and is dressed with an herby buttermilk dressing.

Magness’ love affair with buttermilk is evident in the fact she uses it in 19 of the 78 recipes in the book, including banana bread, macaroni and cheese, and deviled eggs. I remember my grandfather used to drink buttermilk because he had an ulcer. The only time I’ve ever used it is for pancakes, and I learned that an adequate substitute for purchased buttermilk can be created by adding a bit of vinegar or lemon juice to milk.

With Americans’ fascination with all things fermented these days, I wondered if buttermilk is in vogue north of the Mason Dixon Line. A quick internet search confirms my suspicions. Apparently, it never went out in the South.

Sprinkled throughout the book are quotes from Southern obituaries, sometimes touching, sometimes wry, such as this one from Nashville, Tenn.: “Hi Everyone. I’m at my Final Destination. It took me 89 years, 5 months, and 6 days, but I finally made it. God walked me to the mansion and I didn’t lose my breath one time! … I invite you all to my celebration of life. … Be sure to come, espeicially if it’s a workday. This will be one celebration you don’t want to miss.”

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It was hard to choose just one, but I opted to test the Gooey Butter Cake recipe. Magness touts it as a superior version of the “cake mix and instant pudding version that has become popular,” although I’ve never made one of those for comparison. This one was delicious and baked up just as she promised, with a brown top and slightly jiggly center that ensured gooeyness galore.

I couldn’t understand, though, why it didn’t taste as sweet as I expected. It couldn’t be a lack of sugar — it has 1 1/4 cups of white sugar and 1/4 cup of light corn syrup, plus a dusting with powdered sugar. The next day, I packed a piece in my lunch and pondered the problem as I drove to work. It finally hit me that it wasn’t sugar that was missing, it was salt! I couldn’t wait to get to work and sprinkle some salt on my luscious snack. Bingo! I was right. Just like in chocolate chip cookies and salted carmamel treats, the salt accentuates the sweetness.

So, while this recipe calls for unsalted butter, I would make it with salted butter next time.

I used a 9-inch square pan, instead of 8, which means the crust was slightly thinner and the cake was not as high. But, it will serve more people, and it’s so rich, no one will realize they’re missing out. In fact, if it’s to be part of a dessert spread, consider cutting it into smaller, one- or two-bite squares.

The recipe printed here is exactly as it appears in the cookbook, courtesy of the publisher. Tester’s Note: The butter for the base is cold, but the butter for the filling should be at room temperature.

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Gooey Butter Cake

Serves 9

For the Base:

1 cup all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons granulated sugar

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold

For the Filling:

1 1/4 cups granulated sugar

12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 egg

1 cup all-purpose flour

2/3 cup evaporated milk

1/4 cup light corn syrup

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Confectioners’ sugar

For the Base:

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line an 8-inch square baking pan with nonstick foil or parchment paper.

Combine the flour and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Cut the butter into small pieces and sprinkle over the flour in the bowl. Beat on medium speed until the butter is well mixed with the dry ingredients and resembles rough crumbs. You can use your hands to rub any large clumps of butter into the flour. Sprinkle the mixture over the base of the pan and press in an even, tight layer.

For the Filling:

Beat the sugar and butter together in the cleaned-out mixer bowl on medium to high speed until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg until well combined. Add the flour in two batches alternately with the evaporated milk until combined. Beat in the corn syrup and vanilla extract until thoroughly combined and smooth. Spread the filling over the base in the pan into an even layer. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until the top is golden brown and the center is still a little jiggly. Check the cake about 10 minutes before the time is up to get a feel for when the batter transforms from uncooked to lightly wobbly. Take it out of the oven before the center is firm so you get the gooey.

Remove the pan from the oven and cool completely. Sprinkle the top with confectioners’ sugar.

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