Southerners take pride in their desserts, no question, and you can bet every cook has his or her own special recipes. No matter where we live, we all know our cobblers (peach, apple or berry), and we’ve heard of red velvet cake for decades, but If you’ve never spent time in the southern states, then some of the names will sound strange, yet charming. Case in point: chess pie, sugar pie (as if pies aren’t sugary enough), hummingbird cake (say, what?) and the ever-popular Key lime pie. Pecans grow profusely in southern soil, so it comes as no surprise that rich pecan pie and pralines are almost a religion.
In most convenience stores, you can’t miss the display of Moon Pies (not really pies but more like sandwich cookies) sitting on the counter, just begging to be snatched up. They’re a southern tradition, kind of like their version of s’mores, made with graham crackers and marshmallow filling, then dipped in chocolate or butterscotch coating. Don’t try to make them yourself. Opt instead for a chocolate or lemon chess pie, which is easy, served in a single crust and contains a dense, sugary filling. Another no-brainer, fruit cobblers can be single or double crust, baked in a casserole dish and can have a crumbly topping sprinkled over the fruit filling, rather than a pie crust topping. Southerners like to use buttermilk biscuits on top. Sugar pie, originally from southern Indiana, is basically a custard base with lots of brown sugar or molasses, single crust. (Diabetics beware.)
Pies came to America with the first English settlers. Early colonists baked their pies in long narrow pans called “coffins” which also referred to a crust. (Not very appetizing for sure.) Centuries earlier, most pies were filled with meat and eaten as a main course, and early desserts were kept simple, featuring fruits and nuts. But American colonists used fruits from their orchards, replacing centuries of meat fillings, and it was during the American Revolution that the word “crust” replaced the less appealing term coffyn (original spelling). Probably a good idea, as our foodie President Thomas Jefferson would have frowned on serving desserts with coffyns at the White House. (His guests thanked him.)
In the summers when fruit was plentiful, early cooks prepared a crust, filled it with apples or peaches, and called it cobbler (sometimes referred to as a “crisp” or apple brown betty, both close cousins). The origin of red velvet cake plays a tug of war between New York and the South, making its debut in the mid-twentieth century, and each region has its own slightly different version. The red color came originally from beets, but now uses red food coloring, unless you really like beets. Banana pudding is always a hit, made with vanilla wafers, sliced bananas, vanilla pudding and whipped cream.
Okay, so what exactly is hummingbird cake? Basically a spice cake made with mashed banana, pineapple, pecans, cinnamon, and vanilla extract. It’s also a popular pie, which includes similar ingredients but poured into a pie crust. Old-timers swear you’ll sing like a bird when you take your first bite. (Why not nightingale pie? They sing more.) Or maybe it’s supposed to get your taste buds humming, You decide.
Whatever you crave, the choice is endless in every part of the country. The Midwest likes its apple pie and cheesecake, the East favors Boston cream pie and black and white cookies, in the West, make it Meyer lemon cake and anything with marionberries. Then there’s always a whole other category of ethnic specialties which abound in every state. And that’s just for starters. So grab a fork and dig in, y’all.