Chocolate treats, American South style

The southern part of the US is known for its dessert- making tradition. Some say it was the availability of sugar that made desserts so popular in the South.

Mississippi mud pie is fudgy in the middle and crackly on top (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Mississippi mud pie is fudgy in the middle and crackly on top
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
The holiday of love, or Valentine’s Day, used to be celebrated mainly with flowers and greeting cards, but in the US it has evolved into an occasion to enjoy chocolate sweets.
Since the weather is still cold in most regions of the country, many Americans find it’s a perfect time to bake brownies, cupcakes and other treats.
The southern part of the US is known for its dessert- making tradition. Some say it was the availability of sugar that made desserts so popular in the South.
“Louisiana is sugarcane country,” wrote Alex Patout in Patout’s Cajun Home Cooking. Indeed, visiting a mill where sugarcane was crushed and made into sugar was an interesting stop on our visit to that state.
“What’s particularly nice about having sugarcane nearby,” wrote Patout, “is the wonderful raw sugar that’s available. Add to that our sweet native pecans...peaches... and.... strawberries, and the customary care Cajuns lavish on food, and you’ll understand why our desserts shine....
“You don’t need a special occasion to turn on the oven and get out the cake pans or cookie sheets, though – a plain old hankering for something sweet and satisfying is a good enough excuse.”
“Southern desserts are big, fat and lovable,” wrote Courtney Parker in How to Eat Like a Southerner and Live to Tell the Tale. “Most of these luscious recipes are based on ingredients like eggs, butter and fresh produce, which were abundant on plantations.
“Baking desserts is not something one does only on a special occasion but an everyday occurrence.... My mother made a fresh pound cake every day that was pulled hot out of the oven just as my brother and I arrived home, ravenous, from school.... Perhaps it’s part of the agrarian culture that seems to stick to us like sugarcane molasses.”
Nancie McDermott, author of Southern Cakes: Sweet and Irresistible Recipes for Everyday Celebrations, finds all sorts of reasons to bake. “Having a family at home,” she wrote, “...means that lots of cakes need baking... four birthdays a year, plus those of grandparents, sisters and friends. Not to mention school festivals, covered-dish suppers, family reunions and church dinners, all of which keep me refilling the sugar and flour canisters and wearing out a mixer now and then.”
Southerners love making desserts from chocolate, commented McDermott, although they “don’t think of chocolate as particularly Southern.” In the modern Southern kitchen, she wrote, cocoa is the most common, but in the 18th and much of the 19th century unsweetened and bittersweet chocolate played a bigger role. McDermott’s recipes include classic chocolate mayonnaise cake with divinity icing and traditional Mississippi mud cake made from a rich cocoa-pecan cake with a topping of marshmallows melted onto the cake before cocoa frosting is poured over the top.
Some, like Whitney Miller, the author of Whitney Miller’s New Southern Table, make a similar dessert – Mississippi mud pie. Miller, who is from Mississippi, makes hers without marshmallows. She bakes brownie batter in a graham-cracker crust, and then tops it with a whipped cream and cream-cheese topping and with toasted pecans. From the same brownie batter she bakes brownie cookies, which we sampled at her presentation at Melissa’s Produce in Los Angeles. (See recipes.) Miller flavors the chocolate batter for her devil’s food cake with coffee and vanilla and bakes it as cupcakes.
She offers a choice of two frostings – one is chocolate ganache, and the other is made of coconut and pecans, two ingredients that are popular in Southern baking. (See recipe.) When Miller craves chocolate and wants a relatively healthy treat, she makes dark chocolate granola by baking rolled oats with melted butter, olive oil, cocoa powder, coffee and honey. She finishes the granola with dried cranberries, pistachios and chocolate chips and gets “a satisfying dessert without the guilt.” ■
Faye Levy is the author of the award-winning book Chocolate Sensations.
“My brownie cookies represent the best of what I like about brownies,” wrote Whitney Miller: “crisp brownie edges and fudgy centers. I love to see the look of delight on someone’s face when he or she bites into one and discovers the unexpected rich, fudgy center. Love at first, second and third bite!”
Makes about 2½ dozen cookies
■ 85 gr. (3 oz.) unsweetened chocolate bar, chopped
■ 400 gr. (14 oz.) semisweet chocolate bar, chopped, divided
■ 110 gr. (4 oz. or ½ cup) butter, softened
■ 4 large eggs
■ ¼ cup chocolate-hazelnut spread, such as Nutella
■ 1¼ cups pure cane sugar
■ 1 Tbsp. brewed coffee
■ ½ tsp. pure vanilla extract
■ ½ cup all-purpose flour
■ ½ tsp. baking powder
■ ¼ tsp. fine sea salt
Preheat oven to 175°C (350°F). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a microwave-safe bowl combine unsweetened chocolate, 310 grams (11 oz.) of the semisweet chocolate and the butter. Microwave in 1-minute increments until melted, stirring after each minute. Set aside to cool.
In a large bowl stir together the eggs, chocolate-hazelnut spread, sugar, coffee and vanilla.
In a small bowl sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.
Gradually add melted chocolate mixture to egg mixture. Stir to combine.
Fold in flour mixture until combined.
Stir in remaining 85 grams (3 oz.) chopped semisweet chocolate and refrigerate dough for up to 1 hour.
Scoop out heaping tablespoonfuls of dough and roll in your hands to form 11 balls. Place on prepared baking sheet and bake for 8 minutes or until cookies are set but slightly fudgy. Let cookies stand on baking sheet for 1 minute before transferring to a wire rack to cool slightly.
Repeat with remaining dough. Serve warm.
“This Mississippi mud pie’s fudgy center and crackle topping are a result of the brownie cookie batter filling,” wrote Miller. “A slightly tart cream-cheese topping takes this pie over the top.”
Makes two 23-cm. (9-in.) pies
■ 170 gr. (6 oz. or 12 Tbsp.) butter
■ 3½ cups crumbs of graham cracker or of plain, not very sweet cookies
■ Brownie cookie batter, unchilled (see recipe above)
■ 110 gr. (4 oz.) cream cheese, softened
■ 1 cup heavy cream
■ 4 Tbsp. powdered sugar
■ 1 cup pecan halves, chopped
■ ½ tsp. fine sea salt
■ Chocolate shavings for garnish
Preheat oven to 175°C (350°F). Grease two 23-cm. (9-in.) tart pans with removable bottoms.
Melt butter in a microwave-safe bowl.
Add graham cracker crumbs and mix until crumbs are evenly moistened. Divide mixture between tart pans. Press into bottom and up sides of tart pans.
Place on a baking sheet and bake for 5 minutes. The crust should be set and slightly firm to the touch. Transfer tart pans to a wire rack to cool slightly.
Divide brownie cookie batter between prepared crusts. With back of a spoon, smooth top of batter. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until crust is golden brown and filling is set. The pies will be fudgy. Transfer to a wire rack to cool for about 10 minutes.
While tart is cooling, place cream cheese in a medium bowl. Using an electric mixer on high speed, beat cream cheese until smooth. Add heavy cream and beat until soft peaks form.
Gradually add powdered sugar, beating until combined. Continue beating on medium speed until thickened.
Heat a medium sauté pan over medium heat. Add pecan pieces and salt.
Cook pecans until toasted, about 2 minutes, tossing occasionally. Let cool.
Remove warm tarts from pans and place on serving plates. Slice into wedges and top with whipped cream mixture, salted pecan pieces and chocolate shavings.
You can frost these cupcakes with either chocolate ganache or with coconut- pecan topping, wrote Miller, commenting that the coconut-pecan topping, which is made from both coconut and coconut milk, is also good on carrot cake, spice cake and hummingbird cake.
Makes 24 cupcakes
■ 110 gr. (4 oz. or ½ cup) unsalted butter, softened
■ ¼ cup canola oil
■ 2 cups pure cane sugar
■ 2 large eggs
■ 1 large egg yolk
■ 1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
■ 1 Tbsp. strong brewed coffee
■ 1 cup hot water
■ ½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
■ 30 gr. (1 oz.) dark chocolate
■ 2 cups all-purpose flour
■ 1 tsp. baking soda
■ ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
■ ½ cup buttermilk
■ Chocolate ganache or toasted coconut-pecan topping (see notes)
Preheat oven to 175°C (350°F). Line two 12-cup muffin pans with paper liners.
Place butter in a mixing bowl and beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until creamy. Add oil and sugar.
Mix until combined. Add eggs and egg yolk, one at a time, beating after each addition. Add vanilla and coffee. In a small bowl mix together hot water, cocoa powder and chocolate. Add gradually to batter and beat until blended.
Sift flour, baking soda and salt into a bowl. Alternately add flour mixture and buttermilk to batter, beating on low speed until combined after each addition.
Fill each paper liner with about ¼ cup of batter. Bake cupcakes for about 17 minutes, until a wooden pick inserted near center comes out clean. Transfer cupcakes to a wire rack and let cool.
Glaze cupcakes with slightly warm chocolate ganache or frost them with whipped ganache or toasted coconut- pecan topping.
Note 1:
Chocolate ganache: Heat 3 cups heavy cream in a medium saucepan over medium heat until warm. Place 680 gr. (24 oz.) chopped semisweet or bittersweet chocolate in a medium bowl. Pour warm cream over chocolate and let stand for 2 minutes.  Whisk until smooth. Pour 2 tablespoons strong brewed coffee into chocolate mixture and whisk to combine. Use immediately as a glaze. To glaze cupcakes, dip them into the slightly warm ganache.
Alternatively, make a frosting by letting ganache cool for about 1 hour at room temperature and then beating it with a hand mixer until light and fluffy. To frost cupcakes, spoon the whipped ganache into a 3.8-liter- (1 gallon)-size zip-top freezer bag. Snip a 1.25-cm. (½-in.) tip from corner of bag. Pipe whipped ganache onto cupcakes. Makes about 2½ cups glaze or 5¼ cups whipped ganache.
Note 2: Toasted coconut-pecan topping: Preheat oven to 175°C (350°F). Evenly spread 1 cup of sweetened shredded coconut on a baking sheet and bake for about 5 minutes, until golden brown, stirring halfway through the baking time.
Combine 2 cups coconut milk, 2 cups pure cane sugar, and 6 egg yolks in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until thickened and almost coating the back of a spoon, about 15 minutes.
Remove from heat and stir in 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract, the toasted coconut, 2 cups untoasted sweetened shredded coconut and 2 cups chopped pecans.
Let cool and thicken at room temperature, or spoon into a bowl and refrigerate.
Slightly warm topping before frosting the cupcakes. To frost, spoon topping onto cupcakes and serve immediately.
Makes about 5½ cups.