In “Give Me Some Sugar,” Emily Hilliard introduces us to some of the South’s most talented female pastry chefs, courtesy of the Southern Foodways Alliance. They do right by the classics while developing a new canon of their own. Check back every Monday to meet a reason to save room for dessert.
Who: Sonya Jones
Where: Sweet Auburn Bread Co., 234 Auburn Ave. N.E., Atlanta
When asked to name her favorite dessert, Sonya Jones, pastry chef and owner of Sweet Auburn Bakery in Atlanta, has a hard time. “That’s like choosing between your children!” she says, laughing. But slowly it emerges that—though she loves her buttermilk-lemon chess pies, sweet potato-molasses muffins, and pecan brownies—she does have a clear preference. “Growing up, there was always cake in the cupboard, and it was usually pound cake. I remember the old women on our street who would make it. I love seeing pound cake come out of the oven.”
On the door of Sweet Auburn—located in Atlanta’s historic African-American neighborhood of the same name—there’s a sign that reads “We Bake Memories.” For Jones, these memories often come from the women in her life, one being the late Southern chef Edna Lewis, who was a good friend. “When we’d go out together, people would ask if we were mother and daughter—Miss Lewis was so regal with her full head of grey hair. But we’d say we were sisters. Miss Lewis was an inspiration. She represented Southern cuisine in a way that was normal, familiar, seasonal, and unpretentious.”
Jones was also heavily influenced by her mother, who owned a cafe that served classic Southern food. “My style is based in traditional methods, but was refined in my culinary training at the CIA. The formal training helped me to experiment and put my own touch on things, but when I’m baking I’m always thinking of my childhood, my mother in the kitchen.”
With her signature sweet potato cheesecake, which she served to President Clinton in 1999 (Those were his pre-vegan days; the then-President was a big fan), Jones shows off those creative culinary abilities. “I wanted to create an upscale Southern dessert. Cheesecake is a gourmet dish, and sweet potatoes are one of my favorite Southern ingredients. I didn’t want just a cookie crust on the bottom, so I thought ‘ah– pound cake!’ Now we call it a dessert fit for the President.”
Below, find the recipe for Jones’s Old-Fashioned Buttermilk Pound Cake, a recipe she grew up with, passed down from her mother.
Old-Fashioned Buttermilk Pound Cake
From Sweet Auburn Desserts: Atlanta’s Little Bakery That Could (by Sonya Jones, Pelican Publishing Co., 2011) The buttermilk in this recipe adds a moist texture to the poundcake.
8 tbsp (1 stick) butter
1 c shortening
2 c sugar
1 tbsp vanilla extract
3 c all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 c buttermilk
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Butter and flour a 10-inch tube pan.
In a mixing bowl, cream together the butter, shortening, and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Blend in the vanilla. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, salt, and baking soda. Alternately add the flour mixture and buttermilk to the creamed mixture, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Mix well after each addition.
Spoon the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 75 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted 1 inch from the edge comes out clean. Allow the poundcake to cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack or floured board to cool completely before serving.
Note: This recipe has not been tested by the Southern Living Test Kitchen.