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: Tandra Watkins
Where: Ashley’s at the Capital Hotel, 111 West Markham St., Little Rock, AR
When Tandra Watkins described a childhood berry-picking memory, I felt like she was describing one of my own. “I grew up in the country and remember picking blackberries on the side of the dirt road we lived on. We brought them home and turned them into pies, and even had enough leftover to make jam. It was a simple, nice life—I don’t live that way anymore, and I don’t think many people do. But my parents were very involved with food and family.”
Though I grew up in a small city–the dirt road where we picked berries was on a friends’ farm that we visited frequently, this is one of my favorite food memories and serves as a basis for my approach to food, much like it does for Watkins. It’s one centered in whole foods, tradition, and creativity.
“I was lucky to be born into a family who likes to cook,” she says, “but being a pastry chef also suits my personality. I’m someone who is very creative and artistic, and I think those characteristics drew me to pastry. You need exactness and discipline, but you also need to be creative and whimsical.” Watkins, now the pastry chef at Ashley’s at the Capital Hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas, cites traditions of both the American South and France, where she was trained, as influencing her own approach to baking. “My foundation comes from cooking with my family and learning about our traditions. Then I moved to France to go to school, and learned their traditions, so my baked goods are a melding of the two.”
At Ashley’s, she gets to make desserts from both cuisines. The menu features a Parisian chocolate cake that has different layers and textures of chocolate—hazelnut, ganache, and chocolate mousse with a chocolate glaze on top. She also serves classic Southern favorites like banana pudding, brown sugar pie, and chocolate chess pie. “When I first started out, I wanted to make fancy desserts—things with a lot of components and techniques,” says Watkins. “But I think that simple and good food is the hardest to make and the best to eat. I don’t want to overdo it. All I care is that it looks good and tastes good.”
For Watkins, it’s those old family recipes that have the most import. She explains, “food has meaning, especially in the South, because it is what we ate at the table with people we love. We remember meals we made, and make the same dishes as a way of remembering the people at the table who aren’t there anymore.” Whether it’s picking berries by the roadside or family dinners, food evokes powerful memories. For Watkins, cooking connects her to her own history and her place in the South.
It seems that Watkins and I share more than just berry-picking memories. Like me, she also has a special affection for pie. “My favorite pie is whatever’s in season,” she says. Below she shares the recipe for her blueberry pie, served with buttermilk ice cream.
Summer Blueberry Pie
recipe courtesy of Tandra Watkins and Ashley’s Restaurant at the Capital Hotel
5 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups cake flour
3 tablespoons powdered sugar
1 cup Crisco shortening, cold
1 cup unsalted butter, cold and cut into cubes
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1/2 cup water
Place the eggs, water and vinegar in a small bowl and whisk together. Place the bowl in the freezer while you are preparing the rest of the ingredients.
In a food processor, mix together all of the dry ingredients. Add the butter and shortening to the bowl and using the pulse button on the machine cut the butter into the flour. Continue to pulse until the butter and shortening are broken up and the size of small peas. Take the egg mixture out of the freezer, it is okay if there are bits of ice crystals just stir it into the mix. Start the machine and add a steady stream of the wet ingredients to the dry. As soon as the dough comes together in a ball it is important to stop the machine. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured table, divide the dough in half and shape them into two disks, wrap with plastic and refrigerate for 1 1/2 hours.
Flour your work surface and the top of your pie dough. As quickly as possible, roll out your dough by placing the rolling pin in the center of the dough and with steady, even pressure roll the pin away from you. Return the pin to the center of the dough and then roll the pin towards you. Give the dough a quarter turn and repeat the rolling process, adding flour when needed to keep the dough from sticking to the table or the pin. Roll the dough out to 1/4” thickness.
Once your dough has been rolled out, carefully transfer it to a pie pan. Trim the edges of the dough so that there is only 1/2” overhang and place the pie pan in the refrigerator while you prepare the rest of the recipe.
Roll out the second disk of dough to 1/4” and cut the dough into 1” strips. Place them on a small baking sheet and place them in the refrigerator.
Prepare the blueberry pie filling and egg wash.
2 whole eggs
1 egg yolk
pinch of salt
pinch of sugar
Whisk all the ingredients together and strain. Keep refrigerated until needed.
7 cups fresh blueberries, washed and dried
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 1/2 Tbsp tapioca flour (grind small tapioca in a coffee grinder)
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon lemon zest
Combine all of the ingredients in a large bowl and allow them to macerate for 5 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 400°F, and place a sheet pan lined with aluminum foil on the lower oven rack to catch any juice overflow.
To assemble the pie: remove the prepared pie plate from the refrigerator and add all of the berries to it. Brush the edges of the dough with the egg wash. Start placing the strips of cut pie dough down on top of the pie, horizontally 1” apart from each other. Fold back alternate strips of dough and place one strip of dough in the middle of the pie vertically, fold them back over that vertical strip and then fold back the other horizontal strips that have not been moved yet. Place another vertical strip down 1” apart from the one placed in the middle and them fold back the horizontal strips of dough. Repeat until the pie is covered. Gently press down on the edges of the pie crust and trim off all but 1/2” of the excess dough. Crimp the edges of the pie crust as you wish, brush all of the crust with egg wash and sprinkle granulated sugar on top of the pie.
Place the pie in the oven on the rack just above the sheet pan. Bake for 20 minutes. then turn the pie around and reduce the oven temperature to 350°F and continue to bake for 30-40 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown and the fruit juices are bubbling. Allow the pie to cool before serving.
Buttermilk Ice Cream
Yield 1 quart
1 1/2 cups Heavy Cream
1/2 cup Sugar
8 Egg Yolks
1 1/2 cups Buttermilk
1 1/2 teaspoons Vanilla Extract
Pinch of Salt
In a saucepan, combine the heavy cream with 1/4 cup of sugar and the salt. Bring the cream to a boil and take off the heat.
In a bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and the remaining sugar until it is thickened and light in color. Carefully add a steady stream of the hot cream to the egg yolks While whisking at the same time. Return the custard to the pan and on medium heat cook it to 181°F, whisking the whole time to keep the custard from burning on the bottom of the pan. Pour the mixture through a strainer to remove any unwanted bits.
Stir in the buttermilk and vanilla, then cool on an ice bath. Once the custard is cooled, allow it to mature in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours.
Spin the ice cream using the directions for your machine.
Note: These recipes have not been tested by the Southern Living Test Kitchen.