Food for the Soul

A Columbus cook dishes on autumn’s versatile harvest

Story Jan Swoope | Photographs Luisa Porter

Qua Austin has cooked with pecans all her life, but she never shelled out a penny for one until 2008.

“We had so many trees! Everything had pecans in it at our house,” the Columbus cook says of her wonder years growing up in West Point. From cranberry salads to omnipresent hermit cookies, pecans were so widely used, she seldom gave it a second thought. “And as a child, there was always a bowl of pecans sitting out with a nut cracker and metal pick.”

Even after Austin left the Deep South, first for college in Massachusetts and then elsewhere for her career, she still enjoyed the harvests. Her father would often gather pecans in the fall, have them cracked and ship them off to his six daughters, wherever they were, making sure they had a supply from home for seasonal baking. No shipping required after Austin moved back to Mississippi as a bride in 1978, settling in Columbus.

“My dad died in 2008, and I had never bought a pecan in my whole life until that November,” she says.

Still today, autumn pecans conjure up images of family — not only of her father, but also her mother, an educator and home economics major who taught her the chemistry of baking, and her grandmothers, who had gardens, chickens and pecan trees and sat evenings cracking the smooth, brown nuts to add to signature dishes.

“My mother and grandmothers were wonderful cooks and great entertainers,” Austin praises. “They set a table like you would not believe. Southern Living had nothing on them.”

SWEETS AND TREATS
Among favorite family recipes passed on to Austin’s generation are a decadent bourbon nut cake (“out of this world”) and a sweet-n-zingy sour cream apple pie, as well as brown butter toffee blondies.

For her deep dish apple pie with chopped pecans, this home chef combines Granny Smith, Golden Delicious and Cripps Pink apple varieties. Add a wedge of cheddar cheese or ice cream when serving, for a specialty worthy of any occasion.

“The bourbon nut cake is one of my grandmother’s recipes that reflects the bounty of pecans we always had,” says Austin, pouring creamy bourbon sauce over a slice. She sometimes varies the cake recipe with apricot or golden raisins. While the cake can be served after baking, it can also be macerated for two months or more.

“You could make it in October or November for the holidays,” she explains. “I use a skewer and poke holes in it, spoon extra bourbon on top, wrap it in cheesecloth and store it in an airtight container in the refrigerator.”

Don’t feel like cooking? Savor this season’s pecans straight from the shell. Austin toasts them to add to salads, pimiento cheese and entrées including Parmesan encrusted catfish. Her grown children living out of state look forward to toasted pecans when mom comes to visit.

“Pecans, for me, are associated with home,” says Austin, “and home symbolizes security, stability and family celebrations. That’s something I like to share.”


BOURBON NUT CAKE

Serves 10-12

1 cup butter, softened
2 cups sugar
6 eggs
4 cups flour
2 pounds raisins
1 quart pecans, chopped
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup bourbon

• Preheat oven to 275°F.
• Grease and flour one large pan or two small tube pans.Trim a double layer of parchment paper to fit the bottom of the pan(s) and grease. Set aside.
• Cream together butter and sugar; beat in eggs one at a time.
• Mix flour, soda, spices, raisins and pecans and fold into the butter mixture. Add bourbon slowly. Batter will be very stiff. Spoon into prepared pan(s).
• Place a pan of water on the lower shelf of the oven, below the cake. Bake for two hours for the large cake, or one hour for the small ones, or until done. Cake is done when straw inserted into center comes out clean.
• Cool cake and remove from pan. Leave cake inverted with paper on top until ready to cut. (If cake becomes dry, pour more bourbon over the top.) Serve with bourbon sauce.

Note: Cake may be decorated with candied fruits and nuts and brushed with light corn syrup for added gloss.


BOURBON SAUCE

Makes 1½ cups

1½ cups sugar
1 (5.33-ounce) can evaporated milk
4 tablespoons butter
1 egg, beaten
3 tablespoons bourbon

• Combine first four ingredients in upper pan of a double boiler. Place over boiling water and cook, stirring frequently, until thick.
• Keep warm until serving time or make ahead and refrigerate. (If warming after refrigeration, heat no more than 45 seconds at medium in microwave.)

Note: Do not add bourbon until just before serving (and definitely not before microwaving). Sauce can also be used on desserts such as pound cake, ice cream or fruit.


BROWN BUTTER TOFFEE BLONDIES

Makes 1 dozen

1¼ cups butter
2¼ cups flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
2 cups light brown sugar, packed
¾ teaspoon salt
½ cup sugar
3 large eggs
2½ teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup pecans, chopped
1 cup toffee bits

• Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour 9-by-13-inch baking pan.
• Melt butter in sauce pan over low heat; raise temperature to medium and brown; remove from heat and cool in heat-proof mixing bowl.
• Add sugars, egg and vanilla. Blend thoroughly.
• Whisk together flour, salt and baking powder. Add to butter-sugar mixture and mix thoroughly for three minutes.
• Add pecans and toffee bits and mix well until thoroughly combined. Pour batter into prepared pan.
• Bake for 35-40 minutes, until cake tester inserted in center comes out clean. Cool and cut into 3-inch squares.


SOUR CREAM APPLE PIE

Serves 8

1 9-inch pie crust, unbaked

For filling

3 cups finely chopped apples
¾ cup sugar
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup sour cream
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon salt

For crumble topping

½ cup sugar
5½ tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3 tablespoons butter, melted
½ cup pecans, chopped

• Preheat oven to 350°F.
• Mix sugar and flour, add sour cream, egg, vanilla and salt; beat until smooth.
• Add apples; mix well. Pour into pastry-lined pan.
• Mix topping ingredients until crumbly. Sprinkle over apples.
• Bake for 45-55 minutes, until top is golden brown. Cool for one hour before serving. Serve with cheddar cheese or vanilla ice cream.