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Posted September 5, 2015
CAST IRON COUNTESSES
All photography by Vicki H. Moss
Every now and then, a moment arrives when it's time to once again season the cast iron. Not often. Just a touchup to keep rust at bay. And a duty you don't mind if you love cooking in cast iron. Putting on Dirk Powell's "Hand Me Down" CD helps soothe the soul while working--especially when cleaning up the 15" monster I used to man-handle while cooking over an open campfire flame.
Mother's cast iron skillets metamorphosed into mine, probably along with some of Grandmother's if truth be known. Because, before a loved one passes to return home, it's only the hardy of the species, who, instead of asking for fine china or the "best" of a mother's prized possessions says, "Let someone else have your diamonds. I'll take your cast iron." Though Mother loved her pearls and diamonds, she also loved her cast iron along with that of her mother's and her grandmother's--a lady who cooked on a cast iron wood stove back in the day. (Mother would later cook on that wood stove herself, when she wanted to re-create days gone by for her children and granchildren. She was one of the first of the modern-day foragers and authors of Sunday Suppers and gatherings before the word "supper" and "gatherings" came back in style.)
My ancestors weren't only cake or pie people, they were a cake, pie, and cobbler people. When their cast iron wasn't used for cooking, a skillet did double-duty as a weapon, I'm sure of it. Not quite as lengthy as an axe or as far-ranging as a black powder rifle, but perfect in close-quarter battle when a scalawag was inching his way inside a window. Not only were the women of my family steel magnolias, they were also multi-taskers, doubling down as the countesses of cast iron.
"Let them eat cake," famous words by Marie Antoinette, her declaration would have suited the cast iron countesses of my line just fine if she'd only added, "Let them eat pie and cobbler too." Sugar love. That, along with foraging for Poke Salat and rabbit, could have held them until the crops were laid by if they had nothing else.
Back during World War I, followed by the Great Depression and World War II, when blackberries could be found growing wild along with a rattlesnake or copperhead hidden among the briars, cobbler could be had for dessert if sugar could be found in the cupboards. No berries? Then vinegar cobbler would satisfy a sweet tooth just as well--without having to worry about seeds getting stuck between teeth. Those women of old looked for the silver lining in every cloud and no seeds in cobbler was cloud-shimmery.
And if you've never treated yourself to a cobbler, you're missing out on a real dish. The royal dish of all cobblers for my family at one time--cherry. The cherry cobbler was the most coveted because not only were fresh cherries hard to come by--people grew apple and peach trees but cherry trees--not so much, one had to battle the birds to get to the cherries first. Life is hard. One must hand-pick battles.
The cherry tree in my family was watched day after day--eager eyes under a cheerful delusion, gauging the day of ripening red fruit. The local birds, however, would have their day of ripening and day of reckoning as well. They "ate their cake" and cobbler too, when the cherries came into their own. For, somehow, the birds always beat the humans to the ripened treasure. Perhaps it had something to do with that verse in the Bible from Matthew 6:26, "Behold the fowls of the air; for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?" If I am better than the birds, I always reasoned, why do they get the cherries and I have to settle for something else?
"The cherries should be ready by tomorrow," Daddy would say to Mother over a cup of morning coffee. "They're almost perfect for picking." The next day, however, bright and early as dawn cracked over the mountain's top, Daddy always returned with an empty bucket.
Like Alfred Hitchcock's aviary friends in his movie "The Birds," based on Daphne du Maurier's 1952 story about unexplained bird attacks, our birds were just as maniacal when it came to cherries. Like the story line of "The Birds," I believe our birds would have blinded us with their beaks if we'd stolen their prized cherries from them.
Those birds must have had something akin to bat honing radar when it came to that cherry tree's fruit bearing season. The fine feathered ringleaders probably sent out hawkshaw waves from their flock when the "ripe" time grew closer. I can only imagine the swarms and frenetic mobbing frenzies as the birds gorged their little four-chambered hearts out on the tart red globes in murmurations that rivaled the scene on D-Day's Normandy beach landings when allied hordes clotted the sand.
When no cherry cobbler was imminent, it was as if I wore hearsecloth for days, mourning my fruit loss while the birds of the air trilled about their victory to distant borders as the crow caws--crows being the hellkites of the air--mocked our hebetude until they hectored me indoors to bristle and make bread pudding, normally another favorite of mine, or something even less satisfying--Pineapple Upside Downcake made by Mother--when I could almost taste cherry cobbler on the tongue. My cherry picking life had just been turned upside down, no need to rub it in with cake and eating it too. Besides, I was never one for cooked pineapple, however hot it may have been. Of course I'm speaking in the temperature sense, since pineapple could never hold a moonbeam to a cherry--no matter how hot, in the seductive sense, her sweet fruit might be.
From the day of the first stripping of the cherry tree debacle in my family's habitat, if I was to have cherry cobbler for dessert, the tart cherries would have to come from a grocery store can shelved on the baking goods aisle.
Big sigh just in the remembering.
I share the cherry tree battles along with my family's love of cast iron to share another story of a more modern day tale. This Labor Day weekend, I started my family out on a cherry cobbler adventure cooking in a cast iron skillet--same as in the olden days for don't we become our mothers--rather than in a regular baking dish.
Since I couldn't find the cherry cobbler recipe and Mother had long gone to heaven and wasn't around to ask, I improvised. (Later, I searched everywhere for the recipe. I found, tucked away in one of Mother's cook books, a postcard my daughter and I had sent her and Daddy while we were touring in Liechtenstein--the postcard a treasure in itself and almost as good as cobbler.)
With a recipe in hand, time to choose the proper skillet. The particular 10-inch cast iron skillet I used had never seen the making of a cherry cobbler, much less swimming butter--it had only known bacon grease for cornbread, okra, and squash--so the experience was a delightful culinary first for all. I tossed out healthy. And left off the skim milk for another day, instead using Vitamin D fortified Whole Milk--stealing from the toddler's supply. I know. Shame on me. And did I say real butter? An entire stick that had already been salted. Oh. So. Sultry. Salty. Sinful.
When you try this recipe, if that much butter isn't enough of a heart-attack-waiting-to-happen hindrance for you, toss on a healthy scoop of vanilla ice cream--we made ours in my new electric ice cream mixer given to me for my birthday--and think about hips later.
I know. If you're trying to count calories--listen to some "Songs From the Mountain" with Dirk Powell, Tim O'Brien, and John Herrmann to overcome the guilt--the countess cobbler and cream concoction placed before you will be like doing face-time with a hit squad. (More music.)
If you've never experienced cherry cobbler and think you'll substitute apples instead, please rethink your inevitable mistake. Apple cobbler may be as American as apple pie, but cherry cobbler is the head lettuce of cobbler haute cuisine. In my humble opinion, of course. Never--even under unexplained aviary attack--settle for second best.
And a last word. For those who think all of this cherry coveting is nothing more than hooey from a homuncule because hot fruit of any kind is a turnoff to haute couture taste buds, make a cherry cobbler (recipe following). Then refrigerate for breakfast later with a cup of hot coffee to help enhance the flavors that will have had time to meld, mesh, and merge overnight. (The thought of almond extract lurking and mulling around anywhere excites me to no end and curls my toes.) I promise, your day will be like no other. I don't promise hurdy-gurdy skills to be forthcoming out of this adventure, nor will you be able to crank out mind blowing novels in a day or write nonfiction that will cause the nations to align towards world peace. But I do assure a tad of euphoria, smack-dab right here on earth. Short-lived, perhaps, until the last of the cobbler disappears and the spoon clanks against the bowl followed by ear deafening lip smacking, but euphoria all the same. Home really is where the heart is.
And this is the last of the last words, I reassure you, cross my heart. If you don't have a cast iron skillet because, by the grace of God you weren't born in the South and had a few handed down to you from cast iron countesses, check out the production of iron skillets at the Lodge Cast Iron company in South Pittsburg, TN. The town is located right beneath Chattanooga on the hand towel map, close to the TN-AL State line. This will be one foraging field trip you won't regret, for you, too, can become a cast iron countess.
Happy trails and happy cooking!
10 inch cast iron skillet
Heat oven to 350 degrees
Put stick of butter in skillet to melt, get skillet really hot don't leave in too long so as not to burn butter.
2 cans tart red cherries with juice (baking section of grocery)
2 tsp cornstarch
¾ C of sugar
¾ healthy C helping of all-purpose flour
¾ healthy C helping of sugar
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
¾ healthy C helping of milk
¼ teaspoon almond extract
(When I say healthy helping - I'm not always exact but a pinch more is better than a pinch less when working fast to beat the birds or anyone else trying to steal your cherries or berries.)
In a saucepan combine filling ingredients and cook, stirring until hot and slightly thickened. Two minutes there about will do. Whisk dry ingredients, then add milk and almond extract flour. Stir. Pour mixture into heated skillet. Pour filling in on top of flour mixture. Do not stir. Slide into oven for 40 minutes or until brown on top.
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