Eight ounces of cane syrup and a bag of pecans from the freezer were the start of what I hoped would be a beautiful friendship.
Every man should have a signature dessert. I may have read that in the book, “Real Men Eat Quiche.”
For years, I plotted, schemed and felt inadequate. My wife had her dessert down to a science — a brown sugar pecan pie (no kayro).
The rules I decided are simple: 1) a simple recipe; 2) as many local ingredients as possible; and 3) it must be the star of the dessert table at a family reunion. Grandmothers who taste it will be taken back in time to another time and place.
With a freezer full of pecans that I collected and shelled last fall, I was going with pecan pie, but determined to make it my own. Jeff McPherson supplied the missing link.
McPherson, who until last fall ran a five-acre produce farm and an honor system roadside stand in Long Branch, made a batch of cane syrup every year. He grew and harvested the sugar cane and had it pressed and boiled at a location near Lake Waccamaw.
I bought a lot of Jeff’s cane syrup. I gave it away for Christmas presents, my wife made granola with it and we put it on sweet potatoes and corn bread. Awesome.
I still had jars and jars of it, so I decided to combine it with the bags and bags of pecans. I found a suitable recipe on the Internet.
Cane syrup has an important place in the Southern kitchen of old. There was no maple syrup, and granulated sugar was for the rich. The cane was turned into syrup during the first boil and the second boil made molasses. The third boil made black-strap molasses, and legend has it the dregs would ferment into something wicked (see “Run with the Horsemen” by Feroll Sams).
Ask yourself the question: “Which has more flavor, cane syrup or granulated sugar?”
Corn syrup or kayro, no way. If Southerners couldn’t afford granulated sugar, they were no poorer for having cane syrup.
Pressing raw cane by mule power then boiling it for hours was as an important ritual akin to hog killing. This was man’s work because it required very little work and lots of conversation stoked by liquid refreshment.
I bought two pie shells at Bo’s (now IGA) and burned the first one. The recipe looked foolproof, but that did not stop me from improvising. I beg you readers, don’t improvise with a $4 jar of cane syrup and $10 of other ingredients.
After the burned pie shell, my kitchen skills began to shine. I cracked three eggs with only one loss. I chopped two cups of pecans and combined them with the cane, brown sugar and vanilla and heated the mixture. I let it cool before combining with the eggs.
Other mishaps continued. I put the pie on the middle rack of our countertop oven. It burned the top, but not too badly.
A little tin foil covering, and I was cooking again. As it baked, the pie became a very dark and dangerous looking. It begged for ice cream, and I obliged.
Despite growing better with age, the result was not as good as I had hoped. It was good, but the cane syrup flavor was overpowering. I ate pie over a week and enjoyed it, but it is not my signature dessert, yet.
My plan B: Cut the cane syrup in half and go with more brown sugar. Like many old-timey traditions, Southern and other, cane syrup may be best taken in small quantities. A couple of sips of homemade liquor comes to mind.
I am still searching for my signature dessert — the one you bring to picnics and reunions and everybody treats you like a rock star. Maybe, I’m aiming too high, but maybe not.
Have you tried the now-famous Atlantic Beach pie? This dessert had fallen into near obscurity, residing at a North Carolina restaurant called Cook’s Corner, until it was rediscovered by the National Public Radio program Found Recipes. Since then, the pie’s popularity has taken off. NPR revisited it, and Our State magazine went there too.
I’ve made it successfully, and it is spectacular. At its heart, Atlantic Beach Pie is a key lime pie with a twist, a saltine crust. It is advertised as the perfect dessert to follow a heavy Carolina seafood dinner (think large fried seafood platter).
The recipe is relatively simple and can be found online. I recommend it with whipped cream. One cookbook writer told NPR: “So, it’s this dense, crispy, thick and the saltine, salty crust is such an amazing balance to this tanginess and the sweetness of the inside. When I first took a bite of this pie, I think the only reaction I had was ‘oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.’”
But it’s not my signature dessert. The fun is in the hunt, as they say. I have one or two more ideas: rhubarb and figs.
Around Robeson is Scott Bigelow’s monthly feature about area destinations and hidden gems. Suggestions for future entries in the series can be emailed to [email protected]