Culture: A taste of New Orleans
When we arrived at the low green-shuttered building, home of Dooky Chase, the famous New Orleans restaurant – after a four-mile walk through Treme via a cemetery populated by white stone tombs which reflected the heat back onto our heads every which way – all we could croak was ‘water, please’. The idea of eating fried chicken, catfish, okra, and cobbler seemed outlandish in such killing heat despite the fact that for me, this was very much a pilgrimage.
But one of the great things about American restaurants is their air conditioning. No matter what the temperature is like outside – and on our recent trip to Louisiana, and New Orleans, it broke all records, approaching nearly 100°C in the shade – by the time you’ve spent ten minutes being blasted by deliciously cool air, you’ve worked up an appetite more worthy of a sherpa returning to Everest’s base camp. This is very handy when you are holidaying in one of the world’s greatest food destinations and worrying that the heat might mean you cannot do justice
to it all.
At Dooky Chase’s we were served bowls of peach cobbler à la mode. The combination of a scone-like topping with chunks of fresh peach, baked into a bubbling sauce capped with a scoop of cold vanilla ice cream was a perfect ending to a meal which included platters piled Jenga-high with crispy fried chicken, dishes of baked yams and a brackish, pond-weed thick stew of okra and tomatoes. I loved the cobbler so much I decided to make my own version when we returned to the UK and so here we are.
I’ve not sweetened the fruit too much because I like a bit of tartness but you can, of course, add more even though a scattering of demerara sugar over the cobbler topping adds both crunch and extra sweetness. After it has come out of the oven, leave it for a short while to allow the underneath of each scone to soak up the fruit juice until they take on the pink and orange hues of a perfect summer sunset.
Funnily enough, as I write this, it’s 27°C in West Suffolk which tends to make me reluctant to put the oven on in the day. But unlike Louisiana, it’s still relatively cool of an evening here so the idea of baking a fruit cobbler for 45 minutes or so is more palatable then, despite the fact my air conditioning system comprises an open kitchen door and window with nary a breeze coming in or out. I baked while listening to an edition of the Food programme on BBCR4 about Leah Chase, the 94-year-old chef at Dooky Chase who has commanded its kitchens for more than 70 years. I recently attended the Guild of Food Writers award ceremony in West London where Dan Saladino, presenter and producer of the show, was awarded the Food Broadcast Award for this particular programme, so this timely win felt like what Jewish people refer to as bashert; a good and fortuitous match.
Leah Chase has fed every visitor of note to New Orleans, including Barack Obama back in 2008, just a few years after Hurricane Katrina which caused considerable storm damage to the building. She chastised him for adding hot sauce to his gumbo. “Presidents come and go,” she said in a later interview, “but it’s that everyday little person that makes you – and that’s the one you never forget.” A formidable lady indeed.
Spiced apricot and raspberry cobbler
Serves around eight, depending on appetite
For the filling:
3 tbsp soft brown sugar
2 tbsp plain flour
1kg of apricots, halved and stoned
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 balls of stem ginger,
2 tbsp stem ginger syrup,
from the jar
For the topping:
210g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
85g fridge-cold butter, cut into small dice
175g buttermilk, plus a little extra for brushing on top of the scones
1 tbsp demerara sugar
Cream or crème fraîche to serve
Butter a baking dish. Mine measured 25x20x8cm deep.
Combine the soft brown sugar and flour in a large bowl then toss the apricot halves, the vanilla and the minced stem ginger then leave it all to marinate for ten minutes or so. You can leave it for longer if you like.
Now make the topping: combine the flour, baking powder and salt in another large bowl then add the butter, rubbing it in until the dough forms pieces the size of peas. Slowly pour in the buttermilk and mix with a fork until the dough comes together in a shaggy mass.
Preheat the oven to 190oC (170 fan) or gas mark 5.
Pour the apricot mixture evenly into your baking dish, dot the raspberries over then drizzle the whole lot with the ginger syrup.
I don’t bother rolling out the scone dough and nor do I use a cutter. I divide it into small pieces, then form them into irregular scone shapes with my (floured) hands before placing the balls on top of the fruit mixture, with their sides just touching. I got 11 balls out of my dough, but you may want to make them larger. Brush their tops with some buttermilk (don’t drown them in it though), then scatter the demerara sugar over.
Bake for 40-45 minutes, keeping an eye on the topping to ensure it does not burn. When the scones are golden and the fruit bubbling up around their dumpy edges, remove the dish from the oven. Serve with crème fraîche, ice cream or thick double cream.
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