Wednesday, April 29, 2009

So Whatever Happened to Creole Cream Cheese?

When I was a kid, one of my favorite treats -- right up there with ice cream and a Mille's spearmint sno-ball -- was a tub of Borden's Creole Cream Cheese mixed with sugar. My mother and I used to buy it at the old A&P just west of downtown on Howard Avenue and we'd sit on a bench and eat it before we even got home.

My friend Lou Ann and I were talking about this distinctly local delicacy the other day -- her dad was also a fan -- and then we wondered what the hell happened to it. The last time I personally remember buying it from a store, or even seeing it on the shelf, was in 1990 at the Jitney Jungle in Bay St. Louis.

I don't think Creole Cream Cheese ever was carried widely outside the New Orleans/Mississippi Coast area so no doubt a lot of people reading this won't know what I'm talking about.

Texture-wise, it was kind of a cross between regular cream cheese and sour cream. I've seen it referred to as farmer's cheese. It's also known as curds and whey -- yes those really do exist. I must confess the whole Little Miss Muffett angle was part of its appeal to me as a six year old.

On its own, Creole Cream Cheese didn't have much flavor. But something magical happened when it was mixed with sugar. Some people liked it mixed with fruit, kind of like yogurt (and come to think of it, CCC also resembles Greek yogurt), but I was always a purist.

I'm not really sure what caused its extinction. Maybe tastes have changed, and there was no market for it anymore. Maybe Borden did away with its regional lines. Maybe modern technology evolved and the process that created it no longer exists. It always struck me as a happy byproduct of some other procedure.

I hear tell you can still find Creole Cream Cheese in some specialty stores in New Orleans. Or you can make your own. Chef John Folse published a recipe for it that you can find here:

It sounds easy enough, but I'm thinking you'll have the devil to pay finding those Rennet tablets. It might be easier to just drive all over New Orleans looking for the ready-made stuff.

And if you find some, get enough for me. We'll pull up a tuffett and share. The spider can go find his own.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Feeling Figgy

I just finished my spring planting, and this year I planted a fig tree. Right now it’s barely more than a twig. It will probably be several years before it reaches full growth .

Just about every yard on the Point had a fig tree – huge bushes just dripping with sweet succulent fruit in the summer. Nona and Grandpa’s tree behind the shed was the source of many, many jars of homemade fig preserves, which eventually would find their way into fig rolls (strudel) at Christmas and other special occasions like weddings and christenings.

I love fig roll, but it’s a little trouble. I don’t always want to wait to enjoy my figs. In the summer my favorite appetizer is:

Fig stuffed with goat cheese
  • Take some nice ripe figs, cut a deep X across the tops.
  • Stuff them with goat cheese.
  • Cut bacon into thin strips and fry until they are partially, but not fully cooked.
  • Wrap each one around a fig and skewer them in place with a fresh sprig of rosemary.
  • Broil a sheet of these until the bacon is fully cooked and the goat cheese is soft and runny.
The sweet flesh of the fig caramelizes and mixes with the tangy cheese and the smoky bacon. You will not believe how something this easy to fix could taste so good.

If you really have a sweet tooth, you may even want to drizzle some honey over them right after they come out of the broiler. I have a jar a lavender honey from Hvar I’ve been saving for just this purpose.

I can’t wait. Grow, tree, grow.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Slavonian Lodge

The Slavonian (later Slavic) lodge on the corner of Myrtle and First streets, was, and is the center of Slavic community life on Point Cadet. It's the two-story building in the header photo centered under the word "from."

It was founded as a fraternal benevolent association to help new immigrants connect with their fellow countrymen and acclimate to life in America. Eventually it became more of a social club and a way for the Slavs (mostly Croats like my family) to carry on their social traditions. The building was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, leaving behind only the tablets with names of deceased members and the statue of Sv. Nikola, patron saint of Croatia. Members have been meeting downtown Biloxi until they can rebuild.

Grandpa was a member. Nona, and later my mother and all the aunts, belonged to the Ladies' Auxiliary. My aunts, my uncle and assorted cousins held their wedding receptions there -- for a long time I thought you couldn't get married anywhere else.

The lodge was one of the first air-conditioned venues down on the point. They hosted a lot of dances. The most famous person who ever played there was Elvis Presley, just on the cusp of super-stardom. Read more about that here.

Grandpa sometimes took the grandchildren down to the lodge in the evenings during the summer. We drank cold Barqs root beer and played the nickel slots while he and the other men played cards. On weekend afternoons, we played Bingo at the lodge. I never won, but I liked to help Aunt Marie keep a watch on her cards -- she always played an entire table full. I think she liked Bingo better than breathing.

The ladies also used the kitchen for their twice annual pusharate sales. Pusharates, a staple at holidays and special events in Biloxi, are a traditional Croatian pastry -- a fried glazed doughnut hole flavored with whiskey and chock-full of nuts and fruits. They always sell out.

Everybody has their own recipe for pusharate. This is Nona's recipe. I made these by myself a few years ago and had to take to my bed with a heating pad afterward. Now I know why the ladies make these as a group.


2 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1 shot glass whiskey
1 tsp. apple pie spice
1 large can evaporated milk
1 cup pecans
1 orange
1 lemon
1/2 cup chopped maraschino cherries (with juice)
4 ounces raisins
2 lb (approximately) self-rising flour

Cut orange and lemon in pieces. Remove seeds. Grind the rind, pulp and juice in a blender. Put aside. Cream together the eggs and sugar. Add the pulp and all the remaining ingredients (except flour) and beat well. Add the flour a little at a time to make a stiff dough. Mix thoroughly. Drop by teaspoons into deep Crisco oil heated to 350 degrees and cook until golden brown. Remove to a colander or wire rack to cool.

Glaze: Almond extract to taste (about 3 tsp -- you can also use vanilla if you prefer) , powdered sugar(about 2 lbs), evaporated cream (abut 10 oz). Make the glaze thick (add more powdered sugar if necessary) so you can dip the pusharates in the glaze to cover. Place on waxed paper to dry.

If the weather is damp, make the glaze very thick. The pusharate is good for a day or two as they will get hard, but they are also good dunked in coffee.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Milk and Eggs: Good For What Ails You

I'm feeling puny today. I woke up with one of my infamous migraines. One of the ones where I can hear the sound of a cat's whisker falling, a ray of sunlight is painful and my stomach feels like it's been on a roller-coaster ride without the rest of me. Going to work was out of the question.

Times like these I really miss my mama. She knew exactly what to do in situations like these. Like whip up a batch of milk and eggs. I think they call it Milijeko i jaje in Croatian. I know that jaje is egg so I'm close anyway.

It's the sort of thing you probably wouldn't eat if you weren't sick, but it's about the only thing you can stomach if you are under the weather. You can whip it up fairly quickly, too, so you don't need to be out of bed for very long which is a plus.

3 cups of milk
4 eggs well-beaten
1-2 Tablespoons plain flour (varies depending on how thick you want the mixture)
Salt and pepper to taste.

Add enough flour to the beaten eggs to thicken slightly. Add salt and pepper if you want it. Warm milk over low to medium heat until bubbly. Strain the egg mixture in slow stream into the hot milk. The mixture is thick so use a spoon to push it through the mesh if you have to. Cook for a few minutes over medium-low heat until done to your liking taking care not to scorch it.

That's it.

If your stomach can handle it, try this with "boat bread." That's a loaf of French bread cut in fourths, then each piece cut in half like for a po-boy sandwich. Butter the bread then grill it butter side down in a hot skillet. Use a press if you have it to get it nice and flat. The men used to make it on the boats but we had it for breakfast at home all the time.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Grandpa's Pasta I Fazol: You Say Tomato, I Say No Tomato

Today is Monday, and in this part of the world that means red beans with rice, but my family usually made red beans the Dalmatian way - soupy with pasta.

My Grandpa, Mato (Mike) Soljan cooked this when he was out on the boats. It's one of those big, one pot dishes that's good for feeding a hungry ship crew - or a crew of six hungry kids.

My Aunt Dolores submitted this recipe to the Slavonian Lodge's cookbook several years ago. She and my Uncle Michael make it with tomatoes. My mother always swore that Grandpa never put tomatoes in it, and she never put them in hers. I don't think she put celery in either. Whatever. It's good both ways.

I usually sub out chicken broth for the tomatoes and half of the water and add some garlic, bay leaf, rosemary and thyme for oomph. If I don't have a ham bone, I use bacon or pancetta for a smokier flavor, and saute it with the onion, celery and garlic in olive oil before adding it to the soup and cook the whole dish about half as long as Grandpa's recipe with raw ham calls for. If you don't want to put the potato in, just puree some of the cooked beans and broth and add back to the soup to get the same texture.

You can use any pasta. Elbow macaroni is traditional, but I like the twists with ridges; they grab the sauce better. I also add freshly grated Parmesan and drizzle some olive oil on it just before serving. I think of it as perfecting a classic.

2 cans red kidney beans
1 ham bone with lots of meat ( or chopped bacon)
1 large onion chopped
1 stalk celery chopped (if you don't want to put this in add another chopped onion)
1 16 oz can tomatoes with juices chopped (or sub chicken broth)
1 T fresh or dried parsley (or rosemary, thyme and 1 bay leaf tied in bouquet garni in muslin)
1 large white potato peeled and cubed
8-10 cups of water (or 5 cups of water and 5 cups of chicken broth)
salt and pepper to taste
3 oz pasta

Combine all of the ingredients, except the pasta, in a large soup pot. Simmer 1 1/2 hours or until the meat leaves the bone. Add the pasta the last 15 minutes of cooking time. Adjust the amount of pasta to how thick you like your soup.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Pig Tails: The World's Best Cookie

OK, so maybe "pig tails" don't sound all that appetizing. Maybe you know them better as Mexican Wedding Cookies or Russian Tea Cakes or something like that. In Biloxi, we call them "pig tails" I guess because of the shape. They are the quintessential Point Cadet cookie, and quite possibly the best cookie of all time. I make them every Christmas and give them out to co-workers and friends and they always say they are the best cookie they've ever tasted. I even won a cookie bake-off in my office with them. They're not that hard to make. The key is to use high-quality ingredients, real butter, real vanilla extract (no artificial flavoring and none of that Mexican vanilla -- it's too sweet). I like the pricey Madagascar vanilla from Williams Sonoma. A little dab will do you. A bottle goes a long way.

3 sticks lightly salted butter (you can make these with margarine but they won't taste as good)
1 cup granulated sugar
3-3/12 cups plain all-purpose flour, sifted
3 teaspoons of vanilla (remember -- use the real stuff)
2 cups chopped pecans
Powdered sugar (approximately 2 cups)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Cream butter and sugar. Add flour and vanilla. Mix well. Add pecans and mix well again. Pinch off small pieces and roll in the palm of your hand until they resemble little cocoons. Bake 20-25 minutes. Allow cookies to cool, then roll in powdered sugar.