When I moved back to St. Louis a couple years ago, I had some extra time on my hands. I was writing and applying for jobs but in my downtime, I was cooking and watching food-related TV. Somehow, I stumbled on “A Chef’s Life” on PBS.
The show follows the life of Vivian Howard, a chef who grew up on a farm in Eastern North Carolina, fled north as soon as she could, and went to culinary school and had a soup business in New York for a while. When she tired of city life, she moved back to Eastern North Carolina to open a restaurant with her husband, Ben.
There’s plenty to like about “A Chef’s Life.” It shows the ups and downs of the restaurant business, especially when you’re trying to own and operate a restaurant with family. It offers a good look at Southern cuisine and its origins by talking to people of different backgrounds and perspectives.
Most of all, though, it tells a story of homecoming and how redemptive that can be. Howard often says that she never expected to come back to the South, but now she’s there and thriving. Similarly, I never thought I’d come back to the Midwest for an extended period of time, but now that I’m here I’m reconnecting with Midwestern food culture and restaurants and more fully realizing my dream of becoming a food writer.
Last Hanukkah, my mom gave me Howard’s cookbook, “Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South.” I love the cookbook because instead of organizing dishes by courses, it sorts them by ingredients. Each chapter is devoted to a different fruit, vegetable, or item of produce that plays an important role in Southern cooking.
I flipped to the “Blueberry” chapter for the Fourth of July and decided to make Howard’s blueberry cobbler. I’ve actually never made cobbler, which seems strange but I guess I get distracted by other fruit desserts such as crisp.
Cobbler could be my new favorite fruit dessert. Essentially all it is is pie filling with cornmeal sugar cookies on top. How can that not be good?
The answer is, it always will be good unless you burn it. The whole point of cobbler though is to let it sit in the oven for a while until the fruit gets thick and bubbly. The cornmeal topping should turn the dark side of golden brown, as Howard notes in the recipe, to ensure maximum crunch and flavor.
My mom commented as I was making the recipe that it took a lot of time. It is a little involved but the good news is, it doesn’t require many ingredients and most of the steps are easy. The only tricky part is making a fruit syrup to coat the blueberries.
For that part, I’d recommend bringing the fruit juice to a boil then reducing the heat on the stove to low. Let the mixture simmer, reducing the heat more if necessary, until it gets thick and coats the back of a spoon. This will probably take at least thirty minutes and possibly an hour.
Still, it’s worth it because the resulting cobbler is so good, you’ll want to eat it all in one sitting. It’s sweet and tart, and crunchy and slightly salty with cornmeal cookies on top. I served my cobbler with vanilla and lavender ice cream, which I’d highly recommend. Ice cream and cobbler are made for each other.
In other news, it’s finally the weekend. Having the Fourth of July in the middle of the week made it feel like it started over again. I’m looking forward to a leisurely weekend with some time spent outside, as long as it’s not too hot.
Here’s a song to get you started on your cobbler or weekend revelry.
Blueberry Cobbler from “Deep Run Roots” by Vivian Howard
*I used Howard’s instructions and ingredients verbatim.
for the blueberry filling:
2 pounds of very ripe blueberries (imperfect fruit is okay here)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
zest of 2 lemons, removed with a microplane
4 Tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp salt
for the cornmeal sugar-cookie crust:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup cornmeal
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1 Tbsp light brown sugar
1 large egg
2 tsp vanilla extract
Make the filling: Put all the ingredients in a large bowl and press down with the back of a spoon to burst about half the berries. Stir it all together and cover. Let the berries and sugar hang out in the refrigerator for about 2 hours or overnight, stirring when it’s convenient.
After about 2 hours, lots of juice will have leached out of your fruit. Strain the juice and add it to a small saucepan. Reduce the juice by half, or until it’s nice and syrupy. Add the syrupy stuff back to your fruit and stir to combine. It should coat and cling to the fruit like that scary cherry-pie filling from the can.
Make the crust: Combine the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl. Cream together the butter and sugars in a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until light and fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla and paddle to incorporate. Slowly add the dry mixture till it’s just incorporated.
Remove the dough from the bowl, cover it well with plastic wrap, and let it rest. The cookie dough can be made several days in advance. You could even make a larger batch, freeze it, and whip it out when you have some dying fruit or unexpected guests on your hands.
Assemble the cobbler: Butter you 9×11 inch baking dish and spoon the fruit velvet into it. Alternatively, if you have a lot of cute dishes you’d like to use, make sure they can stand the oven and go for it. What’s important is the filling-to-topping ratio. For every 1 1/2 inches of filling, you want 1/2 inch of cookie crust. If your dishes go deeper, just increase both using the same ratio.
If your topping is chilled, allow it to come to room temperature. Generally for something like this, you would be instructed to flour your work surface and roll out the dough, but for this recipe, that doesn’t really work. So just take your hands, grab a nice ball of the soft, kind of sticky dough, and flatten it between your palms until it’s approximately 1/2 inch thick. Lay that flattened, irregular disk on top of the fruit and move on to your next handful. The goal is to pretty much cover the filling without overlap but with very little exposed fruit in between.
Place the baking dish on top of a larger cookie sheet because, chances are, it’s going to bubble over, and that’s a good thing (unless I’m washing the dishes). Bake it at 350 degrees F for about an hour. The top should be on the dark side of golden brown with crispy-looking edges. Serve warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.