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Joni Woolf: ‘A Real Southern Cook in Her Savannah Kitchen’

That’s the name of a new cookbook written by Dora Charles of Savannah, and it’s like no other cookbook I’ve seen. Having read it from back to front, I feel safe in saying it is like no cookbook that YOU have seen either. And one you will want for your very own.
Dora Charles grew up in Savannah, and learned to cook at her grandmother’s side. Her mother had died when she was one-and-a-half, and her father’s mother came from the country to live with them, and help care for the family. The first 20 pages of the cookbook tell the story of Dora’s family — of her ancestors’ lives in slavery, then in the sharecropping culture, and finally into life in Savannah, where her father bought a large home on Duffy Street and raised his family. Her grandmother began teaching her to cook when she was six years old. When she was 12, her grandmother died, and Dora became the cook for the entire family. The story itself is worth the price of the cookbook, but, oh, the recipes: they are priceless. And you won’t find them in other books.
Dora says, “I’ve taught more than 60 people to cook, but I didn’t hand them recipes. In fact, the ones in this book are the first recipes I’ve ever written down, except for the large quantity ones I was asked to write down after 15 years in Paula Deen’s restaurants. I just eyeball the food to death, feel it, and tastetastetaste.”
Dora expresses gratitude to Paula Deen for recognizing her skills, and for “setting me on a path to fulfill my dreams before I even knew I had them.”
My daughter and I have tried several of the recipes — all good. But the one I will go back to again and again is a recipe (with a story, of course) for pound cake. It is a pound cake like no other.  Dora tells the story of how she came to have the recipe, recovered by her Aunt Laura from a woman the aunt was caring for in a nursing home. Spoken of by the woman — Miss Mary Martin — over and over, the recipe was surely a grand one, and eventually the aunt came to possess it. So Dora calls it “Lost-and-Found Lemon Pound Cake,” and it is a treasure. Don’t lose it.

Lost-and-Found Lemon Pound Cake (in Dora’s words)
1 pound good creamy butter (I use Kerrygold), softened
1 (1-pound) box confectioners’ sugar
1 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon pure lemon extract (or 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice plus the grated zest of the lemon)
3 cups cake flour (Miss Martin specifies Swan’s Down)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
8 large eggs, separated while cold, then brought to room temperature
Confectioners’ sugar for dusting
1. Set the oven to 325 degrees F. Spray a heavy 10-inch Bundt pan well with baking spray.
2. In a large bowl, with an electric mixer on medium speed, cream the butter until light and fluffy. Slowly add the confectioners’ sugar and beat for several minutes, until the mixture is satiny. Add the sour cream, vanilla, and lemon extract, if using, and mix well.
3. Sift the flour and baking soda three times. Add 1 cup of the flour mixture to the batter and mix in well. Then mix in half the egg yolks. Mix in another cup of flour and the remaining yolks. Add the rest of the flour. Don’t overmix, or the cake will be tough. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and the beaters and do the final mixing by hand.
4. In a large bowl, with clean beaters, beat the egg whites to stiff peaks. Gently add the whites to the batter, folding them in with a wooden spoon or a rubber spatula — just barely mix everything together.
5. Scrape the batter evenly into the Bundt pan, rotating the pan as you go and twisting it to level the batter. Rap the pan sharply on the countertop about 30 times, rotating the pan slightly each time, to eliminate any air pockets.
6. Bake for 30 minutes. If the cake is getting too brown on top, turn the oven down to 300 degrees F., then test again in 15 minutes. The cake is done when the top springs back when lightly touched and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes to an hour in all.
7. Cool on rack for 15 minutes, then run a knife around the rim and center tube and invert the cake onto the rack to cool completely.
8. The cake will keep for at least a week at room temperature if it’s well-wrapped; it also freezes well.
(Note: We cooked an hour at 325 degrees F. and it was perfect.)

Light as air, and sweet as fine sugar, this cake will garner all kinds of compliments wherever you take it. But don’t stop with the cake. Buy the book; read a compelling story by a remarkable woman who knows, quite simply, how to cook.
(Printed with permission of Ms. Charles and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, publishers)

Joni Woolf, a writer and editor, now lives in Schley County, having moved from her home in Macon several years ago. Contact her at indigojoni@windstream.net