JOni Woolf: Any time is time for sweets

Published 2:54 pm Saturday, March 23, 2019

Looking back over the sweets that have been featured in this column, I find lots of cakes, but only a few pies and cookies. And since I’m having so much fun with Rich Bragg’s new book, “The Best Cook in the World,” loaned to me by Gretchen Longan, I can’t resist featuring a few more of his mother’s recipes — one for pecan pie and one for tea cakes. And I’m adding Gretchen’s mom’s pralines, which are simply scrumptious. The way that Bragg talks about his mother’s cooking is enough to whet any appetite.
On the day in his childhood memory that she made this pecan pie, he says, “I mostly remember the smell. Later, much later, I would recognize it as a blend of butter, roasting pecans, melting brown sugar, vanilla flavoring, and more. When she pulled the thing from the oven she showed it to me, a perfect pecan pie, at or near the top or the pinnacle of what a great Southern cook can do with dessert.” Of course, as soon as she put it out to cool, and left the room, he cut himself what he called “a slab,” not a piece, “as if it were calling my name,” he says. Though he nearly made himself sick on the huge piece he had eaten, he was not punished. She simply said, “You can’t have no more.” That piece lives in his memory. This recipe will live in yours.

Pecan Pie by Margaret Bragg
1 ½ cups chopped pecans
1 cup brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
1 stick butter
2 tablespoons flour
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup pecan halves
1 pie shell
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Mix everything except the pecan halves and the pie shell. If it seems a little thick, you can thin the mixture with about 2 tablespoons of water. Then pour it into the pie shell. Top with the half pecans in whatever design you wish, or just eat them. Bake for 45 minutes, but check it after 40. Let it set, under guard, for 2 hours, covered only with a clean cloth. Do not cover it with anything airtight. It needs to breathe. According to Bragg, some people eat this with ice cream, “but that’s just crazy talk.”

Tea Cakes by Ava Bundrum (Bragg’s grandmother) and passed down
½ cup butter
1 egg
1 ¼ cups sugar
½ teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons buttermilk
Enough plain flour for a soft dough
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. First, cream the butter and add the beaten egg and sugar. Dissolve the baking soda in the buttermilk, and in a large bowl, gradually work in the flour and baking powder until you have a soft dough. Only then work in the vanilla. Roll out the dough — thinner than biscuit, thicker than pie dough, and cut the cakes out. If you don’t have a lid from a can of Bruton snuff [I am not making this up], use a cookie cutter, slightly bigger around than a half dollar. These will cook quickly — 8 to 10 minutes, till the middle rises, and the edges flatten and turn brown. Store them in a cloth sack if you can. You could, of course, use self-rising flour, but I wouldn’t. Some things were not intended for a modern world.

Now for a sweet, simple, straightforward recipe from my friend Gretchen Longan:

Mom’s Pralines
1 lb. light brown sugar
1 cup cream
2 cups pecan halves
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
Combine all ingredients except vanilla. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until soft ball stage. Do not undercook. Remove from heat and add vanilla. Cook 5 minutes. Stir until mixture begins to thicken and coats pecans. Quickly drop from a tablespoon onto lightly greased foil or wax paper.

Now treat yourself to a sugar high as Bragg did when he ate that slab of his mother’s pecan pie. Or on a healthier note, get the book, and just read about it. You’ll find yourself smiling as you remember.

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