Sophie Kerr, one of the patron saints of Washington College, in Chestertown, wrote very popular women’s fiction in the early twentieth century. She grew up on the Eastern Shore and started her career in New York, writing magazine pieces, editing the famous Women’s Home Companion, while writing books, plays and short stories. Sophie Kerr was wildly successful in her field, and her financial legacy continues to endow an annual literary prize at Washington College. This year the Sophie Kerr Prize is $63,912, and will be given to one lucky, ambitious student writer on Friday, May 17. Here are some recipes for a jubilant celebration. Please add lots of good Champagne.
Sophie Kerr’s fiction is littered with plucky heroines, and her food writing is full of great regional, American dishes. In the Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Cookery, Kerr wrote a section called, “American Cooks are Good Cooks”, countering arguments that American foods were hopelessly provincial, and lacked the subtleties and sophistication of European gourmet dishes. Stuff and nonsense! Gingerbread, spoonbread, strawberries, clam chowder (with or without tomatoes) – all-American dishes that could turn everyone in the twentieth (and twenty-first) into foodies.
Here is one of Kerr’s recipes from The Best I Ever Ate, by June Platt and Sophie Kerr Underwood, 1953:
“Cleaned and capped strawberries are lightly sugared, then chilled for two hours in a mixture of one-half fresh strained orange juice and one-half Curaçao. Serve with heavy cream sweetened stingily, whipped and flavored with vanilla.” That is a writer’s recipe.
There have been many American newspaper and magazine writers who have reliably enlivened our food culture. A few of my favorites are: Nora Ephron, Alex Witchel, Ruth Reichl. (Disclaimer: I am currently reading Ruth Reichl’s latest memoir, Save Me the Plums, and it is terrific! Go grab a copy!)
Nora Ephron, the food writer, novelist, and filmmaker, was a powerhouse of creativity. She was witty, acerbic, clear-eyed and romantic. She could cook. And bake. https://offtheshelf.com/2016/07/reading-nora-12-essential-books-for-every-nora-ephron-fan/
Nora Ephron’s Famous Peach Pie
Preheat oven to 425°F.
1 1/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter
2 tablespoons sour cream
3 egg yolks
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons flour
1/3 cup sour cream
3 peeled and sliced peaches
Put first 4 ingredients into a food processor and blend until a ball is formed. Pat out into a buttered pie plate. Bake 10 minutes at 425° F. Remove from oven. Beat 3 egg yolks slightly. Combine with 1 cup sugar, flour and sour cream. Arrange peaches in crust and pour egg mixture over peaches. Cover with foil. Reduce oven to 350° and bake 45 minutes. Remove the foil and bake 15 minutes or more until filling is done. Yumsters!
Alex Witchel is a James Beard Award-nominated staff writer at The New York Times. She has written a poignant memoir about her mother’s decline into dementia, All Gone, but she has also written some hilarious stories, one about trying to find an ashtray in Martha Stewart’s daughter’s carefully curated minimalist hotel: Girls Only. She also knows quite a lot about food and writes a monthly column, Feed Me for the Times. This will be just the thing for a festive literary celebration:
Lemon Mousse for a Crowd
From Alex Witchel, The New York Times Magazine, May 24, 2006
1 cup egg whites (from about 8 eggs)
2 cups powdered sugar
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (from about 2 1/2 large lemons)
1 cup light corn syrup
3 cups whipping cream
In a double boiler or bowl set over a pot of simmering water, combine the egg whites, sugar and lemon juice. Whisk the mixture over the simmering water until smooth, airy and very thick, about 5 minutes. Add corn syrup and whisk just to combine, then remove from heat. Transfer egg mixture to a large mixing bowl. Cover and refrigerate about 1 hour.
Remove from refrigerator and add whipping cream. Using an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the mixture until thick enough to hold stiff peaks, about 2 minutes. Spoon the mousse into dessert cups or bowls, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate 15 minutes to 1 hour before serving.
Ruth Reichl, another writer who will enliven any literary soirée, has been a chef, a journalist, a food critic, the last editor-in-chief at Gourmet Magazine and a television producer for PBS. She will make you weep with delight when we celebrate the latest Sophie Kerr Prize winner. Follow her haiku-like tweets on Twitter if you would like to smile every day: (@ruthreichl)
Ruth Reichl’s Giant Chocolate Cake
FOR THE CAKE:
1 ⅛ cups/100 grams unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process), plus more for dusting the pans
¾ cup/175 milliliters whole milk
1 ½ teaspoons/7 1/2 milliliters vanilla
3 cups/375 grams flour
2 teaspoons/10 grams baking soda
1 ½ cups/340 grams (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 ½ cups/356 grams dark brown sugar
1 ½ cups/300 grams granulated sugar
FOR THE FROSTING:
5 ounces/143 grams unsweetened chocolate
¾ cups/170 grams (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 cup/225 grams whipped cream cheese
1 teaspoon/5 milliliters vanilla
2 ½ cups/312 grams confectioners’ sugar
Heat the oven to 350°F. Butter two large rectangular baking pans (13 by 9 by 2 inches) and line them with waxed or parchment paper. Butter the paper and dust the pans with cocoa (you could use flour, but cocoa adds color and flavor).
Measure the cocoa powder into a bowl, and whisk in 1 1/2 cups of boiling water until it is smooth, dark and so glossy it reminds you of chocolate pudding. Whisk in the milk and vanilla. In another bowl, whisk the flour with the baking soda and 3/4 teaspoon salt.
Put the butter into the bowl of a stand mixer and beat in the sugars until it is light, fluffy and the color of coffee with cream (about 5 minutes). One at a time, add the eggs, beating for about 20 seconds after each before adding the next. On low speed, beat in the flour mixture in 3 batches and the cocoa mixture in 2, alternating flour-cocoa-flour-cocoa-flour.
Pour half of the batter into each pan and smooth the tops. Bake in the middle of the oven until a tester comes out clean, 25 to 35 minutes. Let the pans rest on cooling racks for 2 minutes, then turn the cakes onto racks to cool completely before frosting.
Make the frosting: Chop the chocolate and melt it in a double boiler. Let it cool so that you can comfortably put your finger in it. While it’s cooling, mix the butter with the whipped cream cheese. Add the chocolate, the vanilla and a dash of salt, and mix in the confectioners’ sugar until it looks like frosting, at least 5 minutes. Assemble the cake, spreading about a third of the frosting on one of the cooled layers, then putting the second layer on top and frosting the assembled cake. https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1017692-ruth-reichls-giant-chocolate-cake
That is probably enough sweetness for one celebration. Good luck to all you Sophie Kerr contenders!
“I don’t think any day is worth living without thinking about what you’re going to eat next at all times.”
― Nora Ephron
“Part of the power of home cooking is that everything tastes better when someone else makes it for you.”
― Alex Witchel
“Pull up a chair. Take a taste. Come join us. Life is so endlessly delicious.”
― Ruth Reichl
This is charming: https://www.washcoll.edu/departments/english/sophie-kerr-legacy/