Fall and Winter Holidays will soon be upon us- folks are already decorating and frankly, I’ve been trying out a few old but reliable treats – you know, party food, maybe an easy dessert or two… I had just purchased some fresh shelled pecans, I thought of the classic tea time-Pecan Tassies and the famous Mississippi Mud Cakes of my youth.
While I was making them, I started thinking of two Southern cooks I knew- they were next door neighbors- both had large wonderful homes, both loved to cook, both were about the same ages and mostly ran in the same social circles- I say mostly because Mary Jim had grown up in the same area as her mother, grandmother, aunts and uncles- had close friends she’d known all her life- her neighbor Joy Nell wasn’t from here… you know what I mean. In the South, we tend to be close knit; when someone moves in from somewhere else- well, we’re nice to them but… I think you get the picture.
Joy Nell had moved from Tennessee- close to Memphis I think- but most of her family were from further north in Kentucky. Mary Jim was a classic honey blonde, who enjoyed Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Andy Williams. It wasn’t unusual to hear Mary Jim humming ‘Moon River’ while she cooked. Joy Nell was a natural brunette who’d enhanced her hair to a much darker shade- more like Connie Francis and Elizabeth Taylor. Joy Nell greatly admired Priscilla Presley. For one thing- Priscilla dyed her hair to match Elvis’ hair. Joy Nell’s hair was styled a lot like Elvis hair as I recall, pompadour like. She showed a bit more va va vroom when she cooked. Sometimes Mary Jim laughed when Joy Nell belted out an Elvis song as she vacuumed, but thought it was just tasteless to hear Joy Nell cooking and singing along with Connie Francis….‘Where the Boys Are…’ Joy Nell seemed to get a bit dramatic, if you know what I mean. Well, it just wasn’t done among Mary Jim’s friends, who were into planning bridal teas, bridge parties, served on the bereavement committee and altar guild. Mary Jim’s friends were involved in more sedate activities.
It must be noted- Mary Jim called on Joy Nell more than once to help with things like Cheese Straws, Tea Sandwiches and oh yes, Pecan Tassies. No one could match Joy Nell’s recipe for Pecan Tassies. Generous to a fault, Joy Nell contributed her recipe to garden clubs and Junior League cookbooks- especially her Pecan Tassies. The cookbook recipe, while very good- just never turned out quite as good as Joy Nell’s. No one could figure it out. ‘I made that recipe 4 times and not once, not once I tell you, did they ever hold a candle to Joy Nell’s!’
Not one to be outdone-Mary Jim was determined to discover the mystery, she asked Joy Nell to show her how to make Pecan Tassies, the classic southern tea time pastry. She arrived in a starched white blouse, permanent press slacks and Italian loafers- only to find Joy Nell in a Ship and Shore® blouse tucked into bright petal pushers with highly decorated straw sandals she’d bought at the Straw Market in Nassau.
Sure enough, Joy Nell pulled out all of the ingredients, the exact ones from the latest garden club cookbook to make the pastry and filling; when to Mary Jim’s shock and amazement- Joy Nell brought out a mason jar of pecans soaking in amber liquid. Joy Nell said she had a distant kinship to a famous Baptist preacher from Kentucky named Elijah Craig…I believe it was on her momma’s side… he was most likely a primitive Baptist because Joy Nell held up that mason jar like she was handling a rattlesnake! Mary Jim gasped what is that? ‘Why darlin’ I’m gonna measure out my pecans for the tassies!’ That’s right! the secret to Joy Nell’s tipsy tassies wasn’t just any ol’ pecans…no, honey they were soaked in Bourbon!
Before you could say Elijah Craig, Mary Jim started her own batch of cooking pecans… famous for her Mississippi Mud Cake… Mary Jim renamed it Mississippi Mudslide! Between the two neighbors, I’m not sure the secret of either recipe was ever shared! I tried reproducing their famous recipes and they came close… Now, the truth is- you too can revolutionize- even your plain old Pecan Pie…just bake according to directions, when it’s hot- sprinkle Bourbon over the top of the Pecan Pie- the sizzle lets you know- the alcohol has burned off and the flavor is enhanced!
Camellia’s Tipsy Tassies
Tart Shells: Pecan Tassies generally a cream cheese crust, which generally consists of 3 oz of cream cheese and 1 stick of butter softened to room temperature- work in 1 cup of all purpose flour and chill. *You can make or buy your favorite pie crust… chill or roll into small balls and press into well greased mini muffin tins, feel free to use a small round cutter and fit into tins to form small tart shells. (I generally use whatever I have or even purchased pie crust in the refrigerator section of the market.) These can be made in advance and kept in the freezer. Here’s what they look like:
Re-chill once tart shells are formed. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. I have excellent results when I partially pre-bake the tart shells for 3-5 minutes. Filling: Soak 3/4 cup of chopped pecans in 1/4 cup of Bourbon until most of the liquid is absorbed. In a bowl, mix 3/4 cup of Brown Sugar, a dash of salt, 1 large egg- beaten, 1 Tbs. of melted Butter, drained soaked pecans with 1 teaspoon of remaining bourbon and 1 teaspoon of vanilla. Mix well. Fill tart shells 3/4 full of filling. Bake 20-25 minutes. *30 minutes may be required if you decide not to partially prebake tart shells. Makes 2 1/2 dozen Tipsy Tassies. These are not overly sweet- and actually make a wonderful addition to appetizer trays. For dessert tassies, I often drizzle chocolate or caramel sauce over them for decoration and additional flavor.
Camellia’s Mississippi Mudslide
For cake base: You will need to soak 1 1/2 cups of rough chopped pecans in 1/2 cup of Bourbon until most of liquid is absorbed. *note: If you think ahead, you can keep pecans in a sealed plastic bag or jar of Bourbon in a cool location – ratio is 3 to 1. The remaining Bourbon may be used again for more pecans. Shaking the jar occasionally to make sure all nuts are covered.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 16x11x1 baking Sheet Pan, dusted lightly with powdered cocoa. Set aside. Melt 2 sticks of Butter; add 1/2 cup of cocoa, stir. Add 1 teaspoon of instant coffee, 4 well beaten large eggs; add 1 1/2 cup of flour, a pinch of salt and mix well. Add 1 1/2 cups of Bourbon Pecans and mix well. Pour mixture in prepared sheet pan and bake 15 minutes. Spread 1 small bag of miniature marshmallows over hot cake. Let this set a while, the marshmallows should be melted slightly. Press marshmallows lightly with hands to make sure they adhere to warm cake before *Some suggest running the hot cake and marshmallows back in the warm oven, being careful not to toast marshmallows. Others suggest allowing the cake to cool slightly then spreading the cake with one jar of marshmallow cream, instead of mini marshmallows. Neither method is necessary for a true Mudslide effect.)
While the marshmallows are softening- make Mudslide Glaze: Combine 3 Tbs. of cocoa, 1 box of confectioners sugar (16 oz. sift if necessary to remove lumps). Add 6 Tbs. of half and half (or evaporated milk or plain whole milk your choice) and 1 teaspoon of pure vanilla extract. Mix until smooth. Pour thick chocolate glaze immediately over cake and marshmallows while still warm. Spreading as evenly as possible. Cool and cut into squares. Depending on size of squares- this makes several decadents dozens. *Note – some wonderful bakers have told me that they occasionally take a shortcut of using a very good brownie mix, adding a bit more cocoa and the teaspoon of instant coffee, I add Bourbon pecans for a very good Mississippi Mudslide otherwise known affectionately as Mississippi Mud Cake. Some also make this cake with no miniature marshmallows just icing which is an extremely good cake as well.
The secret ingredient these wonderful bakers rarely tell you is about soaking those pecans in Bourbon! Southern food is what binds us together and there are some good cooks who have a few tricks up their sleeves to make ordinary Southern food- extraordinary! And don’t expect to find these little tips in cookbooks- great Southern cooks barely think about it- they have that extraordinary talent of just knowing when something needs a pinch of salt, a hit of cayenne pepper or a sprinkle of sugar. Okay- you know this is coming… like all good Southern Tales… the story of Joy Nell and Mary Jim is part truth, part myth and part outright lies…the part about soaking those pecans? is the truth and nothing but the truth!
Love y’all, Camellia
*All photographs are obviously mine. *This is a work of humorous fiction… any resemblance of Joy Nell and Mary Jim to actual folks is merely coincidence. However, the recipes are real. Several of my older cookbooks do tell the secret of soaking pecans in bourbon and infusing dried fruits also, but it is a rare admission in Southern cookbooks!
*Elijah Craig was indeed a travelling Baptist preacher who was also a distiller of bourbon, as evidenced by his namesake Elijah Craig® Kentucky Bourbon! I just made that up about Joy Nell being distant kin but it could happen! Maker’s Mark® is also fine Kentucky Bourbon. I’m told it’s a good bourbon for drinking…I’ll take mine in Tipsy Tassies or on top of Pecan Pies thank you very much.