Susie, one of our nieces, mailed me a cookbook that she thought I would like. She was right. Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine by Norma Jean and Carole Darden is filled with family recipes, reminiscences and stories of a remarkable African-American family.
Inspired by a chance remark from a guest at a dinner party, the two sisters began a journey that took them back to places they remembered from childhood where they were welcomed by relatives and friends who shared recipes and memories. Their grandfather, Charles Henry Darden, was born a slave. In 1868 at the age of fourteen he appeared in Wilson, North Carolina where he supported himself by traveling door to door and repairing things for housewives and homeowners.
His lack of family and references at first worked against him, but his diligence, honesty and thrift impressed the parents of a girl he fell in love with and married. So began the history of the Darden family that Norma Jean and Carole record in their book. Charles Henry or “Papa” Darden soon opened a shop to sell produce from his garden and the wines he made as a hobby. The first recipe in the book is for his Strawberry Wine.
There are hundreds more from aunts (and some uncles) scattered across North Carolina, Alabama, Virginia and from the Sampson family in Ohio where their mother was born. Here is one for sweet potato biscuits from Aunt Annie, Papa and Momma Darden’s oldest daughter.
Sweet potato biscuits are a staple in the south. The husband of one of our nieces grew up in North Carolina. He tells me that super markets there sell packaged sweet potato biscuits, though he says they don’t taste as good as homemade ones.
I vaguely remember eating sweet potato biscuits on at least one occasion in Atlanta or possibly in New Orleans many years ago and wanting to try making them myself. The little book from Susie inspired me, and now I know how. You really should try them.
They are delicious hot from the oven or warmed in the microwave and slathered with butter.
1 sweet potato (large enough to make 1 cup mashed)
1/2 tsp. salt
2 cups all-purpose flour + extra for kneading
3 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. salt
3 T brown sugar
Dash of cinnamon
8 T (1/2 cup or 1 stick) butter
2/3 cup buttermilk
Peel a medium sweet potato, cut it into six pieces and boil them in a two-quart saucepan with a half teaspoon of salt until the pieces are fork tender, about twenty minutes. Drain and mash them thoroughly.
Preheat the oven to 400º and melt a stick of butter. Wash your hands, as once again you will be handling dough. Grease a cookie sheet large enough to hold two dozen biscuits or use parchment paper cut to fit the cookie sheet.
Beat the melted butter into a cup of mashed sweet potato in a large mixing bowl.
Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon into a medium bowl. Add three tablespoons of brown sugar and thoroughly blend the sugar into the flour mixture with a fork.
Stir a third of the dry ingredients into the sweet potatoes and beat until the batter is smooth. Beat half the buttermilk into the batter, then add the next third of dry ingredients and beat until smooth. Beat in the rest of the buttermilk, then stir in the last of the dry ingredients to make a dough that just starts to come away from the sides of the bowl. If necessary, stir in a little more flour to get the dough to the right consistency.
The dough will be sticky, so generously flour your work surface and hands. Using a spatula, scrape the dough from the bowl and turn it to cover the outside with flour. Flatten the dough slightly with your hand, then roll it to a generous half inch thickness. Use a cookie cutter or water glass to make biscuits two and half or three inches in diameter. Space them about an inch apart on the baking sheet. Gather the trimmings, press them together and roll the dough again until you have formed all the biscuits.
Put the baking sheet on a top shelf in the oven for fifteen to eighteen minutes until the biscuits are lightly browned. Serve them hot from the oven with plenty of butter.
NOTES: These biscuits have more sugar than ordinary baking powder biscuits, so they tend to brown too much on the bottom. The challenge is to bake them so they are done but not too dark on the bottom. Baking them high in the oven on parchment paper seems to help.