Taming Sweet Southern Favorites

by Rebecca Cohen
Antoinette Bruno
April 2015

How does a Yankee chef, Boston born and bred, become a Southern sweets aficionado without ever crossing the Mason Dixon? At Boston’s Hungry Mother, Rising Star Pastry Chef Rachel Sundet draws on a trifecta of considerations to give diners a taste of down-home cuisine while keeping them on their toes with a mix of familiar Northeastern products and classic Southern staples.

Diving into tomes such as 1824’s The Virginia House-Wife and reading up on old-school recipes and kitchen techniques, Sundet soon realized that most Southern desserts had one thing in common—sugar, and lots of it. “Southern desserts are insanely sweet. That’s not so much of a Northeast thing, so I’ve done a lot of tweaking recipes, balancing sugar, adding tang, adding salt, so they fit my taste a little more.” Take her chocolate chess pie with malted yogurt chantilly and cocoa nib brittle. Sundet has reworked a traditionally consists of nothing but sugar, butter, eggs, and cornmeal combined in a tooth-achingly sweet custard—comprised mostly of sugar, butter, eggs, and cornmeal baked in a pie crust—and transformed it into a lusciously earthy, tangy mouthful. The trick is the addition of unsweetened chocolate, cocoa powder, and sour cream to the custard, and the use of balancing elements such as acidic yogurt and dark cocoa nibs.

Sundet’s studies have yielded a wealth of new additions to her pantry. “A few quintessential Southern ingredients have been a lot of fun to experiment with,” she says. Sorghum syrup, made from the sorghum plant in the same way cane syrup is made from cane sugar, adds floral and grassy notes when used in place of corn syrup in desserts like pecan pie and marshmallows. Sundet even makes sorghum butter to go on the house cornbread. Benne seeds, the heirloom granddaddy of the modern sesame seed, add a umami-ness to pastry creams and brittles, and pair particularly well with chocolate. Black walnuts lend an unexpectedly assertive floral note when used in place of conventional walnuts. “[These flavors] are just different enough from what people are used to that they’re interesting, but not off-putting.”

In addition to Southern traditions and personal style, Sundet’s recipe development relies upon a second key consideration: local product availability. Last fall, with other local fruits beginning to wane, Sudnet began to play with cranberries. After preserving them, and dehydrating them, she moved on to a less common technique among pastry chefs: pickling. “Having an unexpected flavor to lift that sugar element is something that works well for me.” The puckery pickled berries get paired with silken salted butterscotch custard, cranberry-sparkling wine granité (see page tktkt for the recipe), dehydrated cranberries, and chantilly cream. A thoroughly refined take on humble butterscotch pudding, this dessert is equal parts indulgence and refreshment, with the textural interplay and the brightness of the vinegar and salt offsetting the richness of the custard.

Sundet has not only reworked the flavor profiles of these desserts, she’s also updated the techniques behind them. A key tool in her modern arsenal is her CVap oven, which turns out custards that would make an Englishman cry. “The first time [Chef Barry Maiden] and I were talking about the ways we could use it, I made a custard, baked it, and we both took a spoonful and looked at each other with the same look on our faces. It was the best texture you could ask for.” The butterscotch custard benefits from this oven’s micro-manageable steam heat settings, as does a buttermilk cheesecake made with product from local dairy Animal Farm, and a steamed plum upside down cake inspired by Sundet’s Anglo roots.

Four and a half years into the position, for Sundet it’s no longer about reproducing time-honored recipes, but using them as a springboard for her own original ideas. “We changed the menu format a few months ago … we’ve tried to kick everything up a little bit and refine them more. With that shift we’ve been doing more intricate plate ups, desserts with more components. Maybe they’re not quite as familiar as something you’d find on a Southern table, but the inspiration is there.”

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