< Southern Basics

Simple Southern Desserts

When you plan a get-together in the South, it's often a "covered dish dinner," "potluck," or "dinner on the ground"—all popular and easy ways for large groups to get together for a celebration or for simple camaraderie. And the perfect reason to bake up a special dessert. Here are tips for making some of the more popular treats you might expect to see on a table spread.

Tips for Baking Sheet Cakes

If you're looking for the perfect dish for a big gathering, you can't go wrong with an old-fashioned sheet cake. Making one layer means you don't have to portion batter into several pans. And because the cake can be frosted and served right out of the pan, you don't have to worry about getting it out of the pan, stacking layers, and frosting evenly.

  • Sheet cakes are almost always baked in 13x9-inch pans, and there are several kinds of pans—basic aluminum, nonstick, disposable aluminum, or glass baking dishes. They will all work fine—just remember to reduce the baking temperature 25°F when using dark nonstick or glass pans. Dark surfaces and glass absorb heat, so they cook more quickly than a shiny pan.
  • Oven temperature is important when baking a cake. If you don't have an oven thermometer, get an inexpensive one at the grocery store, and check the temperature of your oven before you bake.
  • It's a good idea to measure out all the ingredients before you start. It makes mixing much easier, and you're less likely to leave something out.
  • To cut a sheet cake neatly, use a 2-foot piece of sewing thread. Hold thread tightly stretched and draw the straight thread down through the cake. Then, for easier slicing, chill cakes with creamy icing and cut with a thin knife. Sometimes a wet knife will make a cleaner cut through the icing.
  • Choose your frosting wisely. Unfrosted cakes will keep 4 to 6 months in the freezer; frosted cakes can keep up to 2-3 months, depending on the frosting.
    • Cakes with fluffy cooked frosting should be eaten the same day they are made.
    • Cakes with creamy icings may be frozen for 3 to 4 months.
    • Cakes with buttercream frosting should be kept in a cake keeper or under an inverted bowl.
    • Cakes with whipped cream or cream cheese frosting need to stay in the refrigerator.

The Basics for Baking Brownies and Bars

Brownies and bar cookies offer the added convenience of one-time, one-pan baking. As with all baked goods, using fresh, top-quality ingredients is key.

Here are a few other tips to keep in mind when you’re baking brownies or cookie bars:

  • Use the size pan called for in the recipe so that brownies and bars bake in the recommended time and don’t turn out too dry or too gooey.
  • Check for doneness at the minimum bake time. It just takes a few minutes for brownies and bars to overbake.
  • Choose shiny metal pans because they reflect heat, preventing the crust from getting too hard and brown. If a dark, nonstick pan is your only choice, reduce the temperature by 25°F.
  • Cool bars in pan on wire rack completely before cutting. Bars may be transported and cut right from the pan. Using a plastic or dull knife will prevent scratching of your pan.
  • Store brownies and bars in airtight containers. Different flavored bars should be stored in separate containers. If stored together, they absorb flavors and all start tasting the same.
  • Most brownies and bars freeze beautifully. In fact, they are much easier to cut when still very cold. Wrap tightly and freeze up to 6 months. Thaw uncovered at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours.

Brownie Dress-Ups

In the South, we believe in adding a little personality to everything we do. Use these simple tricks for turning an ordinary batch of brownies into a party favorite.

  • Start with a brownie mix and sprinkle the batter with nuts or stir in almonds, walnuts, peanuts, macadamia nuts, or cashews.
  • Check out the baking aisle for brownie fix-ups, from peanut butter chips to miniature marshmallows to white chocolate chunks to English toffee bits. Serious chocolate lovers may opt for an extra handful of chocolate chips stirred into the batter.
  • Add cinnamon or other easy flavoring to the brownie mix batter, such as instant coffee powder, peppermint, or almond extract.
  • To dress up brownies, don't forget glazes and icings. Start with a brownie mix, and then make your own icing; or rely on prepared varieties from the grocery store.

How to Bake Perfect Pies

The perfect pie needs to have a perfect flaky piecrust, which is the result of cutting shortening into flour in small pieces or "cutting in." Cutting in means to distribute small chunks of a solid fat (butter or shortening) into flour before adding the liquid (usually milk or water). You can do this with gentle mixing and rolling, using a pastry blender or two knives in a crisscross cutting motion.

This technique can be used for all sorts of baking, but to make flaky piecrusts, you'll need to cut the shortening into the flour in two steps before baking:

  • Step 1: For tenderness, cut half the shortening into flour in small pieces.
  • Step 2: For flakiness, cut remaining shortening in until it's the size of small peas.