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Freda DeKnight (1909 – 1963) learned to love cooking as a child.  When Freda was two, her father died, and Freda’s mother, a traveling nurse, sent her two daughters to live with a South Dakota farming family. The family also happened to run a successful catering business and, with their encouragement, Freda began to develop her early interest and talent for cooking.

“The Scotts,” recalled Mrs. DeKnight, “Were famous at that time as being the finest caterers in the middle west and among the finest in the country. They had their own farm and raised most of their own products. They raised chickens, made their dairy products, did most of their canning and had the traditional country smokehouse for their own meats. They made the first Potato Chips for retail sale in that part of the country…[and]…were the inspiration for my early cooking aspirations which gave me every opportunity to absorb all of their fine recipes and rudiments of cooking, preparing food, and catering. Although Mama Scott’s education was limited, she could measure and estimate to perfection without any modern aids, and her sense of taste, her ability to create was phenomenal…”

When she grew up, Mrs. DeKnight made a career out of that early love.  Starting in 1946, her food column “A Date with a Dish” was a regular feature in Ebony Magazine.  (It was Mrs. DeKnight’s husband, noted jazz pianist René DeKnight, who came up with the name for the column.)  Two years later her cookbook was published under the same title.

Mrs. DeKnight felt that Black American cooks were wrongly identified exclusively with Southern styles of cooking.  “It is a fallacy, long disproved,” she wrote, “That Negro cooks, chefs, caterers and homemakers can adapt themselves only to the standard Southern dishes, such as fried chicken, greens, corn pone and hot breads. Like other Americans living in various sections of the country they have naturally shown a desire to become versatile in the preparation of any dish, whether it is Spanish, Italian, French, Balinese or East Indian in origin.”

Her book aimed to illustrate her point.  It is a collection of recipes from all parts of the United States and from all sorts of individuals.  There are contributions from celebrities like Lena Horne and Duke Ellington, from professional chefs, and from good home cooks.  And along with the food are interspersed the stories–profiles of the people who cooked for Mrs. De Knight and shared their recipes with her.  A Date With a Dish became a bestseller.

When the book was republished in 1962 under a new title (The Ebony Cookbook), Freda DeKnight’s vivid sketches of the personalities behind the recipes were omitted.  That would be a pity, were it not for the fact that the original book A Date With a Dish is available online in its entirety at The Hathi Digital Trust Library.  Whether you want to cook or read about cooking, Freda DeKnight’s book  has much to offer.

Gingersnap Pumpkin Pie is adapted from Mrs. Earline Hicks’ recipe in A Date With a Dish.  It  is a worthy version of its kind–a straightforward blend of pumpkin and spice with a consistency that strikes a golden mean.

The Sweet Potato Pone does not come from Mrs DeKnight’s book, but is included as a companion piece for the sake of the Thanksgiving holiday.  Unlike many pones, this one is not simply sweet potatoes dressed up in pumpkin pie ingredients.  It is a rich, complex blend of flavours intended for serving alongside the main course.

I.  Mrs. Earline Hicks’ Gingersnap Pumpkin Pie (for one 9-inch pie)

Note:  To print this recipe, or any other diplomatickitchen recipe, go to the bottom of the page, at the end of the post, and click on the icon: Print & PDF. You will have the option of printing in smaller text size and without photos.

A Timing Note:  The pie is best made a day in advance, cooled completely, then covered and refrigerated overnight, and served the following day.

Ingredients for the pie: The photo above includes ingredients that are in either the pie or the pone.

  • 1 and 1/4 cups of canned Pumpkin
  • 1/2 cup of Light Brown Sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon of Ground Cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon of Salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon of Powdered Ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon of Ground Cloves
  • 2 Eggs, beaten
  • 1 cup of Milk
  • about 7 Gingersnaps, crushed to a powder in a blender or food processor: The total amount of powdered gingersnaps should equal about 1/2 cup.
  • a partially baked 9-inch Pie Shell:  The photographed pie uses the diplomatickitchen’s recipe for pie crust described here in the previous dk post for Baroque and Traditional Pecan Pies.  The recipe and instructions for blind-baking the pie shell are repeated below, after the pie recipe, for convenient reference.

Equipment:

  • a Blender or Food Processor
  • a large Mixing Bowl
  • a Mixer, standing or hand
  • a 9-inch Pie Pan
  • Aluminum Foil
  • a Cooling Rack

1.  Preheat the oven to 450 F.

2.  In the bowl of the mixer or in a large mixing bowl, mix together the pumpkin and sugar.

3.  Add the cinnamon, salt, ginger, cloves and beaten eggs and mix well.

4.  Mix in the milk and then, the powdered gingersnaps.

5.  Pour the filling into the partially baked pie shell.  Fold strips of aluminum foil around the pie to lightly enclose the edges of the crust.  Covered in this way, the crust will brown without burning:

6.  Bake the pie at 450 F. for 10 minutes.  Reduce the oven temperature to 350 F. and continue baking the pie for 25 minutes more.

7,  Cool the pie completely on a wire rack before cutting it into slices.  The pie is best made a day in advance, covered and refrigerated overnight before serving it the following day.

Making the Pie Crust and Blind Baking it:

Ingredients for a 9-inch crust:  

  • 1 and 1/2 cups (6 and 1/2 ounces) unbleached White Flour, plus some more Flour to sprinkle on the pastry board when rolling out the dough for the crust
  • 1/4 teaspoon of Salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon of Baking Powder
  • 1/4 cup (4 Tablespoons or 2 ounces) of cold Butter, cut in pieces
  • 1/4 cup (1 and 1/2 ounces) Vegetable Shortening
  • 1 teaspoon of Cider Vinegar
  • 3 Tablespoons (1 and 1/2 ounces) Ice Water

Equipment for the crust:

  • a Food Processor fitted with the Rotary Chopping Blade is not essential but is a very convenient way to mix the pastry;  it may alternatively be mixed by hand.
  • a Pastry Board and Rolling Pin
  • a 9-inch Pie Pan
  • a piece of Parchment Paper about as large as the tart pan
  • Dried Beans or a Pie Pan that will fit down inside the one used for the pie to weigh down the crust while partially baking it before it is filled
  • a Cooling Rack

1.  Preheat the oven to 400 F.  Mix together the flour, salt and baking powder and pour them in the bowl of the processor, fitted with the rotary chopping blade.  Add the butter, cut into bits, and the shortening.  Cut the butter and shortening into the flour by pressing the Pulse button on and off until the mixture is well combined.  (The butter and shortening may instead be worked into the flour by hand until it has a crumbly texture.)

2.  Mix together the ice water and cider vinegar.  Turn on the processor and, with one hand pressed firmly down on the lid of the processor, pour the liquid slowly through the tube.  (Pressing down on the lid prevents any jerky motion of the processor as the dough forms.)  As soon as the mixture pulls away from the sides of the processor and forms a cohesive mass, turn off the machine.  (If making the pastry by hand, the liquid may be added gradually while stirring with a fork or wooden spoon.  As soon as the dough becomes cohesive, stop mixing it.)

3.  Flour your hands a little.  If the dough is made in the processor, remove the blade, scraping off any pastry that clings to it.  Collect the dough into a ball and turn it out onto a floured pastry board.  Sprinkle it with a little flour.

4.  The dough rolls out well without first chilling it.  However, dough doesn’t turn out the same every time, and if you have trouble rolling it out and transferring it to the pan, reform it into a ball and roll it out between two sheets of parchment paper.  Remove the top sheet and turn the dough out into the pan, topside down.  The remaining sheet of parchment will be on top.  Strip it off and press the dough into the pan with your fingers as usual.). But if you do not wish to roll the dough out right away, wrap it in waxed paper and refrigerate it.  Chilled pastry made with a combination of vegetable shortening and butter will need to rest for about 5 minutes at room temperature before rolling it out in order for the butter to warm up a bit.

5.  Roll out the dough to a size large enough to fit into the pan with a small overhang.  Trim the rim of the pastry and press all around the rim with the tines of a fork to form a decorative edge on the crust or make a crimped border with your fingers.

6.  Place the parchment paper in the empty unbaked shell.  Fill the parchment-lined shell with dried beans to weigh down the bottom of the pastry and prop up the sides of it during its first ‘blind’ baking (i.e., the preliminary baking before the filling is added).  A pie pan that fits snugly inside the larger one holding the pastry may be placed on the parchment  and used instead of beans for blind baking the crust:

7.  Bake the shell for 12 minutes at 400 F.  Take the pie shell from the oven and remove the parchment and beans (or the parchment and smaller pie pan).  Set the partially baked shell on a cooling rack and make the pie filling.

II.  Sweet Potato Pone (for a 10-inch round pone, serving 8 – 10 people to accompany the main course of a Thanksgiving dinner)

Timing Note:  The pone may be made a day in advance, cooled completely, covered and refrigerated.  Bring the pone to room temperature before slicing and serving.  Serving a pone warm is fine too, but it may not slice as easily as it does once it has cooled.

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup of Butter, softened, plus some more to butter the casserole or baking dish
  • 1/3 cup of Light Brown Sugar
  • 3 Eggs, beaten
  • 2 cups of canned Sweet Potato Purée
  • 1/2 cup of Milk
  • 1/4 teaspoon of Ground Cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon of freshly Ground Nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon of Ground Cloves
  • 1/8 teaspoon of Ground Cardamom
  • 1/8 teaspoon of Salt
  • 1/4 cup of Unsulphured Molasses

Equipment:

  • a large Mixing Bowl
  • a Mixer, standing or hand
  • a Casserole or Baking Dish:  The one used for the photographed pone is a 10-inch round, Pyrex one, 2-inches deep, but any size casserole will be fine.  Pones are not finicky–the baking time will not vary substantially, even if a smaller casserole is used.  When the pone no longer jiggles in the pan and when it looks baked, then it is baked.

1.  Butter the baking dish or casserole.  Preheat the oven to 325 F.

2.  In the bowl of the mixer or in a mixing bowl, cream the butter and brown sugar together.  Pour in the beaten eggs and mix them in well.

3.  Add the sweet potato purée, milk, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, salt and molasses and mix everything together well.

4.  Pour the batter into the baking dish or casserole and bake it for 1 hour and 30 minutes.  Baking times will vary a little, depending on the size of the baking dish.  The pone is done when it no longer jiggles in the pan as though there were wet batter beneath its surface.  It will be solid and look done.

5.  Serving Suggestion:  This pone may be served alongside the main course of a Thanksgiving dinner.  A pone slices better once it has cooled.  It may be made a day in advance, cooled completely, covered and refrigerated overnight.  Bring it to room temperature before slicing and serving.  Just like cranberry sauce, pone doesn’t have to be eaten warm.

Where to Find an Online Copy of Freda DeKnight’s cookbook: A Date With A Dish, a cookbook of American Negro recipes (1948) is available here at The Hathi Digital Trust Library.

A Reading Recommendation:  Shortly after Mrs. DeKnight’s death in 1963,  a well-written and interesting piece about her appeared here in Black World/Negro Digest.  The article is appropriately titled: “The Late Freda DeKnight, tribute to a lady Titan”.

A Note:  Mrs. Earline Hicks’ Gingersnap Pumpkin Pie and A Sweet Potato Pone For Thanksgiving are ‘Off the Menu’ (i.e. not included in a dk menu). They are offered as suggestions for your own Thanksgiving Menu plans.  The pie crust recipe is an adaptation of one from The King Arthur Flour website.

An Invitation: You are invited to request suggestions from the diplomatickitchen for your own menus for any occasion by clicking on the feature ‘Ask and Tell’ here or in the Menu at the top of the page. Do you have a menu concept with a gap or two that wants filling…or perhaps you are an expat looking for ways to adapt your recipes to what is available in your temporary home…maybe you are just looking for a new way to use a familiar ingredient or would like suggestions on how to adjust quantities of a recipe from the diplomatickitchen for smaller or larger groups…Replies will be published in ‘Ask and Tell’ or sent by email if you prefer.

© Elizabeth Laeuchli, the diplomatickitchen, 2011-2012

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