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Karen Barker 

How sweet she is

Karen Barker's plate is full this morning--in a good way. Her new computer's not hooked up, e-mail's not getting through and she's got several dozen best friends coming over for dinner. As usual, she's smiling and laughing as she describes her "to do" lists.

It's not the virtual world that's on her mind, it's all those fresh fruits out there. It just seems like everything is in season--ripe, right now; ready and waiting.

This is not a down time for Karen Barker. She and husband Ben Barker have been cooking together for 22 years. They've co-owned their Durham restaurant, Magnolia Grill, since 1987. Ben tends to the savory side of the menu, while Karen dishes out the sweet stuff.

Last year, Karen won the Outstanding Pastry Chef Award from the James Beard Foundation. This spring, the University of North Carolina Press published her decadent dessert book, Sweet Stuff: Karen Barker's American Desserts.

Between faxes and phone tag, we shared stories of blueberries and seasonal abundance. Karen even admitted that she doesn't always bake to relax. "Reading at the beach interspersed with a little surf casting is my ultimate way to unwind," she smiles.

The Independent: Everything you bake is so fresh. What's it like baking in July in North Carolina, when everything is fresh and ripe, and how do you choose?

Karen Barker: The summer season is my favorite time to bake because of the almost overwhelming selection of great fruit to work with. The advantage of baking for a restaurant is that you're preparing eight different desserts everyday and you can incorporate everything that looks great into the menu. Right now we're using blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, peaches, apricots and cherries. If I'm baking at home I'll usually just choose whatever looks like it's at optimum seasonal peak and do something simple with it.

I'll often combine two complementary fruits in a single dessert--blueberries and blackberries, apricots and cherries, nectarines and raspberries--the combinations are endless.

Given the wonders of this year's harvest, are there any desserts you've just created for this season?

Most of our "new" desserts are variations on familiar themes. Some recent additions have been Blueberry Hazelnut Crumb Bars with Creme Fraiche Ice Cream, Peach Melba Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta and Buttermilk Tangerine Waffles with Bing Cherry Ice Cream.

Folks will bookmark the 160 recipes in Sweet Stuff. I loved the tender, honest, autobiographical tone of the introduction, all the stories of your extended family and early baking experiences. So I have to ask: What's your recipe for a perfect s'more?

The key to my perfect s'more is a carefully toasted marshmallow. It should be caramelized to a deep, golden brown with just a hint of a blackened, crispy edge. I like using a premium, dark chocolate, but for the base I say why stray from the original--Nabisco grahams!

Each recipe in Sweet Stuff comes with a welcoming paragraph. You really talk to the at-home baker in each of us--explaining, calming, nurturing. With such a reassuring manner, you must have trained some pretty good pastry chefs. Where are they now?

I've been fortunate to have shared the baking department at the Grill with some very talented people. At the top of the list is Phoebe Lawless, our current pastry chef at Magnolia. The funnel cakes mentioned in Sweet Stuff were part of a complete State Fair plate that was Phoebe's idea.

Wynne Clark is baking at Whole Foods and Brigid Calinan is in charge of the Education Department at Cupia in Napa, Calif. Sue Gogos has changed career paths and is now a librarian, and several ex-bakers have traded in professional baking for raising families.

I would like to think that they all enjoy the personal gratification of "sharing a little sugar."

I imagine you have a pretty cool collection of cooking tools and supplies. What are a few you couldn't do without? What's your most unique cooking utensil?

Good, heavy-duty wooden spoons, parchment paper, offset spatulas and my standing mixer are my favorite tools.

I don't have too many gadgets--my most unique cooking utensil is probably my grandmother's antique cherry pitter.

Inquiring kitchen packrats want to know: How do you keep track of all your recipes? Do you have a well-thumbed index card file?

I have several jam-packed index card files that are semi-organized. There's also legal folders filled with miscellaneous clippings and an ever-expanding collection of cookbooks that I reference all the time.

How about some lists? Care to share your top five favorite desserts?

Top five favorite desserts, huh? I tend to think in broader categories. Ice cream is probably my favorite dessert and I love pies, so pie served with ice cream ranks right up there. Simple, rich, dark chocolate cakes; all kinds of freshly baked cookies; refreshing seasonal fruit sorbets and comforting custards. I'm a believer that there is a dessert to fit every mood or occasion!

Top five favorite desserts, out-of-town division? Is there one town that's your dessert mecca?

I think memorable desserts involve more than the dessert itself. Taste memories are often colored by your mood, the moment and who you're sharing the experience with. I always gravitate towards straight-up, American-style desserts.

The sheer access to unbelievable raw ingredients gives the Bay Area an edge, but there is fabulous sweet stuff to be had in a lot of places. Any restaurant that cares to employ a full-time baker/pastry staff gets a thumbs up.

Let's close with this fill-in-the-blanks. "If I see another______________________, I'll _______________________________."

If I see another great blackberry season, I'll be a very happy baker. EndBlock

Contributing writer John Valentine can be reached at ajcg@acpub.duke.edu

Excerpt from Sweet Stuff: Karen Barker’s American Desserts (UNC Press, 2004)
Blueberry Buckle with Coconut Streusel
Serves 10 to 12
This is the kind of dessert that’s ideal for informal family dinners, picnics, or a relaxed Sunday breakfast. While I’m not a huge fan of coconut, I do think its flavor is a different and delicious complement to fresh blueberries. I am a huge fan of crispy crumb toppings, so this buckle has an extra large proportion of crunchy streusel.

Ingredients for the Streusel
3/4 cup flour
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
6 tablespoons (3 ounces) butter, chilled and cut into pieces
3/4 cup sweetened flaked coconut (preferably the frozen kind, defrosted)

Ingredients for the Buckle
3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons (1-1/2 ounces) butter, at room temperature
3/8 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 egg
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup sweetened flaked coconut (preferably the frozen kind, defrosted)
2 cups blueberries

Preparation for the Streusel
1. Combine the flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Pulse to combine. Add the butter and cut in by pulsing until the mixture is crumbly. Be careful not to overprocess! This can also be done by hand—just rub the ingredients together to form coarse crumbs.

2. Place the streusel in a mixing bowl, add the coconut, and, using your hands, lightly rub the two together to combine. Reserve. The streusel can be made several days ahead if kept refrigerated. It can also be frozen for up to 2 months. Bring to room temperature before using.

Preparation for the Buckle
1. Preheat oven to 350°. Butter a 9-inch springform pan.

2. Sift together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt. Reserve.

3. Using a mixer with a paddle, or by hand, cream the butter with the sugar till light. Add the vanilla and the egg. Mix to combine. Alternately add the sifted flour mixture with the milk and mix to blend. Add the coconut.

4. Evenly spread the batter in the prepared pan. Leaving a 1/4-inch border around the outer perimeter, evenly distribute the blueberries over the batter. Sprinkle the blueberries with half of the prepared streusel. Bake at 350° for 15 minutes. Sprinkle the buckle with the remaining streusel and bake for approximately 35 minutes more, until the streusel is golden brown and the cake component tests done. Remove from oven and cool for at least 30 minutes. This can be served warm or at room temperature; and while it can be made 24 hours in advance, ideally it should be served the same day it’s prepared.

Baker’s Note: For recipes calling for sweetened, flaked coconut, I like using the frozen varieties. It tends to be a bit less sweet, is extra moist, and doesn’t have additives or preservatives. It is, however, perishable and should be used within 2 to 3 days of defrosting.

Serving Suggestions: This is pretty yummy all on its own, but if you want to dress it up a bit, Lynchburg lemonade sauce and a dollop of crème fraîche will do the trick.

  • How sweet she is

More by John Valentine

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