Note: This program is a rebroadcast from November 14, 2016.
Food and storytelling have gone hand in hand for Sheri Castle since she was a little girl. At the age of four, she wrote her first original recipe: a smoothie she called “Hawaiian Tropic Sunset Delight.”
“I had an affinity for adjectives even back then,” Castle told The State of Things host Frank Stasio. “I remember putting juices and fruits and coconut and things and whirring it up in the blender.”
Castle wrote down her recipe and mailed it to the Betty Feezor Show, a daily television cooking show based in Charlotte.
Her love for food continued to blossom when she was in elementary school. Castle was so far ahead of her peers in reading that she was sent out of the classroom during reading lessons and spent time in the library flipping through cookbooks.
“I started pulling cookbooks down off the shelf, and I read about things I couldn’t pronounce,” Castle said. From then on, she believed that what one ate had a lot to do with how they lived.
Castle comes from a family with deep roots in Watauga County, but she was always eager to leave Western North Carolina to seek out a new life for herself. She attended college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she studied English and broadcasting. She spent the first decade of her career in Raleigh where she worked in legal writing and copywriting. Although none of those jobs truly sparked her passion, she credits them for helping her perfect her writing technique.
Soon after her daughter was born, she left the corporate world, started taking cooking classes, and set out to make her passions for writing and cooking into a career.
Throughout the years Castle has contributed to more than a dozen cookbooks. She discussed the secret world of cookbook ghostwriting. “The first rule of being a ghostwriter is you do not reveal the clients,” she said. “One book pops into mind where [...] right before the person went on a national media tour, I had to meet with them so they could recognize the food in their own book on sight.”
In the past five years, Castle authored two of her own cookbooks. “The Southern Garden Cookbook: Recipes for Enjoying the Best from Homegrown Gardens, Farmers’ Markets, Roadside Stands and CSA Boxes” (UNC Press/2011) is organized by ingredient to help cooks discover recipes for less-well-known fruits and vegetables. Her second cookbook “The Southern Living Community Cookbook: Celebrating Food and Fellowship in the American South” (Oxmoor House/2014) compiled recipes from more than five decades of Southern Living.
But writing about southern food is not always easy. Castle described receiving death threats for an essay in The Bitter Southerner called “Seven Essential Southern Dishes.” Although she wrote a disclaimer that her list was not intended to be the definitive word, she described that “people drew swords.” She said, “If anybody thinks food doesn't matter, make somebody mad over food.”
Yet despite the occasional controversy, Castle has no intention of leaving the food world. For her, food is a daily source of joy and a tool for community healing.
“Food memories are some of the most powerful memories we have,” Castle said. “Each of us can have one whiff of something and it is time travel.”
Two of Sheri Castle's most famous recipes:
Sheri’s Skillet Cornbread
Give us this day, our daily bread
Cornbread should be served piping hot or completely cool. Tepid cornbread is the penance of poor planning.
Makes one 9-inch round
- 4 tablespoons bacon fat
- 1 1/2 cups coarse stoneground cornmeal
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 large egg
- 1 1/2 cups well-shaken buttermilk
- Put the fat in a 9-inch cast iron skillet and place it in the oven as it preheats to 450°F.
- Whisk together the cornmeal, flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda in a medium bowl.
- In a small bowl, whisk together the egg and buttermilk. Make a well in the center of the cornmeal mixture and pour in the egg mixture. Stir only until blended.
- Remove the skillet from the oven and scrape in the batter. It will sizzle and pop, so be careful.
- Bake until the cornbread is firm in the middle and golden brown on top, about 25 minutes. Turn out immediately onto a plate so that it won’t sweat in the pan, run it to the table, and serve.
Cream Cheese Pound Cake
A day that begins with a hunk of pound cake and a cup of coffee can be only so bad.
Much of our swooning, posturing, and magazine cover shots suggest that the most accomplished Southern cakes are layer cakes. But a review of community cookbooks and kitchen cupboard recipe boxes reveal that we adore a magnificent pound cake, and have been baking them for longer in our culinary history. Old cookbooks praise the “keeping quality” of these cakes; it’s true that they will keep on the counter for about seven days, which is why many cooks once made a pound cake weekly. A slice of pound cake travels well and requires neither frosting nor fork.
Makes 12 servings
- 3 cups cake flour
- 1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 8 ounces Philadelphia cream cheese, at room temperature
- 3 cups sugar
- 6 large eggs, room temperature
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- Position an oven rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 325ºF. Grease (with Crisco) a 10-inch aluminum tube pan with removable bottom. Dust it lightly and evenly with flour and tap out any excess.
- Sift the flour into a medium bowl.
- Beat the butter and cream cheese in a large bowl with an electric mixer set to medium speed until the mixture is smooth and creamy, about 2 minutes.
- Increase the mixer to medium-high speed on a stand mixer (high speed on a hand-held mixer) and add the sugar in a slow, steady stream. Beat until the mixture is pale yellow and sits up tall with fluffy peaks when scraped down from the sides of the bowl. The sugar will be mostly dissolved, so you should feel very little grit if you rub a little between your fingers. This takes about 4 minutes with a stand mixer and 6 with a hand-held mixer.
- Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition; the mixture may look slightly curdled or grainy. Don’t worry.
- Add the flour to the butter mixture in thirds, mixing at low speed only until smooth. Scrape down the bowl between each addition.
- Add the vanilla extract and mix on low speed 30 seconds more. Use a rubber spatula to make sure all of the dry ingredients are up off the bottom of the bowl. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan. Gently tap the pan once or twice on the counter a few times to remove any air bubbles.
- Bake the cake until a cake tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 90 minutes. (Pound cakes will have a crack in the center that appears wet even when fully cooked, so avoid this area when testing. Pound cakes are tall, so a standard toothpick might not reach the center. Use a longer pick or a metal cake tester. Even a dry strand of uncooked spaghetti will work.
- Cool the cake in the pan on a wire cooling rack for 10 minutes. Remove the cake from the pan and turn it face up to cool completely on the rack.