A few months ago, during Ramadan, I started watching a Netflix food documentary called "High on The Hog: How African-American Cuisine Transformed America" based on the Jessica B. Harris's bestselling book, "High on The Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America." The docuseries is only 4 episodes long, however, it's impact will last longer than that. It traces the origins of some of America's most-loved and quintessential food to the West African slaves and their descendants. For example did you know that a variation of Mac n Cheese was invented by Thomas Jefferson's enslaved chef, James Hemmings (none other than Sally Hemmings brother)? The macaroni was originally cooked in half milk and half water which already gave it a creamy texture. It was then baked with butter and cheese in a macaroni pie style. The recipe was then honed and perfected through the generations until it became the popular dish that we know and love today.
West African cuisine and the ubiquity of certain ingredients such as rice, okra, black-eyed peas and even watermelon is echoed in several African American dishes from the Deep South to New York, flavors brought to the Americas through the transatlantic slave trade and transformed to become authentically African American.
The series did not just explore food in African American culture but also how African Americans used food as a way to connect with each other, their communities, their ancestors and even the future generations through the visceral act of cooking and eating. They used cooking as a way to learn about their history and bring their ancestors back to life.
One of the most moving episodes for me was one that featured Jerrelle Guy, the award winning cookbook author of "Black Girl Baking". As she prepared a Juneteenth-inspired dessert spread, the narrator and host, Stephen Satterfield conversed with her about her process and raison d'etre for her cooking. She stated that as a black woman the kitchen became the safest and most empowering space for her. As a feminist, I rankled a little bit at that statement but when one takes into account the daily oppression that black people in America live under it makes sense. Cooking becomes an almost subversive act for black people, specifically black women, who have to deal not only with racial inequalities but also gender-based ones. Jerrelle Guy weaves the stories of her ancestors into her recipes as she bakes an apple pie with browned butter and almond flour and wholemeal flour crust. She explained that the brown butter provided a nutty flavor to the pie and that slaves used almond flour for their crust because they did not always have access to regular baking flour. Almond flour gives the crust softness and texture that would not have been present with just regular white flour.
Not being a lover of rules, Jerrelle says that she likes to break out of the box that society often places women in and uses ingenious ingredients as her own personal take on much loved recipes. For example, her Juneteenth red velvet cake is made of beetroots which is what gives the cake the red coloring rather than using artificial coloring. The beetroots add a depth of flavor as it provides a savory element to an otherwise heavily sugared cake. The ganache on top of the cake is made with coconut oil and so as soon as it touches the cooled cake it solidifies and hardens. It is this creative application of the historical uses of certain ingredients and the basic chemistry of others that makes her spread a feast for the eyes.
All in all, this series is one to watch. Many times I found myself tearing up. The elegant directing, the moving narration and the affirmation of the resilience, hope and strength of black people to turn their collective trauma into a powerful reclamation of their heritage make this show a real joy to watch. Of course, my tearing up could also be attributed to the fact that I was watching it during Ramadan when I was fasting and the food decadence was taking place before my eyes was too much for me. But the whole show and the connection that black people have with the act of cooking can be encapsulated in one quote in episode 2: "We call our food soul food. We are the only people who named our cuisine after something invisible, that you could feel like love and God. Something completely transcendental. It's about a connection between us and our dead, and us and those who are waiting to be born."
After watching High on the Hog (which, I'm happy to report, has been renewed for a second season), I have been obsessed with Jerrelle Guy's apple pie. Having gone apple picking a couple of weeks ago, I had to use up some of them before they went bad. Naturally, I couldn't find the exact recipe online, probably because it's in her book "Black Girl Baking". So I had to improvise and adjust a few elements from here and there until I could come up with something approximating her recipe. All I knew is that I had to brown the butter (a revelation for me, in terms of the process and resulting flavor), and use almond flour for the crust. I browned the butter, by slowly heating butter in a saucepan until it starts turning brown and giving off a nutty smell.
Recipe for Jerrelle Guy inspired Apple Pie
For the crust:
1 cup flour 1/2 cup almond flour 1/4 cup brown sugar 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon 1/4 teaspoon salt
1 egg, lightly beaten
4 tablespoons of butter, melted
For the filling: 6 tablespoons butter, browned and cooled slightly 8 medium-sized Honeycrisp apples, peeled, cored, and cut into bite-sized chunks. Typically apple pies are made with Granny Smith apples, but all I had were Honeycrisp apples. juice from one lemon 1/2 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon Pinch of salt
Make the crust: Mix all the dry ingredients together. Then add the egg and melted butter. Mix together until fully incorporated. If still a bit dry and crumbly, add some water. Kneed and mix the dough until it holds its shape. Then place in the fridge for 30 minutes, or overnight, which is what I did. The next day, take out of the fridge, divide it into half, one half for the base of the pie and the other for the top. Roll both halves out with a rolling pin to a circle slightly larger than the diameter of your pie pan. My pie pan was around 9 inches in diameter. Slowly lift one half of the dough and place it over the greased pan (you can also line it with greased baking paper). Pinch the dough around the edges of the pan and remove excess. Poke the dough with a fork and pre-bake in a 300 degrees preheated oven for around 15 minutes. Remove when the base turns slightly brown.
Make the filling: Mix the apples in a bowl with all of the ingredients for the filling above except the butter. Place the butter on a saucepan (it is better to use a saucepan with a white bottom so you can see the butter browning. I didn't have such a saucepan so I just used what I had) over low heat and keep stirring with a wooden spoon for about 5-6 minutes. The butter will start to sizzle and a few minutes after that it should start browning. Don't stop stirring as it's literally a few seconds after which it starts to burn. Once it begins to turn a golden color and gives off a slightly nutty smell, remove from the heat and pour over the apple filling. Stir to coat and try not to eat it all. Pour the apple filling onto the pre-baked crust. Place the second rolled out dough on top f the filling and cut out the excess. Brush with egg wash and bake in a 300 degrees preheated oven for about 30 minutes. Then turn on the broiler for just a few minutes to brown the crust. Remove and let cool for 20 minutes. Then serve with vanilla ice cream.