Food & Drink

Want a perfect picnic dessert? NC cookbook author has some ideas

So Easy Blueberry Pecan Crunch (topped with vanilla ice cream) from “Crisps, Cobblers, Custards & Creams,” by Jean Anderson.
So Easy Blueberry Pecan Crunch (topped with vanilla ice cream) from “Crisps, Cobblers, Custards & Creams,” by Jean Anderson.

Potluck picnicking, everyone’s favorite way to celebrate summer, is as American as – would you believe? – bouillabaisse.

Yes, that’s French and so, too, le pique-nique (pique from the French verb “to pick”) and nique (meaning “little bit” or “thing”).

Though pique-nique appeared in print half a millennium ago, contrarians insist that early English hunts (think medieval “Downton Abbey”) were the civilized world’s first picnics. Yet these carefully staged upper-crust rituals had little in common with today’s laid-back outings.

Likelier, it seems to me, were the plebeian snacks munched en plein air (outdoors) at the turn of the 19th century. But the journey from snacks to les pique-niques French Impressionists romanticized on canvas took time and serious menu upgrades (not to mention all-out revolution).

During the reign (and excesses) of Louis XVI and his “let-them-eat-cake” queen, estate parks were off-limits to all but the rich and royal, who chose to pig out in halls of gold.

Only after the royals met their maker in 1793 were commoners free to stroll wherever they chose, snacking along the way. By the mid-1800s, they were rendezvousing with friends, sharing food and wine, potlucking under a canopy of sky. (Potluck, BTW, is a term born of the old English custom of keeping a pot of leftovers hot for the lucky few who might drop by).

Leave it to the Americans, however, to glorify potluck picnics for family reunions, for church socials, fundraisers, barbecues and fish fries. Menus vary, of course, from one part of the country to another, but none, it’s safe to say, does the picnic “prouder” than the South.

Our beloved potlucks (OK, let’s admit it, friendly cooking competitions) showcase lofty platters of fried chicken, Everests of potato salad and coleslaw plus acres of biscuits and cornbread. There’s plenty of buzz, too, about the food and who brought what. Overheard recently:

“Better grab some of Doc’s fried chicken ’fore it’s gone – damn, it’s good!” ... “BJ’s deviled eggs are so different this year – reckon she’ll give me the recipe?” ... “Don’t Annie T’s artichoke pickles beat all!”

Dessert? Here’s where I part company with the rest of the South. I’m tired of Jell-O whips and fluffs, I’m bored with sheet cakes, weary even of pecan pies and lemon chess.

I’m in pudding mode because the options are endless and the dishes unexpected. How about an old-timey molasses pudding? Or maybe summer pudding, that cool magenta bread-and-berry mold that needs no oven time at all?

Speaking of berries, why not capture summer’s bouquet in So-Easy Blueberry-Pecan Crunch? Why not crown a cool Swedish Cream with hand-picked North Carolina strawberries or Sandhills peaches or even blackberries?

Indeed, why not go for broke at your next potluck picnic by serving Sticky Toffee Pudding? It’s the Duchess of Cambridge’s best-loved dessert (and I’m betting Prince William’s and little Prince George’s as well). For me this royal fave is the quickest way to trigger an avalanche of “OMGs.”

The pudding recipes that follow (adapted from my new “Crisps, Cobblers, Custards & Creams” cookbook), are picnic-perfect, potluck-perfect because they’re “ahh-inspiring” and feed an army.

Raleigh native Jean Anderson, award-winning journalist and cookbook author, is a member of The James Beard Foundation’s Cookbook Hall of Fame. To reach Jean, click on

Sticky Toffee Pudding

Friends swoon over this royal fave and beg for the recipe. It may be the Duchess of Cambridge’s best-loved dessert, but it emerges from the oven as sticky little cupcakes. Not so practical for a picnic, so I baked the pudding in a ring mold – easier to slice and serve. Tip: The pudding can be made a day ahead and needs no refrigeration. From “Crisps, Cobblers, Custards & Creams,” by Jean Anderson (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016).

1 7/8 cups sifted all-purpose flour (2 cups minus 2 level tablespoons)

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon each baking soda (lightly mounded) and salt (level measurement)

1 pound diced, pitted dates (preferably plump, moist Majools)

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons water (about)

1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 large eggs

Toffee Sauce (recipe follows)

Optional Topping:

Whipped cream (an aerosol version for a picnic)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Sift flour, baking powder, soda and salt onto wax paper and set aside.

Boil dates in the water in a medium-size heavy saucepan over medium heat about 7 minutes until soft and about 1/2 cup water remains. Purée in a food processor or blender till consistency of porridge, thinning, if needed, with 1 to 2 tablespoons additional water.

With electric mixer at medium speed, beat brown sugar, butter and vanilla in the large mixer bowl just enough to combine, pausing as needed to scrape beaters and bowl. Beat the eggs in one by one, then continue beating at medium speed until smooth.

Reduce mixer speed to low and add flour mixture alternately with the date purée, beginning and ending with dry ingredients and beating only enough to form a stiff batter. Note: Four flour additions and three date purée are about right. Don’t overbeat.

Scoop batter into a 6-cup ring mold well coated with nonstick cooking spray, spreading evenly and smoothing top. Bake pudding on the middle oven shelf 40 to 45 minutes or until a cake tester, inserted midway between the rim and central tube, comes out clean. (You can also use a 9-inch glass baking dish but check to see if it is done at 30 minutes.)

Remove pudding from the oven and cool right-side-up 10 minutes on a wire rack. Using a small thin-blade spatula spritzed with nonstick cooking spray, gently loosen pudding around the edge and central tube. Invert on a round cake-carrier plate spritzed with nonstick spray, then using the back of a spoon, carefully skim-coat top of pudding with a little Toffee Sauce.

Cover unmolded pudding with the ring mold and let stand at room temperature until needed.

Tips for toting: With ring mold still on top of the pudding, set cake carrier top in place and secure fasteners. Plug tip of squirt bottle containing sauce to prevent leakage. Finally, place all in a sturdy box, tuck in the “whipped cream” aerosol and a knife for cutting the pudding.

To serve on location: Cut the pudding into slim wedges, then put out the squirt bottle of sauce and aerosol can of whipped cream so the picnickers can help themselves.

Yield: 12 servings.

Toffee Sauce

The crowning glory for Sticky Toffee Pudding (recipe precedes). Make the sauce while the pudding bakes. From “Crisps, Cobblers, Custards & Creams,” by Jean Anderson (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016).

2 1/4 cups heavy cream, divided

1 cup granulated sugar

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pats and at room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon salt

Bring 1 1/4 cups of the cream, all the sugar and butter to a boil over medium heat in a medium-size heavy saucepan.

Reduce heat till the mixture barely bubbles, then cook about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until lightly thickened and the color of pale caramel.

Remove sauce from the heat, mix in the remaining cream, vanilla and salt. Stir until smooth, and cool to room temperature.

Pour into a large squirt bottle, screw the lid down tight, and refrigerate until needed.

Yield: 1 3/4 to 2 cups.

Swedish Cream

You can look long and hard and you won’t find an easier – or dreamier – pudding than this one. Fortunately, it travels well. Tip: To keep the sliced peaches from darkening, toss with acidulated water (1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice blended with 3 tablespoons cold water). From “Crisps, Cobblers, Custards & Creams,” by Jean Anderson (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016).

2 cups sugar

2 (0.25-ounce) envelopes unflavored gelatin

1 quart plus 1/2 cup heavy cream

2 pints firmly packed sour cream (not low-fat or fat-free)

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

2 quarts (4 pints) red-ripe strawberries, hulled, moderately thinly sliced, and sweetened to taste if tart OR 4 pounds ripe peaches, peeled, pitted, moderately thinly sliced, and tossed with acidulated water (see Tip above) as well as sugar to taste

Combine sugar and gelatin in a large heavy saucepan, pressing out all lumps. Blend in the heavy cream, set over moderately low heat, and cook 10 to 15 minutes, stirring frequently, until sugar and gelatin dissolve completely.

Remove from heat and pour into a large heatproof bowl. Blend in the sour cream and vanilla, stirring until absolutely smooth. Cover loosely with foil and refrigerate at least 12 hours.

On the morning of the picnic, prepare the strawberries or peaches, and place in large plastic bowl with a tight snap-on lid (most supermarkets sell these).

Tips for toting: Overwrap bowl of Swedish cream snugly in heavy-duty aluminum foil, set in a medium-size cooler, add the bowl of fruit, then steady each bowl as needed with ice packs and wads of paper. Tuck in one large serving spoon and one ladle.

To serve on location: Simply scoop the Swedish Cream into bowls and top with strawberries or peaches. Be generous.

Yield: 12 servings.

So Easy Blueberry Pecan Crunch

What distinguishes this pudding is its inspired teaming of two of this state’s top crops – blueberries and pecans – not to mention a zip-quick topper made from a mix you can toss together in minutes, stash in the freezer, and dip into as needed. Talk about frozen assets. From “Crisps, Cobblers, Custards & Creams,” by Jean Anderson (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016).

1 1/2 quarts (6 cups) fresh or solidly frozen blueberries

1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest

1/2 cup fresh orange juice

3/4 cup sugar combined with 2 2/3 cups Homemade Biscuit Mix (recipe follows)

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted

1 cup moderately coarsely chopped pecans

Optional Topping:

Whipped cream (an aerosol version for a picnic)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly spritz a 13-by-9-by-2-inch ovenproof baking dish with nonstick cooking spray.

Toss blueberries with the orange zest, spread over bottom of the baking dish, and sprinkle evenly with orange juice. Top with sugar mixture, smoothing to the corners, then drizzle melted butter over all, and scatter with pecans.

Bake on the middle oven shelf 45 to 50 minutes or until bubbly and lightly browned.

Transfer to a wire rack and cool to room temperature.

Tips for toting: Overwrap the baking dish snugly in heavy-duty aluminum foil, set in a small, sturdy box or carrier, tuck in the aerosol can of whipped cream and a large serving spoon. Nothing more needed.

To serve on location: Simply scoop the pudding up with the serving spoon, and top, if you like, with aerosol whipped cream. What could be easier?

Yield: 12 servings.

Homemade Biscuit Mix

I keep this mix in the freezer and dip into it whenever I need a jiffy crisp, crunch, or cobbler topping. Tip: If the baking powder is to retain its “oomph” in cold storage, you must use a double-acting one. It reacts first when exposed to liquid and second when heated. From “Crisps, Cobblers, Custards & Creams,” by Jean Anderson (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016).

4 1/2 cups unsifted all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons baking powder (see Tip above)

4 teaspoons sugar

1 teaspoon salt

10 tablespoons (1 stick plus 2 tablespoons) cold unsalted butter, diced

Whisk flour, baking powder, sugar and salt together in a large bowl.

Add butter, then using a pastry blender, cut butter into the flour mixture until the texture of lentils.

Scoop mixture into a labeled and dated sturdy plastic zipper bag, press out all air, seal, and store in the freezer where it won’t get lost.

Use the mix as individual recipes direct – So Easy Blueberry-Pecan Crunch to name one.

Yield: 5 1/2 cups.