Author's Note: For the next two weeks we're heading down South to bake our way through Sweet Auburn Desserts, a Southern-accented collection of recipes from Atlanta's Sweet Auburn Bread Company. For a little background on Sweet Auburn, we sat down with pastry chef-owner Sonya Jones, who is preserving sweet traditions with Sweet Potato Cheesecakes, Coconut Cream Pies, Apple Roly-Polys, and more.
Your Atlanta bakery, Sweet Auburn Bread Company, has been called "the little bakery that could." Can you tell us a little bit about how the bakery came to be?
My mother operated a neighborhood cafe serving sandwiches and home cooked meals. I grew up working there after school and on weekends. I honed my skills by assisting her with cooking and baking. After studying at the Culinary Institute of America, I returned to Atlanta in 1992. Working and teaching with Southern food icon Edna Lewis, I decided to stick to my roots by preserving Southern African American cooking.
In 1997, I opened Sweet Auburn Bread Company, selling made-from-scratch desserts like the ones from my childhood. President Clinton visited my bakery in 1999, tasted my creations utilizing southern staples, sweet potatoes and pound cake, Sweet Potato Cheesecake (with a pound cake crust) and gave it a rave review and a media blitz from Food Network to local news stations followed from that day on. CNN heard about my small storefront and chose to follow my business through the economic crisis that was decimating so many businesses and restaurants. CNN named my segment "The Little Bakery That Could."
You've had the rare opportunity to cook and teach with the legendary Edna Lewis, what did you learn from her?
Simple techniques, seasonal produce, and the best of ingredients were the foundation for a great meal. I learned to be critical and persistent when seeking out the specific ingredient needed for a particular dish. Sometimes we shopped at several stores and markets to gather the ingredients for a meal we were to prepare for a class. Her passion for seeking out fresh ingredients was contagious.
Many of the desserts at Sweet Auburn are heritage recipes. Where did these recipes come from?
Many of the recipes at Sweet Auburn have been passed down to me through my mother and a few of her close friends, which were passed down to her from her mother and other family members and close friends of the family.
There is also influence from working alongside Ms. Edna Lewis and reading What Mrs. Fisher knows About Old Southern Cooking, the oldest known African-American cookbook published in America. There were always stories to accompany the recipes, their origins, special instructions on preparation, when it was served, who loves it most, where it was last served, etc. This tradition preserves the recipes and ensures that the next generation can enjoy the desserts from their childhood prepared by their ancestors.
I remember, from a very young age, hanging around the kitchen watching my mother prepare dinner with a homemade dessert sure to follow. I often long to "taste" those memories again. Many other people have the same longings, seeking out the tastes from their childhood. I do not want these recipes to die out. Heritage recipes evoke memories from the past and the loved ones who prepared them. That's what makes them so important and well worth preserving. and is why the slogan 'We're baking memories' greets you on the door as you enter my bakery.
The South, perhaps more than any other region in the country has a tradition of baking and a serious love for sweets. Why do you think desserts are so important in Southern food traditions?
Since sugar cane is grown in the South it was a staple ingredient—all one had to do was to throw in a couple of other readily available ingredients such eggs, lard or butter, and flour into a bowl and wow—it's just pie! Add any seasonal fruits or vegetables from the garden or tree at hand and you have a delicious pie. Southern cooks were always seeking out creative ways to utilize what they had in their pantry. The creativity extended to competitions to see who could create the best dessert to place on the table at social gatherings, picnics, church revivals, and family reunions. Also, sugary desserts could better withstand room temperatures before the introduction of refrigeration.
Win A Copy!
Thanks to the generous folks over at Pelican Publishing Company, we are giving away five (5) copies of Sweet Auburn Desserts this week.
All you have to do is tell us about your favorite Southern dessert in the comments section below.