Southern comfort: These savory and sweet recipes offer a balm for stressful times

Photos by Collin Richie

Comfort food is always in season. When the pandemic pivot lingers and collides with the hurt of a Cat 5 hurricane, the need for it magnifies. At the dawn of 2020, I jumpstarted my food writing after a long absence, querying friends and chefs and my 90-year-old mother, “What’s your childhood comfort food?” The answers varied wildly, with lots of nostalgia given to grandparents’ cooking and a nod to heavenly homemade bread. 

Each response transported me to that moment, the aromas and flavors described in just an instant. Friends saluted fluffy mashed potatoes, pot roasts and slow cookers, puddings and rich chocolate fudge, creamy macaroni and cheese, and there was a compelling bow to grandmother’s chicken and dumplings. Together, we walked down memory lane to faraway dining tables. Please pass the butter.

When I am stressed, the kitchen calms me. A can of Campbell’s soup might provide comfort, but the lingering at the stove, chopping and sizzling, measuring and mixing, offer an escape. The chaos vanishes behind the clouds of steam. At exam time in college, you could always find me in my kitchen baking up a storm before studying. I realized a friend had the same obsession when she delivered a loaf of homemade apple bread during finals week, still warm with its crumbly cinnamon topping. This one is an invitation to brew some tea, take a seat, put the other things on hold just for now. Reset. I still have that handwritten recipe after all these years.

On the savory side of things, when the temperatures dip below blistering, I long for my mom’s classic beef stroganoff. It’s a “fall is here” celebration dish that has curative powers. It’s easy enough to assemble any time the craving strikes. A vegetarian version that skips the meat is so delicious the carnivores come back for seconds. 

While the bread breaking at a crowded table continues on temporary hold, we still have to eat. Cooking can transcend catastrophe. Step aside, salad. It’s the season for food that tends our heartstrings, edible therapy that nurtures and cheers. And if there’s extra, few things warm the heart as much as sharing a happy dose of home cooking. 


Mrs. Lupien’s Apple Bread

My friend Christine from college recalls her neighbor Mrs. Lupien serving this snack bread after school. She recommends Cortland apples, which make a brief appearance in the apple section in October. Honeycrisp are great, too! I’ve tweaked some things, reducing the sugar a bit, subbing butter for the shortening and upping the apples. Here’s my version that makes twin loaves in my loaf pans, which are a little smaller than a standard loaf pan, perfect to have an extra to share! Fun fact: a fist-size apple makes about 1 cup diced apple.

Ingredients:
6 oz. unsalted butter (1½ full sticks) at cool room temperature, plus a little extra for pans
1 ¼ cups sugar
1 tsp. fine salt
3 eggs
1 ½ tsp. vanilla extract
3 Tbsp. milk
1 tsp. lemon juice or white vinegar
1 ½ tsp. baking soda
3 cups unbleached flour, plus a little extra for pans
4 medium apples, peeled, cored and diced to make about 4 cups
Topping:
2 oz. unsalted butter (½ stick) at cool room temperature
3 Tbsp. brown sugar
¼ cup unbleached flour
1 ½ tsp. cinnamon
Preheat oven to 325 degrees with rack in center. Butter and flour 2 medium loaf pans (7.5 x 3.5 x 2 inches), tipping out extra flour.
Cream butter, sugar and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. (Alternatively, a hand mixer and large bowl can be used). Stop mixer and scrape sides down to bottom of bowl once or twice. When mixture is light and fluffy, beat in eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each. Stir in vanilla.
Place milk and lemon juice or vinegar into a small bowl. Stir in baking soda to dissolve. (Mixture will foam up). Add to creamed mixture, beating on low to combine. Add flour, 1 cup at a time, beating just to incorporate and avoid the “flour cloud” that happens when it goes in all at once. Beat on low until no streaks of flour remain. Scrape bowl well. Fold in diced apples, and divide batter evenly between pans. 
Make topping: Combine topping ingredients in a medium bowl, and blend together with a fork to make a crumbly mixture.
Sprinkle cinnamon topping evenly over loaves, and bake until a tester inserted in the center of a loaf comes out with moist crumbs attached, about 50 minutes. Let cool in pans on a rack for 15 minutes before removing from pans. The bread is delicious warm, though it may crumble a little as you slice it. Let cool completely before wrapping tightly for storage. Loaves keep 3 days at cool room temperature but usually vanish on the first day.
Makes 2 loaves.

Mushroom Stroganoff

A delicious discovery from a Cordon Bleu-trained chef who happily shared her recipe. Créme fraîche adds a dose of luxury to this comfort dish. I used campanelle pasta, a bell shape with a ruffled edge.

Ingredients:
12 oz. fettuccine, egg noodles or your favorite pasta shape that will catch the sauce
4 Tbsp. butter, divided
8 oz. fresh mushrooms, sliced
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 Tbsp. dry sherry*
3 Tbsp. unbleached flour
1 cup milk
1 tsp. coarse salt
½ tsp. ground pepper
1 cup crème fraîche (sour cream can be substituted, though it can “break” when heated)
3 Tbsp. chopped green onions 
Cook pasta according to package directions to roughly time the pasta to finish cooking when the sauce is done.
Melt 1 Tbsp. butter in a large skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add mushrooms and onions, and cook until tender. Add sherry and cook for 1 minute. Transfer mixture to a large bowl, and set aside. Reserve pan.
Measure flour, salt and pepper into a bowl, and slowly whisk in milk. Heat pan again over medium heat, and melt remaining 3 Tbsp. butter. Pour milk mixture into hot pan, whisking constantly over medium heat. Cook until bubbly and thick, about 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in crème fraîche, then add reserved mushroom mixture. Combine with cooked pasta and stir gently. Divide into 6 bowls and serve with a green onion garnish. 
Makes 6 servings.

Mom’s Beef Stroganoff

The irregular-shaped beef tenderloin “tail” is perfect for this dish. Freezing it first makes shaving it into thin slices easy. No tenderloin? No problem! Substitute your favorite meatballs, which pair beautifully with the mushroom sauce and noodles. For my ideal taste memory, egg noodles are my preference. A stroganoff purist will shower this dish with fresh dill. I go with green onions.

Ingredients:
8 oz. egg noodles
1 (½ lb.) piece of beef tenderloin “tail,” thinly sliced
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. coarse salt
½ tsp. ground pepper
1 small onion, finely chopped
8 oz. fresh mushrooms, thinly sliced
¼ cup dry sherry*
2 cups beef or chicken stock
2 Tbsp. butter, softened
2 Tbsp. unbleached flour
¼ cup sour cream
2 Tbsp. chopped green onions
Cook noodles according to package directions to roughly time them to finish cooking when the sauce is done.
Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When oil is shimmering, add sliced beef, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Toss with tongs to brown meat evenly, then remove to a bowl and set aside. Reduce heat to medium, and in the same skillet, sauté onion to soften, about 5 minutes. Add mushrooms, and cook until tender. Pour in sherry and stir to deglaze browned bits that have accumulated in skillet. Add stock and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a lively simmer. 
Mash butter and flour together in a small bowl, and drop marble-size pieces into simmering sauce, whisking to blend. When sauce has thickened, add reserved browned beef and stir to heat through. Remove from heat, and stir in sour cream. Toss with noodles, and divide into 4 bowls; serve with a green onion garnish.
Makes 4 servings.
*Note: I consider a bottle of inexpensive sherry a pantry essential. The cooking sherry found with the vinegars contains salt and preservatives, so I avoid it. In these recipes, white wine can be substituted in a pinch.