One day during our recent spring break, we headed to Athens, Texas, about two hours east of Waco. Abby and I had been to Athens before — way before. We went there in 1999 to attend a hamburger cook-off.
Hamburgers are important to Athens, you see, because for years the story was that the first hamburger ever was cooked at a small diner on the downtown square by a fellow named Uncle Fletcher Davis, though he just called it a meat sandwich. He supposedly took his new creation to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis and sold a bunch of them. A happy customer dubbed the sandwich a “hamburger,” thus one of the world’s most popular foods was created.
At least that was the story we were told at the hamburger cook-off. Other locales also lay claim to the birth of the hamburger. (I’m lookin’ at you, Hamburg, Germany.) But we sampled many varieties of hamburger at that 1999 event and went looking for burgers on our most recent trip as well. We ended up at a burger-place-that-shall-not-be-named, which, according to online reviews, served one of the best burgers in Athens. Our overall impression: Eh. There wasn’t anything specific to complain about, but the burgers certainly weren’t worthy enough to be served in the very town where the thing was invented!
At our next stop, we mentioned the-burger-place-that-shall-not-be-named to a nice young man name Carson Shultz. He knew exactly where we had dined. “It’s a knock-off Dairy Queen,” he said, and he was right. The not-to-be-named restaurant is housed in a former Dairy Queen building, but the burgers — and everything else — weren’t up to DQ’s standards.
Shultz is part of the family that owns New York Texas Zipline Adventures, just outside LaRue, about 24 miles southeast of Athens. The zip line facility is also the home site of Carson’s parents, Charles and Connie, and is on the highest point in East Texas, according to the company website, goziptexas.com. From one point on the front porch of the family home, Carson said, you can see Tyler, about 30 miles away.
The two-hour zip line tour was the highlight of our trip to East Texas that recent day. What we remember most fondly from our visit to Athens 19 years ago is a dessert. After a day of sampling burgers from booths set up around the Henderson County Courthouse in downtown Athens, we were ready for something light and sweet. That’s where the Garden of Eatin’ restaurant came in.
Someone on the square recommended the place and said that we had to order the lemon bars. So that’s what we did and were glad for it. The bars were tangy from fresh lemon juice in the filling and the glaze, and the crust had enough texture to hold everything together. The small bar was the perfect post-burger dessert. We asked for the recipe, and the owner was kind enough to mail it to us the next week. We still have her handwritten note that came with the recipe, and it’s simply signed “B. Parr.” We can’t remember her first name, and the restaurant is long gone, some Athens folks told us recently.
So this month we give you our version of that recipe from B. Parr. Abby’s made a few changes over the years, but the results are still delicious and light and lemony. And if that isn’t enough to quench your sweet tooth, we’ve included a few other of our favorite dessert recipes. The Black Russian Cake is something that we’ve made many, many times since we first discovered it in the wonderful cookbook “InterCourses: An Aphrodisiac Cookbook,” by Baylor graduates Martha Hopkins and Randall Lockridge. Their original book was published in 1997, and an updated version came out 10 years later. We have not even attempted to improve on that recipe, and it’s used here with permission of the authors.
Strawberry Devonshire Tart
- 1 1/2 cups flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 2 tablespoons milk
For the filling:
- 8 ounces cream cheese, softened
- 1 cup sugar, divided
- 1/4 cup sour cream
- 1 1/2 quarts fresh strawberries, hulled
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
Heat oven to 400 degrees. To make the crust, combine flour, salt, sugar, oil and milk. Blend well. Press into the bottom and sides of a 10-inch pie pan (or on the bottom of a tart pan with removable sides). Use a fork to prick the pastry all over. Bake for about 10 minutes, then set aside to cool.
To make the filling, beat the cream cheese until it’s fluffy. Add 1 teaspoon sugar and the sour cream and continue beating until smooth. Spread the cream cheese mixture into the crust.
Force 1 cup of strawberries through a fine mesh sieve and reserve the juice and pulp. Add enough water to the juice to make 1 cup.
Combine the remaining sugar and cornstarch in a saucepan. Mix 1/2 cup water with the sieved strawberries and stir into the cornstarch mixture. Place over medium heat and cook, stirring often, until thickened and clear, then boil for about 1 minute.
Remove from heat and stir, allowing to cool slightly.
Thinly slice the remaining strawberries. Place the berry slices on top of the cream cheese filling in the tart shell. Pour the glaze over the top and chill for at least an hour. Serve with fresh whipped cream, if desired.
Makes about 8 servings.
- 2 cups flour, sifted
- 1/2 cup powdered sugar, sifted
- 1/2 cup pecans, chopped
- 1 cup unsalted butter
For the filling:
- 4 large eggs, slightly beaten
- 2 cups sugar
- 1/4 cup flour, sifted
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
For the glaze:
- 1 cup powdered sugar
- 3 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
To make the crust, heat oven to 325 degrees. Lightly spray a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. In a mixing bowl, combine the crust ingredients until well-mixed. Press the mixture into the bottom of the baking dish and bake for 20-25 minutes. While the crust is baking, make the filling. Remove the crust from the oven and immediately pour in the lemon filling. Return to the oven for another 20 to 25 minutes, until the filling is set and does not jiggle in the center.
To make the filling, combine the eggs, sugar, flour, baking powder and lemon juice in a large mixing bowl, and mix well.
To make the glaze, combine the powdered sugar and lemon juice in a small bowl. Pour over the warm lemon bars, and slice.
Makes about 24 servings.
Black Russian Cake
- 1 cup vegetable oil
- 4 large eggs
- 3/4 cup strong coffee
- 1/2 cup crème de cacao
- 1/4 cup Kahlua
- 1 package dark-chocolate cake mix
- 1 package (3 1/2 ounces) instant chocolate pudding
For the topping:
- 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
- 3 tablespoons strong coffee
- 3 tablespoons Kahlua
- 3 tablespoons crème de cacao
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Use butter or nonstick spray to thoroughly grease a 10-inch Bundt pan.
To make the cake, combine the eggs, coffee, crème de cacao and Kahlua in a large mixing bowl. Mix well with a wooden spoon. Add the cake mix and pudding mix, and stir until just combined. Pour into the Bundt pan until it’s 3/4 full. (Save any extra batter to make cupcakes.)
Bake for 45-50 minutes, or until a skewer inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Invert the cake onto a serving plate and use the skewer to punch holes throughout the cake.
While the cake is baking, prepare the topping. Make sure to sift the powdered sugar well so the glaze won’t be lumpy. Combine the sifted powdered sugar, coffee, Kahlua and crème de cacao. Whisk until the sugar dissolves. Spoon the topping over the warm cake, saving some to drizzle over individual slices. Slice the cake and serve warm or at room temperature.
Makes about 12 servings.
Coconut Cream Pie
- 1 pie crust, homemade or store-bought
- 1/2 cup flaked sweetened coconut
- 1 1/2 cups coconut milk
- 1 1/2 cups half-and-half
- 5 egg yolks
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 4 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/2 cups sweetened coconut flakes
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
- Whipped cream
To prepare the pie crust, heat oven to 400 degrees. Line the pie crust with wax or parchment paper. Fill the pie crust with dried beans or pie weights. Bake the crust for 15-16 minutes until the edge begins to brown. Remove the pan from the oven and carefully lift out the paper and beans or weights. Use a fork to prick holes in the bottom of the crust and return to oven. Bake until the crust is golden brown, about another 14-15 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool completely before adding the custard.
To make the topping, heat oven to 350 degrees. Spread coconut evenly on a baking sheet and bake for 8-10 minutes, until coconut has just begun to turn brown. Set aside to cool.
To make the coconut custard, pour the coconut milk and half-and-half into a liquid measuring cup. Add egg yolks and whisk together. Set aside.
Add sugar and cornstarch to a saucepan set over medium-low heat. Whisk egg-milk mixture together once more and then slowly begin to add to the sugar and cornstarch, whisking constantly.
Bring custard mixture to a boil. Using a rubber spatula or wooden spoon, continue to stir constantly. Boil for one minute. Remove from heat and add butter, salt, coconut and vanilla.
Pour the custard into the cooled pie crust. Cover lightly with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator until set, 30-45 minutes.
Spread whipped cream on top of coconut custard and refrigerate until ready to serve. Top with toasted coconut just before serving.
Makes about 8 servings.