Chef Whitney Otawka, along with her husband Ben Wheatley, have developed a beautiful culinary program at the Greyfield Inn on a remote barrier island in Cumberland, Georgia. This special place has allowed them to live and cook alongside their ingredients, and it inspired her to write The Saltwater Table: Recipes From the Coastal South which celebrates the foodways unique to coastal life. More recently, Whitney has been creating an isolation cooking diary of sorts on Instagram of her food creations while on Cumberland Island.
We welcome Whitney, who shares how she has used cooking as an escape during these unique times. We deeply thank her for sharing the intimate (and poetic) story of her wedding along with her recipe for Buttermilk Tres Leches cake—which we can’t wait to make.
We look forward to safely sharing our kitchen at The Factory and our community with chef Whitney next April for our Friends of the Café Dinner that kicks off our Project Threadways Symposium. Find tickets here.
P.S.: We’re partnering with chef Whitney in an Instagram giveaway for a chance to win a copy of The Saltwater Table. To enter, follow @alabamachanin and @whitneyotawka on Instagram, reshare our post about Whitney in your Instagram stories, and tag @alabamachanin and @whitneyotawka, as well as two people you would want to share a meal with together apart. Contest ends Monday, May 25th at 11:59pm CST is open to U.S. residents 18+ older.
Come summer I begin to feel the lure of travel. I will admit this is usually a year-long feeling for me, but there is something about the warm weather and long days that make travel ever more pressing. A need to venture off to some distant land where life is somehow transformed into a more romantic, dreamlike version of itself. I, like most of you reading this, have come to accept that 2020 is not a year for travel. Not to Italy for pasta making classes, nor to Vietnam to visit the markets, and not even to California to visit my family. These days, a trip to the grocery store tends to set me on edge. At nine-months pregnant and considered high risk, needing to step away from my professional kitchen, I find myself in a place I had never anticipated— homebound. With no restaurant guests to tend to, no cooking events to plan for, I have found myself using my home kitchen to travel. Though not an unusual outlet for me, the kitchen has become the best way to go somewhere new, or in the very best way, to take me back.
When I wrote The Saltwater Table, I had hopes of transporting readers to the remote and wild Cumberland Island, Georgia. Escapism through food and travel, everything I love. Threaded into the stories of the island and the Southern foods that have influenced my path as a Chef, lies a recipe that transports me to Mexico, back to my wedding day in San Miguel de Allende: Buttermilk Tres Leches.
In the Fall of 2015, my now husband (and fellow Chef) Ben Wheatley and I hosted an intimate wedding for our closest friends and family. The dates of our wedding were to coincide with the Mexican holiday, Day of the Dead. A deeply spiritual time of celebration, Day of the Dead stretches out over several days and celebrates those that have passed. It is a time of gathering with family and loved ones. In San Miguel de Allende, like many towns in Mexico, the air sits heavily scented with copal and festivities take place daily. The buildings are adorned with deeply saturated marigolds and fuchsia cockscomb, brightly colored bouquets spilling out from local street corners and markets as flowers both attract the spirits and represent the fragility of life. As part of the wedding day traditions in San Miguel, after our ceremony we paraded through the steep cobblestone streets accompanied by Domingo, a mezcal mule, and a five-piece mariachi band to what was considered by us the most important part of the gathering—dinner. The Restaurant, owned by Chef and friend Donnie Masterton, our destination sat in the center of the punch bowl shaped town. Upon our arrival, the table was set with micheladas and house made salsas. Paraded into the dining room over the hours of feasting (and drinking) were platters of braised rabbit tostadas, roasted pumpkin and nopal tacos, coffee and ancho braised pork cheeks, slow roasted chicken in mole poblano, and a selection of locally made cheeses. Over the increasingly mole stained table, toasts were made and smoky mezcal was imbibed. And when we thought we could no longer eat another bite, a beautiful, simple, single layer Tres Leches cake was ushered to the table. Hidden under curls of white chocolate lay the magic of tres leches—a simple spongy layer of white cake that had immersed for hours in a combination of evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and heavy cream. Each guest, although sure they could not eat any more food, found themselves unable to resist the milky, snow white cake that sat before them. Under the spell of one of the most beautiful cities in the world and sharing a table with my favorite people, this perfect bite would forever be a reminder of that place and time in my life.
These are the days I need Tres Leches cake more than ever. As the spring days move closer to summer, as the year marches forward, take the time to revisit the places you have been. Spend time in the kitchen and discover new traditions. Bake too many sugary treats. Preserve the fruits you can get your hands on. Make bread that fails and bread that rises. Find comfort in the kitchen and realize that your next great travel is as simple as your next great meal.
Buttermilk Tres Leches Cake with strawberries in fennel sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground fennel seed
¼ teaspoon salt
4 ounces (1 stick) butter, at room temperature, plus extra for the pan
¼ cup coconut oil, at room temperature
1 1/3 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 2/3 cups buttermilk
1 (14 ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
1 (13.5 ounce) can coconut milk
1 tablespoon dark rum
2 ½ cups Vanilla Whipped Cream (recipe follows)
2 ½ cups Fennel Sugared Strawberries (recipe follows)
Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a 9 by 11-inch baking dish and line with parchment paper.
In a bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, fennel, and salt. Set aside.
In an electric mixer, use a paddle attachment to beat together the butter, coconut oil, and sugar until light and airy, about 3 minutes. On low speed, beat in eggs one at a time, stopping to scrape the bottom of the bowl after each addition. Add in the vanilla. With mixer running on medium-low speed, in three passes, add in the flour mixture and 2/3 cup of the buttermilk, alternating between the two. Mix until incorporated.
Spread the batter in the prepared pan and bake until golden brown and a tester inserted in the center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Let cool in pans for 10 minutes.
Combine the remaining 1 cup buttermilk, the sweetened condensed milk, coconut milk, and rum.
Remove the cake from the pan and place on a cutting board. Use a serrated knife to trim off the edges. Cut into twelve equal squares and place in a tight-fitting baking dish, leaving just a tiny gap between them. Use a skewer or fork to poke lots of holes in the top the cake, then pour the entire milk mixture over. Let cake soak in the refrigerator for least 4 hours but preferably overnight.
To serve, top each piece of cake with a spoonful of whipped cream and the fennel- sugared strawberries.
Vanilla Whipped Cream
makes 2½ cups
1½ cups heavy cream
2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
In a mixing bowl, combine the cream, confectioners’ sugar, and vanilla extract. Whisk to stiff peaks.
Fennel- Sugared Strawberries
makes 2½ cups
1 pound strawberries, hulled and cut into quarters
2 teaspoons sugar
½ teaspoon ground fennel seed
In a bowl, combine all ingredients and toss. Let macerate for 30 minutes before serving.
Thank you, Whitney, for sharing the beautiful images of your wedding and this video of your process making Buttermilk Tres Leches.