When Vishwesh Bhatt moved to Mississippi from his native Gujarat, he had no intention of cooking. But he fell into a unique career, mixing the food from his new home with the spices from the one he left behind.
Bhatt describes himself as a southern chef, who learns to cook after moving south and takes only a handful of recipes from his mother’s kitchen. He shares his love for peanuts and their ubiquity in India. “When we went to the cinema in India, you bought popcorn here, you bought roasted peanuts there. I have a deep, almost dangerous love for peanuts,” he says.
His cookbook is “I’m From Here: Stories and Recipes from a Southern Chef.”
Austin’s Neshoba County Fair Peanut Pie
There is a lot of turnover in the hospitality industry, especially in a small student city like ours. Every once in a while we get an employee that we hope never leaves – someone whose talent and drive raises the bar in the kitchen and motivates all of his colleagues to get better. Our former pastry chef Austin Agent was one such person.
Austin got off to a rocky start in the snack bar kitchen. He was impatient and his desserts didn’t always complement the rest of the menu. We weren’t sure if he would last long. Then, seemingly overnight, he found his groove and flipped our pastry show. Austin found that the recipes and techniques he learned from his grandmother in Neshoba County, Mississippi, were of great value. You don’t see this much anymore, but farmers and workers across the region used to buy a bottle of Coke (Cola, Pepsi or RC) and a sleeve of salted peanuts from convenience stores or farm commissioners. They poured the peanuts into the soda and drank it, grinding the peanuts as they sipped. The snack was cheap and portable, and provided an energy-boosting dose of sugar, salt, caffeine and protein. Borrowing Austin’s inventive reinvention of this iconic working-class snack here, I remain sad that he left Snack Bar for Las Vegas in 2019. This recipe works well with a homemade or store-bought pie crust.
- 2 (12-ounce) cans of Coke
- 1 (9-inch) pie crust (store-bought or homemade, page 101)
- 1½ cups lightly salted roasted peanuts
- 3 large eggs
- 1 cup light corn syrup
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- ½ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
- Vanilla ice cream, to serve
- Pour the cola into a pan on the stove. Wait for the bubbles to disappear, then turn the heat down. Slowly reduce the cola to a syrup, stirring occasionally, 30 to 40 minutes. You want to end up with about ½ cup of thick syrup. Remove the pan from the heat. If you have more than ½ cup of syrup, save the excess to drizzle over the finished pie.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F.
- If using homemade pie crust, roll the dough between two sheets of parchment or wax paper into a 10-inch circle about ⅛ inch thick. Place the circle in a 9-inch cake pan.
- Spread the peanuts in an even layer over the bottom of the pie crust.
- Lightly beat the eggs in a large mixing bowl. In a large mixing bowl, add the corn syrup, cola syrup, sugar, butter, vanilla, cayenne pepper, and a pinch of salt. Stir well to combine.
- Carefully spoon or pour the filling mixture into the tart pan. You want the peanut layer on the bottom to remain intact.
- Bake on the center rack of the oven for 60 to 70 minutes, until the top is just set. Let rest for 20 to 25 minutes.
- Cut the cake into eight slices before serving. Drizzle each slice with reserved Coke syrup if you have it and serve with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Excerpt from “I Am From Here: Stories and Recipes from a Southern Chef” by Vishwesh Bhatt. Copyright © 2022 by Vishwesh Bhatt. Used with permission from the publisher, WW Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.